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Segregation in the City of Angels: A 1939 Map of Housing Inequality in L.A.

Maps embody a constellation of ideas – voting patterns, boundaries and space, the allocation of natural resources or population densities – but all make visual, and perhaps make more accessible, sets of accumulated data. However, when wielded for purposes of policy, cartography can embed power and sometimes inequality. In 1939, the government-sponsored Home Owners Loan Corporation produced a map of Los Angeles that would crystalize discriminatory lending practices and reinforce racial and class bias in home ownership.

S2 E5: Coded Geographies

Few facets of American citizenship embody the national ideal more than homeownership. When Ta-Nehisi Coates penned his now-classic essay arguing for reparations in 2014, he focused on the role of homeownership – or rather its denial – in black American life. Likewise, the innovative Mapping Inequality project – a collaboration of scholars at Virginia Tech, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland and directed by Robert K. Nelson and Brent Cebul of the University of Richmond – illustrates better than ever before the highly structured nature of housing discrimination in 20th-century America. Forbes recently named it one of five GIS projects changing the way Americans understand racism, demonstrating that the project is well on its way to achieving this goal. “To the extent that you have a business publication engaging with the less-than-stellar history of business,” Cebul noted in a recent interview, “it really is amazing how putting something on a map makes it so much more accessible for people to see.”[1]

With this in mind, the 1939 Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) map of Los Angeles serves as a window into the complexities of federal housing policy and a burgeoning multiracial metropolis about to emerge from the Great Depression. As with cities across the nation, federal housing policy played a critical role in shaping Los Angeles communities in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

1939 HOLC "redlining" map of central Los Angeles
1939 HOLC "redlining" map of central Los Angeles, courtesy of LaDale Winling and urbanoasis.org.

First, the HOLC – a creature of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – invented self-amortizing home loans, an innovation that made it easier for working citizens to buy homes without having to make large down payments. Between 1933 and 1936, the HOLC also issued new low-interest mortgages to one million homeowners who had defaulted or already lost their homes. Under the National Housing Act of 1934, the government also created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which sought to make homeowners of the nation’s citizenry by guaranteeing mortgages with private financing and thus encouraging bank investment. The hope was that financial institutions could then enact more liberal loaning policies. The FHA would eventually extend amortization schedules further, enabling citizens to purchase a home with a minimal down payment.[2] Though the FHA and HOLC worked with and through local actors, it would be hard to deny their influence on housing in Los Angeles. During the 1930s, FHA activity in California exceeded that of any other state.[3]

To facilitate private investment through the FHA, the HOLC, and the Federal Home Loan Board Bank (FHLBB), the federal government crafted a national set of standards for assessing mortgage risk. Through its 1935 City Survey Program, the HOLC gathered data about neighborhoods from approximately 239 cities and compiled the results into a rating system ranging from A to D. Communities with A ratings represented the best investments for homeowners and banks alike; B, neighborhoods that were still desirable, C, those in decline, and D, areas considered hazardous. To visually capture these rankings, the HOLC then turned these ratings into color-coded maps, using green for A, blue for B, yellow for C, and red for D – the origin of the term “redlining.”

The ratings purported to use objective criteria, but racism snuck in; the HOLC and FHA valued homogeneity over heterogeneity, particularly in regard to ethnicity and race.  Those communities depicted in “red” usually contained minorities: African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and sometimes newly arrived immigrant groups like Slavs, Jews, and Italians. This system of redlining ultimately drew private investment away from heterogeneous communities like Boyle Heights and Watts. Working class and white ethnic communities fared better, but were also penalized, often receiving C and sometimes D ratings.

A 1940 publicity shot for the Crenshaw Park housing development
A 1940 publicity shot for the Crenshaw Park housing development, courtesy of the USC Libraries – Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

The impact of redlining cannot be overstated. Redlined communities struggled to receive federally backed home loans, making property ownership much more difficult for residents. Moreover, it made getting loans for home improvements – maintenance, upkeep and renovation – though not impossible, very unlikely. Neighborhoods fell into a vicious circle of decline: the inability to access capital lead to disrepair and the physical decline of a community’s housing stock, which in turn reinforced the redline designation. That redlining became equated with race and class led to the naturalization of segregation; white, working-class homeowners often sought to exclude those populations seen as threatening to home values. Redlined communities also sat closer to industrial areas, vice districts, and environmentally compromised settings, exposing residents to health risks and crime.

When one examines the 1939 HOLC map for Los Angeles in conjunction with the “findings” of its appraisers and housing experts, the stark racism of the project appears undeniable. As Nelson succinctly puts it, HOLC maps were “explicitly racist . . . the racism isn’t subtext. It’s just text.”[4]

The map’s depiction of several iconic L.A. communities makes this bias even clearer. According to appraisers, Boyle Heights (D53) proved a “’melting pot’ area, literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive elements.” Watts (D61), then an ethnic and racial stew of Germans, Scots, Greeks, Italians, blacks, and Japanese, earned a “low red” grade due to its heterogeneity.[5] If “not for a scattering of Japanese and Filipino residents [Hollywood (D29) (D30)] would be entitled to a higher grade,” HOLC officials noted in justifying its D rating.[6] Central Los Angeles dismayed appraisers due to its “highly heterogeneous” population and “sprinkling of subversive racial elements,” the latter comment a reference to its “concentrations of Japanese and Negroes.”[7] Bunker Hill’s (D37) declining housing stock and nonwhite population also earned it a D rating; a brief perusal of the map reveals that nearly all the neighborhoods abutting downtown Los Angeles were redlined.

Boyle Heights, circa 1930
Viola Tinsley (left) with two children Orvella (top) and Alonzo Bridges, in front yard of the Tinsley home at 323 Cheesbourgh in Boyle Heights, circa 1930. Courtesy of the Shades of L.A. Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Finding other lines of racial demarcation are not difficult. Travel down Arlington Boulevard and one discovers one such example dividing West Jefferson Park (D50) and West Adams (C119). The sunset of deed restrictions ten years earlier in the West Jefferson Park community had resulted in the “infiltration” of blacks and Japanese into the neighborhood, which prompted white homeowners associations in West Adams to organize and prevent African and Japanese Americans from settling in their community. Though nearly half of West Adams’ population consisted of working-class Eastern European Jews, themselves victims of downgrading by assessors, the institutional racism of HOLC and FHA practices did not create solidarity between them and their African-American and Japanese-American counterparts. “This home of ours is the one big financial venture of our life, and there must be some way to protect us from this particular Japanese invasion,” one West Adams couple told the L.A. City Council in 1940. Assessors rewarded West Adams’ racial intransigence with a C rating.[8]

City Rising

Outlying areas endured similar appraisals. The HOLC assessment chided suburban, working-class South Gate for its lack of deed restrictions, which formally prevented minority homeownership, but celebrated it for its homogeneity, awarding it a low-blue rating. L.A. was hardly unique in this regard; the larger structure of New Deal housing policies as expressed through FHA policies and captured in HOLC maps codified institutional racism nationally, particularly among working-class whites whose biggest investment had been in their homes.[9]

Such policies demonstrate that the FHA and HOLC established a caste system of race and ethnicity. Racial hierarchies prevailed. Assessors in Los Angeles, historian Charlotte Brooks argues, saw Asians and Africans as the most “subversive.” In contrast, Southern and Eastern Europeans and Mexicans with the right mix of social class, occupation and skin color could “climb the ladder of whiteness.” For example, one neighborhood in the L.A. suburb of Claremont (C55, C56) received a C rather than D rating since it contained a “few better class Mexicans.” The San Gabriel Valley Wash community, more heavily Mexican-American, received no such consideration as one assessor described it as populated by “goats, rabbits, and dark skinned babies.” Most might have been native-born, but too many were still “’peon Mexicans” and constitut[ed] a distinctly subversive racial influence.”[10] In her own research, L.A. historian Laura Redford of Scripps College, notes that while Japanese and African-Americans were singled out, too, the language describing Mexican-Americans in the Los Angeles area proved particularly “painful” and “awful”.[11]

​  1939 HOLC "redlining" map of south Los Angeles
​ 1939 HOLC "redlining" map of south Los Angeles, courtesy of LaDale Winling and urbanoasis.org.

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To be clear, historians continue to argue how much HOLC maps actually created redlining policies. In his classic 1984 work, “Crabgrass Frontier,” Kenneth Jackson suggested that the maps induced redlining as a policy. More recently, however, Amy E. Hiller and others have argued that redlining actually emerged from the intersection of FHA policies with private industry practices among local banks and real estate agents. Moreover, HOLC maps simply were not distributed widely enough to have the kind of effect Jackson suggested.[12]

Los Angeles provides a good example of redlining activity that preceded the HOLC maps. Even before the FHA, ideas about race and contagion emerged in the work of sociology graduate students at the University of Southern California. Embracing concepts that viewed ethnic and racial heterogeneity as problematic, the students drew lines conveying fear, in the words of historian Greg Hise, “of borders drawn and breached, of districts invaded, of possible even likely possible contagion” brought out by minority populations. Public health and school administrators used language to define social distance between white Angelenos and the “other.”[13] Ethnic whites, such as Russians, Jews, and Italians, risked categorization as “low class” should they fail to create distance between themselves and minorities.[14] During the 1930s, the Los Angeles Housing Authority worked with the Works Progress Administration and local surveyors to produce HOLC reports on “blighted districts.”[15] It should come as little surprise that private industry adopted or paralleled these practices.

Admittedly, the FHA played a critical role. First published in 1936, the FHA’s “Underwriting Manual” was widely publicized and distributed. While it focused more on appraisals for individual mortgages, it did incorporate “neighborhood risk.” “If a neighborhood is to retain stability,” the manual noted, “it is necessary that properties shall continued to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy contributes to the instability and decline in property values.”[16]

The FHA’s original system for appraising risk used letter grades identical to the HOLC’s as ratings; those with a rating of D were rejected for insurance. The HOLC might have influenced FHA policies and appraisals, but the latter had already begun to do this before the former had enacted its City Survey Program. Moreover, banks like Los Angeles’ Security First National had enacted their own programs for neighborhood assessment prior to 1939, most of which also hinged on issues of race and class.[17]

1939 HOLC "redlining" map of Pasadena and vicinity
1939 HOLC "redlining" map of Pasadena and vicinity, courtesy of LaDale Winling and urbanoasis.org.

Then again, historiographical debates of this sort, though not unimportant, are not really the point. Getting to the heart of “larger public history and public policy questions … prompting, catalyzing, and generating conversations about inequalities in American cities in the past and today” should be the central concern, the University of Richmond’s Robert K. Nelson tells me. In the end, government conveyed to private industry exactly what “best practices” would be in mortgage insurance. “I’m persuaded that [HOLC maps] helped create national standards; even if [the HOLC] doesn’t originate redlining it systematizes [the policy].” Redford agrees, noting the HOLC Maps codify “inequity that already existed in urban spaces and create[d] numerous problems going forward.”

Nor does the HOLC only map the past. Nelson points out that, in his correspondence with them, urban residents across the U.S. express amazement at how much “the old [HOLC] view corresponds to the new view.”[18] L.A. encapsulates this point. Outside of a handful of once-redlined beach communities, adds Redford, “there hasn’t been a lot of [variation] in regard to social or economic change and who was advantaged or disadvantaged and it all correlates to race and class.”[19]

Once redlining plunged a community into the vicious circle of decline, municipal and federal officials would then categorize such neighborhoods as “blighted.” Urban renewal ensued, a process that victimized minorities at ever increasing rates. Witness Bunker Hill and after it, Chavez Ravine. The former became the site of California’s first urban renewal project, setting in motion, in Hise’s telling, a “fifty-year effort to being affluent Angelenos ‘downtown.’” The latter famously resulted in the ouster of a local Mexican-American community to clear the way, eventually, for Dodger Stadium.[20] In numerous other cases, allegedly blighted communities, like Boyle Heights, became the site for freeways, undoing and marginalizing whole communities.[21]

Are there any silver linings? Perhaps. The process of regulating housing at the federal level eventually led to fair housing acts that have benefitted minority homeowners, Nelson points out. Cebul adds that, though it came at the expense of minorities, the FHA and HOLC did establish a new form of wealth through housing policy and enabled working-class whites and, on rare occasion, nonwhites to join the middle class. Over time, though hardly equally distributed, this has also increasingly helped Asian, Latino, and black Americans to varying degrees.

Leaving South Gate
"Leaving South Gate," circa 1938. Photo courtesy of the Herman J. Schultheis Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

The suburb of South Gate serves as a useful example. Once a blue-collar town on the outskirts of L.A., the combination of expanding industry and FHA mortgages brought a middle-class sheen to South Gate. Despite residents’ and officials’ efforts to prevent minorities from settling in the suburb, by the late 1970s and early ‘80s it had become a town filled with Latino homeowners. In fact, today the larger Southeast Los Angeles area, built by FHA mortgages, is home to of tens of thousands minority homeowners.

Finally, too often Americans think of “racial sorting” as a “natural” process of the market. Yet HOLC maps force us to “see how structured the processes are,” Cebul notes. Redford adds: “It’s important to recognize lots of people were aided through the programs the federal programs instituted or underwrote, but we also need to recognize” that these same policies disadvantaged people of color.[22]  

The HOLC and FHA saw risk in diversity and monetized this conceit, which ultimately devastated whole communities and naturalized a level of institutional racism from which we are still recovering. The irony, UCLA historian Eric Avila notes, is that though the New Deal “sustained the development of a heterogeneous public culture in Southern California,” FHA and HOLC policies laid the foundation for the postwar racial inequality that worked to destroy it. At a time in which “Make America Great Again” has become a ubiquitous political slogan, the 1939 HOLC map of Los Angeles reminds us how relative such an idea was and perhaps still is.

1939 HOLC "redlining" map of north Los Angeles
1939 HOLC "redlining" map of north Los Angeles, courtesy of LaDale Winling and urbanoasis.org.

Notes 

[1] Interview Robert K. Nelson and Brent Cebul, October 28, 2016.

[2] Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 35.

[3] Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 116.

[4] Interview Robert K. Nelson and Brent Cebul, October 28, 2016.

[5] Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, 26, 35.

[6] Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, 117.

[7] Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, 117.

[8] Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, 119, 121-122.

[9] See Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997); Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007)

[10] Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, 116.

[11] Laura Redford, interview, November 3, 2016.

[12] Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Amy E. Hillier, “Redlining and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation,” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 29. No. 4 (May 2003): 394-420.

[13] Greg Hise, “Border City: Race and Social Distance in Los Angeles”, American Quarterly, Vol. 56 No. 3, (Sept. 2004): 552.

[14] Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, 117

[15] Hise, “Border City”, 554.

[16] Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, 35.

[18] Interview Robert K. Nelson and Brent Cebul, October 28, 2016.

[19] Interview, Laura Redford, November 3, 2016.

[20] Hise, “Border City”, 554.

[21] See Eric Avila, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

[22] Interview, Laura Redford, November 3, 2016.

This article was originally published Jan. 19, 2017. It has been re-published in conjunction with the broadcast of Lost LA's "Coded Geographies" episode. 

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