Below is a synthesis of two peer-reviewed pieces, an academic study on environmental injustice in the South Bronx and Richard Rothstein’s groundbreaking book, The Color of Law. Both texts are centered on the ways in which racism endures in our cities and perpetuates inequality today.
The end of slavery was only the beginning of codified discrimination in America. As Richard Rothstein details in The Color of Law, consistently throughout our country’s history, “the federal, state, and local governments have unconstitutionally used housing policy to create or reinforce segregation [in places where] it hadn’t previously taken root, in ways that still survive today” (2017, 14). Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, although necessary to address economic deprivation in the wake of the Great Depression and ultimately effective in doing so, was also responsible for the exacerbation of racial inequality and instability. Before the 1930s, the federal government played little direct role in housing provision, but during the Great Depression, was “prompted to intervene in the nation’s housing market because it constituted a significant sector of the national economy” and was key in alleviating distress and solving the national crisis. In response, the New Deal created the nation’s first public housing for civilians, especially those not engaged with defense work. The main issue, however, was that “race determined the program’s design” (2017, 19).
Roosevelt and his administration ensured that buildings, projects, and developments were separated based on race and hostile to integration. It was during this time that neighborhood composition rules, requiring that federal housing projects reflect “previous racial composition of their neighborhoods,” became commonplace—they would remain deeply entrenched in our housing markets for decades to come (2017, 21). Roosevelt created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to purchase existing mortgages and issue new payment schedules in order to support homeowners hit by the Great Depression, but banks were discouraged from making loans in urban areas to colored residents. The HOLC’s original redlined maps reveal that many of the neighborhoods marked “undesirable” in the 1940s and 50s still have some of the highest poverty rates today. Furthermore, The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) rendered African Americans ineligible for amortized mortgaged because they might jeopardize property values, preventing them from owning their own homes and contributing to the development of the slum. As white flight spread, and white families increasingly turned to the private market, more African Americans were left dependent on deteriorating public housing.
According the sociologists behind the “Direct observation of neighborhood stressors and environmental justice in the South Bronx,” published in Population and Environment, the South Bronx provides the quintessential example of a community ruined by exclusionary housing policy and environmental injustice. As white flight accelerated following World War II, the county became majority African American and Puerto Rican and was forced to contend with decreasing property value, increasing vacancy rates, and economic stagnation (2014, 478). Conditions were worsened by the placement of new toxic waste facilities in the area as well as the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway in 1963, a highway that displaced thousands of residents and decimated several densely populated neighborhoods, coinciding with outbreaks of street crime, gang violence, and the drug epidemic (2014, 483). Crime and decline fed each other in a vicious cycle, and the South Bronx began to fall apart.
By the 1970s, the district was in crisis. Redlining prevented property owners from selling their rent-controlled buildings, and public housing, neglected by landlords and abandoned by previous tenants, attracted hundreds of squatters (2014, 483). It became more profitable to destroy the buildings than to salvage them. Landlords hoping to collect insurance and tenants hoping to be given priority for housing elsewhere in the city took to setting property on fire, commencing a period of rampant arson that resulted in the loss of over forty percent of buildings in the South Bronx and a substantial reduction in the county’s population (2014, 485). “In those days,” a reporter wrote in the Washington Post, “the entire South Bronx looked like Dresden after the firebombing.” The South Bronx had become synonymous with urban decay on a scale previously unprecedented in the United States.