The Town Shrink

21 Jul

Robert Sullivan:

Trained as a psychiatrist, Mindy Thompson Fullilove now puts entire
cities on the couch.

Robert Sullivan teaches the ecology of cities at Macaulay Honors
College and writing at the Bread Loaf School of English. His most
recent book is “My American Revolution.”

High Bridge, spanning the Harlem River and connecting Manhattan to
the Bronx, is the oldest bridge in New York City. It is also an
aqueduct, or used to be. Built in the 1840s, when public health
officials across the country were battling cholera, it carried clean
water from upstate to a growing urban population. In just a few
decades, planners would build not just aqueducts but the so-called
sanitary greens that today we call parks, including Highbridge Park,
on the Manhattan side of the bridge. A side benefit of High Bridge
was the walkway above the aqueduct that allowed Bronx pedestrians to
reach Manhattan. By the 1960s, though, the aqueduct was no longer in
use, and city planners, working to fight what was then called urban
blight, decided to disconnect the boroughs. The Parks Department
closed the old bridge, cutting off an artery.

In June, the Parks Department reopened High Bridge to pedestrians,
not just resuming the flow of foot traffic but also connecting it to
a more recent innovation in public health, called the Giraffe Path,
which was spearheaded by Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a research
psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Fullilove
has spent the past 30 years investigating how broken connections
between various parts of cities harm public health and, more
recently, exploring ways to reconnect them. The Giraffe Path, a
six-mile trail that runs from Central Park to the Cloisters, is
designed to do just that, providing links between communities that
have, by Fullilove’s analysis, undergone systematic disinvestment,
resulting in numerous public health crises: AIDS epidemics, crack
addiction, asthma, post-traumatic stress and obesity.

The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health is a sponsor
of the trail initiative, called City Life Is Moving Bodies, or
Climb, along with the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, a
local nonprofit. This year, after more than a decade of community
meetings with the Parks Department, local college students who
started hiking the Giraffe Path when they were kids at last saw
their route extended, as the gates on High Bridge were opened, a
victory for the city’s entire circulatory system. “People have a
pretty easy time accepting the analogy between the body and the
city,” Fullilove says. Indeed, when considering the health of the
city as a whole, metaphor and reality neatly align. Rule No. 1 for
long life: Stay active, keep the blood flowing. Rule No. 1 for urban
planning: Never close an artery.

The idea of a psychiatrist’s treating an entire city emerges from
straightforward questions about how people interact with extreme
environments. Fullilove was inspired in particular by the work of
Alexander Leighton, who, as a Navy psychiatrist during World War II,
studied an Arizona internment camp for Japanese-Americans. Leighton
expected to see a tremendous amount of illness and mental trauma–
the conditions in the camp were terrible–but the internees,
though they were suffering, proved to be startlingly resilient. “He
sees this heroic effort to reorganize life,” Fullilove says, and
the ability to organize their own community appeared to be at the
root of their success. After the war, Leighton launched a
multigenerational study (still ongoing) to document the ways
communal ties influence individual mental health.

Nonetheless, psychology of place remained a radical notion even into
the 1990s, when Fullilove was working as a specialist on the mental
health problems associated with H.I.V. and AIDS. “The idea that the
location was important–people were just looking at me aghast,”
she recalls. But as she continued her work through the ’90s,
researching community trauma in Pittsburgh and New York, Fullilove
increasingly came to see cities as ecosystems, with streams and
channels, one flowing unseen into the next, disruptions wreaking
havoc, threatening vitality everywhere. In a 1999 article in The
International Journal of Mental Health, she showed federal urban
renewal policies to be a fundamental cause of disease.

In the 1970s and ’80s, for instance, city managers practiced what
Roger Starr, the New York City housing commissioner, deemed
“planned shrinkage,” whereby planners focused their limited
resources on high-wealth neighborhoods; the poor, primarily in
minority neighborhoods, were left with fewer firehouses, dilapidated
housing, parks fenced off, bridges shut down. “A Synergism of
Plagues,” Rodrick Wallace’s 1988 paper in Environmental Research,
described how disinvestment accelerated H.I.V. infection, not just
in the inner city but also in the suburbs.

Fullilove’s approach turns the standard story of the American ghetto
upside down. Instead of neighborhoods with intractable problems of
their own making, isolated from their more comfortable neighbors,
she sees people in constant motion, shifted, pressured and harassed
by ever-changing federal and state policies that work actively to
sort cities by race. In the 1930s, the federal Home Owners’ Loan
Corporation steered bank investment away from areas that surveyors
identified as minority or foreign-born. In 1949, the Housing Act
designated older neighborhoods with high minority populations for
slum clearance; cities received federal money to replace thriving
neighborhoods with civic centers and housing projects. In the
terminology of place psychology, the pathways of the constructed
community were devastated. Fullilove’s research showed a total of
2,500 renewal projects in 993 neighborhoods, 67 percent of them

Many of these communities are then mined of their jewels, young
people who flee the places where their families struggled to raise
them. “I grew up hearing all the stereotypes–‘There’s nothing
here!’ ” Khemani Gibson told me a few months ago at a youth summit
that Fullilove helped organize. Gibson, a 22-year-old Ph.D.
candidate in history at N.Y.U., grew up in Orange, N.J., Fullilove’s
hometown. “I wanted to leave instead of actually trying to improve
my community.”

Fullilove diagnosed the health consequences of this largely
African-American displacement as “root shock”–which she defines
as “the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part
of one’s emotional ecosystem.” It can also follow displacement
relating to natural disasters or gentrification, and her term has
been adopted by urban planners and community psychologists.
Fullilove’s diagnosis of root shock begins with an analysis of a
traumatic past, to identity the breaks in the civic fabric. One
treatment, says Fullilove, is to teach young people that they do
have roots, and they can tend them by learning history. In Orange,
she helped middle-school students write a history of their city,
chronicling its troubled legacy, but also celebrating it.

On a recent tour of Orange with Fullilove as my guide, we visited a
still-functioning black-owned funeral home, as well as a historic
black church, Union Baptist, just paces from the highway that cut it
off from downtown. “People mortgaged their homes to build this
church,” Fullilove said. We saw the park, fenceless on what had
previously been the white side, fenced off on the black side, and we
went downtown to see the vibrant small businesses on Main Street. We
passed an elementary school just in time to encounter the students
spilling out at the end of their day. Miphilove Milord, a seventh
grader, approached the psychiatrist. “Are you Mindy Fullilove?”
she asked. Milord, it turned out, had been a participant in one of
Fullilove’s history projects. “Are you the famous Miphi?”
Fullilove answered. The girl beamed.

Last year, on the 10th anniversary of Climb, Fullilove, who was
recovering from hip surgery, didn’t get to see much of the trail.
This year, hip healed, she was excited to walk the Giraffe Path
again, but also a little nervous about the pressure on neighborhood
rents from Edgecombe Parc, new luxury condominiums half a block from
Highbridge Park. “It was deeply moving to be there today,” she
wrote me after. “So much work has been done–so much remains.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: