The Joy of Being In: Dr. Mindy Fullilove on Trauma, Healing, and Main Street

Nate Storring
Apr 2, 2021
Apr 3, 2021
Dr. Mindy Fullilove
Mindy Fullilove, MD

We are excited to announce that Mindy Fullilove, MD will be one of the keynotes at our upcoming Walk/Bike/Places conference on June 15-18, 2021! 

Dr. Fullilove is a writer and social psychiatrist whose work has focused on urban mental health, the impact of displacement, and restorative urbanism. With our conference theme of “The Route to Recovery,” we look forward to learning about how our streets and other public spaces can help our communities heal from the pandemic and the injustices and challenges it magnified.

While she had been writing and practicing since the 1970s, her breakout 2004 book Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It helped transform how we think about the ongoing trauma caused by disinvestment and urban renewal in communities of color. Her follow-up book, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America's Sorted-Out Cities, Fullilove identifies nine tools to heal both social and spatial divides in segregated and fractured U.S. cities.

This week, Project for Public Spaces sat down with Fullilove to talk about the pandemic and her most recent book, Main Street: How a City's Heart Connects Us All, for which she visited main streets in 178 cities around the world to understand the role they play in our mental health and how we can become better stewards of their physical, economic, and social life.

Main Street in Galena, Illinois, USA.

Nate Storring: So how did you come to focus on cities from your background in mental health and social psychiatry?

Mindy Fullilove: I was doing research on the AIDS epidemic, and Dr. Rodrick Wallace and his partner Dr. Deborah Wallace pointed out that AIDS is linked to urban policies that had destroyed the integrity of inner city communities. 

As a psychiatrist, I just became interested in the problem of how the “burning down” of a neighborhood links to a person’s risk behaviors. What’s going on? That led to studying the psychology of place, which led to studying cities.

Nate: It’s interesting that you made a distinction between city and place. Our audience is interested in placemaking, which can, of course, happen in cities or suburbs or rural communities. Can you say more about how you see the relationship between city and place?

Mindy: When I started studying the psychology of place—because as a psychiatrist it was not in my training—I started reading broadly on what environmental psychologists and geographers and anthropologists had to say about these issues. One of the points they make is that a place is a bounded unit of space, but it’s arbitrary. So a city is a place, but it could also be this room in my house. 

It’s all about where we say the boundaries are, and then inside that is the place. The place is inclusive of all the content inside that boundary—the people, the relationships, the weather, everything. That’s how I’ve thought about it.

Nate: Tell me about your most recent book, Main Street. How did you decide to explore main streets, and how does this connect to your previous work on trauma and recovery?

Mindy: Well, I was sitting in a Starbucks, and there was a big window with a lot of people going up and down the main street in Englewood where I was having my coffee. And I was like, wait, main street is supposed to be dead! No, main street clearly isn’t dead. I knew off the top of my head that a lot of main streets in New Jersey weren’t dead. 

That contradiction intrigued me, so I decided I would visit a hundred main streets in a year, and then I would know how main streets are connected to mental health. It didn’t work out like that, but that’s how it got started.

“How does main street help us avoid risk behaviors, help us connect with each other?”

How it connected to my past work was that if you’re investigating a big question, what my mentor Steve Hully called a “research question,” there are lots of smaller questions that help you fill in the blanks and understand the big research question. I was trying to understand how people’s risk behaviors related to the kind of environment they were living in, and main streets are part of our environment. How does main street help us avoid risk behaviors, help us connect with each other? That was part of this big umbrella of the connection between disease and health and how our environment links the two.

Nate: What were some of the ways that you found streets and public spaces can play a role in healing and preventing risk behaviors? 

Mindy: There’s a great psychologist called Roger Barker who invented a concept called ecological psychology. His idea was that our behavior fits the settings in which we find ourselves. A simple example I give in my book is that he was looking at children in a school, and they were different in an academic class, on the playground, and in music class. They were just different behaviors.

Main street is such a behavioral setting, to use Barker’s language. It’s one that’s open 24/7, and it’s created by this set of institutions—commercial dwelling places, civic organizations, and public space—by that amalgam of things. But culture has developed very specific ways of assembling those things so that we know for sure that we’re on main street by the way that it looks and feels. 

A shopping street south of the cathedral in Chartres, France, one of many commercial areas in Main Street. Photo by Calips.

In that 24/7 behavioral setting of main street, you can see quite an array of very specific behaviors. That’s how it shapes us: It’s a very specific place that allows us to do and see very specific things. It’s a unique contribution because it’s a core node in a big communication network that is actually worldwide. If that communication node is vibrant, you’re going to learn stuff that’s happening around the world while you’re getting your cup of coffee. Some of that is subliminal, some of it is explicit.

For example, after President Obama was elected, my daughter and I were in the drug store on a main street, and she was like, “Look at the news rack! What do you see?” It was President Obama’s face on every news magazine. You don’t necessarily stop to think about what you see, but there was this rack with all this information, and we saw it. That’s why main street is so vibrant and how it connects us to what is now a global system.

Nate: One of the concepts you talk about in your book is the “Joy of Being In.” Can you tell me about what that term means?

Mindy: I noticed that people simply have a good time when they go to main street. This is confirmed by Jane Jacobs, the greatest American urbanist, who said that people like to go where people are, and by William H. Whyte, who said the same thing. But it’s also in song, “So go downtown, where all the lights are bright.” People like to be around other people.

A shopping street in Osaka, Japan. Photo by Lukas.

So I knew there was an expression for missing out. People get nervous if everyone’s going to a party, but they're sick and can’t go. What’s going to happen without me? So we invented this term FOMO—the “Fear of Missing Out.” I was thinking, what’s the opposite of FOMO that we see on main street? It’s probably the “Joy of Being In”—JOBI. I checked with a lot of people, and they said that was accurate. We like to be in the mix.

Nate: Right, I feel like at various moments during the pandemic, I’ve personally experienced this. Like when we found out that it was safe to be outdoors with others, as long as we keep our distance and wear a mask, it felt like everyone spontaneously headed to main street, just to be around other people again.

Your book came out in the middle of this pandemic, even though a lot of the work was done beforehand. How are you thinking about main street in this current context and what role it can play in the recovery?

Mindy: Main street has been both a victim of the pandemic—lots of stores and restaurants and coffee shops have closed, couldn’t survive—and it’s a tool for recovery. We have to think about how we can help main street, and how main street can help us. It reminds me of Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

“Main street has been both a victim of the pandemic... and it’s a tool for recovery.”

The thing that I’ve found fascinating is that I’m part of a free people’s university called the University of Orange in Orange, New Jersey, and they did a book group at the time of the book launch. One of the things the organizers decided to do was to have people go and take the method that I learned to do for the book, the Stroll and Scroll, and do it on Orange’s main street. They’ve since been teaching Stroll and Scroll to a lot of people. It has been developing as a practice that people can do, which I think is very important because it’s not complicated, it’s not expensive, but if you go walk your main street with a group of people, you do learn what’s there. You get a sense of the strengths and the weaknesses. 

The results of a Stroll and Scroll in Kyoto, Japan, from Main Street: How a City's Heart Connects Us All.

Plus, being together and looking together is good for people. They’re comforted by that. If you go see a problem by yourself, it’s scary. But if you go with a bunch of people, you’re like, “Well we can’t do anything about that, but we can do something about that.” I think we have to go look at our main streets with our friends and neighbors with the sense that this can be a tool for our recovery, but we’re also going to have to help main street get back on its feet.

Nate: Can you tell me a little more about the Stroll and Scroll methodology?

Mindy: I learned the Stroll and Scroll from a Japanese environmental psychologist named Hirofumi Minami, who is a professor at Kyushu University. He is very interested in the psychoanalysis of the city, so he invented this technique, which he thinks of as psychoanalysis. You go and see the city, and you free associate with what you saw. The “stroll” is when you go see the city, and the “scroll” is when you put down what your free associations are. That was a principle method at the heart of my study: to go see a main street, do a stroll and a scroll. 

To give an example, one of the people I worked with on my book Urban Alchemy was an architect named Ken Doyno in Pittsburgh, and he took me on a most remarkable tour of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Shortly afterwards, I went to the National Archives because I needed the redlining map of Pittsburgh for that book. When I looked at the map, I knew every neighborhood because I had been on this tour. 

A "redlining" map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, a tool which guided investment and disinvestment in many American cities. Today, 80 years later, the red areas of these maps still mark areas of segregation, concentrated poverty, environmental racism, and food deserts, among other things.

So one of the associations to the stroll I had with Ken Doyno was now this redlining map, as well as how people talked about the neighborhoods, because we found the surveys of people in the 1930s where you could see the way people implemented this very racist, discriminatory policy. That’s quite an extraordinary example, but that’s how it works.

Nate: What actions would you like to see placemaking and active transportation folks take over the coming year as we recover from the pandemic?

Mindy: The next year is a big year. We’ve really been battered by the pandemic, not just in the U.S. but really in the whole world. But we’ve also learned a lot of lessons, some of which were very difficult. We have to rethink many of our assumptions, and everyone has a different set of those. 

But also people are just miserable. I may get more of these calls than others, but people call me up just to tell me how terrible they feel. It’s like, “I’m not suicidal, but does life have to go on?” A lot of people are feeling terrible. If you think about AIDS risk behavior, this disruption in the environment has completely disrupted controls on behavior. Risk behaviors in my opinion are going to skyrocket, in my opinion—drug taking, multiple sex partners, unprotected sex—with the usual consequences. Think about the spring break in Miami as an example of explosive reentry, just from desperation.

“This year, we need to think about how we can rehab ourselves. If you had a heart attack, you’d go to rehab, right? And this has been as serious as a heart attack.”

This year, we need to think about how we can rehab ourselves. If you had a heart attack, you’d go to rehab, right? And this has been as serious as a heart attack. I think every group should be sitting down to say, “How do we rehab our people?” It’s not just full steam ahead with whatever you were doing before. Something happened to us. How do we help ourselves calm down? How do we help ourselves re-enter?

Just for example, 30 days into the pandemic, people were walking 27% fewer steps. People need reconditioning. Every main street group, every active transportation group, every walk-bike group, should be asking, how can we do a reconditioning program? How do we invite people back into public space and to get in shape?

A family watches a couple walk by on a main street in Noblesville, Indiana, USA.

But every place has had a slightly different pandemic, so every group of people has a slightly different set of issues. Women who both work at home and have children—that’s one of the most desperate groups. What do they need to feel better? People have to ask those questions. This should be a very exploratory year, with the commitment that at the end of it we’ll be back on our feet.

“This should be a very exploratory year, with the commitment that at the end of it we’ll be back on our feet.”

Nate: I love that. I feel like as someone working in this field, there is so much urgency to as you say, move full steam ahead, even if it’s not what we were doing in the Before Times. We have to act, have to make change. But I think you’re right. We also have to recognize that we’ve been through something, and try to find ways to take action while also being a little gentle with ourselves. 

Mindy: Yes, absolutely. Imagine the change if people actually had that much respect for one another. After all, isn’t the most desperate issue we’re facing in the world that we don’t actually respect each other? 

What if we said, “Respect begins at home.” What if every organization asked, how was this traumatic for you? What was really hard? What do you think you need to get back on your feet? The pace will pick up very quickly, but we need to take this year step by step.

Nate: Well, hopefully Walk/Bike/Places this summer will offer us all some time to reflect and reconnect.

Mindy: That would be wonderful.


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