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A Digital Window Into the Roots of Redlining

A University of Richmond project collects 150 Depression-era maps that reveal the inner workings of the era’s racist real-estate practices.

San Francisco's "redlined" neighborhoods, per the 1940 Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps. (Mapping Inequality Project)

Racial gaps in economic well-being, education, health, and generational mobility are all intimately tied to segregation and concentrated poverty. But these spatial phenomena weren’t accidents. They were the result of decades of intentional government-sanctioned housing and loan discrimination, which manifested through an explicitly racist real-estate practice known as “redlining.”

A new, interactive platform called “Mapping Inequality,” released by the University of Richmond, serves as a vital repository of redlining’s foundation documents: Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps prepared during the Great Depression.

In 1930s and 1940s, HOLC, a key agency of the New Deal, was tasked with stemming the rise of foreclosures. To achieve that goal, it asked mortgage-lenders, developers, and realtors to survey the demographics, housing stock, topography, and real estate demands in around 250 cities in the U.S. Based on this information, the agency color-coded neighborhoods on the potential credit risk they posed. The red or “hazardous” neighborhoods in the resulting maps were deemed so explicitly because they contained black and brown, or “undesirable” residents.

The portal contains around 150 of these HOLC maps in interactive form—the largest digital collection yet. It also includes 5,000 descriptions of neighborhoods, making clear the “interlocking color-lines, racial groups, and environmental risks” that the appraisers saw in cities. (These descriptions are, however, not yet available for every single map.)

Let’s take a look at Chicago via this lens. On the left side below is the interactive version of the HOLC map. On the right is a panel with a spatial analysis:

(Mapping Inequality)

Clicking on the core of the concentric circles on the right pulls up the proportion of redlined neighborhoods in the center of the city (in the image below). In Chicago’s case, 83 percent of the area in the Loop was redlined at the time. That characterization of the “inner city” as the home of undesirables persists today, despite the fact that it’s largely divorced from reality.

(Mapping Inequality)

Around 20 and 35 percent of the next two layers outside the Loop contain redlined neighborhoods, respectively. Some of these areas, especially on the South Side, later became sites for many of the city’s infamous housing projects:

(Mapping Inequality)
(Mapping Inequality)

Clicking on redlined blocks on the map also isolates the reasons why each was categorized as high risk. For one redlined neighborhood adjacent to the Chicago Harbor, the appraisers write:

This is one of the poorest areas around the Chicago Loop. Population is predominantly Italian; there is a marked infiltration of negro from the area on the south who, in turn, are driving the Italians into the section on the north. Most properties are little better than minimum shelter and rents here are about as low as it is possible to imagine. Section has no future; it is already blighted with encroaching business.

Other explanations are similar. If the neighborhood is “occupied almost entirely by foreigners,” or “100 percent negro,” or if “less desirable populace from closer to town areas are spreading” to it, it was written off.

On the flip side, the “best” neighborhoods (in green), clustered in the outermost fringes of the city, were deemed “active” with a “desirable class of homeowners.” The future of these white neighborhoods “appears on upward trend,” the surveyors wrote.

The scars of redlining have not faded from America’s urban landscape. And in some areas, the practice itself persists, albeit in less obvious forms. These maps make it easier to visualize that legacy. Via the website:

Mapping Inequality offers a window into the New Deal era housing policies that helped set the course for contemporary America. This project provides visitors with a new view, and perhaps even a new language, for describing the relationship between wealth and poverty in America.

H/T: National Geographic

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.