A strip of White neighborhoods in Baltimore, wedged in east of Interstate 83 and west of York Road, runs south into and through the city center. At its southwestern limits, South Hanover Street and Interstate 95, the strip flows to the water’s edge ringing the Inner Harbor with communities such as Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton.
This narrow shape, bending east, is called the White L.
It was carved out over decades through restrictive covenants, targeted development and targeted demolition among many other practices, many of which are now illegal.
Another such illegal practice is redlining, the denial or restricting of credit to a prospective homebuyer based on the demographics of the community the applicant wants to buy into.
The impact of this practice is on display in “Undesign the Redline,” a travelling exhibit now appearing at The Impact Hub, 10 East North Avenue in Baltimore.
An interactive exhibit, “Undesign the Redline” was created by ‘Designing the WE’ in partnership with ‘Enterprise Community Partners’, a nonprofit which seeks to house families safely and affordably. The exhibit creates a composite of archived texts to describe how federal and local governments worked with private enterprises to leave indelible marks on cities long after the abolition of practices such as segregation.
“How did we get to where we are?” asked Lawrence Brown, an associate professor at the Morgan State School of Health and Public Policy. “That’s what we have to understand if we’re gonna undesign the redline, we have to see exhibits like this.”
Partly in pursuit of jobs, but also to escape lynchings and race riots in the Deep South, an estimated six million Blacks moved their families north after the Civil War. Instead, they only ran into further racially-fueled violence.
The Equal Justice Initiative counted almost 4,000 lynchings from 1877 to 1950. Until the 1940’s, race riots were characteristically White riots. This type of violence reached a peak during 1919’s Red Summer, a regional conflict in southern states such as Texas, Arkansas and Virginia, which still managed to spill over into Chicago. Similar riots destroyed Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla. in 1921.
In 1935, as part of the New Deal, the United States government began subsidizing home loans and restructuring them into long-term, low down payment financial products most borrowers still utilize today.
To guide lenders, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation began issuing maps color-coded to generalize risk by region. The code went from green, to blue, to yellow indicating increasing levels of risk. Red areas, with the oldest structures and largest populations of immigrants, migrants and Black populations, were determined to be the most risky. Appraisers anticipated strife and conflict in these communities based on biases and prejudiced conceptions of race.
White appraisers and White property owners at the time described Blacks as invaders and infiltrators.
“In essence, White Baltimore was at war with its Black citizens,” said Brown.
Lenders denied credit to potential borrowers in these spaces, refusing to risk crossing the red line. Meanwhile, Whites received their subsidized loans.
“The divergence that redlining was all about solidifying, between this disinvestment on the one hand and investment on the other, continues and becomes even more exacerbated in our era,” said Braden Crooks, Co-founder of Designing the WE. “Much of what you see right now is continued disinvestment in people who have been historically redlined. Jobs going away, wages stagnant or declining, housing prices and rents continuing to go up and becoming less affordable, is a squeeze getting tighter.”
“The flip side of redlining is greenlining,” said Brown. “Redlining is racial oppression, greenlining is racial privileges. And that is the thing that we have hardly ever understood, is that it’s not just Black communities being put down, it’s White communities being lifted up: given social advantage and structural advantage.”
Reflecting on the exhibit, Michelle Antoinette Nelson of ‘Brown and Healthy’, a nonprofit which promotes wellness for people of color, said “Wealth is a practice. You have to first have some.”
Despite the abundance of vacant homes in Baltimore, many remain unaffordable. The city is fencing off underpasses to disperse the tent cities of the homeless popping up in their cover.
“What we’ve done is we’ve commodified a basic human right of housing,” said April De Simone, Co-founder of Designing the WE. “And if you can’t pay, you can’t play. Why is it that something so basic has to be tied to private interests and the market?”
David Bowers, vice president of Enterprise and Mid-Atlantic market leaders, wants viewers to “get informed. Get angry. Get empowered.”
“I love the historic context of the whole exhibit,” said Sheila Proano, of Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership. “I love seeing from the very beginning, all the way through slavery until now, just the transition of neighborhoods and the impact of government programs and government handling of the neighborhoods in Baltimore.”
Proano’s organization created the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which combines vouchers and counseling to assist families in making successful moves out of areas of concentrated poverty.
“It’s a really inspiring story,” Proano said. “It makes you want to come together, as a community, and just do something to fix these problems. It’s not gonna be that easy though.”