Monday, March 24, 2008 in , , , , , ,

How post-war American life contributed to today's suffering cities

I'm here to finish this thing. Let's get it done folks! This is the point where things all start to tie together, where we really begin to see how federal policy, prejudice, and the "Dream" of 2 kids, a car, and a house with a yard contributed to the very sad decline of what once were fine cities in our American landscape.

According to a striking passage in Buzz Bissinger's book A Prayer for the City the Home Owner's Loan Corporation, a program started by President Roosevelt in the New Deal era, created color-coded maps that determined lending practices for home purchases. Starting in 1933 HOLC refinanced mortgages that were in Danger of default because of the Depression. (By the way, sound familiar to today at all? Federal aid to help mortgages from going into default? hmmm... ) According to Bissinger, in the 1920s a mortgage had a life of 5 to 10 years and was then subject to renewal. HOLC extended mortgages to 20 years, much more similar to today's 15 and 30 year mortgages. "But as a precaution, the federal agency established exhaustive appraisal procedures to determine which areas of a city or suburb were more suitable for lending than others." The color-coded maps they created marked areas First, Second, Third, and Fourth grade. First grade areas were virtually free of blacks and foreign-born whites and were well planned parts of a city. These areas received the most funding. Second grade was deemed OK for lending, but at a slightly decreased rate. Third grade areas "were characterized, according to HOLC literature, by 'age, obsolescence, and change of style; expiring restrictions or lack of them; infiltration of a lower grade population...' "  Fourth grade areas were qualified as infiltrated by a large degree of undesirable population and unsuitable for lending.

Bissinger goes on to analyze that based on the HOLC's assesments Philadelphia was at a considerable disadvantage (and we can transfer this thinking to St. Louis as well, as it has many similar characteristics to Philadelphia). Older housing stock and mixed black and immigrant populations were deemed undesirable. Bissinger states that of the 13 neighborhoods in Philadelphia that received the first grade designation, none had any black population. Less than 5 % of Philadelphia as a whole received the desirable Green first-grade color. The vast majority of the remainder of the city was deemed Fourth Grade. Buildings were deemed as deteriorating and Negros, Jews and other foreign working-class Americans were classified as unsuitable to receive lending.

Conversely the Suburban areas were deemed as first and second grade because of undeveloped land for expansion and ethnic and racial purity.

The Federal Government in the 1930's had adopted a new model of government intervention and stabilization of the private sector. Previous the the Depression the economy was primarily treated as Laissez-Faire, but as that model was suffering and banks were failing there was room and need for the government to step in and stabilize the economy. According to Kristin Crossney and David Bartelt in their paper The Legacy of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the HOLC's primary function at the time of its inception was refinance of troubled mortages, not new purchase loans. Construction was also stalled due to the Depression, and was further inhibited in the early 40's by the concentration on the war effort. Crossney and Bartelt assert that the access of private individuals to these HOLC maps was limited, and that investment behavior in practice did not always match up directly with these maps. But the climate of the lending and social environment is pretty clear from the negative, divisive language that was simply a part of the American landscape at that time.

It should surprise no one that our country has had racial integration problems. Anyone that has seen Gangs of New York has a pretty clear picture of how immigrants were treated in the middle 19th century. Surprise!  By the 1930s much of that bias against immigrants had still not disappeared, and, Surprise! we seem to still be having some problems with immigration today. Otherwise I don't think we'd be hearing discussions of a fence to mark the Texas/Mexico border.

Back to the 1940s.... by the end of WWII a lot of population of the USA was squeezed into aging city housing that hadn't received proper maintenance in years. With the completion of the war and return of the troops from abroad, families began to grow, there was a housing shortage, and the economy shifted to bring in a new prosperity. The GI Bill was signed into effect in 1944 and allowed veterans to access housing and provided education benefits. Instead of redevelopment and investment in the city landscape, the lending was slanted towards new construction in the suburbs. According to Barbara Kelly in her paper The Houses of Levittown in the Context of Postwar American Culture , the federal government deemed rewarding veterans for their service through housing and economic advantage essential to a transition to the peacetime economy. Otherwise veterans would become discontent and cause political problems. About the decisions the federal government made in relation to this issue, Kelly writes "When the debate was over, the directions of the housing programs was clear. Veterans housing regulated by the FHA and funded through the Veterans Administration, would be built in the form of the American Dream; a vine-covered cottage set on a small plot in a suburban setting." Home ownership was equated with strong social structure and a cornerstone remedy of societal ills.

The traditional city model had kept workers close to their places of employment. Without a car, ease of transportation to work meant long distance commutes were just not possible for most working and middle class families. The new prosperity and growth of the middle class also meant the purchase and use of automobiles, creating a new mobility. Living in the suburbs and driving further to work was no longer a problem.

Who did the GI Bill benefit? Well, largely white males and their spouses. As I discussed before, if my numbers are correct and only 6.25% of the entire military service was black, lending through the VA went mostly to whites. The access to education and housing helped the white working class step up and move out of their crowded urban surroundings. So that left less-educated, lower income blacks and "undesirable" immigrant populations in the cities in housing stock that already needed work. It also caused the tax base to shift elsewhere. Sound like a recipe for urban success??

Indeed, the status provided by the suburban cottage and the life it created was reinforced by the government, builders, and companies producing consumer goods. It was the very hallmark of social stability, and was even thought of as a cure for Communism! Certainly a real estate owner would have too much to do to keep his property tidy to be joining radical political parties. Suburban life kept citizens busy, gave them a source of pride, and was basically used as a form of social control.

From my family I hear that the neighborhood here in North St. Louis "began to change" and that many of the families living here didn't really want to move, but couldn't stand to be the only good families left in a deteriorating neighborhood. While they were simply cogs in the machinery of an entire society of skewed values it doesn't change the fact that White Flight basically demolished city revenue bases and became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cities were seen as dirty, run-down, and full of undesirable populations. That is exactly what they have become and remain in the eyes of suburbia. Lack of reinvestment from the federal government and private individuals caused the beginning of a downward spiral that is still in progress in many places. In the St. Louis area the proliferation of suburban housing in outward areas such as St. Charles and Wentzville (as much as 1 1/2 hours from downtown by highway) has only been slowed recently by the collapse of the housing market. This is now one of the first times in the past several decades that bulldozed, construction-ready areas are just sitting idle.

We are on the verge of seeing just how far this American Dream and suburban expansion can be pushed. With gas prices projected to rise to $4 and $5 a gallon by summer this may be the first time the automobile culture generated in the 1940s may just be about to change direction. According to the national news from just the other day use of public transit is back up to levels it hasn't seen since the 1950s. Suburbia is about to see just how much it is willing to pay to retain the house and yard it prizes so highly. I'm sure we are all anxiously awaiting to see how the economy fares over the next year. Best of luck to us all.

Personally I'm excited to be part of the movement to revitalize my local urban neighborhood. I hope more people will do the same and contribute to theirs. It is not really about being charitable. It is about looking at the health of our entire communities and realizing that our society is only as good as its weakest members. While just one person can't change an entire city or an entire country, we each have a say. I intend to be proud of the interactions I have with members of my community that are different from myself. It only makes all of us better. 

Until next time as our local KDHX DJ Papa Ray says, "Do good in your neighborhood."

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