Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Gail Sheppard and Kalani Byrd reacted to news of a plan to buy and demolish apartment buildings at Buena Vista Springs, where they live, with the question: “How come nobody told us?”
Then they considered whether their apartments would fall to the wrecking ball.
The plan would cost $7.6 million in federal funds meant to help neighborhoods hit by foreclosures. Clark County and North Las Vegas each approved spending the money to buy and tear down 250 apartments at Buena Vista, but the plan did not take note of the people who live there.
It is unclear whether the buildings in which those people live will be torn down or how they will be affected by the plan. The federal Housing and Urban Development Department has until mid-January to approve or reject the plan, which also includes some sort of “community campus” rising on the Buena Vista site. North Las Vegas officials have yet to say exactly where the money for construction will come from or what it will cost.
As Sheppard and Byrd stood in Buena Vista’s parking lot recently, the two weren’t just mulling the possibility of moving from one apartment to another.
Their concern was that they may be forced to move out of the neighborhood. Both have lived in the area for most of their lives. They are family; Sheppard is Byrd’s aunt. They have more family in the area. Sheppard’s teenage daughters cross the street to a community center daily, where they play basketball and get help with homework. The two women have friends at Buena Vista Springs who share everything from rides to child care.
They’ll miss all that if the plan to tear down buildings at Buena Vista winds up separating them from family and friends.
Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a research psychiatrist at New York State Psychiatric Institute and a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, calls this “root shock.” According to Fullilove, tearing down buildings in poor neighborhoods often uproots people from their surroundings, in the name of urban renewal.
The result, she says, is that people lose many resources vital to their well-being, including relationships with family and friends that often form a safety net for surviving poverty.
Fullilove has studied the phenomenon in the wake of the widespread urban renewal projects that swept the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s.
She says planners often tear down areas that are considered blight without including area residents in the planning process, a wrong foot forward.
“Neighborhoods are like an ecosystem, with lots of parts and complex relationships between those parts,” Fullilove says. “If you have a plan that doesn’t take into account all those parts, it’s hard to make it work.”
The researcher says it is possible to take a neighborhood and make it better, without tearing it down and scattering residents. Which is what the
22-year-old Byrd said she would have preferred. She said she wished the county and North Las Vegas had come up with a plan to make Buena Vista Springs a nicer place to live instead of just calling for the wrecking crews.
Fullilove said the loss of resources such as solidarity among family and friends who are scattered ends up affecting the physical and psychological health of poor people.
Tearing down buildings “is progress for some, but often not for the poor,” she said.
Poor health, Fullilove added, creates costs for the wider community, through services such as emergency rooms.
These costs are worth considering as HUD officials evaluate the Clark County-North Las Vegas plan.