In Ruben Segovia’s graphic novel The Tracers, two African-American teens wander upon a vacant lot that once served as a backdrop for an anti-housing integration flier from 1916. It’s the same leaflet that The Atlantic’s national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates featured in his October 17, 2014 article “The Racist Housing Policies That Built Ferguson” about the riots that broke out that year in the St. Louis suburb.
One of Segovia’s characters recalls how back in 1916, African Americans were forbidden to “move to a place with 75 percent white dudes.” The other character responds by bringing up Harland Bartholomew, the “dean of city planners” who used racial zoning ordinances to segregate St. Louis. The young men proceed throughout the rest of the narrative to search for clues that might connect that racist history to the blighted lot that sits before them today.
It’s not your typical comic book fare. Segovia’s graphic novel is part of a series of books created by a group of students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, each of which tell the story of the various policy instruments used to orchestrate racial segregation.
The project was conceived by urban planning professor Daniel D’Oca, who wanted to teach his design students about segregation and fair housing. To do that, he took them to St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri, both premiere models for racist zoning science. “Many students came into this having not ever studied race and fair housing before,” says D’Oca, “so they really came a long way.”
There, the grad students met with local residents, activists, and members of Forward Through Ferguson, the commission created by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in 2014 to investigate the root causes of the riots formed in response to the police killing of Michael Brown. And they learned about the region’s unique heritage of segregation, which helps explain the racial inequities faced across the metro region today. Across St. Louis County (where Ferguson is located, just north of the City of St. Louis), 23 percent of black residents and 35 percent of black children live within or below the poverty level, compared with about 7 percent of white residents and 6 percent of white children; the median value for an African-American-owned house is $108,600, compared to $195,600 for white-owned homes.
The Forward Through Ferguson report explores these problems—and many more like them—at length and offers recommendations for how to correct them. The Harvard design students were tasked with exploring how they might realize some of those solutions, and even go a little further. Using the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Rebuild by Design” model, the students were challenged with creating unorthodox approaches to help the St. Louis region “affirmatively further fair housing”—the federal government’s approach to addressing racial segregation.
One student created a manual that breaks down financial instruments like tax increment financing, or TIFs, into layman’s language, so residents can understand how projects in their community are getting developed. Another student created a K-12 pedagogy textbook on the history of segregation in St. Louis County, not only to help teachers with imparting this story to students, but also to each other. That could be handy for an organization like Teach For America, when planting teachers from other cities into St. Louis County schools.
“All of the projects had to respond to the needs of someone they met on the trip,” says D’Oca. “It couldn’t be just someone sitting on computer saying, ‘Oh, I think what St. Louis needs is a new designed housing apartment complex.’ It had to be in collaboration with someone from the trip.”
The goal of the project is perhaps best summed up with this image from Segovia’s The Tracers book: