Friday, April 30, 2010

Why does redlining endure?

This morning I went with Molly Kaufman and Sarah Kirshen to a very interesting panel discussion on the legacy of redlining. Held at Columbia University's School of Journalism, the panel featured a diverse group of experts from history, journalism, research and community advocacy. Redlining, started in the 1930s during a major banking crisis, was supposed to protect investment by improving the assessment of risk. Instead of strengthening the whole city, redlining created new layers of division with cities. It did this by endorsing a preferential system that gave neighborhoods with new buildings and white people the best ratings and those with black people and old buildings the worst ratings. It provided real fuel for the fire of fear that black people would ruin the neighborhood. As the presence of one black person did affect the rating, the fear of losing one's assets had some basis in reality. Though there have been efforts to get rid of redlining, it was clear from this morning's presentations that it is alive and well and continuing to ruin our economy. Its imprint defines the subprime lending crisis, as well as all the mainstream lending taking place in this period of recovery. While this morning's talks were informative, I was left wondering what we do about a practice that was wrong-headed in 1937 yet continues to drive the American economy in 2010.

In the evening I went to Pratt Institute for a book signing by Ned Kaufman for his book about historic preservation, Race, Place and Story. In his remarks, he said that about 90% of what should be preserved gets lost, and about 10% gets saved. It struck me as really ironic that the one thing we should get rid of -- redlining -- is very much with us, while what we should be saving -- our historic buildings and built environment -- is rapidly being lost. If we could just reverse those two, we'd be in great shape. Perhaps the way to begin is to consider that there is a relationship between the two, as indeed from the spatial perspective, there is.

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