The city “fathers” who were promoting urban renewal constantly used the word “progress” to describe it. It became clear in our study of urban renewal that African Americans were not included in that progress. Rather, they experienced a severe setback, one that reverberated through all the African American communities in the US. Fullilove reflected:
As an outsider visiting Roanoke on a small number of occasions, I found it indisputable that African American neighborhoods were destroyed, and nothing like their old vitality re-created in the city. I know, as a psychiatrist, that, at the level of the individual, the loss of neighbors who “automatically came” was devastating. At the level of the community, the loss of the collective capacity to solve problems in order to make progress became a permanently crippling one. Social scientists have established that social loss of that order makes people vulnerable. After a loss, a second blow will hurt more and do its damage more quickly than the first, setting in motion an accelerating downward spiral of collapse. Thus, for the displaced citizens, urban renewal sapped resources and depleted strength in a manner that increased vulnerability not simply for a few years, but for many decades to come, Perhaps, most problematic, the dismantling of some poor, disenfranchised neighborhoods for the “greater good” pitted one section of the city against the other, and unleashed divisions and hostilities that remain a heavy burden for the city to bear. (Page 99)
Social scientists have reflected on the problem of calamity. The failure to repair society after upheaval of any kind leaves scars in the material and social worlds. This weakens the society and can contribute to its collapse. Pitrim Sorokin is a social scientist who investigated this problem in depth in his book, Man and Society in Calamity. In this excerpt we revisit some of what he concluded:
Pitrim Sorokin did not contend that all the changes wrought by calamity were bad. In fact, the disruption might lead to great advances in invention, creativity, and social organization. What he did contend was that calamity would lead to change. In a wise society, much could be done to minimize harm and increase good. In a blundering, greedy society, actions might aggravate problems and, at their worst, could lead to hundreds of years of distress and the collapse of great civilizations.
It is this point that bears consideration. All calamities will end in time. But the mismanaged calamity will cost thousands, if not millions of lives, and will greatly alter the society that suffered through it. There is quite a difference between letting calamity run its course, and intervening with what Sorokin called “. . .the best, most efficient and least costly techniques of countering disaster.” To achieve the latter goal, he proposed, “The society must be capable of new adaptations and inventions to alleviate the [calamity]. In brief, these measures can be and have been carried though only by well integrated societies with a strong system of values and social discipline. These permit the society to remove the necessary cause of [calamity] and to shorten or terminate the ordeal.”
In short, we must get to know one another, as Jane Addams got to know her Chicago neighbors, and we must ask one another, “What do you want for the future?” It is only on this platform of community that we will be able to manage problems expeditiously, before the problems manage us. (Page 237)
Reflections for today
While the Community Research Group was in the field collecting data for the Root Shock Project, they were also collecting data for a study of fatal school shootings in East New York, one of the many New York City neighborhoods destroyed by planned shrinkage, and they lived through the attack on the World Trade Center. This grim constellation of events led Fullilove to the following reflection:
One hundred years ago, the distinguished African American scholar Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that the problem the twentieth century needed to solve was the problem of the color line. It took sixty more years for the United States to engage wholeheartedly in the battle for civil rights. Yet, as we have faced the truth of the color line, we have acted, reacted, thought, and felt differently. We are a better nation for it.
I venture to propose that displacement is the problem the twenty-first century must solve. Africans and Aborigines, rural peasants and city dwellers have been shunted from one place to another, as progress has demanded, “Land here!” or “People there!” In cutting the roots of so many people, we have destroyed language, culture, dietary traditions, and social bonds. We have lined the oceans with bones, and filled the garbage dumps with bricks. (Page 5)
In 2023, as drought, floods, sea level rise and disease push people from their homes, there can be little doubt that the problem of displacement – and of the concomitant root shock – is worldwide. Root shock is defined as “the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem.” Considering the weather as part of our emotional ecosystem means that all the billions of people on the planet are suffering from root shock and every society is confronted with the problem of responding to calamity.
The Cities Research Group firmly believes that Sorokin’s advice is sound: These times can lead people to innovation and inclusion, but if and only if we are willing to face the issues and make moral – not monetary – choices. In this regard, we believe that every community can start to respond by taking some steps – literally some steps – looking around where they are and identifying what they love. By learning to see our way of life, we can better articulate for ourselves what it would mean to lose it and we can empathize with others whose way of life has been lost or is threatened with looming harm.