The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book Review:
Not in My Neighborhood

Jul 30, 2012

Mortgage scams, redlining and racial and ethnic segregation are nothing new. In fact, they are as American as apple pie, as Antero Pietila’s book Not in My Neighborhood shows so well.

Pietila, a reporter on the Baltimore Sun for more than 40 years, shows the decades leading up to World War I, during which immigrants poured into the U.S. Baltimore was a large port of entry, and also a city to which black people came as they tried to escape the South.

Baltimore’s leaders were determined to keep Jews and black people out of their neighborhoods, hence Pietila’s subtitle, “How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.” Realtors led the way by writing what were known as restrictive covenants for home sales: the contracts stated no Jews and no blacks were allowed to buy the homes.

Baltimore’s rapid population growth forced black people into a few neighborhoods. Homes lacked indoor plumbing. Crowding helped spread tuberculosis. Mortality rates for tuberculosis among black people were seven times higher than among white people in the early 20th century.

By 1910, Baltimore was segregated by race and religion in housing, restaurants, cemeteries. Its department stores allowed black people to buy, but they could not try on clothing. Black people could not attend concerts at Peabody Institute of Music. Finally, a black lawyer, W.A. Hawkins, challenged this housing discrimination by buying a house on McCullough Street, which until then had been a whites only street.

Jews and Catholics as well, were considered undesirable home buyers. In the 1930s, President Roosevelt’s housing administration created a list ranking how ethnic groups “improved” or “worsened” a neighborhood. The A list, the most desirable, included English, Germans, Scots, Irish and Scandinavian immigrants. The list was color coded, with city maps showing the least desirable housing areas in red. That’s where the word “redlining” came from in real estate.

The city government, usually Southern Democrats, promoted this segregation, spewing forth racist and ethnic lies to justify it. An interesting side note: A black professor at Morgan University in Baltimore invented the blood bank. But the Red Cross refused blood donations from black people during World War II.

Baltimore experienced a further population explosion before and during World War II: some 250,000 more white workers from the Appalachian states, and another 25,000 black workers, came to Baltimore. They found work at two booming defense industries, Bethlehem Steel and Glenn L Martin (an aircraft factory), both with a workforce of more than 50,000 each. The housing market was so tight that tiny houses were thrown up near the plants in eastern Baltimore County.

After the war, these so-called “undesirable” Appalachian white areas plus Baltimore City’s black areas remained red-lined. But such areas made millions in profits for realtors.

The Supreme Court may have formally ruled against housing discrimination in 1948, but reality was far different. The restrictions against blacks, Catholics and Jews, and Appalachian whites remained in the Baltimore housing market well into the 1960s.

Pietila’s book also shows how the big money developed in Baltimore. It came from the real estate men but also from fortunes made in liquor during Prohibition and from numbers running.

Racist and other questionable real estate tactics also helped to fund some of Baltimore’s best-known philanthropies.

Read Not in My Neighborhood for a good look at this historic phenomenon of mortgage scams. What happened in Baltimore happened in almost every U.S. city.