Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
A powerful new map of the city shows how its current poverty rates match up to racist mortgage policies of the past.
In the wake of Freddie Gray's death and the civil unrest sweeping Baltimore, it is vital to reflect on the city's history of deep racial and economic inequality.
As Emily Badger at the Washington Post points out, just a few years ago, black families were disproportionately targeted by subprime mortgage lenders. In the '80s and '90s, the city was swept by a crack epidemic, mass incarceration, and a loss of blue-collar jobs. The decades prior saw tens of thousands of black Baltimore families displaced by the construction of new highways and housing projects under the guise of "urban renewal."
And before that, Badger writes:
... if we go way back — there was redlining, the earlier corollary to subprime lending in which banks refused to lend at all in neighborhoods that federally backed officials had identified as having "undesirable racial concentrations."
Redlining has become the catch-all term to describe the Home Owners' Loan Corporation's attempt to assess mortgage-lending risk in hundreds of American cities. As I wrote in an earlier post on the practice,
Neighborhood by neighborhood, the HOLC gathered reams of information: terrain, type and age of buildings, sales and rental demand, and about the "threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population." Then they mapped this data, using a color code to delineate neighborhoods—from desirable "hot spots" in green to "high risk" blocks in red.
Redlining left black families out of the mortgage market. It left them vulnerable to predatory lenders. Most of all, it propagated a cycle of inequality, which many poor, black Baltimore residents still find themselves in today.
The map above, created by cartographer and data analyst Evan Tachovsky, is a powerful testament to this fact. By layering the latest Census data on top of the HOLC's old map of Baltimore, the map reveals a striking alignment of today's poverty rates and the Nuremberg-like government mortgaging practices of the 1930s. Here's how to read it:
On the Census layer, dark grey areas are above the poverty line while light grey areas are below the poverty line. On the HOLC layer, green areas are Grade A (“highly desirable”), blue are Grade B (“somewhat desirable”), yellow are Grade C (“declining”), and red are Grade D (“to be avoided”). Use zoom to navigate between the two layers or the search box to go to a specific address.
And as Tachovsky's other maps show, the connection between decades of racist policy and contemporary injustice isn't unique to Baltimore.
"They’re not separate—they’re inextricably linked," Mindy Fullilove, a social psychiatrist at Columbia University told Badger. "And it’s the cumulative downward force of this on social organization that's the stunning thing to be accounted for."