Dissociative disorders (DD) are conditions that involve disruptions or breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity, or perception. People with dissociative disorders use dissociation as a defense mechanism, pathologically and involuntarily. The individual experiences these dissociations to protect themselves. Some dissociative disorders are triggered by psychological trauma, but depersonalization-derealization disorder may be preceded only by stress, psychoactive substances, or no identifiable trigger at all. (Simeon, Daphne & Abugel, Jeffrey. Feeling unreal : depersonalization disorder and the loss of the self. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2006.)
People are the places where they live; it seems that we are, in large part, a product of our environments. In an anatomical sense, we are our environments. When we (Sally Blagg, LLC) chose to approach our pre-design capacity building work from this frame of thinking, we did so from within the cultural context of a Clinton Hill, Brooklyn neighborhood that stood in opposition to developer Bruce Ratner’s decision to knock down square blocks of historic brownstones in order to build the Barclays Center (now home to the Brooklyn Nets). Biophilic design, and the Denma Translation of The Art of War, seemed like the right courses of study for the management of aggressive development.
Our principal curator was in High School when the community was swept into conversation that, since the development of Ratner’s MetroTech Center, centered the coming of a “New Brooklyn.” When we arrived in Historic Germantown in November of 2016 it was easy to find exactly where Germantowners’ were in the process of careless development, that prioritized profit and political power over the preservation of the rich cultural landscapes. We have since learned that our neighbors are unknowingly managing a sort of structural dissociative disorder that is the product of generations of resource-based stress and trauma, ongoing gun violence, a culture of low investment in immense intrinsic value and malnutrition-by-design. The language of biophilic design and historic preservation feels like privileged academic talk when your community has felt like a warzone for as long as you can remember.
The local developers are not only unconcerned with the conditions of people-in-place, their carelessness and willful ignorance to quality-of-life matters creates the conditions. Developers will not be moved to any action AT ALL unless the people involved are an economic asset and the people, in turn, have wholly acquiesced to this way of both being and believing. The entire dynamic is giving a level of Stockholm Syndrome that bleeds deeply into institutions and organizations that are supposed to be set up to protect families, businesses, and the overall historic fabric of the community. This reality is foundational to our pre-design work in Historic Germantown and across Philadelphia County.
Generations of immense stress and trauma has made way for the normalization of abuse and coercive control tactics; we believe that biophilic design can serve the people by grounding them in relationship with themselves through normalizing access to pathways both through and to the natural environment in the city and the countryside.
Our choice of critical ethnography as an approach to our pre-design work, has placed us in intimate proximity to dissociative conditions. We lived, for six years, inside of a co-dependent community that is governed wholly by what we call ‘systemic dissociation.’ In the absence of ritual, and land to engage in American pre-war agricultural traditions, we have found so many families in our BIPOC community stranded in an aggressive environment and cut off from the traditions that underpinned vast familial networks before the ‘Columbian Exchange.’ We are working with traditional healers, medicine women, trauma therapists and urban farmers to create safe spaces for the restoration of cultural memory this autumn/winter (2022). We will engage in a trauma-informed urban environmental restoration process alongside our neighbors, allies, and friends throughout 2023.
The soil is the cure for the socio-economic, psych-emotional and health conditions in American cities. We have seen regular fully immersive access to “direct and indirect nature” have health benefits for countless individuals managing dissociative disorders in Historic Germantown as well as in other sections of Philadelphia County; our reporting on the work in Germantown will be released in 2024.