#942: The Thick Red Line

June 18th, 2018

D41. Hazardous. “Mexicans are scattered thruout, as well as other foreign elements.”

It’s Tri-Taylor.

B67. Still Desirable. “Jewish infiltration has started along the edges and may be expected to continue because of favorable reputation and location.”

It’s Ravenswood Manor.

D74. Hazardous. “[The then-upcoming Ida B. Wells federal housing project] has the realtors guessing as to what the ultimate result will be when so many of this race are drawn into this section from the already negro-blighted district… Already Washington Park at the south, a very fine park, has been almost completely monopolized by the colored race… Washington Park is doomed.”

I’m reading about the history of America. I’m reading about redlining.

A wonderful, horrifying project from the University of Richmond in Virginia has put 150 of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s “Residential Security” maps online. HOLC was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, compiling massive national lists of neighborhoods and other areas based on mortgage lending risk.

The program brought together real estate professionals, loan officers and appraisers to determine how likely it was a Depression-era lender would get stiffed if they were dumb enough to loan to someone in a certain region. Then HOLC put the assessments on a series of color-coded maps. Green meant an area was “Best,” and a good place for banks to invest via loans. Blue meant “Still Desirable.” Yellow, “Definitely Declining.”

Red meant “Hazardous.” Don’t loan there.

The maps determined which areas were which colors based on a number of criteria, but the main one that horrifies today is race. Neighborhoods were given the best scores for Northern European whites, less for more “ethnic whites” and down a sliding racist scale to black people at the bottom.

The federal government compiled maps telling banks not to lend to people of color.

I knew this in a sort of squishy liberal enough-history-to-pass-the-midterm-and-forget-it way, but the University of Richmond project has given an unparalleled chance to connect these maps to my actual life, to search and see why my parents’ Rockford house was put in red in 1939 (poor residents and a nearby creek tended to flood), why my sister’s Seattle apartment was blue (recent construction and white-collar Scandinavians) and why the North Center rental I’m typing this in was yellow (older homes an 25 percent foreigners).

What horrifies me is the equivalence of race and just… housing stuff.

C49 in Portage Park was “definitely declining” because “Many of the houses are of a substantial age and those with stucco features of design are not only unattractive but difficult to sell at the present time.”

C66 in Rogers Park was given the same destination despite the real estate agents’ promise “There are only a minimum of Jews.”

Jews and stucco. Black neighbors and being downwind from the stockyards. Anglo whites and convenient shopping. The maps run types of humans through the same formula they use to figure noise, undesirable odor or any other factor in home choice, in no place put more blatantly than D64 in Brighton Park: “Class of inhabitant, noise, and undesirable odors do not tend to any improvement.”

The federal government put out documents putting black people on the same level as a rotting smell, and Jews on par with a momentary downtick in the popularity of stucco.

What also horrifies me is how much these maps look like the city today. When the banks — and the federal government through the G.I. Bill’s zero-interest mortgages for returning WWII veterans — poured money only into the HOLC-designated better areas, the rich got richer and the poor didn’t.

The new interstate system ran highways through poorer neighborhoods, scattering the residents to find new homes. People of color could legally move anywhere, after the Supreme Court killed racially restrictive housing covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) because, yes, until 1948 it was legal to put bans on specific races into your home sales. (The specific covenant in Shelley v. Kraemer banned “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race” from ever owning a particular house in St. Louis.)

When people of color started moving next door, those same highways became pretty attractive ways for white people to move to white suburbs and still get to work in the Loop by 9.

It’s not just Chicago. A National Community Reinvestment Coalition study released earlier this year showed that 74 percent of the HOLC-designated “Hazardous” sections are low- to moderate-income today. 64 percent are still minority neighborhoods. These maps served to strengthen the inequalities they highlighted. They were a self-fulfilling prophecy our tax dollars created.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 supposedly put an end to the HOLC maps’ influence, but the difference too often was banks and other lenders had to find euphemisms and excuses for being more generous with loans in rich, white areas. “Redlining” became a general term, removed from the actual red lines that would wrap around a “negro-blighted district,” to quote D74.

So take a look at the maps. Explore. Play. But remember as you do that this segregated city was made to happen, that there were programs and policies and power dynamics that grouped people by the color of their skin and the contents of their pocketbooks.

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