DispL.A. Case #29: Redlining Maps

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The history of Los Angeles as told through 232 objects.

 Los Angeles was founded on September 4, 1781. Between now and the 232nd anniversary, we are gathering the stories behind iconic objects that help explain our city. Los Angeles is older than Chicago, Atlanta or Washington, D.C. In fact, when L.A.’s founders were gathering at El Pueblo, New York City was still occupied by the British army. We have a long story to tell, let’s take a look back and see where the city came from. Feel free to add to this exhibition. Email your ideas to askchris@lamag.com

 

More than a million Americans were losing their homes to foreclosure when President Roosevelt formed the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation in 1933. The federal program was meant to help homeowners extend the terms of loans by selling bonds to investors, and was a great success. It also denied funds to neighborhoods that fueled their decline for the rest of the century. To convince banks that investments were safe, the HOLC hired thousands of real estate agents to create so-called “safety maps” showing the hazards and amenities of the city block-by-block. Green areas were “sought after,” blue was less desirable, then yellow and finally red, which according to USC history professor Philip J. Ethington was to indicate a neighborhood in decline. “If they found Jews in a neighborhood it must be declining and the values must be lower, “ Ethington told me. “They didn’t want Jews, Mexicans are even worse, and they certainly don’t want blacks or Chinese. The idea was that if you find these people in a neighborhood, the decline must have already happened. They would say it had a ‘subversive racial element.’” Ethington says these maps are the origins of redlining and that the banks kept them in the back room away from customers. A bank officer would check the maps and let the potential homeowner know if they would make the loan. The pattern of treating racial integration as a cause of property value decline had far reaching consequences as vast neighborhoods were written off by investors and fell into decay. They maps are also an amazing documentation of the diversity of Los Angeles, with major streets like Western Avenue running through all four of the zones.

 

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