In Sorted Out Cities, Who Belongs?

Many years ago when I was on staff at Metroland covering the ongoing story surrounding office Chris D’Alessandro’s suspension and the efforts of a little innovative community prosecution office headed up by Assistant DA David Soares, who of course went on to challenge his boss in the race for DA, I spent a decent amount of lot of time walking the streets of Arbor Hill and Sheridan Hollow. When I walked home from such an assignment across the city, especially as I approached and crossed neighborhood boundaries along the way, I always had the feeling I was stitching together in my head a picture of my city that was too easily and constantly fragmented by the ways we usually move through it.

I feel that way on any long walk that crosses a boundary of some sort, but it is particularly noticeable when moving between areas where, in the words of urbanist and psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove, dramatic demographic “sorting” and isolating of populations is taking place.

Fullilove is the author of Root Shock, which I recently listed on my list of top 10 books everyone should read. It’s the explanation of the psychological trauma caused to African American populations by repeated forced relocation in American cities, starting with urban renewal. That particular program is gone, but the problem is not, as anyone who has followed post Katrina New Orleans or the patterns of public housing demolition and redevelopment knows.

In her new book, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted Out Cities, which I will just state up front I want every concerned citizen, planner, and elected official in the Capital Region to read, Fullilove focuses on the solutions instead of the problems. As I read Urban Alchemy, I had a repeated desire to take those walks again with Fullilove at my side. I knew she would be fascinated by the “long stairs” that thread from downtown down the steep hill to the Sheridan Hollow neighborhood, and by how parking lots for state workers have lined the top and bottom of this hill, adding to the separation already caused by the hill itself. [Update: Thanks in part to this column, she did actually come in 2015! See my column here about it.] I knew she would have thoughts about the potential of the hidden gem of Tivoli Park, New York state’s largest urban wilderness area outside of Central Park, but out of sight and mind for much of the city because of its entrance in the back of this set of isolated neighborhoods.

What I love about Urban Alchemy is that it doesn’t locate the problems of distressed neighborhoods in the neighborhoods themselves, but rather in the ways they have been isolated, disinvested from, and cut off from the fabric of the rest of the city and region. Her detailed storytelling is decidedly non academic and yet leaves you feeling like you’ve gotten a very detailed understanding of a comprehensive approach to righting the wrongs that have been done to our cities (because the whole city suffers from being sorted and fragmented, as does the region). “We can’t just treat the neighborhoods,” Fullilove quotes her mentor, French urbanist Michel Cantal-Dupart, saying. “We have to remove the chasm that is dividing the poor neighborhoods from the other parts of the city.”

When the not-guilty verdict came in for George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin I struggled to feel like I had anything to add to the conversation. So much outrage was being expressed so well, and the backlash against Stand Your Ground laws is heartening to see.

But in thinking about Urban Alchemy I realized that I did have a little bit to add: Among the many culprits that evening was the sorting out and fragmentation process that Fullilove describes. It makes it so much easier for paranoid vigilantes to find support on juries for the idea that a black teen’s presence in his community was automatically threatening. I have been to police-led Neighborhood Watch trainings in this city where we were told to look out for people who “looked like they didn’t belong.” This phrase was utterly meaningless in my unusually integrated neighborhood, but it’s pernicious, especially when combined with racism and firearms.

That’s why I was thrilled to learn (a little too late for this year’s National Night Out unfortunately) that there’s a group out there organizing a slightly different take on the annual Aug. 6 crime prevention “eyes on the street” extravaganza. The message of National Night Out for Safety, Democracy, and Human Rights is clearest from their posters: “We are the hearts, hands, and minds of our community, not the eyes and ears of the police” and “I don’t watch my neighbors. I see them. Together we make our neighborhood safer.”

Combining that kind of attitude shift with Fullilove’s roadmap for neighborhood restoration could be an amazing force for good in our fractured communities.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Aug. 15, 2013.)

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