28 Dec

Map of the Week: Mapping Inequality in the United States

By Thomas Jang

Mapping Inequality is a database hosted by the University of Richmond consisting of maps illustrating redlined areas in cities around the US, which were produced largely between 1935 and 1940. Redlining was the racist and discriminatory practice conducted by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) that restricted access to mortgages for entire neighborhoods and individuals. “A” grades and the color green were assigned to neighborhoods deemed safe and “secure” investments. “D” grades and the color red were assigned to neighborhoods deemed “hazardous.” These maps also featured a description of each neighborhood in terms of its houses, residents, and sales and rental histories. Black Americans, Jews, and immigrants were especially discriminated against by HOLC, who viewed these groups as threats to the “stability” of home values and their mere presence as “infiltrations.” 

Redlining was legal until 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed and enforced by the Federal Reserve and federal financial regulators. Likewise, redlining is apparent in present-day socio-economic differences between neighborhoods, access to public transportation, and disproportionate risks to public health imposed by urban heat islands. For example, for 94 percent of the cities highlighted by the HOLC, areas assigned “D” grades were hotter than their “A”-graded counterparts and the national difference in temperature was 5 degrees.  

Nashville, Tennessee

In Nashville, its mayors spearheaded urban renewal projects that took up a quarter of the city. They were especially built in these redlined areas home to Black or mixed Black residents. 61% of the city has areas labeled hazardous or “definitely declining.” By 1940, North Nashville, near the curve of the Cumberland River, was a prominent Black educational hub home to institutions such as Tennessee State University, Fisk University, and Meharry Medical College. Another corridor for Black cultural institutions and businesses at Jefferson Street was eventually destroyed by the urban renewal project Interstate 40. However, institutions such as Vanderbilt University were saved from urban renewal by using them to their advantage to expand through eminent domain.

Houston, Texas

The decades from the 1870’s to the 1930’s were characterized by residential segregation. Following the end of the Civil War, formerly enslaved Black Americans founded Freedman’s Town, which eventually became Houston, in what was a landscape of swamps and marshes. The effects of redlining for Houston are still prominent today, as the eastern side of the city is still a largely Black population while the western side is largely white. The rise of urban renewal projects such as highways significantly eliminated railroads and trade systems, factors in Houston’s transformation into an important port city. The thriving community of the Fifth Ward was cut by Interstate 10 and US 59 and likewise, the Fourth Ward, which contained 95% of Black-owned businesses, was assigned a “D” grade and fragmented by Interstate 45. On the other hand, neighborhoods like Monroe were assigned “A” and “B” grades and have produced lower poverty rates, higher life expectancy, and more commercial development such as museums, hotels, and art galleries.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Compared to the other two cities, Mapping Inequality provided areas of commercial and industrial activity along with those redlined. Much of the commercial areas are concentrated in the financial district and historic French Quarter, whereas industrial areas are spread along the waterfront south of the second bend of the Mississippi. Industrial areas make up a larger percentage than commercial areas. On the other hand, many areas labeled as “hazardous” and given “D” grades were along the waterfront. Those labeled as “best or still desirable” were located around Tulane University and the northern part of the city. The area description for D10, located within the French Quarter, illustrates the characteristics that incited the HOLC to deem it as such. It reported that many buildings were more than 50 years old and were accessible by narrow streets.