When a relationship feels withered and wasted, and the future looks bleak, most doctors would urge their patients toward rehabilitation through open dialogue and conscientious therapy. According to Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, author of Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities, that is the exact same approach we should be taking with some of our country’s most neglected and underserved patients—our broken American cities.
Fullilove, who is a clinical psychiatrist and public health specialist, spoke in Erie, Pennsylvania two weeks ago on “Creating a Safe & Healthy Connected City”. There she discussed the divided nature of so many of our urban metropolises, and how these ruptures in the fabrics of our cities have led to consequences much more detrimental than a simple line of demarcation on a map. An increase in violence and disease, a decrease in education and employment, and a stagnancy in urban planning decisions are all devastating effects of cities ripped apart and ignored.
Listen to Dr. Fullilove explain her early work as a therapist: The Town Shrink (0:39)
So how do you know if your city is one of these fragmented places Dr. Fullilove refers to? If Dr. Fullilove is our “Town Shrink” and cities are our patients, then here is a list of signs to see if your city needs some substantial civic therapy.
1. You have the same fights over and over again
When a city stops communicating as a whole, understanding its problems well enough to institute any real change becomes less and less likely. Dr. Fullilove discusses that urban renewal led to the clearing of many city neighborhoods, usually those with higher African American populations, undermining the vitality of certain sections of the city. Creating the rift between those two groups initiated a barrier in communication, and when communication deteriorates and arguments arise, the chance for constructive compromises grows slimmer. She continues that when there is a “collective paralysis” among citizens, things fall apart and people suffer.
What Dr. Fullilove points out, though, as one of her nine principles of urban restoration, is that we must make our mark by expressing our vision to the world. By launching a public plan of action to tackle a certain issue or accomplish a task, a city can show, rather than argue about, what matters they deem significant enough to warrant change. In any relationship, communicating effectively is crucial in ending constant bickering, and a candid discussion of a city’s problems can lead to plausible and sustainable remedies.
2. The other person is always ‘the bad guy’
When habitual fighting means one part of the city is always blaming the other parts, these fractured sections not only turn their teammates into adversaries, but never hold themselves accountable. If the citizens of a city start to feel like they’re fighting for separate teams, therapy is necessary to remind everyone that they’re on the same side. As Dr. Fullilove explains, when “undesirable racial elements” led to divestment from neighborhoods, cities were suddenly divided into “desirable” people in flourishing areas and “undesirable” people in crumbling neighborhoods. This damaging attitude toward the “undesirable” population creates a dichotomy of good versus bad, which has no place in a city where any injury isn’t just to one group but to the community as a whole.
Dr. Fullilove urges that the problem is not the distressed neighborhoods but rather “the policies that we as a nation have used which have undermined the urban ecosystem.” Treating this fragile ecosystem with care means employing the mindset that when any part of the city succeeds, we all share in the success, and when any part of the city fails, we all feel the failure. In a healthy relationship, there is no finger-pointing because everyone is on the same team, working toward the same goal.
3. It feels like you’re leading separate lives
With crippling communication habits and lack of productive conversation, it’s easy to feel as if two sides simply co-exist, without any meaningful interaction between the two. This kind of negative relationship within a city can leave one side feeling neglected, abandoned and judged, unsure of how to develop when feeling so alienated. Dr. Fullilove encourages us to “keep the whole city in mind,” by looking at different areas of a city as connected and with the “potential for continuity”. She warns us, “Don’t apply your model of segregation….see the space for what it is.” During her talk, she presented quotes by two separate women in Baltimore from earlier this spring: a Black woman living in the area where riots were taking place, and a White woman living in a wealthy neighborhood outside of the city. The black woman claimed there are dilapidated buildings everywhere and the city “never invested in the people,” while the white woman explained “the riots are not our reality” since she feels adequately protected by the police. These kinds of polarizing worldviews lead down a dangerous path for cities who want to develop a collective identity but are instead, encountering citizens who continue to differentiate themselves from one another in harmful ways. To transform a disconnected relationship into a dynamic and effective one, a city must embrace every facet and engage every member of its community in unison.
4. There’s a serious lack of affection
When a relationship continues to support the separation of identities, affection quickly disappears and what remains is slow-growing resentment and hostility. Starving one part of a city of the attention and love it needs only furthers the notion that it is unworthy of serious consideration for stabilization. During Dr. Fullilove’s presentation, one community member, a woman from the more dilapidated east side of Erie, explained her frustrations with the crumbling state of her neighborhood. She explained, “I can’t encourage [my children] to stay here because there are no opportunities.” She goes on to describe a problematic highway that cuts off access to the west side of town, a prison situated near schools and daycares, and the lack of grocery stores in the area. She reiterated what she told her children, “Find a better place to live because you can do better than this.” Dr. Fullilove suggested that to repair these cracks among the community and eliminate the ingrained sense of partition, we must invite people to shared public spaces to inspire a new way to look at our cities. When all parts of the city share common spaces and all people are invited to develop these spaces for the public good, a feeling of camaraderie is bound to emerge. She acknowledges that cities have so much hatred, fear, hopelessness, and powerlessness, but she also adds, “We don’t want to be how we are, that’s the strange thing about America.” Finally, she reminds us that “the plants you put into the earth continue to grow”, and the more affection and concern you show an entire city’s citizens, the more likely a broken city will mend and prosper.
Hear Dr. Fullilove on changing the way we are: Let’s Be Apple Pie (0:29)
If these signs sound familiar, take some advice from Dr. Fullilove and start cultivating a healthy urban habitat. Our cities could use the help.
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