Originally published in the winter 2016 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine
After 25-year-old Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in 2015 while in the custody of Baltimore police, the city erupted with protests, riots, and much subsequent soul-searching. Attention focused on Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Gray was arrested—one of the most impoverished and blighted areas in Baltimore. Local community leaders set up meetings to discuss what it would take to support and revitalize poor neighborhoods like Sandtown, where more than a third of the houses are abandoned and roughly 20 percent of working-age residents are unemployed. The subtext of these well-meaning conversations was that there must have been a time when these neighborhoods were more desirable, and that at some point, somewhere along the way, things went downhill.
In the mid-1990s, in what was one of the most ambitious neighborhood revitalization projects in Baltimore’s history, public and private sources poured more than $130 million into Sandtown-Winchester in a massive effort to transform it. Yet despite the influx of new housing, health services, and school enhancements, the investments were not enough to attract new businesses and jobs, or to suppress the flourishing drug trade.
Mapping Inequality, a new project created by three teams drawn from four universities, including Johns Hopkins, offers leaders and researchers a new way to think about persistently struggling neighborhoods like Sandtown. Launched in October, the project features unprecedented online access to maps and materials produced between 1935 and 1940 by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency created as part of the New Deal. HOLC officials traveled to nearly 250 cities across America throughout the 1930s, developing color-coded maps to demonstrate each neighborhood’s risk and creditworthiness, factors that often reflected the community’s racial demographics. These influential documents helped standardize housing policy and real estate practices, and they were used by federal housing agencies until the late 1960s.
Sifting through Baltimore’s own HOLC map on the Mapping Inequality website, one can begin imagining how developers, bankers, real estate agents, and federal officials thought about each locality. Users can pore over the jigsaw puzzle–like breakdown of the city’s neighborhoods, clicking through to scans of each one’s “Area Description,” a document that includes information on the terrain, detrimental influences (“Obsolescence” and “Negro concentration,” for example), and racial makeup of residents. Each area was assigned a letter grade: A-rated neighborhoods, colored green, signified the best places to live; D-rated neighborhoods, colored red, were the worst.
“Part of what’s interesting about the project is just getting to think through what people’s popular narratives are today about segregation and redlining,” says Johns Hopkins historian N.D.B. Connolly, who worked on the Mapping Inequality project. “What do people know? And how can showing these HOLC maps add to that general understanding?” Connolly, an expert in the history of race and American cities, thinks the project can help people consider the longer historical trajectory of inequality.
“It also provides a way to think about racial inequality as far more of a problem of law and economics than of culture,” he says.
The HOLC maps and area descriptions are available for the public to download, so others can begin to pursue questions that even two or three years ago would have likely been too onerous to tackle. For example, what was the relationship between residential segregation and union membership? By collecting information from union membership rolls, you could now analyze union members’ living conditions. You could also determine what segregated neighborhoods looked like in terms of infrastructure quality, or how many homes had telephones, or the availability of grocery stores. “It gives you a way of taking a slice of American life and adding a whole host of new data points,” says Connolly.
On Baltimore’s HOLC map, Sandtown-Winchester was a redlined, D-rated area eight decades ago. Federal agents determined that it had “houses in very bad condition” and vandalized buildings in poor repair. They reported relatively equal numbers of white immigrants and black people living in the area, and when asked to assess the area’s “trend of desirability” over the next 10 to 15 years, HOLC agents predicted it going “downward.”
These maps challenge the narrative that healthy, thriving neighborhoods declined because of rioting in the 1960s or indolence. What they actually suggest, Connolly says, is that these Baltimore neighborhoods were always struggling, but more opportunities were given to white immigrants to get out. “These are not places that have ‘gone downhill,'” Connolly says. “Rather, they are places that were always full of environmental hazards, always considered poor and getting worse, and also the only option available to black families due to housing discrimination.”