Image by University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab

Curbed appeal

May 20, 2021

Society

A UR digital project has become the national go-to source for understanding the modern legacy of New Deal-era housing discrimination.
By Joseph Williams, R'84

At first glance, the wall-sized septych on display in Baltimore’s Peale Center gallery depicts the torso of an enormous white snake, curled and slithering across a pitch-black background, perhaps plastic. Splotches of red, green, blue, and yellow form a haphazard pattern on its uneven scales.

Enlarge the photo, and a different picture emerges: Set on black industrial-grade Tyvek roofing paper, the white snake is an oversized representation of the Mississippi River as it bends and crawls past New Orleans. The randomly patterned scales are strips of the roofing paper woven like a basket between shredded, color-coded maps of Crescent City neighborhoods.

The collage by artist Kim Rice then delivers its unequivocal message to the viewer: The maps are from the Home Owners’ Loan Corp., a New Deal-era government agency that produced “housing security” maps. The colors are the code used to carve up the neighborhoods of New Orleans, her former home, and the pattern is anything but random.

In her septych, titled “Divide — New Orleans,” Rice has made art from maps used in “redlining,” one of the ugliest chapters of American history. In the 1930s, banks, real estate agents, and city leaders used the maps to segregate cities by race through the dream of homeownership.

In the process they created templates that, over time, circumscribed the lives of Black residents in The Big Easy as well as hundreds of cities across America. Sliced, cut up, and mimicked in colorful plastic zip ties, the maps have been integral in Rice’s art, which explores white privilege and the accumulation of wealth within her own family as well as American society.

“When I first read about redlining, it was an incredible ‘aha’ moment for me,” says Rice, who now calls Baltimore home. “It was as if a veil had been lifted, and I finally understood how I moved through the world and why things were the way they were. We cannot solve problems we don’t understand.”

Rice’s shows place her among a growing number of artists, researchers, community activists, and public-health policymakers who have tapped into the largest collection of digitized redlining maps in the country. And UR’s Digital Scholarship Lab assembled and digitized those maps over a decade, part of its groundbreaking work studying the insidious roots of race and inequality.

Robert Nelson, director of the DSL, is the lead researcher of Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America, a research project designed to collect, preserve, digitize, and organize color-coded maps drawn in the 1930s and used to determine which neighborhoods were considered good credit risks for home loans.

You can look at these maps and spark a conversation about what your city looks like today, and why it looks the way it looks.
headshot of Rob Nelson
Rob Nelson

Director, Digital Scholarship Lab

The DSL’s project has evolved over time from a digital archive of a race-based system intended to bolster Depression-era U.S. housing markets into a vast resource helping solve modern-day problems. By resurrecting some 200 maps created decades ago in cities from New York to Fresno, California, Mapping Inequality created an online history of urban inequality in visual form, one that has provided insights on difficult, long-standing questions: Why areas of hardcore poverty exist, how whites accumulated wealth in the U.S., and the ongoing consequences of a government policy not-so-subtly based on race.

“You can look at these maps and spark a conversation about what your city looks like today and why it looks the way it looks,” Nelson says.

In transforming these infamous paper maps into spatial data, explorable and downloadable on Mapping Inequality, Nelson and researchers at the DSL have created an important and widely used resource for academic research, public policy, and political discourse on issues that go beyond housing discrimination in the 20th century.

Economists have tapped into Mapping Inequality to study the wealth gap between African Americans and whites. Environmentalists use it to locate urban “hot spots” that lack trees. Bankers use it to train their loan officers on racial bias.

In late March, the city of Evanston, Illinois, approved a $10 million plan to pay reparations to its African American residents, making it the first locality in the nation to offer compensation for past discriminatory practices. The basis for the payments: The city’s racist history of housing policy, much of which was based on redlining and HOLC maps, unearthed in a report by the Shorefront Collective, a Chicago-area nonprofit focused on preserving the history of Black communities around Lake Michigan.

“Shorefront referenced and used the redlining map and report from the Mapping Inequality project,” says Dino Robinson, the organization’s founder. While the site has evolved since he first visited it in 2017, he says, “I was able to download the entire written report and select a map sometime in late 2017.”

A range of other organizations have also taken notice of the DSL’s work.

In March, Nelson and project collaborator LaDale Winling, a history professor at Virginia Tech, delivered the inaugural lecture in a series of virtual talks about redlining at the Environmental Protection Agency, a session that drew some 12,000 registrants. A week earlier, he and Winling addressed the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, a professional organization for public health specialists. In the past year, Nelson has spoken to everyone from the fellow historians he typically meets at conferences to real estate agents, administrators at Freddie Mac and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and aides to congressional representatives and senators working on racial inequality.

Neighborhood A5 in Richmond, shown today above left, was rated a “first-grade” neighborhood by HOLC in 1937. It rated D5, shown today above right, a “fourth-grade” or “highest-risk” neighborhood. The disparities reinforced by the HOLC maps remain visible today in two modern-day maps comparing tree cover and hard surfaces, which influence ground temperature and susceptibility to flooding from heavy rains. Researchers have mapped similar correlations related to topics such as public health and economic opportunity.
HOLC map courtesy of University of Richmond/Digital Scholarship Lab "Mapping Inequality"; Tree Canopy Cover and Impervious Surfaces maps, courtesy Groundwork RVA "Climate Safe Neighborhoods"; photos by Katie McBride

Indeed, the project has been a key tool for public health researchers and policymakers. It has helped illuminate the roots of health disparities — including why some neighborhoods lack supermarkets and restaurants but have high obesity rates, how others became hotbeds for COVID-19 deaths and chronic diseases like asthma and other respiratory diseases, and why vast life-expectancy differences exist between census tracts in the same city.

Nelson says he’s surprised by the breadth of fields that have used a project that essentially began more than a decade ago after an offhand conversation over lunch with a colleague. By putting the color-coded maps online — and allowing viewers to compare them with current city maps, along with demographic information — Nelson says Mapping Inequality offers visible evidence: The invisible hand of racism is real, it had government support, and it continues to have an impact that echoes across generations.

“I’m not an environmental historian, and I’m not certainly not an environmental scientist,” Nelson says. “So to think that we would be giving a talk to the EPA that would be attended (by thousands of people), and that there’ll be a series organized around redlining — featuring environmental scientists, environmental policymakers — that was not something we anticipated.”

Nevertheless, “people are doing (important) work” with Mapping Inequality, Nelson says. “They have put it to really great use for innovative studies that we wouldn’t have imagined.”

Free to anyone who can use a web browser, the Mapping Inequality website is an interactive map that’s accessible and easy to explore. Each HOLC map can be displayed over the contemporary streetscape; with one click, viewers can read a HOLC description of the corresponding neighborhood.

Created as part of the New Deal, the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. had a dual purpose: Stabilize the U.S. housing market by refinancing homes that were in default, and help expand American homeownership. Backed by the federal government, the HOLC would also bring standardized rules to the home mortgage market, and the backing of the federal government would help shore up confidence in banks — a bulwark against collapse.

Racial segregation, however, was quickly baked into its mission.

Near the close of the 1930s, the HOLC decided to codify the “residential security” of neighborhoods in all towns and cities with populations of 40,000 or more, ostensibly to identify which neighborhoods were good credit risks, a way to protect both banks and homeowners. Working with local lenders and real estate agents, the HOLC commissioned surveys of every residential area in more than 200 cities, assigning grades — creditworthiness — on a scale.

Over time, color coding entered the picture: So-called “safe” credit-risk neighborhoods, ones considered most likely to repay mortgage loans, were shaded green; blue or yellow neighborhoods supposedly had a less-stellar track record of repayment. Areas with the highest perceived risk — “hazardous” neighborhoods in which banks were warned not to write any mortgages because borrowers were considered likely to default — were colored red.

But risk was in the eye of the beholder.

Neighborhoods with large immigrant or African American populations — or in some cases, white neighborhoods with so much as one Black family — were automatically designated risky and shaded red on HOLC maps. The designation, called “redlining,” usually happened without evidence of higher-than-average default rates in those neighborhoods.

Held just by federal agencies, the HOLC maps weren’t widely seen by the public or acknowledged by those who held them. Still, the decisions they prompted — particularly the denial of FHA mortgage insurance in redlined areas — set in motion a process that not only denied homeownership to millions of Black and immigrant families nationwide, but circumscribed the lives of millions of people of color, restricting them to certain neighborhoods, often for generations.

At the same time, redlining also had a long reach: Denied money for new homes or upgrades, redlined communities were often at the back of the line when it came to public funding of schools, libraries, and police, triggering a vicious cycle. Considered substandard, those areas missed out on the economic investments that bring grocery stores, dine-in restaurants, and well-paying jobs.

When civil rights organizations complained, banks, real estate agents, and city leaders justified the evaluation system, insisting it was necessary to ensure “residential security,” protecting neighborhoods from instability due to risky bank loans. But Nelson says the motive was to ensure that white neighborhoods remained white.

Indeed, the descriptions written about the neighborhoods are shocking in their frankness.

Assessors in the Albina area in Portland, Oregon, for example, determined it had a significant racial hazard due to “a large percent of foreign-born” residents, including “oriental families and many Russians and Finns.” A New Haven, Connecticut, neighborhood was downgraded because “this area is entirely Jewish.” And a white area in Richmond, Virginia, missed a higher rating because “their people are far too close to Negro area D2.”

“There is no dog whistle in these HOLC materials,” Nelson wrote in an essay published late last year. “The racism is loud and clear.”

Government-sanctioned and government-advanced redlining in mortgages and community investment persisted for decades until fair-housing laws outlawed it beginning in the 1960s. By then, experts say, the damage had been done: Decades of underinvestment fueled by racism all but embedded poverty in communities nationwide, and three out of every four redlined communities still struggle.

Few of the maps were accessible, stored in boxes in the National Archives, until Nelson had lunch in 2008 with John Moeser, a senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

“John actually pitched me on doing a project on redlining in Richmond,” Nelson says. “I knew a little bit about redlining, but not that much. And I had never really looked at the documents. It sounded interesting.

“The thing I liked about the project was that it potentially sparked conversations about race and wealth, inequalities and their relationship — particularly the state sponsors of racist policies. They are pretty direct about it.”

I don’t think we fully appreciated how impactful [the maps] would be.
Rob Nelson

In 2008, Nelson and his DSL colleagues developed a digital history project, Redlining Richmond, that made the 1937 redlining map and area descriptions for the city available online. He soon connected with other scholars — Winling at Virginia Tech and Richard Marciano, an information scientist at University of Maryland — to begin a comprehensive project for the redlining maps. Mapping Inequality officially launched in 2016 and has been updated and refined since then.

One map at a time, the collection grew beyond redlining in Richmond. Over time, and with the help of more than two dozen student interns at the DSL, the team referenced hundreds of map images to digital grids and organized thousands of area descriptions as data.

“It was kind of a back-burner project,” he says, noting that he and his colleagues — and a small army of student researchers — would squeeze in work on it between other research projects. “Our collaborator Richard’s students were traveling to the National Archives (in Washington) and scanning these materials, and we just kind of really plugged away at it.”

As the years passed and the collection grew, “we kind of reached a critical mass of data that had been organized,” Nelson says. “We’ve moved it from the back-burner project to a front-burner project — it became and has remained one of our priorities.”

Nelson says the maps help explain why some mostly minority communities in major metropolitan areas continue to struggle with seemingly intractable poverty and how decisions made in a racist system can have wide-ranging effects beyond who qualifies for a home loan. Decades later, experts say, the effects of redlining still linger in neighborhoods with failing schools, chronic health problems like asthma and depression, crime, joblessness, and environmental problems related to climate change, including air and water pollution.

 

Not Even Past: Social Vulnerability and the Legacy of Redlining,” another DSL project, compares HOLC grades to neighborhoods’ current CDC Social Vulnerabilty Index scores. The paths above connect Dallas neighborhood ratings to current VI measurements, demonstrating the long-lasting impact of racial segregation and redlining in shaping the enduring contours of marked inequality in American cities.
Map courtesy of University of Richmond/Digital Scholarship Lab "Not Even Past: Social Vulnerability and the Legacy of Redlining"

While Nelson says there is no simple cause-and-effect relationship between redlining, poverty, and sociological and public health effects, the close association they have with one another is impossible to ignore.

“We knew that these [communities] were poor historically, and we knew that they had some relationship to wealth and racial inequalities today,” and redlining is an important factor, Nelson says. The growing magnitude of Mapping Inequality, he says, has contributed to research that has gone far beyond a simple project to preserve artifacts from an ugly but significant era in U.S. history.

When he digitized his first HOLC map, “I don’t think we fully appreciated how impactful they would be beyond people interested in housing and history,” he says.

After it went online in 2017, interest in the project steadily grew, but it skyrocketed in 2020 when twin tragedies catapulted social determinants of health and racial inequality to the top of the national agenda.

“We have this response partly because of COVID,” which has had a disproportionate impact on poor communities of color, Nelson says. Then, he says, “George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests last summer kicked it into another level and drew a lot of attention to the issues of systemic racism. And [Mapping Inequality] is a really powerful example of that.”

Almost overnight, journalists, researchers, and public health advocates began using the data. For example, a study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition released in September found that communities with the highest rates of infections have lower life expectancies as well as higher prevalence of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, that are risk factors for poor outcomes for people who become infected with COVID-19. Behind the conclusion, however, researchers noticed a pattern: A majority of the areas most at risk were ones that the HOLC had redlined back in the 1930s.

The disparities in coronavirus infections and COVID-19 severity result from “widespread social and economic inequities produced by structural racism,” including redlining, study co-author Helen Meier, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said in a statement.

The practice “was associated with greater neighborhood prevalence of COVID-19 risk factors, such as socioeconomic disadvantage and chronic health conditions,” she said. “Health inequities will persist until we address the legacy of racism in the housing market.”

While Nelson says he’s pleased that Mapping Inequality has helped shed light on disparities from wealth to health hidden in plain sight, he is surprised the project has inspired art like Rice’s study of redlining in New Orleans.

“I’m blown away by it,” Nelson says. “The spatial analyses that historians, economists, social scientists, environmental scientists, health researchers, and the like have done are incredible. They reveal a lot about structures and structural racism. But they don’t lend themselves to the human dimension of this history and its legacy.”

Art, on the other hand, “is better at evoking emotion and empathy about the trauma of racism and redlining,” he says.

Artists from Deborah Santoro, who used the maps of Brockton, Massachusetts, to make color-coded needlepoint, to Celestia Morgan, a Birmingham artist who took photos and created small sculptures based on the data, have drawn inspiration from Mapping Inequality.

Rice, the artist from New Orleans, concurs: Mapping Inequality is “critical” to her work exploring the origins and patterns of racial segregation in housing.

“I use the maps in various ways,” says Rice, adding that some of her art weaves in images of “white magazine flesh or money” in highly rated green areas, while other works use shadows cast when redlined areas are cut away. “Every piece of art is a statement, an understanding. If we want ‘liberty and justice for all,’ we must first understand our history.”

Though she works in a physical medium, Rice says she gets the larger meaning and context behind both the HOLC maps and Nelson’s drive to document them online. To understand the present, she says, acknowledging the past is critical — even if it’s ugly and disturbing.

“We cannot solve the problems of today like food insecurity, joblessness, the wealth gap, the digital divide, inequities in the public school system, the prison industrial complex, etc., if we are not addressing the policies and procedures that got us here in the first place,” she says.

“I do not know if the people who see my art will go on to do anti-racist work,” Rice says. “However, I do know that for many people experiencing my art, this is the first time they have ever heard about redlining. For me this is a success.”