Blog #34: Building Inclusive Neighborhoods

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In the first half of the 20th century, African Americans moving into cities were funneled by racist powers into poor neighborhoods. When in 1948 the Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive housing covenants were unconstitutional (Hurd v. Hodge, Shelley v. Kraemer), the real estate industry created other segregation strategies.

Most effective was “blockbusting,” the manipulation of racist fears to scare whites out of neighborhoods (see Blog #33).  The U.S. Civil Rights Commission explained in 1962 that the blockbuster “stimulates panic” by relying “upon underlying racial prejudice which he intensifies and distorts for his own use.”  One 1959 eviction notice hid nothing, stating that, “in view of the nature of the neighborhood…the owner has decided to convert the building to colored occupancy.” Junk mail, phone calls, and door-to-door solicitations full of racist demagoguery pushed whites to undersell and leave.  Black families “steered” into these neighborhoods became victims of inflated pricing.

To combat such tactics, citizens wanting racially diverse neighborhoods formed advocacy groups.  Neighbors Inc. in the District of Columbia had its headquarters close to what co-founder Marvin Caplan described as “speculators row,” the offices of realtors profiting off of racism. Neighbors Inc. organized “block spotters” to combat the lies and racial fearmongering and to nurture racially diverse neighborhoods.

During the 1960s, Neighbors Inc. also created community through social functions – monthly open houses in the homes of both black and white residents, house and garden tours, art and book fairs, and babysitting coops. These continued as racial integration became the norm in Shepherd Park and Takoma.  Loretta Neumann, president of Neighbors Inc. from 1980-1982 and member of the Washington Ethical Society, helped create rewarding connections across the color line.

Despite both the work of similar groups around the country and the additional sanction of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, “resegregation” continues.  In one recent study, programs aimed at ending housing discrimination addressed less than 1% of all instances of discrimination (Silverman & Kelly, 2012). The L. A. Times recently cited a HUD report about superficially “racially-neutral” policies – such as zoning requirements – that maintain the legacy of segregation.

White supremacy is at work in new ways, including the gentrification of many urban cores. Without both a more honest conversation about racism’s affects on neighborhoods, as well as concrete efforts to maintain racial diversity in our neighborhoods, we lose out on the strength that radically inclusive communities provide.

  • Lesson #165: The case Shelley v. Kraemer grew out of a St. Louis resident’s demand that a neighborhood covenant agreement banning “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race” from occupying the property in his neighborhood be enforced. The Court cited the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause in rejecting the neighbors complaint. The house that was at the center of the controversy was bought by J. D. Shelley and is a national landmark.

  • Lesson #166: Just as the U.S. Civil Rights Commission explained how underlying racial prejudice is easily manipulated for to maximize profits, it is also easily manipulated for political gain as we see today.

  • Lesson #167: One Washington, D.C., realtor was so persistent in his harassment of white home owners as he tried to scare them into selling their house that one Neighborhood Inc. member called the police on him (fibbing that she thought he was a burglar) so that he would be escorted away.

  • Lesson #168: Neighbors Inc, and progressive organizations elsewhere in the country were often supported in their work by national organizations such as the NAACP, CORE, the Urban League, and the AFL-CIO.

  • Lesson #169: Loretta Neumann, who chose in 1973 to live in the Takoma neighborhood precisely because it was integrated, served as president of Neighbors Inc. On the radio program Epic City she said that a neighbor told her that in the mid-1960s one realtor actually arrived at a home literally with a suitcase full of cash in order to get the white family to sell. Such tactics, along with warnings about the neighborhood “turning Black,” were highly effective.

  • Lesson #170: Today “resegregation” is occurring throughout our cities because people don’t understand or oppose the effect of development on residents of color who live in areas ripe for redevelopment.

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