The “Undesign the Red Line” exhibition

The “Undesign the Red Line” exhibition

Mengqing Chen, MLA I 2017
Summer 2016
Organization: NYC Housing Preservation and Development (NYC HPD), New York, NY
Sponsor: Harvard Club of New York Foundation

” This week I went to the “Undesign the Red Line” exhibition tour from the studio designing the WE. The exhibition associates the history of New York’s racial segregation in housing, with contemporary social and political issues.

The Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934, was aimed at insuring mortgages and preventing foreclosures on single and multi-family homes. The FHA also explicitly practiced a policy of “redlining” when determining which neighborhoods to approve mortgages in.  Redlining is the practice of denying services, either directly or through selectively raising prices, to residents of certain areas based on the racial or ethnic makeups of those areas.

A map indicating the relative risk of real estate in neighborhoods in 239 cities was compiled by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation in 1935. The HOLC maps, declassified in the 90s, divided the cities into 4 zones with increasing investment risk: green (A), blue (B), yellow(C) and red(D). Green properties were considered the safest investment; D neighborhoods, at the time populated mostly by African Americans and immigrants, were labeled the highest risks. Therefore the explicit racism was rooted into a much more structural and fundamental aspect of the cities. Race was considered as the primary factor in segmentation. Those neighborhoods ‘infiltrated’ by other minorities were also “redlined”. As a result, it became very difficult for residents in D zones to access loans, mortgages and other financial resources.

In the 1938 HOLC’s map, only a few neighborhoods in Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn were marked as green zones. Now it is believed that the whole scheme led to entirely different circumstances and outcomes for communities of color, as the result of highly intentional policies and practices.

The exhibition also makes a connection between redline policies beginning in the Great Depression era with current social movements, including Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. It draws attention to the issue that the very policies created to fix crises, ended up creating new ones due to a lack of understanding. For example, the Pathmark grocery store project failed to alleviate the ‘food desert’ situation in New York because it did not bring wealth to the redlined community.

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The Affordable Housing Plan, one of the acts and policies that aims to bring equality  and prosperity to communities, is facing great challenges to alleviate social segregation and ensure permanent affordability.