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.”