Stitching the City Together

The map of Albany on the screen, at quick glance, looked a little like a heat map of poverty and distressed neighborhoods, with one large red area over the Sheridan Hollow, Arbor Hill and West Hill neighborhoods, and another over the South End. There was a knowing intake of breath among the various neighborhood leaders and civic activists attending the Albany Roundtable’s May 21st event.

But the map that Dr. Mindy Fullilove (left), the evening’s keynote speaker, had put on the screen was not a current map. Nor was it a descriptive exercise reporting on building conditions or poverty.

No, that map was a cause. It was a redlining map from the Federal Housing Administration, created in the 1930s. Red areas, just as in the rest of the country, denoted a combination of old housing stock and “undesirable populations”—mostly African-Americans, but also in some places Jews—or the impending “infiltration” thereof. The result: no mortgage lending in those areas, starting a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline that was no doing of the residents whatsoever. These maps, and related practices, as Fullilove showed the crowd with a fascinating set of maps, actually had the effect of “sorting out” or segregating cities that had, near the turn of the last century, actually been far more mixed along both class and race lines.

This sorting out harms the whole city, Fullilove, a psychiatrist, noted. She talked about her work in public health fighting major epidemics of the 1980s—AIDS, crack, violence, trauma-related mental health problems—and argued that the sorting out of our cities, which enabled, then, the ignoring and isolating of specific populations, is what fostered these epidemics, which then touched everyone. Residential segregation is a problem because it is an easy vehicle for disparate treatment, which then spirals into neighborhoods with vastly different assets and needs, and weaker regions over all.

Of the nine elements of “urban restoration” that Fullilove, author of Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted Out Cities, recommends for healing urban spaces that have experienced this kind of “sorting out,” the ones that have always caught my attention are “Envision the Whole City” and “Unpuzzle the Space.”

Boundaries—physical and psychological—are key in maintaining a sorted out city, and when a group of stakeholders involved in the Sheridan Hollow Brownfields Opportunities Area grant walked around that neighborhood with Dr. Fullilove the morning after her address, it was clear that she felt that the hill between Elk Street and Sheridan Ave, down which Albany’s long stairs run, was ripe for transformation from a barrier to a connector.

There are precedents for such a change. Fullilove told stories of towns in the Alps where one of her mentors had worked where steep inclines and deep ravines, once barriers or dumping grounds, were turned into sources of civic pride and identity with the crafting of a beautiful staircase or a terraced park. She spoke of the residents of the Hill District of Pittsburgh “finding the river,” seeking out the old routes that their parents had taken down from their neighborhood to employment in the factories by the rivers before their neighborhood was cut off and isolated.

It was powerful to stand there, at the base of a hill few city residents consider at all, unless they live up against it or are one of the state workers who park at the bottom of it. The change from its top, where Elk Street runs a block away from bustling downtown, to its bottom, where vacant houses are regularly demolished, parking lots dominate, and a well-loved, well-used sprinkler park has to fight every year just to get its bathrooms functional and open, is dramatic.

That morning, our mini-tour walked along the base of the green, wooded hill where birds sang, and periodic non-descript flights of stairs ran up through thick trees and overgrowth. Several of the flights were closed for lack of maintenance. We learned how the road—now essentially a driveway—right along the foot of the slope is actually one of the oldest roads in the region, used by General Washington’s troops to head to the Battle of Saratoga. The views from the top are stunning.

There’s a massive new housing development going up in Sheridan Hollow, thanks to Habitat for Humanity and Housing Visions. It would be an important gesture to those new residents, not to mention to those who have lived beneath the shadow of the hill, breathed the ANSWERS incinerator’s pollution through the 1980s and early 1990s, and given up so much of the fabric of their neighborhood to parking, to reconnect them to the rest of the city by making that border area something inviting, pleasant, a place to be proud of instead of ignored.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on June 6, 2015.)

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