Here’s How the Federal Government Made the Maps That Crippled Black Neighborhoods

If you want to understand the modern American city—and so much else about this country—consider exploring a new interactive mapping project from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. Building off several previous projects, Mapping Inequality is a database of more than 150 federal “risk maps,” the New Deal DNA that would dictate decades of disinvestment in cities. These maps, as Oscar Perry Abello writes for Next City, illustrate “how the great government-baked wealth-creation machine of the 1930s only worked for white people.”

They’re a reminder that letting huge swaths of the American city fall apart was essentially federal policy beginning in the Great Depression, when banks began to withhold lending from certain communities based on color-coded risk maps.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, or HOLC, brought together mortgage lenders, developers, and real estate professionals in hundreds of American cities to design four-color maps. Neighborhoods were shaded green (“best”), blue (“still desirable”), yellow (“definitely declining”), or red (“hazardous”), in descending order of credit-worthiness. These maps, which came to shape not just the distribution of mortgages but other types of lending and investment, were the origin of the term “redlining.” This kind of discrimination was not made illegal until 1977, and continues in practice.

The innovation of the Mapping Inequality project is that it links maps from scores of American cities with contemporaneous neighborhood reports, which allows you to toggle easily between maps and more detailed descriptions. What’s revealed is how the mapmakers’ obsessive focus on racial “infiltration” dominated the outcome of appraisals.

In 1937, for example, a summary of the Eastern Parkway area of Brooklyn noted its favorable influences—“near Prospect Park, “substantial row brick construction,” “close in,” “good transportation facilities”—and one detrimental influence: “slow infiltration of negroes from the section to the north,” meaning the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Eastern Parkway was at that point about 2 percent black. It was colored yellow, for “definitely declining.”

An appraisal of Chicago’s Bronzeville, then one of the most vibrant black urban neighborhoods in the country, displays a similar fear of black influx. Discussing the construction of the Ida B. Wells public housing project, the report writes, “This venture 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.” It was redlined.

Such were the documents that would shape investment in cities for decades to come.

Racist though they were, the appraisers seemed to recognize that cutting the area off from financial institutions would ultimately be ruinous. “One of the most important necessities is to provide means of financing these colored homes so that they may be rehabilitated,” the Bronzeville report states. Instead, contract sellers and subprime lenders moved into the void.

The result, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his essay “The Case for Reparations,” was that “redlining destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived.”

That’s not news, of course. But what the Mapping Inequality project lets you see is not just how redlining affected your street, or your city, but how those color-coded maps emerged from on-the-ground observations about the building stock and demographic change.