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Social psychiatrist revisits impact of urban renewal on Lakeland

Mindy Fullilove speaks to the audience at the Lakeland event

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Posted on: May 9, 2024

By KAYLA NAZAIRE

The University of Maryland is the biggest looming threat to what is left of the Lakeland community, a renowned social psychiatrist said on April 17. 

“They obviously need to grow,” Dr. Mindy Fullilove told community members at a town hall at Washington Brazilian Seventh-day Adventist Church, located where the old Lakeland School once sat. “Where are they going? They’re coming this way. They’re coming every way. They’re coming for the whole city.”

The city’s Restorative Justice Commission invited Fullilove, professor of urban policy and health at New York City’s The New School, to discuss her book, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It, as a part of the commission’s series of events exploring restorative justice. 

Fullilove said she began her research in 1986 in the San Francisco Bay Area, studying the AIDS epidemic. However, the community was also overrun by a crack epidemic, violence and post-traumatic stress as a result of that violence. 

“And so we said to ourselves, why are so many epidemics happening?” Fullilove told the audience of more than 50. “And we knew that where they were happening were [in the] disinvested cities of the United States.”

Answering the question of how these once-thriving neighborhoods disintegrated over time became the focus of Fullilove’s work. 

She showed old photos of Pittsburgh — images by photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris of community-organized parades and men playing checkers on the street — before urban renewal. She said they reminded her of old photos of Lakeland. 

“This is a healthy community,” Fullilove said of historic Lakeland. “This is the true foundation of all health, all mental health, all physical health. … People are living together and helping each other.”  

However, much like in Pittsburgh and Lakeland, urban renewal was carried out in 993 cities across America — all told, some 2,532 projects. Two-thirds of residents displaced by those projects were Black, and three-fourths were people of color, according to Fullilove. The result, she said, was “crippling.” 

Urban renewal occurred largely between 1949 and 1974 as part of the federal  government’s effort to modernize cities and update aging infrastructure. 

From the 1960s through the 1980s, the city’s urban renewal efforts in Lakeland demolished 104 of the community’s 150 homes, displacing two-thirds of the families that lived there.

“We don’t take blows easily as human beings; we’re hurt by them, and the hurt doesn’t go away.  It goes into our bodies,” Fullilove said.

Today, Lakeland deals with the lingering effects of urban renewal, Fullilove said, and is now grappling with an abundance of high-priced student housing and few single-family homes. Fullilove called student housing “a form of gentrification.”

Fullilove said Lakeland is unique because it was incorporated into a college town. Yet while the university can seem like a “rapacious growth machine,” as she noted, it also can be a resource for the community.

Fullilove, who once taught at Columbia University, shared how that university swallowed up neighboring family-owned businesses and replaced them with high-end facilities in the name of progress.

Fullilove cited  four pillars of a healthy society that were evident in Lakeland before the city’s urban renewal initiative: connection to nature, care for the children, social spaces and lots of small, affordable houses. 

College Park City Councilmember John Rigg (District 3) asked Fullilove how to restore Lakeland, which has no land available to rebuild the 104 displaced homes. Lake Artemesia now covers two-thirds of historic Lakeland, Rigg said. The city does not own the lake, which is part of the Prince George’s County parks system.

“What if we understand Lakeland in another way?” Fullilove responded. “What if we understand Lakeland as the four pillars of a healthy urban habitat? And what if we said restoring Lakeland is lifting up what it taught us?” 

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