Exactly 100 years ago today, this article came out in the New York Times:
The “alarm in neighborhood” and “real estate men fear”, of course, is code for white residents.
Later in the article, the process of what will later be termed ‘white flight’ is described as contributing to the decline in the white church’s numbers, which in turn led it to be favorably impressed by the offer.
The center of Black Harlem is described as being on West 135th Street, but further expansion southward, seems to be particularly troubling to the writer and the (white) Harlemites quoted.
In 1979, Eugene Giscombe paid $40,000 for the 12-story office building at 1825 Park Avenue known as ‘The Lee Building’ (neighbors now think of this building as the Mount Sinai – hiding under the name Beth Israel -methadone hub of East Harlem).
He was quoted (when selling it recently for $48 million) that, next to marrying his wife, buying the historic Lee Building in Harlem was the best decision he ever made.
When Giscombe first purchased the building, it was only 20 percent occupied. Savanna, the current owner, is asking around $75 million for the early 1900s-era building, or about $555 per square foot.
Tenants include Beth Israel Medical Center (Mount Sinai methadone) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the Metro North Railroad and New York City subway lines that run through the nearby 125th Street station.
Tenants recently signed about 16,000 square feet of leases in the building, including an extension and expansion by Beth Israel and a new lease with Northwestern Mutual.
The governor has noted a Covid “yellow zone” in Upper Manhattan including zip codes 10031, 10032, and 10033.
* No gatherings indoors/outdoors over 25
* Dining indoors/outdoors no more than 4 per table
* Houses of worship at 50% capacity
A Historical Perspective on Redlining
The Where We Live NYC report has a fantastic explanation on the history and impact of redlining:
One of the most pernicious tools in promoting segregation was the construction of explicitly segregated housing developments, many of which were owned or financed by the city, state, or federal government. This practice began in 1928, when the Thomas Garden Apartments opened near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx for White families and the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Apartments opened in Harlem for Black families. It continued through the 1930s, when New York City experienced several waves of immigration in the 20th century, originally from Europe and eventually the rest of the world. The arrival of large numbers of Italians and Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century led Congress to pass discriminatory laws to limit the growth of those populations and others. Immigration patterns changed dramatically after World War II, however, with the arrival of over 600,000 Puerto Ricans in the 1940s and 1950s. By 1970, Puerto Ricans accounted for over 10 percent of the city’s total population. The passing of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, which abolished the use of immigration quotas based on national origin, created more opportunities for immigrants from all over the world, including the Caribbean and Latin America, East and South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. These cycles of immigration have contributed to the formation of the city’s many ethnic enclaves, which formed as networks of support and community and as a form of protection against the discrimination and violence many immigrants experienced upon their arrival to New York City. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) opened the Harlem River Houses for black households and the Williamsburg Houses for White households in 1937 and 1938, respectively.
The most significant examples were two enormous government-supported housing developments built by the Metropolitan Life Company exclusively for White families: Parkchester in the central Bronx, which included 12,273 apartments for 42,000 people, and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, which included 8,775 apartments for 27,000 people.
Even though protesters denounced the City for providing land and tax breaks to these projects and sued MetLife over its exclusionary policy, Frederick Ecker, the company’s president, stuck to his position that “Negroes and whites don’t mix.” In an attempt to appease its critics, MetLife also developed the Riverton Houses, a 1,200-unit development in Harlem that, while nominally open to all races, attracted mostly Black residents. The People’s Voice, a weekly newspaper based in Harlem, predicted that these projects were “crystallizing patterns of segregation and condemning thousands of Negroes to a secondary citizenship status for generations to come.”
At the same time, federal housing policy also explicitly subordinated people of color, most importantly through a mortgage-lending process that came to be known as “redlining.” Beginning in 1933, the federal agency responsible for refinancing mortgages—the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC)—created “Residential Security Maps,” which labeled neighborhoods as
“B (Still Desirable),”
“C (Definitely Declining),”
ostensibly to judge the riskiness of issuing mortgages in each type of neighborhood. Each neighborhood was also color-coded: “A” was green; “B” was blue; “C” was yellow; and “D” was red.
The image above shows an example of a HOLC map for Upper Manhattan. The systematic use of these maps by the federal government and local banks had substantial, disastrous, and long-lasting impacts on racial inequality. Neighborhoods where HOLC found a sizeable presence of “undesirable” residents—which in New York City included immigrants from Southern Europe, “Communistic” Jews, and others— were deemed ineligible sites for federally-insured mortgages. HOLC was particularly concerned about the presence of Black New Yorkers; any neighborhood in which Black New Yorkers were more than 5% of the population was labeled “C (Definitely Declining)” or “D (Hazardous),” and it was all-but-guaranteed that a prospective homebuyer could not receive a mortgage in such a neighbohood.
The Mortgage Conference of Greater New York even commissioned a block-by-block survey of New York City to show where “Negroes and Spanish-speaking persons resided,” though blocks that housed Black and Hispanic building superintendents were exempted. The Mortgage Conference directed its 38 members to refrain from issuing mortgages to any properties on such blocks, depriving neighborhoods with Black and Hispanic residents of access to capital and encouraging White residents to move to segregated neighborhoods or suburbs where loans were available.
Mortgages were available in suburban developments on Long Island and in Westchester because the vast majority of these developments were open only to White residents. The most famous development—Levittown, New York—opened to 17,500 veterans and their families immediately following World War II under the federal government’s condition that only White residents would live there. Levittown residents also became homeowners thanks to the G.I. Bill, which offered low-interest loans and required no down payments. Almost all people of color were excluded from this crucial, life-changing opportunity to build equity in their homes and pass down wealth to future generations. During the immediate post-war period, per capita mortgage lending in Nassau County, New York, where Levittown and many other Whites-only developments were located, was eleven times greater than lending in Brooklyn and 60 times greater than lending in the Bronx.
Segregated suburban developments, which expanded with significant support from government, also helped determine who remained in or moved to New York City. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, predominantly people of color, were forcibly displaced from their homes by the construction of taxpayer-funded highways, which served the segregated suburbs. Subsidized mortgages and segregated living patterns also drew a sizeable portion of the city’s middle-class tax base to the suburbs; in the 1950s alone, the suburban region’s population increased by almost 2.2 million people, while the city’s population decreased by 109,973 people—the first decennial decline in the city’s history.
The expansion of segregated suburban developments also pushed government officials to take drastic steps to alter some of the city’s central neighborhoods through massive redevelopment projects, which often consisted of displacing people of color from their homes and building more expensive housing in their place. In turn, people of color were directed to even more segregated neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan and Central Brooklyn.
The combined influence of redlining, segregated housing developments, and rampant discrimination in the employment and education fields concentrated low-income people of color in small geographic areas and created a “new form of urban poverty.” Poor living conditions in these neighborhoods—often referred to as ghettos—also stigmatized people of color in the eyes of many White residents, who feared that their neighborhoods and schools would become unstable if integration occurred. Many New Yorkers responded to these forms of racism, economic oppression, and subjugation with grassroots organizing and legislative advocacy, and New York City became a leader in innovative, civil rights lawmaking in the 1950s.
Complain to the DOT
If you notice something on a road, sidewalk or bridge that isn’t right, you can submit a complaint to the Department of Transportation on any of these subjects:
I contacted them recently about a lack of a pedestrian ramp on the Madison Avenue Bridge, and they got back to me the next day with the promise that they’d send a crew out to investigate within 45 days.
Speedy? No. But as we always say, they can’t read our minds, so unless we complain, and tell them what’s not working or acceptable in our community, they’ll just assume all’s well. Don’t accept. Demand better. Demand action.