Monday, September 18, 2017

There's a New Mary in Town

I think that loss is a two-sided coin, with grief on one side and a gift on the other.  I’ve become so convinced of this that, at moments of loss, I acknowledge the grief and wait for the gift.  Today, I was at the funeral of Mary Robinson White, a beloved leader of my family and community, who passed away a few weeks shy of her 95th birthday.  A death at that age is not a surprise, and we can manage it with a certain grace.  But however much time we have with our loved ones, it is never enough, and we grieve the pleasures of their company.  I kept thinking, “I’ll never get another Christmas card from Mary White” and it made my heart ache. 

At the funeral, I was listening for the gift, and here’s what I heard Reverend Onaje Crawford say:

“Mary, Mother of God, and Mary Magdalene – move over, there’s a new Mary in town!”

What was the quality that elevated Mary White to that blessed circle of women?  Mary, Mother of God, is adored for her willingness, Mary Magdalene because she had the wisdom and spiritual grace to became the apostle to the apostles.  It is not lightly that one makes such a comparison, and the comment was made laughing, but not in jest.

Mary White achieved in her life that most rare of Christian virtues: radical acceptance of every person she ever met. Her acceptance touched us all, changing us, opening our hearts to tolerance and joy. She did not preach virtue that I ever heard. She just lived it in every breath of her life. 

And so the gift is that we got to see what the world might be like if we actually – each and every one of us – followed the teaching of Jesus, to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. I feel so honored to have known such a Mary. 
Mary White, center in blue, on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Orange.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Whose violence?

I was in St. Louis September 14-15, 2017, to speak at the Pulitizer Arts Foundation.  While there, Sophie Lipman, the public programs and engagement manager, took to me to see neighborhoods and meet local activists.  Everyone I met on Thursday, the 14th, shared their anxiety about the Stockley Decision, which was expected on Friday, the 15th.  This was the case of Jason Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, who had killed Anthony Lamar Smith after a high speed chase.  Stockley was recorded as saying he was going to kill Mr. Smith; Stockley was also accused of planting a gun on him.  Activists in St. Louis were deeply involved in the protests in Ferguson, after the death of Michael Brown.  Their agitation was evident, their pain at the situation deep.

Their emotions, I thought, were resonances of the harsh reality of segregation in the city.  They explained the "Delmar Divide," a boulevard that divides the city into white and affluent and black and devastated.  The landscape is so shockingly different that I gasped when at the difference when we crossed from the black neighborhood into the white neighborhood.  One of the activists I met was new to the city.  She shared that when she first started to travel around the northside, she would weep at the catastrophe.

When the inevitable "not guilty" verdict was delivered, the protests sprang up, decrying, once again, that a policeman could not be punished for obvious murder.  As the anger erupted, and some violence flared, Mayor Lyda Krewson was quoted as saying, "We understand the desire to disrupt but we will not understand the desire for destruction or for harming people.  We will protect all our residents."

One doesn't have to spend more than five minutes north of Delmar Boulevard to feel the hollowness of this statement, and the decrying of violence on the part of protesters.  The systematic violence of racism and class oppression is the great violence in St. Louis, as elsewhere in the United States.

We might make a new chant, to follow, "Whose streets? OUR streets": "Whose violence? THEIR violence."

Friday, July 28, 2017

Goin' to the territory

I was in Ludlow, Vermont, over the weekend and found my way to Book Nook, a lovely store on the town's Main Street.  The store typically has a quote from a book and if you guess it right, you get a prize, in this case, a 10% discount.  I usually don't get them, but this time, I knew immediately that it was Huck Finn who said, "I reckon I got to light out for the Territory..."

One of the books in my library is a collection of essays by Ralph Ellison, called, Going to the Territory.  I had never read the eponymous speech, given at Brown University in 1979, which is reproduced in the book.  When I got home, I settled down to read what Ellison had to say on the topic.  I expected, of course, that he was riffing on Mark Twain, but, though he mentioned Twain, that wasn't the inspiration for the title.  The first thing I learned was Ellison grew up in Oklahoma, which was Indian Territory before it was a state.  The spark for the speech is that his high school principal, Dr. Ilman Page, had gone to Brown in 1877.  Ellison had a lot to say about quirks of democracy, but most important, I found, was his effort to put the hard work of his principal in the context of the moment after the defeat of Reconstruction.

He writes:
Because of the Tilden-Hayes Compromise they were forced to live under a system which was close to, and in some ways worse than, slavery... Within thirteen years Afro-Americans were swept from slavery to a brief period of freedom, to a condition of second-class citizenship.  And from a condition of faint hope, through a period of euphoric optimism, to a condition of despair.  The familiar world of slavery was gone, but now they faced a world of ambiguity in which their access to even the most fundamental of life's necessities was regulated strictly on the basis of race and color. Such was the general picture, but in spite of these dismal developments, there were still reasons for cautious optimism.  And this lay in the physical fact that they were now the owners of their own bodies and had the freedom to express something of their aspirations as individuals.  
It is not what I would have expected next, but he goes on to connect this basic freedom with Oklahoma:
But freedom was also to be found in the West of the old Indian Territory.  Bessie Smith gave voice to this knowledge when she sang of "Goin' to the Nation, Going to the Terr'tor'"...  
He goes on to spell out the profound effect Dr. Page's daughter, Zelia Breaux, had had on his life, as the person who had introduced him to the arts and to the possibility of excellence.  As he comes to the close of the speech, he hits a very touching note:
Such individuals as Dr. Page and his daughter worked, it seems to me, [for the emergence of the unexpected].  Ultimately, theirs was an act of faith: faith in themselves, faith in the potentialities of their own people, and despite their social status as Negroes, faith in the potentialities of the democratic ideal.  Coming so soon after the betrayal of the Reconstruction, theirs was a heroic effort.  It is my good fortune that their heroism became my heritage, and thanks to Inman Page and Brown University, it is also now a part of the heritage of all Americans who would become conscious of who they are.

Book Nook in Ludlow, VT

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Time for a New Prescription

Dr. John Sarno died on June 22, 2017, at the age of 93.  He was a physician who observed that much pain was psychosomatic in origin.  As American medicine has largely rejected the idea that feelings can cause sensations in the body, he was ostracized by the profession.  Happily, his books – including Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection – reached millions of people in many countries and helped them heal themselves. 

“All the Rage,” a documentary about his work collectively directed by Michael Galinsky, Suky Hawley, and David Beilinson, has just been released by RUMUR.  It arrives at a moment when the medically preferred method of pain treatment has triggered an epidemic of opioid addiction that is estimated to have taken 59,000 lives in 2016 alone. 

It is time for humility.  

As physicians, we swore the Hippocratic Oath, to “first do no harm.” It seems to me a reasonable corollary when we have done harm is “to admit harm and change course.”  

But, some will say, Dr. Sarno’s ideas are not supported by data.  That is a red herring.  The data about opioids have not been as thorough as one might presume, especially given the frequency with which they’ve been prescribed.  Indeed, one widely cited study of the safety of opioids for pain turns out to be a letter to the editor published in a medical journal, not the hallowed randomized controlled clinical trial one would have expected.  At this point, new findings are emerging every week, shedding light on the ways in which opioids work to produce dependence and addiction. The evolving story suggests we must use these drugs with great caution. 

By contrast, there is more than enough data about the reality of the mind-body connection and the effectiveness and safety of the mind-body interventions for us to move forward with confidence.  However, as is often the case, sound “data” are ignored.  This has been true for a long time: scientific breakthroughs are resisted for reasons that have nothing to do with the soundness of the intervention.  The British Navy, for example, ignored for 50 years the advice that limes could prevent scurvy among seamen.  Many suffered unnecessary death and disability during that period.

The opioid epidemic offers a remarkable opportunity to go in a new direction in the treatment of pain and in the embrace of the mind-body connection.  State legislatures are busy restricting opioid prescribing.  Change must happen, but what?  What a perfect moment to go see “All the Rage,” pick up one of Dr. Sarno’s books, and try a new prescription! 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Assassination of Beale Street

I started studying urban renewal in 1994, when I first met David Jenkins, who'd been displaced from the Eastwick neighborhood of Philadelphia when he was eleven.  In 1995, I went to Roanoke, VA, for the first time, visiting with Mary Bishop, journalist extraordinaire, who had written the classic article, "Block by Block, Street by Street," about urban renewal in her city.  I got to talk to many of the people she'd interviewed. Those first exposures to the story of urban renewal were followed by many others.  I pulled my analysis together in my 2004 book, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It.  In the years since, I've heard many more urban renewal stories, and their similarity has struck me.  You might say, that I got used to the stories and they didn't strike the same chord of horror that the first ones had. Indeed, I thought I'd heard it all.

But then I encountered the story of Beale Street in Eugene J. Johnson and Robert D. Russell, Jr.'s book, Memphis: An Architectural History.  They open their discussion of the story by saying, "Beale Street today [they were writing in 1988] is one of the saddest examples of what urban renewal did to cities. It stands isolated in a green desert of grass that grows where once a thriving, or least throbbing, black community lived and gave sustenance to one of the greatest centers of black culture in the United States."

I am going to give an extensive quote from Johnson and Russell, because the book is currently out-of-print, and it might be difficult for people to read it in the original.  That said, I hope the University of Tennessee Press reissues this marvelous work!
By 1964 the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) had prepared a masterplan for whole Beale Street area, which it announced in an eight-hundred page report that suggested that Beale had to be destroyed to be saved.  No one, of course, read the whole report.  It was accompanied by a curious public relations brochure, short and east to read, that illustrated all of the street's great monuments that were not black.  Left out were pictures of the famous saloons, which the tet did mention, and of the pawnshops that clogged the block between Main and Second, which the report did not mention.  The brochure contained the ominous statement: 'Beale Street has been permitted to deteriorate to a point where little remains, from a practical standpoint, of its lively past.'
Consultants for the plan were Walter A.J. Ewald and Associates, who had submitted their report in 1963.  They envisioned a Beale Street surrounded by new shopping malls.  That is, they had decided, at the very beginning of the project, to tear down the surrounding community of houses and small businesses and replace them with a cordon sanitaire of shops, arranged like those in a suburban mall.   
The project, of course, was sheer pie in the sky.  There was no money to fund it, and there were no businesses lining up to open shops in those devoutly-dreamed surrounding malls.  In 1964 the city told MHA to go ahead with an application for a federal grant, and in winter 1968 the project was still under not-very-urgent discussion.  In April 1968, however, Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered at the Lorraine Motel, just a few blocks from Beale.  That assassination lead to the assassination of Beale Street.  In November 1969, with almost miraculous alacrity, HUD set aside $11,000,000 to fund the Beale Street Urban Renewal Program, and in June 1970, a HUD undersecretary flew into town to announce another grant of $14,000,000 for renovation.  The bulldozers were already at work.  By the time they got through, all but about 65 of the 625 buildings that had stood on the 113 acres of the renewal area were gone.  If decimation takes one in ten, what should we call an act that leaves one in ten?  Fifteen hundred residents were displaced to other parts of the city.  (emphasis added)
Johnson and Russell go on to describe the destruction of the block between Second and Main, once occupied by pawnshops, forever insulating Main from Beale.  That was followed by a long period of languishing, during which most of the remaining buildings fell apart.

This story is astounding on many levels, among them these:

  • By 1968, urban renewal was widely discredited -- it was shut down in 1973; 
  • By 1968, urban renewal was widely known as "Negro Removal" -- no black community would have seen it as a salve for the wound of losing Dr. King;
  • By cutting off the support of the Beale Street community, the city undermined the integrity of Main Street, which has struggled to survive.  
This is a story that should be told in the National Civil Rights Museum, now installed in the Lorraine Motel, right there in the Beale Street Neighborhood.  Linking the destruction of black neighborhoods to Civil Rights will help everyone understand the new phase of the struggle that started in 1949, with the passing of the Federal Housing Act, and continues to this day in Memphis and elsewhere.  The Beale Street neighborhood is slowly being converted into the kind of "approved uses" the planners dreamed of in 1963.  It has no room for the former poor and black residents.  

Looking west toward the Beale Street neighborhood from the Lorraine Motel.  Vacant lots still apparent.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Promoting a Culture of Health in the American City

In March, I had the pleasure of presenting my experiences with the new Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program, "Culture of Health."  I've been involved with three projects in this program, which is designed to create a nationwide commitment to health for all.  I'm a member of an "Interdisciplinary Research Leader" team, joining Derek Hyra and Dominic Moulden to look at "Making the Just City."  I'm a core team member of the Orange NJ Culture of Health in NJ initiative called "Healthy Orange."  I'm also an advisor to the Civic Hall Labs project using digital media to address civic engagement and civic cohesion.  I've found the Culture of Health programs to have a lot of freedom to tackle issues that American public health has long ignored, including issues of social structure and issues of pathways to health that include housing, jobs and education.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The New Market on Main

Yesterday was Easter Sunday, and David Chapin, my Main Street buddy, and I went first to see the cherry blossoms in Newark's Branch Brook Park.  He was astounded at the number of trees, any grove of which would have been cause for pride.  Everybody was out, it being Easter, and 89 degrees, and the Cherry Blossom Festival.  It didn't matter to any of us that the cherries's had passed the prime of bloom -- it was THE day to be in the park.
I proposed that we get some food and cook at my house.  In looking up the directions to Whole Foods, the new Whole Foods in Newark popped so we decided to go see it.  It is in the old Hahne's Department Store building, vacant for decades, but finding new life.  The Whole Foods is an anchor for the new mixed use neighborhood the planners are developing in that area.  We walked in and David was impressed by palatial size and cornucopia of food.  I'm more used to suburban Whole Foods -- it didn't seem that different from the store I usually go to in West Orange.  Except of course, place is everything, and looking out the massive windows onto Military park, being in the heart of downtown Newark in a place I visited as a child but lose to me for a long long time, was very special.
New Whole Foods Market on Broad Street in Newark
A market is a critical anchor institution for a new urban neighborhood.  It could be a little bodega, or palace of food, like Whole Foods.  It is essential to the life and good feeling to be able to walk to grab something for dinner, especially as a city densifies, and parking becomes impossible.  Its other virtues -- creating a crossroads of neighborhood -- should not be overlooked.
As David was getting some roasted red pepper hummus for our snack, I saw a guy wearing a tee shirt that said, "We out." -- Harriet Tubman.  I am doing a project called "400 years of inequality," which calls for an observance of 1619, when the first Africans arrived in Jamestown to be sold into bondage. What better tee shirt that than one?  I debated asking him if I could take his picture, but eventually worked up my courage.  I explained the project and the tee-shirt guy and his friend were immediately intrigued and starting sharing their projects -- including bike tours of the Central Ward.  They also explained that the tee shirt was one of many connecting current expressions to historic figures.  they pulled up the shirt for Rosa Parks, which says, "Nah."
Paul in his tee shirt.

Then they started to talk about their delight in the Whole Foods, and how it was creating a safe space for Newark intellectuals to encounter each other, and promote a conversation about the future of the city.  They credited Mayor Ras Baraka with this great step forward.  And it was so resonant with the experience in the community-supported general store in West River, Vermont.