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October 1, 1998

GSPH fellows pessimistic about plans to revitalize Hill District

A disastrous piece of public policy — that's how public health psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove describes the current version of the city's plan to demolish the Hill District's Allequippa Terrace and Bedford Dwellings public housing projects to make way for mixed-income townhouse communities.

The plan, part of a project called Hope VI, is intended to revitalize the Hill. But Fullilove points out, "They're planning to tear down 25 percent of the public housing and displace an enormous number of people" representing 933 families. "That's going to destroy communities that have been in existence for 40 or 50 years. It's a very bad situation." Since January, Fullilove and her husband Robert E. Fullilove III have been visiting Falk Fellows at the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health's (GSPH) Center for Minority Health.

Funded by the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, the fellowship program brings in scholars and researchers to enhance public health in Pittsburgh and heighten the Center for Minority Health's profile on and off campus. "The Fulliloves were ideal choices as the first fellows in this program. They have national expertise on public housing and issues of displacement, both physical and psychological," said Philip B. Hallen, president of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund.

q Robert Fullilove agrees with his wife's assessment of the city's plans for the Hill District. "Right now, Hope VI seems to focus heavily on building houses and creating centers where economic activity and jobs can be created," he says. "Those are certainly worthwhile goals. But it's an all-or-nothing strategy: raze it, start all over, resettle the community with a mix of families that are more on the socially desirable scale, to put it euphemistically.

"Mindy and I are not urban planners. But our research tells us that, if the end result of this plan is that large numbers of people are displaced with no place to go, possessing Section 8 housing vouchers that aren't good anyplace in this region, that would be a tragedy with potentially disastrous consequences for the whole region.

"And if large numbers of Hill District residents end up feeling that they tried to get the planners, the policy makers, the city fathers to listen to them and nobody paid attention, that too would be a tragedy." Robert Fullilove is associate dean for community and minority affairs at the Columbia University School of Public Health. Mindy Fullilove is an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia and a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

They have conducted extensive research on the consequences of uprooting urban communities: violence and teen pregnancy, physical and psychological illness, dramatic increases in the spread of AIDS and crack cocaine use.

"We've been convinced for a long time, based largely on Mindy's research, that a lot of the efforts the country is undertaking to improve minority communities are misguided," Robert explains. "There's a mistaken belief that moving people out of ugly housing and into more attractive housing will eliminate the problems that we associate with ghettos, slums, areas with large amounts of deteriorating public housing. We're pretty convinced that's not the case.

"Speaking from a public health point of view: If you destroy a building, you haven't really gotten rid of the infectious agent. In fact, you're doing something that epidemiologists say you should never do — you're dispersing it into the larger community." To illustrate the analogy, he cites the massive destruction by fire of public housing in the Bronx during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Among the people displaced were members of a previously tight network of drug users who shared needles, unwittingly infecting one another with the AIDS-causing HIV virus. "When these people were scattered to other neighborhoods, they formed new networks and created a multiplier effect," Robert says. "That's a major reason why the rate of HIV infection in New York City is hundreds of times the national average, much higher than in places with similar demographics such as Detroit and Chicago." One of the stated aims of Pittsburgh's Hope VI program is to bar from new Hill District housing people with criminal records, illegal drug users and tenants who have been chronically late in paying their rent.

Mindy Fullilove comments: "The issue is, 'Okay, so you're not the best tenant. You might even be a bad person.' But those people still have to live someplace. The idea that you're going to quarantine them off somewhere just doesn't exist as a solution." q As Falk Fellows, the Fulliloves have been visiting Pittsburgh monthly for three-day stints. In addition to teaching graduate courses at GSPH, they have conducted workshops with Hill District residents, in an effort to help them cope with the effects of Hope VI. Out of one such session last summer emerged the Coalition for a Healthy Urban Habitat.

Hill District neighborhood groups formed the coalition to share information and push for constructive public housing reform. The coalition and the Fulliloves held five teach-ins for Hill District residents; participants discussed such issues as grief and loss resulting from the destruction of familiar buildings.

In April, the Fulliloves helped some two-dozen residents and activists inventory 12 blocks in the Hill District, documenting every building and vacant lot. Equipped with clipboards and instant cameras, the volunteers created what the Fulliloves call a "community burn index," documenting damage such as graffiti (considered a first-degree burn), decrepit but salvageable houses (second-degree) and vacant, litter-strewn lots (rated as third-degree burns).

"Some Pittsburgh city maps were last updated in the 1970s, and we found that they are often quite inaccurate representations of what's actually there," Robert Fullilove notes. "Fully 50 percent of the housing listed on the maps is no longer there. In other cases, buildings are present on what were labeled as vacant lots." The Fulliloves' French colleague, urban architect Michel Cantal-Dupart, assisted with April's mapping and will help in mapping more blocks when he visits Pittsburgh Oct. 8 and 9 for a conference, "The Power of Place: What Makes a Neighborhood Home," underwritten by the Maurice Falk Medical Fund. Cantal-Dupart also will give a public lecture Oct. 8 at 6 p.m. in the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater.

The Fulliloves say the Hill District is distinctive for at least four reasons:

* Decades after passing its peak as a breeding ground for jazz, art and literature, the Hill remains, "pound for pound, one of the most productive African American cultural centers in the United States," Mindy says. "It's a very charged, creative place."

* Residents strongly identify with the Hill. "That strong sense of belonging is very unusual," Robert points out. "In New York, where we're from, black people will identify themselves first as being, say, from the Caribbean before they mention their neighborhoods."

* "The Hill District is as topographically complex as any neighborhood we have ever seen," Mindy notes. "You see a number of distinctive neighborhoods such as the Bedford Dwellings area, the Allequippa Terrace area, the upper Hill and the middle Hill. There is such an intricate pattern of ups and downs, hills and valleys and so on."

* "Another thing we've found," Mindy says, "is that the obliteration of the lower Hill to make way for the Civic Arena [during the 1960s] was as profound a tragedy as any urban community has had to sustain. Although we have obliterated lots of neighborhoods all over the United States, the obliteration of the lower Hill ranks right up there with the most horrific acts of public policy." "When they created the Civic Arena," Robert adds, "they bulldozed everything in the lower Hill. Nobody disagreed that some of the housing was in horrible condition and that something needed to be done. But instead of having a process in which people could preserve some things and get rid of others, everything was wiped out, a demilitarized zone was created around the Arena to separate it from the black community, and lower Hill residents were scattered to the four winds.

"Not only did they feel displaced, but there was nothing left to which they could attach their memories. That's where the psychological harm comes in. That's also why people in the Hill have a lingering resentment that has carried over into the discussion of Hope VI. Frankly, I'm afraid they're right to worry that the very same thing that happened back then is happening again today." When city planners surveyed Bedford Dwellings residents, asking whether they thought the housing project should be torn down or refurbished, an overwhelming majority chose the latter option, the Fulliloves point out. "But that's not what is going to happen," Robert says. "It's going to be torn down. It's a repeat of what took place with the Civic Arena. This time, what makes it worse is that, having asked people what they wanted and having heard very clearly what the residents themselves had to say, the city ignored it anyway." At least one city official — Councilman Sala Udin, who represents the Hill District — has met regularly with the Fulliloves and the Coalition for a Healthy Urban Habitat. Udin has vowed to defend Hill residents' interests as the city proceeds with Hope VI.

The Fulliloves say they first met Udin in San Francisco during the 1980s, when the native Pittsburgher was running a program to spread awareness of AIDS. "It's quite refreshing to have this kind of access to a government official," Robert Fullilove says. "We don't get that back in New York City." "For scholars," Mindy points out, "it's always very exciting to come down out of the…" "Ivory tower?" Robert suggests.

"…and find," Mindy concludes, "that people actually find your stuff useful." The Maurice Falk Medical Fund plans to grant about $100,000 annually to the Center for Minority Health fellowship program.

"Originally, the Fulliloves were only going to be visiting Pittsburgh through the end of 1998, but now we'll probably extend that through the spring semester as well," said fund president Hallen.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 3

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