Baltimore is the setting for one of the most penetrating examinations of bigotry and residential segregation to be published in the United States.
The book tells the story of how discrimination toward African Americans and Jews shaped the cities in which we live. Eugenics, racial thinking, and white supremacist attitudes influenced even the federal government's actions toward housing, dooming American cities to ghettoization.
The Federal Housing Administration continued discriminatory housing policies even into the 1960s.
This all-American tale is told through the prism of Baltimore, from its early suburbanization in the 1880s to the consequences of white flight after World War II, and into the first decade of the twenty-first century. The events are real, and so are the heroes and villains.
The narrative centers on residential real estate practices, whose discriminatory tools were the same everywhere: restrictive covenants, red- lining, blockbusting, predatory lending.
After the Supreme Court invalidated residential segregation ordinances in 1917, other cities copied another Baltimore tradition - private agreements that prohibited blacks and Jews from specific neighborhoods. Redlining led to blockbusting.
When the sub-prime mortgage craze began, speculators turned Baltimore into a hotbed of risky lending. It became the first city to sue a bank for alleged targeting of minorities for sub-prime loans that would later be foreclosed. This engrossing story is an eye-opening journey into blocks and neighborhoods, shady practices, and ruthless promoters - the dark side of the American dream of owning your own home.
“From the sordid formation of Baltimore’s segregated housing policy by unrepentant former Confederates and white supremacist eugenicists to the incorporation of such bigoted perspectives into national housing policy, from the mid-century era of Baltimore’s urban “blockbusters” to the stunningly effective efforts of late twentieth-century political leaders to displace the black residents in order to keep suburban developments white, Baltimore has played a pivotal role in our nation’s shameful and ongoing history of racial segregation. Thanks to Antero Pietila, our national amnesia about the well-known people as well as the back-room wheelers and dealers who kept our cities segregated and profited handsomely from their actions is about to end. His sweeping examination of the complex ways that racism as well as anti-Semitism shaped Baltimore’s housing market over the past 100 years is a page-turner, chock full of riveting and shocking stories and vivid, unforgettable characters.”
BERYL SATTER, author of Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America
"A blockbuster book, full of memorable characters, dramatic choices, and tragic policy failures. Pietila brings to this compelling story the eye for local detail of a veteran journalist, alongside an impressive knowledge of the nation's history and Baltimore's place in it."
DAVID ROEDIGER, author of How Race Survived U.S. History
"Segregation was created throughout urban America early in the 20th century, but every city has a different story to tell. Although we know quite a bit about ghetto formation throughout the North and the South, until now little was known about how segregation was produced in border states. That’s why Antero Pietila’s excellent historical study of segregation in Baltimore is such a welcome addition to the literature."
DOUGLAS S. MASSEY, co-author of American Apartheid
"A great, exhaustively researched account of how racial and ethnic prejudice shaped the ecology of a major U.S. city (paradigmatic of other U.S. cities as well) by a seasoned, long-time local newspaperman who knows everyone, knows how to interview, knows how to write."
CHESTER HARTMAN, Director of Research, Poverty & Race Research Action Council
During the Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration bailed out more than one million homeowners who were in danger of losing their homes. It also prepared real estate risk maps for 239 U.S. cities, with the aim of preventing the exposure of lenders to bad loans in the future. Neighborhoods in those cities were assessed according to the age and condition of housing stock but also on the basis of their residents’ race, ethnicity, religion, economic status and homogeneity.
This hand-colored 1937 Baltimore map, prepared by the government’s Home Owners Loan Corporation, redlined much of the center city (largely African American or Jewish). Since regular mortgages were nearly impossible to get, homes there could be sold only through speculators. Surrounding areas were given a yellow designation, meaning that the government recommended the issuance of mortgages there only with caution and at strict terms.
The top grade, colored green, was given only to a dozen or so neighborhoods. Even in the depth of the Depression, mortgage money was available there for qualified buyers at liberal terms. Interestingly, Roland Park was not given that grade, because federal officials thought that its houses, the oldest about 40 years of at the time, had outlived their usefulness. By contrast, the same development company’s more recent Guilford, Homeland and Northwood all were given the top grade. They were white, mostly Protestant and upper middle class and so new that houses were still being built there. Blacks were prohibited by deeds, Jews through a stringently enforced company policy.
Not In My Neighborhood discusses redlining in detail and documents how it reflected the federal government’s adoption of eugenics, a white-supremacist ideology that contributed to National Socialism in Germany and apartheid in South Africa. The book also shows how the yellow areas became the target of blockbusters who scared white homeowners into selling low and then flipped the properties to blacks at exploitative prices.
The sub-prime mortgage craze was a logical extension of redlining and blockbusting.
Antero Pietila sat down for this interview:
What is your book about?
It’s about how race shaped the cities in which we live. It looks at a 130-year span of racial change, from early suburbanization in the 1880s to the consequences of the white flight after World War II. It’s an all-American story. It’s real estate history, social history, African-American history, Jewish history, Catholic history.
How is this relevant?
Certain patterns keep repeating themselves. Take subprime mortgages. In the 1990s minorities were targeted for predatory loans on properties they could not afford. The same thing happened from the 1940s onward. Because blacks had no access to conventional financing, they had to buy from speculators known as blockbusters, who provided 100 percent financing at predatory terms. Whole neighborhoods around the country changed color within ten or fifteen years. Speculators intimidated white homeowners to sell cheap, then flipped the properties and sold them to blacks, often doubling or tripling their acquisition price. Millions and millions of white Americans fled the nation’s cities to the suburbs during that white flight.
That’s what they called blockbusting?
Yes, blockbusters changed the racial makeup of American cities. They raided neighborhoods where houses had deteriorated, first during the Great Depression and then during the scarcities of World War II. They frightened whites with the prospect of black neighbors. Meanwhile, the Federal Housing Administration was building millions of taxpayer-subsidized tract houses in the suburbs and, of course, expressways for the commuters. That’s how we ended up with black cities and white suburbs.
You use Baltimore as an example?
If you have seen any of the David Simon’s work -- Wire, The Corner, and Homicide you know a bit about today’s Baltimore. Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights in particular or even John Waters movies told you something about the city’s past. But none of that prepares you for Baltimore’s bigotry. Newspaper ads classified houses by race, or would state that Jews could not buy or rent. Jews were restricted to certain neighborhoods. In overall discrimination Baltimore was a trailblazer city. In 1910 it became the first American city to segregate each residential block by race. It was a border city but more segregated than many cities in the Deep South. Baltimore was the only city in the country that segregated even music: the city established a “colored” band and a “colored” symphony orchestra. In the 1920s and 1930s, Baltimore also was one of 239 cities that the federal government redlined.
During the Great Depression, the federal government’s agency in charge of helping homeowners avoid foreclosures drew maps of those 239 cities. Four colors were used in appraising neighborhoods. Green was best; it marked desirable neighborhoods that consisted of recently built houses with residents who came from Anglo-Saxon or Northern European stock professionals, business leaders, Episcopalians and other Christians. Blue marked areas where houses were older, residents were established whites and might include the Irish Catholic upper class and some Jews. The federal government called green and blue areas good risks for lending.
Yellow marked neighborhoods where the housing stock was aging and residents were white ethnics or Jewish. The feds described those as transitional areas where banks should extend care in lending. Then came the red areas housing that was deemed obsolete, populated by blacks or recent unassimilated immigrants such as Italians. These areas were described as “dangerous” for lending. That’s how the term “redlining” came about. That’s how the lack of conventional loans brought in speculators.
So when the changes began after World War II . . .
Baltimore went from white to black. Over a few decades. The same thing happened in many other cities. In running away from blacks, many whites sold their houses for a pittance, which added to their resentment toward blacks. Blacks, on the other hand, generally welcomed blockbusters. Baltimore’s black leadership certainly did. Blockbusters were recognized as profiteers but also as liberators who made better housing for blacks possible.
You ascribe the origins of blockbusting to economic realities?
Yes, this is something scholars have overlooked. At first, blockbusters wanted to dump substandard housing by selling it to blacks. This started during World War II. By turning blacks from renters to rent-to-buy contract buyers, blockbusters could circumvent wartime rent controls. In doing so, blockbusters transferred their liabilities for plumbing repairs and overall modernization to blacks. When World War II ended, 42.1 percent of Baltimore’s black housing units lacked private bath and 22.4 percent had no running water. This kind of racially targeted disposal began on a large scale. The goal of unloading substandard properties was so obvious that a leading speculator was called Standard Liquidators Inc. Another was named Straw Man Inc. If you wonder how and why American cities became what they became in the 1950s and 1960s, this is part of the answer.
Where do you come up with all this stuff?
This entire 130-year span of discrimination is better documented in Baltimore than probably in any other city. We have documentation for everything from university quotas toward Jews to underlying tensions between blacks and Jews. We can document the Catholic Church’s complicated role. This was a book waiting to be written.