The Sinister History of America’s Urban Geography

A 1939 “residential security” map of Essex County, New Jersey. The eastern half largely comprises of Newark and the Oranges.

Mapping Inequality provides a darkly fascinating time-sink: a zoomable map of the United States overlaid with New-Deal era local maps of most major cities, depicting what we today would call redlining. Typically, this term brings to mind the American banking practice of dicing up American neighborhoods and excluding African-American areas from mortgage eligibility. The heyday of this practice coincided with the heyday of post-war, first-time home ownership in the United States — a history that has been identified as a key source of persisting family wealth disparities between Black and White Americans. (The achievements of the Civil Rights era, and further legislation aimed at dismantling redlining, did not come about until the tail-end of the post-war boom — starting in the mid-1960’s — by which point many of the regional ethno-geographic patterns had already been established, and property values had begun to increase significantly.)

The map above depicts Essex County, New Jersey, where I live, and which has the same boundaries today as in 1939. Newark is roughly on the right; many of its inner-ring/streetcar suburbs are roughly in the center; low-density townships (then still partly rural outside Millburn and Caldwell — now mainly affluent suburbs) are on the left. As you might guess, there is a hierarchy of colors: areas mapped in green were considered prime investments, followed by blue (still desirable); yellow (declining); and red (dangerous). Zooming in on the neighborhoods of Essex County reveals that many of the patterns of neighborhood gradation that were adjudged by appraisers for the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1939 overlap with the characteristics of the same neighborhoods today. That is to say, if the green-red palette were to be roughly translated as neighborhoods that are predominantly wealthy, middle-class, working-class, or poor, its assessments would still align with many districts.

Many of these maps contain explanatory notes for each color-coded district, and many of these notes bear out a pervasive practice of correlating African-American neighborhoods with red districts. Several neighborhoods that today have high concentrations of African-American residents had already been established as Black communities by 1939. The matter-of-fact prejudice reported in these otherwise mundane business notes is evidence that Americans have made progress in the norms of acceptable discussion, if nothing else. I won’t quote examples, but it should suffice to say that the recurring tone leaves no doubt that mortgage lending — at least during the late Depression — was based on an overtly discriminatory calculus.

Perhaps more remarkable, given the conventional understanding among lawyers and urban planners about what redlining was, is the evidence that in addition to rationalizing discrimination against African-Americans these maps also justified discriminating against other populations, as well — including many people of European origin. Italian and Jewish enclaves are singled out for negative treatment because of the mere presence of … Italian or Jewish people. In both Newark and New York City (maps are posted for each of the five boroughs) many of the red districts are described as “slums”, encompassing residents of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. Poor and working-class predominantly White neighborhoods are often classified exactly as Black neighborhoods are (though described as having “laboring class” populations, “tenements”, or something similar; or highlighted for their “infiltration” by other marginalized groups); and those that avoid being fatally redlined are typically shaded yellow — marking their properties as the second least desirable class of securities.

The precise impact of these maps is unclear. The federal HOLC of 1939 was not a formal precursor to the private banks that — with government backing and subsidies — financed the massive suburban development wave that took place after World War II. A study of early HOLC lending in the Philadelphia region found that interest rates, but not lending decisions per se, were influenced by the maps’ color-coding; and that private lenders had other sources of comparable information about granular urban economic and demographic trends. Sources like fire insurance maps, meanwhile, would have made analysis of the building stock in a particular slice of any city readily doable.

Another study found that the HOLC had hired private-sector appraisers to complete the evaluations and explanatory notes for the residential security maps, suggesting the conclusions they contain represent prevailing assumptions in the real estate industry of that time. Regardless of their direct impacts, the patterns in these maps bear an uncanny resemblance to the enduring patterns of racially and economically segregated housing that solidified in post-war metropolitan America.

How these maps and the lending policies that they shaped align with early land-use zoning maps developed around the same time is a topic for exploration in another post (or perhaps a book!). As an aside, it is worth noting that private covenants were still quite common for controlling land use in the early days of zoning, as they represented one of the few traditional legal devices for doing so prior to the rise of public land use law; and many of these were discriminatory, as well. The human capacity for excluding others never ceases to amaze; nor does its deviousness.