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Reliving Seattle’s redlining roots through Great Depression maps

An interactive platform by the University of Richmond called "Mapping Inequality" looks into Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps from the Great Depression to see what redlining looked like

As Seattle, and many other American cities, find themselves in the midst of a demographic gentrification shift, it’s important to look back at the way policies and decisions about who could live where created the situation that’s not being affected. An interactive platform by the University of Richmond called "Mapping Inequality" looks into just that. Specifically, it digs into the mother of all redlining resources: Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps from the Great Depression.

HOLC recruited mortgage lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers in nearly 250 cities to create maps that color-coded credit worthiness and risk on neighborhood and metropolitan levels. These maps and their accompanying documentation helped set the rules for nearly a century of real estate practice. They have also served as critical evidence in countless urban studies in the fields of history, sociology, economics, and law. Indeed, more than a half-century of research has shown housing to be for the twentieth century what slavery was to the antebellum period, namely the broad foundation of both American prosperity and racial inequality. Through offering a digital library of the state's role in housing development, Mapping Inequality illustrates vividly the interplay between racism, administrative culture, economics, and the built environment.

Back then, neighborhoods were color-coded based on potential credit risks they posed to homeowners. Green "best" and blue "still desirable" neighborhoods were the kinds of places white buyers would look to live. Red "hazardous" neighborhoods were noted because of high densities of African-American and other minority demographics and would therefore be considered discouraging at the time. This is redlining in the most literal sense.

Included is a 1936 map of Seattle with this color coding, or as it’s referred to, "Grades of security."

The interactive map also includes a spatial analysis tool that gives you a sense of how things shook out based on how close they were to city center. Aside from business and commercial spaces, what makes up the center of Seattle was almost entirely considered "hazardous" or "declining" neighborhoods. If you wanted to find something "desirable," you had to go to the next circle out and look for pockets in Washington Park, Montlake, Madison Park, Mount Baker, Queen Anne, Alki, and North Admiral. North Seattle is a trove of "desirable" neighborhoods while South Seattle leans heavily into "undesirable."

It’s hard not to look at this 1936 map and see how it and the practices behind it helped shape the city we know today. Or at least, the city we’ve known until now. Developers are remaking many of these "undesirable" neighborhoods and gentrification is shifting things around once more. Whether or not the thinking involved in the two eras is more similar than we care to admit, that’s a discussion playing out in government meetings and coffee shops all across Seattle each day.