What Redlining Looks Like: City Life/Vida Urbana Takes to the Streets to Outline Housing Discrimination

Part performance art, part public education, the Arts Committee of City Life/Vida Urbana literally drew a line down Washington Street Saturday afternoon to show what housing discrimination looks like.

Drawing on the 1934 policy of the Federal Housing Administration not to underwrite mortgages in areas they determined were poor risks, CL/VU recreated the red line that the FHA drew in residential areas marking the boundaries of where they would not grant housing mortgages. In the words of Lawrence J. Vale in his book From the Puritans to the Projects, ( 2000) the FHA “gave federal sanction to a long history of housing prejudice [in which] it enforced the homogeneity of neighborhoods exclusive of [what it described as] undeserved people.”

Charles Abrams in his 1955 book Forbidden Neighbors stated that as of 1952, “98% of the 3 million home mortgages issued by the FHA went only to white homeowners”.

This policy created the pattern of urban and suburban life for three generations. I saw this first hand in 1960s Framingham, where black families could only live in a tiny community invisible from the Main Street, tucked behind my high school.

Few people recall that the last of the big three civil rights bills championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the Fair Housing Act of 1968 passed on April 9, 1968, within days of his assassination. Yet housing discrimination was not made a federal offense until 1988.

This was the history City Life wanted to teach people: that discrimination can be subtle, manifesting as zoning variances and civic policy.

Starting on Washington Street, the group of 20 volunteers took a simple baseball foul line spreader and filled it with red chalk made from the powder of crushed bricks taken from demolished buildings. Using this handmade chalk powder, they traced a red line that followed the FHA mortgage policy line of 1934, which in essence determined where certain people would be able to live.

The group walked up Washington Street to School Street to Walnut Avenue then past St. Mary of the Angels Church, where this writer parted company. According to City Life, the group went on and followed the boundary as it twisted its way through Roxbury and Dorchester.

Said resident Ken Tilton, “This simple red line shows a history that has decided to this day who can stay, who has to go and who has access and who is denied entry.”

Marshal Cooper marks the red line down Washington Street. He walks beside Carolyn Lomax.

Richard Heath

Marshal Cooper marks the red line down Washington Street. He walks beside Carolyn Lomax.

Refilling the spreader with red chalk. Volunteers made the chalk using crushed bricks from demolished buildings.

Richard Heath

Refilling the spreader with red chalk. Volunteers made the chalk using crushed bricks from demolished buildings.

Marking the red line past the real red line of the proposed largely market-rate housing at 3200 Washington St.

Richard Heath

Marking the red line past the real red line of the proposed largely market-rate housing at 3200 Washington St.

Marshal Cooper states the case: "It happened in the '30s and it's happening now ! Keeping us out of our community. Stop the red lining! " Heather Gordon (l), herself a victim of foreclosure, holds the 1934 map of Roxbury and Dorchester prepared by the FHA to show where it would not grant mortgages.

Richard Heath

Marshal Cooper states the case: “It happened in the 30s and it’s happening now! Keeping us out of our community! Stop the red lining!” Heather Gordon (l), herself a victim of foreclosure, holds the 1934 map of Roxbury and Dorchester prepared by the FHA to show where it would not grant mortgages

The new red line City Life/Vida Urban traced the pattern of redlining On Wasington Street that was FHA policy in 1934.

Richard Heath

The new red line? City Life/Vida Urbana traced the pattern of redlining on Washington Street that was FHA policy in starting in 1934.

 

  • Joseph Drummond

    Look how poorly the red line was painted! If you are going to make a statement, make sure you do it right.

    • Jeff

      //eye roll// Did you not rta? It’s a chalk line. Ie, quite smudgable and uneven – and impermanent. This may hurt your graphic sensibilities, but is a *far* more responsible method of protest than actually painting city streets! In fact, I think the form of the protest was both clever and civil.

      My question however, after reading the article, is with the *content* of the protest. What evidence exists of redlining by mortgaging entities now in 2015? The most recent date mentioned in the article – 1988 (the year redlining and related practices were explicitly outlawed) – was over a quarter century ago.

      Are legal or quasi-legal practices that mimic the effects of historical redling taking place in these Boston neighborhoods today? I’m open-minded to the possibility, but the article quotes no real claims of such.

      • Monster

        I was going to say the same thing. As protest, it’s interesting and provocative. But as a critique of policy, it doesn’t make much sense. Redlining was a refusal to invest in marginalized neighborhoods. What your seeing along Washington St. right now is the exact opposite (aggressive investment).

        • Ciao99

          Excellent point about how redlining impacted the Irish and Jews. But it’s lost on the ilk of “community organizers” at City Life/ Vida Urbana. They don’t want to hear about hardships of previous generations of European immigrants. Gets in the way of their liberal guilt and race bating.

        • atyson

          I live in Roxbury where a lot of Jewish folks used to live until the fifties and early sixties. It is my understanding that a lot of the “white flight” to the suburbs accelerated because of racism with Real Estate brokers inducing white people to sell their houses because people of color, particularly black Americans were buying houses (and presumably obtaining mortgages) and lowering values. My knowledge of history is not great, so I could be misinformed. When I sought a mortgage here, my lender did not believe I was moving from the house I owned in JP to occupy a house in Roxbury and they thought maybe my claims to be owner-occupying it were fraudulent. (I am white) I also had a very hard time getting homeowners insurance and when I did, the cost was exboritant, way more than when I was in JP. I have no doubt this was racism and it was 2001. Still I agree that instead of redlining in the area in in the article, the exact opposite is happening now. The article says CL/VU is demonstrating the history of redlining, but it is not unfair to say the legacy of racism helps determine who can stay and who has to go.

          • Monster

            Interesting about your recent experience with insurance. It’s very had to disentangle higher insurance costs that some might perceive as “racism” from a lender’s objective data-based actuarial risk assessment.

          • atyson

            That is a good point about actuarial risks assessments. I don’t think the problems I had were because I am “white”, it was because my new neighborhood was very nearly exclusively “black”. Its hard to prove racism in a single instance, I just definitely had a strong sense that this was going on–there was a prejudice about the neighborhood to which I was moving. Individual persons working for the lender and the insurance company both expressed surprise and concern that I was moving to “that neighborhood”. Probably on the face of it they were worried about crime (never had a problem here, but was a victim of mugging once in JP!), but I feel pretty safe saying there is a bigger picture of racism underlying that.

      • Joseph Drummond

        I did read the article. However, in the upper photographs the line is straight but in the last photograph on the bottom the line looks like spilled paint. It was not done on purpose.

      • Denise

        Jeff – This link does not discuss Boston specifically, but it demonstrates that redlining is still happening.

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/05/28/evidence-that-banks-still-deny-black-borrowers-just-as-they-did-50-years-ago/

  • Hugo_JP

    So now City Life/Vida Urbana would like to “enforce the homogeneity” of their neighborhood by keeping outsiders away?