Apr. 22 2013

How do you restore vitality to neglected urban neighborhoods? One way, says Dr. Mindy Fullilove, is to throw a party to celebrate your successes.


Michel Cantal-Dupart holds Urban Alchemy; with Mindy Fullilove in Paris, 2013


Such celebrations are one of nine essential elements in urban restoration, according to Dr. Fullilove’s forthcoming book, Urban Alchemy. Community celebrations, she explains, build solidarity and sustain spirits for what can be a long process of renewal.

So it was only fitting that she and her longtime collaborator Robert Fullilove, both professors in the department of Sociomedical Sciences, were recently in Paris to celebrate one of her book’s principal inspirations and subjects, French urbanist Michel Cantal-Dupart, as he was made an officier in France’s National Order of the Legion of Honor—the country’s most prestigious order, dating back to the days of Napoleon Bonaparte.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault presented the Legion of Honor medal in a ceremony on April 13. The setting too could not have been more fitting: the famed reviver of cities was honored aboard the Louise-Catherine, a barge on the Seine river that was originally designed by the architect Le Corbusier and was resplendently restored in 2010 after serving for many years as a homeless shelter.

For the Fulliloves, the event marked 20 years of friendship with Cantal and partnerships that have brought new life to communities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Neighborhood to City

Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist, spent the 1980s investigating the cascading epidemics of AIDS, crack cocaine, violence, and mental illness that were besieging poor, minority communities across the U.S. These ills, she found, were related to policies of redlining and “planned shrinkage”—the deliberate closing of essential services like firehouses due to budget constraints.

The very fabric of communities was torn apart, and amid the tatters, a new normal of risky behaviors emerged that worsened AIDS and other health problems.  “It was evident to me that people were profoundly shaped by their environments,” Dr. Fullilove writes in Urban Alchemy. “If we wanted to have healthy people, we had to have healthy neighborhoods.”

But how could this be achieved?

A turning point came in 1993 when she and then-husband Robert Fullilove first encountered Cantal at a conference in Paris. Just as an individual’s behaviors relate to where he or she lives, the health of a neighborhood, said Cantal, is a function of how well it connects with other neighborhoods. The whole city mattered.


Robert Fullilove and Michel Cantal-Dupart in Begles, France, 2002

Inspired by this idea, the Fulliloves traveled with Cantal throughout France visiting town squares, formal gardens, and housing projects to absorb his “ecology of cities” perspective. The emphasis was on building new connections from existing touchstones in the community. This was a refreshing departure from the usual method of tearing things down and starting anew.

Soon Mindy Fullilove was invited to lecture at National Conservatory of Arts and Trades, where Cantal taught, and joined his team of experts working on re-envisioning greater Paris.

Robert Fullilove also remained active in France. In Nantes, once a major nexus of the slave trade, he became involved in a project constructing a replica of a slave ship, and he continues to oversee a student practicum there. Over the years, he and Mindy Fullilove came to know Jean-Marc Ayrault, who was mayor of Nantes before becoming Prime Minister.

The Fulliloves have found the French way of life deeply alluring, from lively streetscapes to the premium the French place on celebrations. “We join a string of African-Americans who have found France to be a very hospitable place to work,” says Robert Fullilove.

The partnership with Cantal continued in the United States. Mindy Fullilove invited the Frenchman to the isolated, African-American Hill District of Pittsburgh. Speaking through a translator, he challenged the community to find paths to the city’s rivers where their forbearers had worked in the steel mills. The idea energized residents who set out to blaze trails, build coalitions, and celebrate their neighborhood’s history.

In Orange, New Jersey, Mindy’s hometown, Cantal pointed to the twin injuries of a highway and rail line. Among his remedies: make downtown pedestrian crossings more inviting. Answering the call, one community group armed local youth with chalk to share their “guerrilla haiku” on the walls of an underpass.

Earlier Cantal visited nearby Englewood, finding it overly determined by the automobile. Trees, he suggested, would help the city better live up to its name. (See video on right.)

Urbanism to Health

The collaboration between Robert and Mindy Fullilove and Cantal also played a significant role in creating the Urbanism and the Built Environment track in the Mailman School’s Department of Sociomedical Sciences.

“Cantal wrote that bringing about great cities involved many people from many disciplines. Bob and I took this to heart and thought that people in public health should have a deeper understanding of cities,” says Mindy Fullilove.

For the Fulliloves, the Mailman School has been ideally situated to practice their brand of urban scholarship with its many links to public health. “For those of us who do this kind of work, Columbia is the perfect place to be. It puts us within walking distance of a lot of the things we talk about,” Robert Fullilove reflects.

In the last dozen years, they have seen Washington Heights transformed as the drug trade and violence have declined. But Robert and Mindy Fullilove weren’t just observing these changes, they were helping propel them.

In 2004, they conceived CLIMB, short for City Life Is Moving Bodies, a group focused on promoting civic engagement and physical activity in Northern Manhattan. Students and community members worked to realize a vision for a 10-mile walking trail beginning in Central Park and continuing through a series of underused parks in Harlem and Washington Heights.


Residents of Northern Manhattan follow the Giraffe Path for Hike the Heights

Cantal, too, helped shape the trail, suggesting that it finish at the Cloisters. Tracing a long-necked shape through upper Manhattan, it was dubbed the Giraffe Path.

The Giraffe Path is a kind of perfect species of Fullilove-Cantal urbanism. Not only does it forge tangible connections between neighborhoods, but it brings people together. No matter the situation, when these factors line up, says Robert Fullilove, good things happen. “People are going to be a lot happier. And I think it’s fair to say, they’re going to live longer too.”

Every year since 2004 on the first Saturday in June, hundreds of local residents put on their walking shoes for an annual celebration called Hike the Heights. They follow the trail, which is decorated by paper-maché giraffes made by local school children. Later, they gather in Highbridge Park, on the banks of the Harlem River, for food, music, and activities ranging from rock climbing to a poetry contest.

“When you make a great city, it’s a place to have great parties,” says Mindy. “It’s a goal to have great places for parties, but the parties also help us make the great city.”

And who doesn’t love a great party?