Tracing Erie's History of Redlining
Institutional racism that still resonates in our community
By: Jonathan Burdick
In well-known surveys ranking the greatest presidents, a common name tops nearly every list. The New York Times? Abraham Lincoln. C-SPAN? Abraham Lincoln. The very official sounding Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey? Good ol' Honest Abe.
Lincoln hasn't always been this universally celebrated, of course. Considering his presidency and the Civil War are intertwined, that shouldn't be a surprise — but the reality is that even in the Northern Union states, views on Lincoln (during both his 1860 and 1864 campaigns) were sharply divided.
He won his 1864 reelection in an electoral landslide, but the popular vote was much closer than such modern adoration might suggest. During this campaign, Lincoln's opponent was George B. McClellan, an Army general who had been removed from his command by Lincoln two years prior. While McClellan was not opposed to the war like many anti-Lincoln Democrats (his nickname was "Young Napoleon" after all), he was opposed to emancipation, even as Lincoln's public views began to change.
"I confess to a prejudice in favor of my own race," McClellan once wrote, following this thought with shockingly racist stereotypes and slurs.
Valid criticism of Lincoln's first term existed, but much of the anti-Lincoln fervor in northern states was fueled precisely by Lincoln's changing public views on slavery — first, by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the Senate months earlier. Many Northerners simply agreed with McClellan's views on race and abolition.
The Erie Observer, the Pennsylvania city's Democratic anti-abolition newspaper at the time, had been publishing articles lambasting President Lincoln in the months leading up to the election.
"The President has sacrificed conscience, principle, everything to appease the Abolitionists and conciliate their support," the paper declared on Election Day. In issues following Lincoln's win, they predicted that his reelection would "end in disaster and probable ruin." The editors expressed "sorrow for the delusion that has swept over the land."
In another editorial titled The Duty of Democracy, the paper stressed that his election was due to the "fanaticism" of abolitionists: "[This] destroyed, first, the liberties of the people North and South [and] second, the institution of negro slavery."
Absolute abolition hadn't passed in Pennsylvania until 1847, meaning for many Pennsylvanians, slavery was not merely an abstract Southern concept. Anti-abolition ideology was widespread throughout Pennsylvania, the evidence of which can be found in every Northern anti-abolition newspaper.
The Observer's following issues began relaying numerous tabloid-style stories, clearly meant to stoke racist fears over the abolition of slavery: a black soldier had arrested a white man in Kentucky for celebrating General McClellan. Black laborers in Baltimore were striking over their bosses hiring white women. Two black residents in Boston held a public forum on the question: "Who are the best friends of the colored people of America, the Southern slaveholders or Northern Abolitionists?" The answer, the paper claimed they said, was the Southern slaveholder.
In another story, the Observer argued that a "mulatto girl" couldn't possibly provide reliable testimony in court. "She drinks, chews tobacco, smokes, dresses in men's clothing," the article stated. "She is shrewd and unscrupulous and vicious to the last degree."
Such racist fear-mongering was common among white Northern newspapers and citizens — including among those who wished to see slavery abolished. This long history of Northern resentment over the abolition of slavery helps contextualize how Northern cities progressed over the following century. As the United States entered the 20th century and southern Jim Crow laws increasingly denied black citizens of their constitutional rights, Northern cities, including Erie, were intentionally segregating as a matter of policy.
By the mid-20th century, the racist and xenophobic process of redlining was realigning northern cities with neighborhoods just as segregated as those in the South.
The dictionary definition of redlining is to "refuse a loan or insurance to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk." In practice, redlining policies were intentional in deciding what groups of people would be considered poor financial risks: black families and immigrants.
Before the Great Depression, short-term loans were how most people purchased homes. This made home ownership difficult or out-of-reach for many laboring Americans, regardless of race. When the housing market collapsed in the 1930s and one out of every ten homes faced foreclosure, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal administration made the 30-year mortgage the new standard by guaranteeing them. This opened the possibility of home ownership for many.
But not everybody.
When the Federal Housing Administration was established in 1934 to insure these mortgages, they did so by utilizing a surveyed mapping system with ranked neighborhoods. These maps were soon used by private lenders as well. These "Residential Security Maps," created by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, were designed "to graphically reflect the trend of desirability in neighborhoods from a residential view-point" and to identify neighborhoods with an "infiltration" of "undesirables."
Areas were designated by a number along with a security grade and color, which described the "quality" of the neighborhood. These security grades consisted of A ("Best" and green), B ("Still Desirable" and blue), C ("Definitely Declining" and yellow), and D ("Hazardous" and red).
Neighborhoods outlined in red ("redlined") or yellow were consistently denied loans in favor of almost exclusively white suburbs or affluent city neighborhoods.
In the accompanying documents for each neighborhood, the reports identify the inhabitants by the "type" of people who live there: the percentage of "foreign-born" and "negro" residents. These were the "undesirables" and if many lived in a section, it was referred to as an "infiltration."
In Erie, the Frontier neighborhood was labeled as one of the city's best. In the accompanying documents, it is described as a "desirable restricted residential area of high-class homes" with "good transportation and schools." Residents were described as "executives" and "professional men." There were no foreign-born or black households. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, around 130 homes were built in Frontier, the construction of which would have been approved for almost exclusively white families.
Contrast that with the designated area of D-4, from E. Front Street to Fourth Street in the area surrounding the Soldiers and Sailors Home. The tract is described as detrimentally affected by "smoke and noise from industry" with its households in mostly poor condition. Its inhabitants are categorized as being from the labor class with households of mostly Polish and Russian immigrants, as well as black families, of which there are a "heavy" amount that rely on relief.
Another neighborhood, labeled D-5, notes that there is an "infiltration of negro" and identifies their specific concentration "along railroad tracks and on 13th to 16th Streets." It also notes a high amount of Polish immigrants and some "low class Jewish on 17th and 18th Streets from French to Parade." Little Italy, with 60 percent Italian immigrant families along with a small amount of black households, was also considered "hazardous" and one of the least desirable neighborhoods.
Three of the neighborhoods labeled "hazardous" provide no descriptions of the inhabitants and buildings with the only comments referring to them as areas "of bad character" and "poor reputation" with "shack type housing."
Sections labeled as the "best" and "still desirable" are often labeled as being neighborhoods of "good character," while universally having no immigrant or black households. This was not a coincidence.
In many of the more affluent white neighborhoods of Erie, deeds and neighborhood agreements had built-in clauses explicitly banning racial and specific immigrant groups from purchasing homes. Real estate agencies actively enforced such policies. Zoning laws were also similarly abused. These policies and procedures were deliberate in their exclusion and lack of accessibility for non-white residents and potential buyers.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968, which passed a week after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s murder, officially prohibited housing discrimination. While crucial, it did little to solve the problems already created by redlining. The law was designed to prevent discrimination, but it did not provide reparations or reverse the damage already done. Cities were already segregated and families within the redlined neighborhoods were often caught in institutionalized poverty traps. These policies generated a significant imbalance of generational wealth along racial lines — particularly as suburban homes increased in value while homes in redlined neighborhoods depreciated significantly.
Most housing experts today conclude that social engineering such as redlining requires equally responsive social engineering to fix. Despite this, the majority of white Americans oppose government policies designed to level out the unbalanced playing field, often arguing for policies that are "colorblind" or "race neutral" instead.
A 2014 study by sociologists from Princeton and Brigham Young found that white Americans have become increasingly disapproving of discriminatory policies — but that doesn't necessarily translate to action.
"[W]hites no longer support segregation and discrimination as matters of principle, though many continue to harbor negative racial stereotypes, display limited tolerance of racial mixing, and offer little support for any form of civil rights enforcement," the study concludes.
As recently as 2008, redlining made regional headlines when Erie Indemnity Company (which owns Erie Insurance Company and Erie Insurance Company of New York) found itself the target of a Justice Department lawsuit. Investigations by the Fair Housing Council of Central New York led to allegations of discrimination and violations of the Fair Housing Act by independent insurance agents selling Erie plans in Upper New York.
"There are racially segregated housing patterns in communities in Upstate New York," the Justice Department's complaint reads. "During the time period January 1, 1999 through at least June 30, 2004, Defendants selected agents and operated their insurance business in a manner that produced disparities in their market share and the types of homeowner's policies they sold between neighborhoods … The totality of Defendant's policies and practices … constitutes the redlining of predominantly and majority black neighborhoods in Upstate New York."
The Justice Department alleged that their practices were "intended to deny and discourage … an equal opportunity to residents of African American neighborhoods, on account of the racial composition of those neighborhoods" and that this was "intentional, willful, and taken in disregard for the rights of others."
Even though this conduct was by independent insurance agents, Erie Indemnity Company was deemed liable. The parties ultimately agreed to a settlement in 2008 with no admissions of guilt or further investigations by the Justice Department, but with certain stipulations: policies would be made available and marketed equally, a full-time Director of Diversity and Community outreach would be hired, insurance agents would receive new training, and $225,000 in monetary damages would be paid to the Fair Housing Council of New York.
The recent Emerge 2040 report, commissioned by the city and county, also demonstrates the lingering effects of redlining on Erie. White flight from the city continues today, the report says, as "the typically higher median income among this race group is associated with a comparatively greater ability to afford living in higher-cost areas outside of the City."
In its measures of racial and ethnic segregation, it concluded that black residents are "by far the most geographically segregated racial group within Erie County." Analyzing census data from 1960 to today, the distribution of black residents throughout Erie County has a consistent correlation with the redlining maps.
"[O]vert factors, such as real estate practices, can limit the range of house opportunities for minorities," the report states. "A lack of racial or ethnic integration in a community creates other problems, such as reinforcing prejudicial attitudes and behaviors [and] narrowing opportunities for interaction."
Many problems facing cities such as Erie today are the result of a long legacy of racist ideologies and government policies that have always plagued the United States. If there is skepticism in some communities that the government can (or has the will) to solve problems of its own creation, such skepticism isn't without precedent. When recent buzzwords such as "opportunity zones" are met with cynicism and suspicion, there are reasons: who exactly benefits and how can this process be trusted?
This is a complex topic with even more complex and bold (and likely controversial) solutions needed — but it is a topic that deserves to be deeply explored, scrutinized, and discussed. It's up to cities such as Erie to keep that discussion going.