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Redlining and Our Neighborhoods

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created by the National Housing Act of 1934. Its purpose was to, among other things, help support investment and homeownership as a means of counteracting the devastation of the Great Depression. While it did that, it did so in such a way that reinforced, concretized, and extended patterns of housing and investment discrimination and inequality in our country, especially in American cities. New York City was no exception, and for the most part, our neighborhoods in lower Manhattan did not fare well under this system, and some maps they created vividly illustrate this point.

The FHA and related agencies examined 238 cities across the United States to create “residential security maps.” The maps indicated the level of risk, as they saw it, that came with investing in each of the neighborhoods. As you can imagine, these risk assessments had a tremendous impact on where and how investments were made in housing and neighborhoods. Bad risk factors as evaluated by the agency? The presence of African Americans, immigrants, lower-income residents, and older housing stock. As you can imagine, much (but not all) of our neighborhoods did not fare well on this scale at this time.

The neighborhoods were graded on a scale of A, B, C, or, D, with colors representing the best to worst: green, blue, yellow, or, red, respectively. The evaluations were illustrated on maps, which gave rise to the term — and the practice — of “redlining.”

When an area was redlined — whether due to too many non-white residents, immigrants, lower-income residents, or older housing stock — it meant denial of mortgages, credit, insurance on homes, and creation of food deserts. This made it nearly impossible for minorities and immigrants to gain access to institutional wealth, own homes, or have autonomy over their neighborhoods. Further weaponizing this, reverse redlining was implemented when investors would come in and buy homes in these redlined areas for bottom dollar, displacing those in their neighborhoods. 

In our neighborhoods, we see a clear connection between the grading and the percentage of “foreign-born” families, residents’ occupations, and the age of the housing stock.

Greenwich Village from roughly 6th Avenue to Greenwich Avenue, 14th Street to 4th Street (what we might now call the “West Village”), Mapping HOLC, Richmond

The West Village. Grade: C1; Yellow

Most of what we would today call the West Village received the second-lowest grade — yellow. The evaluation noted that about 40% of families were foreign-born and that the housing stock was old. It did however also note the excellent transportation and schools, and interestingly noted that the trend for the area was “up.” In spite of (or perhaps because of) its older “obsolescent” housing stock, this part of Greenwich Village was actually increasingly attracting writers, artists, performers, and other creative types in these interwar years, as well as those who wanted to live around them. The FHA seemed to notice this “upward” trend, and thus in spite of what might have otherwise been characteristic resulting in the lowest of scores — red — the West Village was only given the cautious ‘yellow.’

The Central Village, Mapping HOLC, Richmond

Fifth Avenue Corridor and Park Blocks West of Washington Square; the Central Village: B1, Blue

The only section of Greenwich Village to receive the even moderately favorable “blue” designation (none received “green”) were the blocks on and near Fifth Avenue, and west of Washington Square — what some would now call the “Central Village.” These blocks have always contained some of the most sought-after and desirable housing in Greenwich Village, and in the 1920s and 30s saw many handsome and well-appointed new apartment buildings go up with the types of modern conveniences and amenities few of the older buildings in the neighborhood had. This seemed to save this small section of the neighborhood from the fate of the lower scores that the rest received. But the evaluation did note the threat of encroaching industry and commerce, which was moving into the northern and eastern blocks of this section at this time.

The South Village, Mapping HOLC, Richmond

The South Village: D4, Red

This section overlaps almost perfectly with the section of Greenwich Village which we proposed for landmark designation in 2006 (eventually getting nearly all of it landmarked), which was entirely left out of the Greenwich Village Historic District designated in 1969. Its main characteristics in 1934, when the map was made, as well as in 1969? Its residents were largely Italian immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants, and the housing was modest tenements and/or altered former rowhouses. This was apparently enough for the FHA to deem the area the least desirable and most risky category, earning it the red designation and redlining it.

East Village, Mapping HOLC, Richmond

East Village: D3, Red:

The East Village suffered the same fate as the South Village — a red designation, and redlining. Like the South Village, residents of this neighborhood were at the time almost exclusively immigrants or children of immigrants (Jews, Italians, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians), and the housing stock here was also for the most part older, modest (at best), and antiquated — all prescriptions for obsolescence as far as the FHA was concerned.

Food Peddlers at pushcart markets, St. Marks and 1st Ave, 1938, courtesy of the NYPL.

It’s interesting to note that some sections of our neighborhoods didn’t even receive grades or evaluations — what we would today call NoHo, or much of the area south of Union Square, or the Far West Village along the Greenwich Village waterfront. That’s because these areas were largely (if not entirely) commercial or industrial at the time, so loans of investment for housing was not even considered worthy of evaluation at the time.

The practice of redlining embodied by these maps continued for decades, bolstering racial and economic segregation even in areas not commonly associated with Jim Crow Laws. It was not until the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that many if not all of these overtly discriminatory practices get wiped from the books.

HOLC Grades Graph, ncrc.org

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