‘Undesign the Redline’: The Story Behind Unspoken Barriers

Unspoken Barriers

Even at a young age, while living in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood, I understood that some areas were considered “better” or “safer” than others.  But no one ever offered an explanation as to why some neighborhoods were strong and largely intact while others brimmed with vacant lots and rundown properties. I lacked an understanding about the many forces conspiring to leave one group of friends well-off and another living on the margins.

Fast forward to September this year, when I learned about becoming a tour guide for an exhibit in Cleveland outlining the legacy of redlining. I vaguely knew redlining meant unequal lending on the basis of where one resided. But I had no idea federally sanctioned policies formed in the 1930s denied someone a home loan based solely on the racial composition of the neighborhoods where they wished to purchase. If you lived in a majority African American neighborhood, your community would be coded as red, meaning no loans would be made there, hence the term redlining. Alternatively, if you lived in an all-white neighborhood in a newly developing suburb, you were almost guaranteed a federally backed loan to buy a home.         

Filling in my personal gaps about redlining in Cleveland was partially what motivated me to become a tour guide for “Undesign the Redline,” on display at the Mt. Pleasant NOW Development Corporation, 13815 Kinsman Road. This interactive exhibit explores how a “legacy of inequity and exclusion continues to shape our communities.”

What makes the exhibit so personally powerful have been the reactions of exhibit visitors to the materials on display and their willingness to share how redlining is still affecting Cleveland neighborhoods. One man told the story of being denied a home in Shaker Heights because of his interracial marriage. When he applied for a loan, he was initially informed his credit was good enough to purchase the house. However, since Shaker Heights was a green zone, which meant the city had exclusionary zoning against interracial couples, his application was denied.

Unspoken Barriers

The legacy of redlining in Cleveland is that by preventing African Americans from obtaining loans, most weren’t able to purchase homes and instead had to rent. Since home ownership and inheritance represent the primary means through which individuals, and by extension, community wealth is amassed in this country, this dichotomy meant that black community members in Cleveland (and in urban areas in general) couldn’t acquire wealth in the same way as suburban white communities.

With the flight of white families from integrated communities in Cleveland to the suburbs (which, as green zones, meant they would receive a loan and be able to buy a house) left urban cores without a viable tax base. This meant the quality of many services, such as police and fire, and institutions like public schools and hospitals, slowly declined to a state of near collapse. These policies are key contributors to why neighborhoods in Cleveland, such as Central, Buckeye and Kinsman, are still struggling to this day. Once a neighborhood was redlined, its future prospects were limited.

Although redlining has been outlawed as a practice since 1968, it continues to affect people’s lives some 50 years later.

I’ve listened to tale after tale of how redlining altered the lives of exhibit visitors. Putting real faces to the many statistics and dates which we, as tour guides, review with visitors has truly moved me. Combining facts from the exhibit and these compelling stories has helped me to finally understand, many years later, why certain neighborhoods were always deemed better or worse than others. By honestly grappling with the lasting effects of these policies, we can all work together to undesign not only the redline, but other forms of institutional racism.    

Take the time to visit “Undesign the Redline” and face this history, our history, so that we will collectively recognize struggling neighborhoods as the logical outcome of a system of racist policies.

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