On a 1937 government map of Tacoma Washington, a tiny piece of the Proctor neighborhood is highlighted in red. Notes attached to the map explain the racist reason why: three "highly respected Negro families" live on the block in the middle.
While very much above the average of their race, it is quite generally recognized by Realtors that their presence seriously detracts from the desirability of their immediate neighborhood.
The map was created as part of a New Deal program that asked real estate appraisers, mortgage lenders, and developers in nearly 250 cities to color-code neighborhoods to rank them for the risk of home loans. The assessors considered the quality of the homes and income of residents in the area. As they ranked desirability, they also explicitly considered race.
In the Verde Street area in Tacoma, an adjacent area is marked in blue, or "still desirable," the equivalent of a B in the system. The assessors note that the red area is identical to the blue part, except for the African-Americans living there.
In a similar pattern on a map of St. Louis, the assessors note that a white neighborhood would have gotten a "B" grade, but black families walk through the neighborhood on the way to a public park.
A new interactive map shows these historical maps in 150 cities, with 5,000 area descriptions. Green areas, often on the fringes of cities, are "best," followed by blue. Yellow is "definitely declining," and red is "hazardous."
Researchers from four universities spent seven months building the map.
"It's not just what's said, but the consequences of what's said, because this cuts communities of color off from mortgages and other kinds of loans," says Robert Nelson, director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. "It really has a substantial impact on the kind of generational wealth disparities between blacks and whites that we see today. That's partly a consequence of these kinds of policies."
In some cities, "redlined" areas are still lower-income and more segregated today. When Nelson first looked at his own city of Richmond, Virginia in 2008, he compared the map to poverty data. "I was frankly shocked by how closely they matched up—the areas of most intense poverty, 80 years later, corresponded really closely to the "D" neighborhood."
Some other red neighborhoods were torn down to make way for freeways in the 1950s and '60s. In other cities, some red areas are now becoming gentrified.
Homer Hoyt, the chief economist of the Federal Housing Authority in the 1930s, helped establish the color-coding system. In a dissertation before he started the job, he ranked people by their "desirability" in neighborhoods in Chicago: WASPs and the Irish came first, followed by Northern Italians, Czechoslovakians, Poles, Lithuanians, Greeks, Russians Jews, Southern Italians, "Negros," and Mexicans.
The maps note "infiltrations" of various groups—often black families—in the neighborhoods they rank least desirable.
While researchers have studied the long-term effects of these policies in individual cities, the new maps will help them begin to look at broader impacts across the country. And the researchers who built the site are hoping that the maps can help start conversations about inequality beyond the academic world.
"I want to get people thinking about why we have the kinds of racial and class inequalities that we have in American cities that we do today," says Nelson.