Place  /  Explainer

How Redlining Segregated Philadelphia

Decades after civil rights laws overruled policies that starved non-white neighborhoods of investment, deep disparities linger.
United States Federal Government/Wikimedia Commons

About a third of the homes on West Oakdale Street between 15th and 16th in North Philadelphia are empty. Six vacant lots interrupt the narrow rowhouse block. On a recent November afternoon, brown tendrils of dead ivy cling tightly to the roof of one abandoned home and blanket the brick below. A thriving colony of feral cats boldly holds court among the piles of litter at the east end of the street, within sight of Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s North Philadelphia station.

Nearby there are blocks in worse shape, so blasted that they appear touched by the hand of God or by some implacable force of nature. Closer to Broad Street and along major thoroughfares like Lehigh Avenue stand the faded remnants of North Philadelphia’s 19th-century past.

When Alex Peay moved to Philadelphia from New York City 10 years ago, the scale of the disinvestment astounded him. He now lives about a 15-minute walk from West Oakdale Street.

“I’ve seen it in New York, but not to this scale,” says Peay, who runs a nonprofit called Ones Up, which helps disadvantaged youth learn professional skills. “There are just blocks and blocks of abandoned houses. And you go down Broad Street and notice that at one time that was a busy, high-end area. Now there’s nothing. You’re like, ‘what the hell happened?’”

There are many reasons for North Philadelphia’s desperate state. But one of the most profound can be traced back to an 80-year-old social engineering effort, when the federal government exacerbated racial wealth disparities and housing segregation across the United States.

Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government involved itself in the national economy as never before. But as it struggled to revive the housing market after the Great Depression, it spurned the opportunity to maintain or foster integrated neighborhoods. Instead the federal government encouraged mortgage lenders to withhold credit from older urban neighborhoods, immigrant communities and, especially, areas where African-Americans or other people of color lived.

The process came to be known as “redlining,” because of the way that banks and federal agencies marked maps of the neighborhoods where mortgages should be withheld, chalking them off from the rest of the city with red ink.