- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

From the imposition of slavery to the modern trend of eminent domain in the name of economic development, African-Americans have suffered disproportionately from destabilizing trends forced upon them by the politically powerful. Through each upheaval, legalized “takings” — first of the person, and more recently of our homes — threaten African-American lives, homes and families.

From 1949 through 1973, under the Federal Housing Act, 2,532 projects were carried out in 992 cities, displacing 1 million people, of which African Americans accounted for two-thirds. African Americans — then 12 percent of the population — were 5 times likelier than whites to be displaced.

Understand that the neighborhoods and homes threatened with eminent domain abuse are not merely buildings; they provide social, political, cultural and economic networks that benefit individuals and society. Their loss is so massive and threatening to human well-being that I use the term “root shock” to describe it. (This term is borrowed from gardeners, who observed that a plant torn from the ground will go into a state of shock, and may well die.) Our homes and neighborhoods “root” people in the world. A home is a biological necessity.

In my research on the long-term consequences of urban renewal in five American cities, I found African-Americans experienced great hardship when their place in the world was stripped from them.

A gentleman named David Jenkins, whose Philadelphia neighborhood was bulldozed by the government, best illustrated this. He documented the magic of his neighborhood through the map he drew for me. Within the narrow domains of a boy’s life — the area depicted was not 1 square mile — small notes highlighted the richness of his neighborhood associations. He could catch turtles in the swamp, buy candy at Miss Maggie’s store or sing gospel with Patti LaBelle in the Young Adult Choir at Beulah Baptist Church. In neighborhoods like David Jenkins’, we African-Americans started stores, fought for schools and fire stations and organized ourselves for all the activities of living. This was no small feat for any group: Much effort was required to create a functional community.

One of the most important units of organization in any African-American neighborhood has always been the church. Houses of worship organized people into many groups, and many churches were connected with each other. The regular rhythms of prayer meetings and choir rehearsals ordered daily life so intimately that people knew when something had gone wrong for a fellow parishioner and could offer help even without a word being spoken.

But most powerful of all was the real and symbolic value of a home: people who can buy a house have made it in some small way in American society. For Mr. Jenkins’ parents — African-Americans who had relatively little money — buying a home moved them into a new stratum. This is what was lost when eminent domain clear-cut neighborhoods. Nearly 50 years since the events transpired in Mr. Jenkins’ neighborhood, the heavy burden and deep grief remain for him and many others.

All across the United States, adroit use of eminent domain continues to threaten the homes of ordinary people. Cities have time and again used the power of eminent domain to clear so-called “blighted neighborhoods,” including neighborhoods like West Harlem, New York, (an African-American neighborhood since the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century) that is now the target of Columbia University.

Eminent domain has become what the Founding Fathers sought to prevent: a tool that takes from the poor and the politically weak to give to the rich and the politically powerful. It is time for the pendulum to swing the other way, moving toward the all-out support of community and neighborhood life — the commons — as a source of well-being for every citizen.

What is the price of the commons? They are priceless: They are as necessary as air or water; they are the stuff of life itself and they should not be ripped from us merely to make some other private citizen more wealthy.

Mindy Fullilove is a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University. This article includes excerpts from her report “Eminent Domain & African Americans: What is the Price of the Commons?,” which was released this month and is available at https://www.castlecoalition.org/publications/index.html.

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