Root Shock 20


Molly Rose Kaufman, University of Orange; Douglas Farrand, University of Orange; and Mindy Thompson Fullilove, The New School


special edition, Urban Renewal, Revisiting Urban Renewal
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2024 will mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods America and What You Can Do About It. The book explores the long-term consequences of urban renewal in Black neighborhoods and has many lessons to help us understand the complex problems we face today. Root Shock was written by Dr. Mindy Fullilove with support from the research team she co-founded, the Community Research (now known as the Cities Research Group). 

Fullilove began studying epidemics in minority neighborhoods beginning with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s in the Bay Area. She continued her work in New York City in the 1990s. There she sought to understand the source of multiple epidemics including AIDS, crack cocaine addiction, violence, mental illness related to violence, asthma, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and obesity. In searching for root causes she began to trace what had happened to the neighborhoods. The seminal work of Drs. Deborah Wallace and Rodrick Wallace highlighted the urban policy of “planned shrinkage,” deliberate withdrawal of public funding from neighborhoods, which led to the destruction of massive sections of Harlem, the South Bronx, and other minority neighborhoods in New York City. 

In 1995 Fullilove learned of the work of Mary Bishop. A journalist at the Roanoke Times, she published “Street by Street, Block by Block,” a special section of the paper dedicated to her groundbreaking reporting on the history of urban renewal in Roanoke, Virginia. While the process and timing of neighborhood destruction differed from the upheaval caused by planned shrinkage, common factors of emotional pain and massive loss emerged. Fullilove named these painful sequelae of displacement “root shock.”

In order to understand the process and implications of root shock, in 2001, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Community Research Group launched a study of urban renewal in five cities: Newark, NJ; Pittsburgh, PA; Roanoke, VA; St. Louis, MO; and San Francisco, CA. They were particularly interested in the experience of the African American communities – the famous “urban renewal is Negro removal” – whose story was largely untold before Mary Bishop broke the silence. The Community Research Group uncovered that, during urban renewal, approximately 1 million people were displaced in 2,500 projects in 993 cities; 75% of those displaced were people of color. A core part of the 1950s urban renewal, under the Federal Housing Act of 1949, was to seize “blighted neighborhoods,” clear the land and sell it to developers for so-called “higher uses.”


In Root Shock, Fullilove noted, “Blight, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and it happened more often than not that the part of the city businessmen thought was blighted was the part where black people lived.”


But were the neighborhoods blighted? As Mary Bishop carefully documented these were habitats that supported health, community and possibility for beleaguered Black residents of the city. 


Bishop introduced Fullilove to Mr. Charles Meadows. The following are excerpts from Dr. Fullilove’s conversation with him as described in Root Shock

Mr. Meadows was one of the people I talked with on my first visit to Roanoke. He was an austere man made bitter by what had happened. He had had a wonderful house in Northeast and not only had he paid off the mortgage, but he had also invested in improvements. He had the house “to where he really liked it” when the city took it away. He was compensated for only a fraction of the worth of the house, and he had to take out a new mortgage when he moved to another section of Roanoke.

“I don’t own this house,” he said, gesturing at the solid and spacious room we sat in. “I’m just leasing it until the government comes to take it away.” 

Part of his enduring sorrow was the loss of the tight community – the stroll of “howdys” — that he had found so supportive and pleasant. The neighborhood was knitted together by having an active street life. “We walked everywhere in Northeast. We walked to the market, downtown to the market. We walked to the church, we walked – and every corner almost in the section had a little store at the end of it. So you met your neighbors, you could talk until your meat burn up at home if you wanted to.” 

This image made us all laugh. “You could stand out and talk,” he continued, “so we just had better relations. We knew about ‘em; if anybody was sick you knew about it; anybody died, we knew about it; anybody went to jail, we knew about it; if anybody got into trouble, or if there was a secret, we knew about it.” More laughter. “There was no secret there, everybody knew everybody's business. But we still had better relations.” 

It is only by hearing people’s stories about their neighborhoods that we understand what happened to them. Fullilove wrote:

[Mr. Meadows] pointed to two factors that changed that way of life. One was the loss of old friendships. After being dispersed, people from the old neighborhood got together only at funerals. The second, and perhaps more subtle, change was an alteration in the street activity, related both to a slight increase in the distance between houses, and a marked increase in the use of cars, instead of feet, for transportation. No longer were people likely to walk down the street saying “Howdy” to the right and to the left. 

Concretely, Mr. Meadows pointed out, "See that apartment across the street there. I think in the last year, about five different families have lived there. And you know, what few people that own their own homes and are in them, I don't know whether they stay in the house, or whether they work. Their houses look like they closed up. Every once in a while you see somebody pulling up in a car, or they might get in a car and leave, but you just don't see them?" (82-83)

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.

Environmental psychologist Hirofumi Minami has pointed out that, while walking our places, we can also begin to see the threads of harm. The story of urban renewal was there for all to see in Roanoke, but it took Mary Bishop’s courageous vision to look at it with honesty and empathy. Her action changed all of us, because it set off a chain reaction of looking that has spread across the nation. To tell those stories we’d rather not examine is difficult for all societies. But, as Sorokin has emphasized, we cannot prosper after calamity unless we do. This is the urgent work that faces us, as we experience the universal root shock of climate change.


About the Authors


Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD, DLFAPA, Hon AIA, is a social psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at The New School. Since 1986, she has conducted research on the relationship between the collapse of communities and decline in health. She has published over 100 scientific papers and eight books. She holds two honorary doctorates and is a distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and honorary member of the American Institute of Architects. In the fall of 2024 she will deliver the Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr College based on her new research on the “Tao of K-drama.”


Molly Rose Kaufman is the co-founder and Director of the University of Orange, a free school of restoration urbanism based in Orange, NJ. UofO is dedicated to education for equitable cities. Molly also teaches in the Freedom Scholars program at the New School.


Douglas Farrand is a composer, musician, and organizer concerned with listening as a collective investigation of place and connection. He moved to Orange in 2013 and was Director of Sonic Explorations, a youth music education program in Orange’s east ward, from 2013-2019. He is Co-Director of the Music City program at the University of Orange, president of the FAITH+WORKS UU Congregation of Orange, and a member of the HUUB’s leadership team.