Monday, November 28, 2016

Mapping inequality in A Raisin in the Sun and our own cities

A few weeks back Slate published an article that anyone who is teaching A Raisin in the Sun will find immensely interesting. Henry Grabar writes about the Mapping Inequality project created by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. Grabar’s article, “Here’s How the Federal Government Made the Maps That Crippled Black Neighborhoods,” is a compelling introduction to this fascinating set of interactive maps.

Mapping Inequality is a database of more than 150 federal “risk maps” from between 1930 and 1940 that show which neighborhoods were considered “best,” “still desirable,” “definitely declining,” and “hazardous.” These designations would come to dictate the level of investment or lack thereof in cities across the country for decades. As Grabar notes, “These maps, which came to shape not just the distribution of mortgages but other types of lending and investment, were the origin of the term ‘redlining.’” Once a neighborhood was redlined, as Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses in “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, the homes there were no longer eligible for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured private mortgages. Redlining, in effect, “. . . exclud[ed] black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.”

While the color-coded maps put the fact that racial discrimination was an integral part of federal housing policy in sharp relief, the truly fascinating (and infuriating) treasure are the appraisers’ notes about each neighborhood that accompany the maps.

As Grabar highlights, “In 1937, for example, a summary of the Eastern Parkway area of Brooklyn noted its favorable influences—‘near Prospect Park,’ ‘substantial row brick construction,’ ‘close in,’ ‘good transportation facilities’—and one detrimental influence: ‘slow infiltration of negroes from the section to the north,’ meaning the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Eastern Parkway was at that point about 2 percent black. It was colored yellow, for ‘definitely declining.’”

Chicago’s Brownsville, on the other hand, was redlined due to the fear of the effect the construction of the Ida B. Wells public housing project might have on the neighborhood: “This venture has the realtors guessing as to what the ultimate result will be when so many of this race are drawn into this section from the already negro-blighted district. … Already Washington Park at the south, a very fine park, has been almost completely monopolized by the colored race.”

Grabar also observes that “[r]acist though they were, the appraisers seemed to recognize that cutting the area off from financial institutions would ultimately be ruinous. ‘One of the most important necessities is to provide means of financing these colored homes so that they may be rehabilitated,’ the Bronzeville report states. Instead, contract sellers and subprime lenders moved into the void.”

If you’ve used the chapter in our book Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun that focuses on the violence that surrounded the integration of a previously white South Chicago neighborhood in the 1950s, you may find the 1939 appraisal of South Deering particularly interesting. (Other units in our volume focus on housing discrimination past and present and socioeconomic mobility.) The database offers students the opportunity to dig into information about the neighborhoods that the Youngers are moving from and to in A Raisin in the Sun.

Here’s How the Federal Government Made the Maps That Crippled Black Neighborhoods” also gives students the opportunity to consider the history of their own cities and how redlining influences their present-day reality. The article, and the database underlying it, underscore the wealth of informational text we can use to make the literary texts we teach year after year come alive for our students.

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