Undesigning the Redline in the Bronx and Beyond

Enlarged redlining maps for the New York metropolitan area are on display at the Undesigning the Redline exhibition in the Bronx.

In 1938 — as the New Deal infused capital into cities and Robert Moses molded New York — the federal Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) carved America into the unequal landscapes it is today. In the Bronx, my home borough of New York City, it granted the Riverdale and Fieldston neighborhoods its green, first grade, type A status. HOLC recognized that Riverdale and Fieldston were of the newest, most suburban, and most secure of neighborhoods for real estate investment. They were most desirable for what they did not have: communities of color. HOLC’s forms lay it bare:

HOLC Form 8, Area Description, for Riverdale reveals that the neighborhood had 0% foreign-born families, no negroes, infiltration of no particular ethnic groups, and no relief families.

Riverdale and Fieldston were the exception. Just 4% of the borough was blessed with HOLC’s best designation. 60% was painted yellow — definitely declining — whereas almost a quarter was given the scarlet letter, a bright red “hazardous” zone. All but one of these redlined areas had “yes” marked in the Negro field. All of them had foreign-born populations, as low as 25% and as high as 75%.

Visitors pin where they live and have lived on a mounted map of the Bronx. HOLC’s Area Description forms for different neighborhoods add context to the colored zones.

Today, Riverdale and Fieldston remain leafy green, with the highest home values and the whitest populations in the borough. Meanwhile, the rest of the Bronx suffers. Even with rapidly rising rents as gentrification laps the southern shores of the borough, Streeteasy shows that average rents in 2016 were $350 higher in Riverdale than the borough median. Riverdale and Fieldston have a poverty rate that is about half of that for the Bronx as a whole. Unsurprisingly, they perform better than the borough average on nearly every health outcome. The molds of disparity have set and they still sit with us today.

Maps spatializing modern day disparities line the walls, showing visitors how the redlining maps have been refracted across time and across a variety of outcomes.

All of this injustice is clear in Undesigning the Redline, an exhibition by social impact studio Designing the We that is currently on display at the Bronx Neighborhood Health Action Center. Scattered across the halls and a basement conference room of this municipal building, the installation is not glamorous, but it is exceptionally illuminating.

The blown up “security maps” are themselves a larger than life presence and the contextual information alongside them elucidates exactly what they mean. Modern day maps by the hosts at the City of New York’s health department illustrate plainly that the disparities fester today. The timeline of separation and inequality, meanwhile, is designed to overwhelm. The many forces that have shaped our urban society race across the wall and it feels as if one might fall into the time warp while leaning in to absorb their descriptions. All along, a tour guide from the health department takes visitors along, giving perspective and inviting others to share their own. The interactivity does not stop there. Colorful pins, pens, and post-its encourage people to place themselves onto the map, to add untold stories onto the timeline, and to share ideas for undesigning the redline.

The most unsatisfying portion of the tour was the end. It is challenging to see how your community was systematically manipulated and robbed of its potential without sufficiently feeling empowered to change the narrative. My fellow attendees struggled and, as a Bronxite myself, I could not help but empathize.

Close up on Era 3 of the timeline: Still Separate, Still Unequal

The fourth and final era of the timeline reminds us that these struggles persist. The last three decades have brought us broken windows policing, a rise in mass incarceration, and serial displacement as wealth reclaims these disinvested communities. They have also brought us movements around Occupy Wall Street, climate change, and Black Lives Matter. How do we heal from here?

For me, it is by seizing the tools of planning and policymaking for communities like my own. Planning continues in the Bronx today. As the City’s departments of planning, housing, and health lead a neighborhood planning study of Southern Boulevard, at the heart of the largest redlined area, I have the privilege of becoming intimately involved. We in the core planning team are taking the time to carefully and critically analyze past plans, community board needs, community input, and nonprofit work in the area. We are taking care to make sure we have listened to what has already been said so we can listen better moving forward.

It is important for us to wrestle with this legacy as planners today. The Department of City Planning took the initiative to organize a workshop at this exhibit for its interagency collaborators on the Southern Boulevard Neighborhood Study. By steeping ourselves in this history, we better prepare ourselves to envision a future that can undo these legacies and affirmatively further fairness for all.

Though the exhibition was only scheduled to be at the Bronx Neighborhood Health Action Center through March, its popularity has meant that it will be on display at least through the summer. I encourage planners, policymakers, and all those who writhe at modern day injustices to make the time to visit. Please learn more and help undesign the redline.

This post is the third of five appearing on the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) Community Service Fellowship Program (CSFP) blog describing my summer working as Neighborhood Planning Intern at the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Read the rest here.