How Red Lines Created White Neighborhoods: A Short History of Gentrification

Walking around Brooklyn, it’s easy to see neighborhood change as a natural progression of events. The barbershop wasn’t doing well, so it’s replaced by a Dunkin’ Donuts. The brownstone across the street was crumbling, so someone bought it and put up condos. Bed Stuy was largely African American, but now there are white people at Key Foods. It not great, you might think, but it just happens. In fact, the realities are the physical consequence of a long history of deliberate racist and classist policies and decisions, and the people making them have spent a lot of energy making these changes seem organic or inevitable. But the neighborhoods themselves are actually clues to the past, and one goal of Social Justice Tours is to do detective work, uncovering the motives and the methods that made the physical and political landscape what it is today.

By now, we all know the term gentrification, and we all know we should feel vaguely guilty about it. But because it’s sold to us as a natural process caused by individual people choosing to move to cheaper neighborhoods, we don’t see the big, structural decisions that created segregation, poverty and struggling neighborhoods in the first place. And that’s deliberate. If we think of gentrification as an individual problem, we see the solution as individual, too. People need to stop moving into neighborhoods that aren’t theirs. But, of course, wrangling hundreds of thousands of individuals to make different choices—especially in a market where even the middle class can’t afford rent—is impossible. And so gentrification carries on.

But if we start to uncover some of the big, political actions that made gentrification possible, we can start thinking about big, political actions to stop it—or repair the damage done.

  1938 Brooklyn Community Zoning Map via National Archives

1938 Brooklyn Community Zoning Map via National Archives

We can’t talk about gentrification without talking about why neighborhoods are poor in the first place, and we can’t talk about why neighborhoods are poor without talking about redlining. Beginning in the 1930s, the newly-created Federal Housing Administration began insuring U.S. mortgages, subsidizing home ownership by offering small down payments and buyer-friendly payment plans to qualifying recipients. To determine which neighborhoods qualified for investment, an agency known as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) gave grades to different areas of the city. On HOLC’s maps, an “A” neighborhood was green, a best bet for housing investment. “B” neighborhoods were blue, meaning “still desirable,” “C” neighborhoods were yellow and “definitely declining,” and “D” neighborhoods were red, or “hazardous.” This was the official rubric. In reality, the agency was more frank: They evaluated neighborhoods based on the “threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population.” This meant that green areas were green not just because of the quality of the buildings, but because, as Ta Nehisi Coates reminds us, they lacked  “a single foreigner or Negro.”

As a result of this racist policy, credit poured into wealthier, white communities and all but froze in African American or mixed-race neighborhoods. This, in turn, set off a domino effect of other consequences. Lacking credit or incentive, businesses stopped investing in Black communities, and—strapped for loans—landlords did the same, leaving whole communities to deteriorate. And, since there were so few green (or fully white) areas of the city, white people flocked to the suburbs, where federally-insured mortgages were abundandant. Left with a declining tax base and a city full of what the government viewed as second-class citizens, the government stopped investing in Black neighborhoods, as well, shutting down basic city services like fire stations and garbage collection. After decades of this racially-based discrimination, New York verged on bankruptcy, Black neighborhoods sank into poverty, and the city calcified into segregated communities.

Ironically, it is this same government-induced disaster that makes neighborhoods of color so attractive for gentrification now. As the rich move from the suburbs back to the city, developers have access to block after block of cheap buildings, which they can turn around and rent to affluent customers.

As cover for predatory rents, they point to the derelict surroundings to argue that they’re doing the neighborhoods a favor by bringing critical housing and amenities to the area.

But the neighborhoods are no more naturally poor than the developers are naturally benevolent. Instead, they’re the direct result of redlining policies. A full fifty years after the formation of the Fair Housing Act, and nearly seventy years since the demise of HOLC, New York neighborhoods are still reeling from the consequences. A 2010 study showed that differences in racial segregation and home ownership have persisted along HOLC’s boundary lines, and studies show that the agency’s maps are responsible for 15 to 30 percent of the those disparities between “D” and “C” neighborhoods alone. And, in one of the most unequal cities in America—in 2013, the top 5 percent of households earned 88 times as much as the poorest 20 percent—the racial wealth gap is even wider, thanks largely to the government excluding Blacks from decades of home ownership.  

Meanwhile, in Williamsburg—a red and yellow areas on HOLC’s maps—a gentrification-inducing rezoning has spiked property prices by 174 percent in just ten years, and the white population has skyrocketed, going from 16.6 percent of the population before the rezoning (2000 census) to 45.6 percent by 2010. In response, poor residents of color are being displaced, forced to find cheaper rents on the outskirts of an impossibly expensive city.

Redlining, of course, is just one example of how racist government policies have shaped physical, social and political space in the city. But the lesson it offers is critical to understanding a neighborhood’s past and shaping resistance in the present. Because if gentrification and redlining are the result of structural policies rather than mere individual choice, they can—and must—be fought on a structural policy level, moving the locus of responsibility from individual renters to government and developers, and shifting the conversation from an impossible demand for ethical consumption to the creation of ethical systems—via affordable housing, renters rights, reparations, or people-powered economic solutions.

Learn more on our Gentrification in Williamsburg and Gentrification in Downtown Brooklyn tours.

Ash SandersComment