This is a book that many in Pittsburgh have no need to read. An account of the demolition of the Lower Hill District in the 1950s, it is a history many Pittsburghers experienced firsthand. Yet the book by Columbia University psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove is much more than a book about Pittsburgh. The author investigates the massive renewal projects that were intended to save urban America after World War II.
By Mindy Thompson Fullilove
Ballantine Books/One World ($25.95)
By documenting the profound loss of community that resulted from these projects, it's a scathing indictment of urban policy in the United States, past and present.
The uprooted communities -- the author estimates there are more than 1,600 across the country -- were concentrated in the African-American communities of America's large cities.
The consistent theme is that the wholesale displacement of neighborhoods had an impact more traumatic and longer-lasting than is understood.
"Root shock ... ruptures bonds, dispersing people to all the directions of the compass," Fullilove writes. It caused the destruction of the interconnections that "were essential to the survival of the community."
Pittsburgh was not alone as a victim of massive urban renewal efforts run amok. The author focuses on three areas, balancing the saga of the Lower Hill with that of the Central Ward of Newark, N.J., and the smaller Virginia city of Roanoke.
They might seem to have been vastly different communities, but the analogies between their experiences with urban renewal outweigh their dissimilarities.
The book is about the destruction of housing yet not about housing at all. Fullilove points out that urban renewal was really no more than "contagious housing destruction."
The truth is these projects often did not include new housing at all, or provided housing only after decades, long after the original residents had moved on.
The legacy of many such projects was to leave vast "urban prairies" in their wake.
The implications of such widespread and systematic neighborhood destruction go far beyond the specific communities affected.
"Root shock ... disabled powerful mechanisms of community, leaving the black world at an enormous disadvantage for meeting the challenges of globalization," Fullilove says.
Because urban renewal efforts were concentrated in traditionally African-American neighborhoods, the impact on the entire African-American community was magnified.
Fullilove is a social psychiatrist, but her book crosses many disciplines. It is hard to say whether the book is more about history, architecture, sociology, urban planning or psychiatry.
Arguably it is difficult to follow the thread that ties together all of these perspectives. Yet, to have written a more narrowly focused book would have oversimplified a complex issue. The multifaceted nature of the problem eschews labeling and needs a multidisciplinary synthesis such as Fullilove's.
The author and her husband, Robert E. Fullilove III, spent 1998 and much of 1999 in Pittsburgh as Falk Fellows at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health's Center for Minority Health.
That firsthand knowledge comes through as she often seems to be writing about the experiences of her most personal friends.
The author is sometimes the compassionate caregiver dispensing advice to the community as a whole. At other times she is a more dispassionate observer documenting what are the most traumatic events of many lives.
What comes across most vividly are the real and palpable losses suffered by the individuals and families forced to leave their homes.
Just as the book seems to be focusing on just the history of urban renewal, the author reminds the reader that past can be prologue. Even, or especially, today the desire to improve urban neighborhoods overlooks the displacement of the residents.
The book's ultimate contribution may be asking the simple question: "What was it like before urban renewal?" Because "we cannot understand the losses unless we first appreciate what was there."
Apologists of failed renewal projects often point out the unknown of the counterfactual, or what would have happened without the projects. The unspoken premise is that what was there before was not worth saving in the first place.
Fullilove makes a clear argument that the essence of a community is irreplaceable.
Christopher Briem teaches at the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh.