Redlining Blues

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Redlining is an illegal practice in real estate. It involves lenders that refuse to lend money or extend credit to borrowers in certain areas of a city. Typically, these areas are home to low-income households and/or the majority of the households are people of color. These communities of color may be low income or households that are financially solvent and well-off with good credit ratings.

Redlining’s genesis is from One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago: The Relationship of the Growth of Chicago to the Rise of Its Land Values, 1830-1933. This is the title of Homer Hoyt’s dissertation published in 1934. Hoyt put different human races and places of origin “by order of desirability.” Anglo-Saxons and Northern Europeans were most desired and were assigned the color green. Next in desirability were the Northern Italians, Czechs, Polish and Lithuanians, assigned blue. Greeks, Russian Jews and Southern Italians were the third tier, assigned yellow; and Negroes and Mexicans made up the fourth tier; i.e., the least desired and were assigned the color red. Homer Hoyt’s career path landed him in the position of chief economist of the Federal Housing Authority.

Investopedia.org explains that the term “redlining” was coined by sociologist James McKnight in the 1960s based on how lenders “would literally draw red lines on a map around neighborhoods they would not invest in based on demographics.” The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 was established to end the practice of redlining; however, the practice still exists.

One local advocacy and research organization that stays on top of inequalities in education, housing, voting activity and the local economy is Medgar Evers College Center for Law and Social Justice. In 1988, this center published Race and Mortgage Lending in New York City: A Study in Redlining. A search on the World Wide Web will bring up dozens of current books and online publications that cover redlining issues in various US metropolitan regions.

Due to attending the African-American Genealogical Society (AAGS) meeting held in the Macon Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on March 24, 2018, this writer became acquainted with Walis Johnson, creator of The Red Line Archive. Ms. Johnson distributed postcards that promoted the project at the end of the AAGS meeting. The Red Line Archive is a website and a mobile display of her family’s ephemera—photographs, bric-a-brac, a redlined map of Brooklyn and items she collected on her walks through Brooklyn. Ms. Johnson was motivated to construct the mobile display after she received a note from a stranger who wanted to buy her family’s residence. This note was sent shortly after her mother had died, October 24, 2013. This was a situation of “not allowing the body to get cold.”

Her explanation for launching the project is: “The thing that got me hooked was the issue of generational wealth and how, because of redlining, Black people have been deprived of property ownership across generations. When I started to think about my family history of property ownership I knew I had landed on a great story that needed to be told. I wanted to tell it in a way that was personal and politically engaging. Socially engaged art leaves an opening so that people are activated to understand their own experience and imagine a different future.”

The public art mobile display began as an MFA thesis project in the spring of 2016. Johnson started by taking the Red Line Archive out to public spaces in Bedford-Stuyvesant and ClintonHill/Fort Greene. Later, Johnson did a project in Crown Heights and Weeksville. Johnson chose a mobile display after finding and studying the Brooklyn 1938 Red Line Map during one of her walks. She believed that including group walks would compliment her stationary talks. The mobile display is set up also indoors. For example, it was shown in a gallery at Wagner College in Staten Island.

The Red Line Archive has had Johnson log in many miles and stay in shape. I followed the map and walked through Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, Crown Heights, Fort Greene and DUMBO. As I walked, I collected soil samples, photos and other ephemera to see where traces of redlining are still visible in the landscape today.

One takeaway for Johnson during the project’s development is that African-Americans ought not blame themselves for their economic situation:

I’ve really absolved Black people from blame for our condition in this country and around the world. It’s not our fault. I don’t mean that we can’t change or take control of our communities, but the first thing that we need to do is to understand and accept on a profound level what has happened and who we have become as a result before we can begin to change things. It is more than a struggle for maintaining cultural identity. The effects of redlining remain acute until we forgive ourselves. We didn’t cause it. We can’t cure or control it.