Photo by Lucia Martinez 2016
“It’s not meant for those of us who are African American to be included in the next thing that’s happening and that problematic for African American but it’s also disastrous for the whole society.” Dr. Mindy Fullilove, research psychiatrist and professor of public health
Mindy Fullilove has conducted decades of research among African American communities who have been displaced. Between 1949 and 1973, urban renewal destroyed over 1,600 African American communities, creating "root shock," which she describes as "a traumatic stress reaction related to the destruction of one’s emotional ecosystem." The effects of this trauma can last for decades and cross generations.
According to Fullilove, the 21st century will be characterized by dislocation and the accompanying trauma. The UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, reports almost 20 million refugees world-wide. In the United States, "redevelopment" plans have destroyed thousands of housing units once occupied by low-income people. Housing projects are torn down for renovation with promises that the original residents will return. This rarely works.
In my border city, real estate developers are working hand-in-hand with the municipal government to demolish Barrio Duranguito/Union Plaza, one of the most historic neighborhoods in the city, in order to place an unnecessary arena. The Chamber of Commerce went so far as to write a letter to our State Historic Commission complaining about an application the County Historic Commission has submitted for historical designation for a building in the arena footprint. The Council has voted numerous times, first to place the arena there, then no, then yes. It is causing tremendous stress among the residents, most who are vulnerable because they are older and low-income.
The developers and the business interests argue that the people will benefit from "better housing conditions." One City representative even reported yesterday that residents will be eligible for as much as $11,000 in rental assistance. (See http://48hills.org/2015/12/20/plan-that-could-lead-to-massive-displacement-moves-forward-quietly/) How this would work is unclear. If they follow federal guidelines, this may mean a rental subsidy of about $260 per month for 42 months. What would happen after the 42 months when residents can no longer afford higher rent? This, too, is unclear.
What is clear is that the City Council, even those who once sided with the residents of this barrio now say that displacement is "inevitable." Meanwhile, the developers will enrich themselves by millions, including tax abatements from the City. Perhaps they believe that this is "inevitable," also.
Developers, the Chamber of Commerce, and the City government seem to think that the residents they plan to displace are something like furniture, easily moved from place to place with no consequences. But the residents understand the more profound and long-term consequences of displacement.
"What they are doing affects us economically, but the worst part is what it does to us emotionally. Mothers have to find the right words to explain what is happening to their children and console them. I think more than anything they’re harming our whole family emotionally. When my daughter went to speak in front of City Hall she broke down in tears. It’s very hard for her. This doesn’t affect just me, it affects my whole family. I have many nieces who are like my daughters. They say they want to come to our house and take photographs in case our home is torn down, to keep the memories. And I have to control myself, to calm them down, you understand? So this is very hard because I have to tell them, 'No, mija, don’t worry.' Even though I’m not feeling well myself I have to tell them that I’m all right. You know what I mean? This is very hard. The hardest thing about this whole thing is the emotional pain of being forced to move.” El Paso barrio resident who has lived in her home for over 40 years. Name held by request.
In writing about one of the neighborhoods in her study, Fullilove reflects:
“The first lesson was really the lesson of root shock... That their special homes that they have worked so hard to have are going to be bulldozed… That their networks of kinship and friendship are going to be dispersed. This is all hovering over their heads and however bad they thought it would be, the reality was that must worse …. The reality of living with the loss of something as large as a well-functioning neighborhood, a neighborhood of love and sharing that loss is almost impossible to put into words… How is a civic center a higher use than a neighborhood of love and kinship?"
Injustice is never "inevitable" and we can never allow the government nor the wealthy and powerful to make us believe it is.
What is happening in your community to show that #JusticeIsPossible?