Michael Rahtz

In this walking tour, I illustrate the effects of redlining that still persist today. The tour goes through various areas around Boston, in an attempt to assess or stimulate ideas about the impact of the official, racist policy that persisted during much of the twentieth century on current day segregation and standards of living in Boston. I gravitate, in part, around the emerald necklace, showing how the landscapes on either sides of the parks, most notably, Brookline and Roxbury, are different and how redlining played a role in shaping these communities, as well as how the Emerald Necklace played a role in guiding the redliners. One notable trend and key takeaway from this tour is that many of the sites’ current conditions reflect in some way their status in terms of redlining. That is, those marked as green continue to be wealthy, and those marked in red, continue to struggle for various reasons. 

The redlining of the early and mid twentieth century real estate continues to shape Boston communities today. Redlining was an overtly racist policy beginning in the early twentieth century which ranked the areas of Boston from an economic and racial standpoint. Ranks included best, still desirable, definitely declining, and hazardous. This wording and categorization polarizes the neighborhoods within the Boston area. Following the introduction of the map displaying which areas corresponded with which rank, this polarization was realized. Lenders and others in the real estate business would avoid the hazardous and definitely declining locations, as they were supposedly financially risky. This led to cycles of poverty and blight in the “red” areas as no investment was made there. The effects of these cycles set in motion by redlining is still very much in effect today. The potential evolution and changes that could have otherwise taken place in these communities was stolen. I compare, for example, a current income map of Boston with the redlining map created by the HOLC some 75 years ago. Where undoubtedly more substantial shifts in terms of socioeconomic and racial makeups would have taken place, there are few, especially in those areas marked hazardous and definitely declining. The fact that these places were labeled as such initiated a self-fulfilling prophecy that, once set in motion, cannot easily be undone. These communities, once significantly more prosperous and capable of stepping out of their supposed declination, are locked into the declination through redlining. I examine the effects that redlining had on various neighborhoods in the Boston area in terms of wealth and race. In doing so, I take into account parks along the emerald necklace and examine in comparison the neighborhoods on one side of the parks and those on the other side. I examine the redlining map around these parks and the reasons for the rankings there and compare those to current day status. 

The Emerald Necklace is a relational landscape, one that is woven into the fabric of the city and is connected to social and ecological histories and processes, especially those of redlining. Parks such as those found along the Emerald Necklace are often connected with higher costs of living for nearby homes. Parks, especially such large ones with many amenities, forests, and bodies of water as found in the Emerald Necklace, are valuable in real estate and generally increase property values and stability. Some areas around the park were thus determined to be low-risk by the HOLC. However, this was not the primary factor. Much of the perimeter of the Emerald Necklace, especially on the southern and eastern borders, was considered “hazardous.” These areas were, although they had the same access to the same parks, occupied primarily by African American and other minority residents. This proves the racism in redlining. The Emerald Necklace, in many ways, actually acts as a border. It separates Longwood and Brookline,  wealthier and whiter communities, from Roxbury, generally poorer and more ethnically diverse. While redlining sealed the fates of these communities, the Emerald Necklace allowed the HOLC to distinguish between certain areas as it created a barrier between wealth and race.

Reading the landscape is an essential part of landscape literacy, as Anne Whinston Spirn would say, and the landscapes I’ve chosen, in the form of specific sites around Boston, are landscapes that were very much defined by their histories. In other words, these are landscapes that are particularly hard to read without prior knowledge on the histories that have shaped them. And redlining is the primary influence behind the history of these sites. Redlining played, and continues to play, an incredibly influential role in shaping our cities, especially in Boston. Reading the landscape here, thus requires research in order to understand redlining and its effects today. This information can then be applied to the sites that I have chosen in order to successfully read them.  

Highlighting current segregation in this manner is also the first step in seeking justice and reversing the effects of the racist policy of nearly a century ago. We would like to say that redlining was a phenomenon of another time but we can’t. Its effects are still so pervasive today that doing nothing becomes morally irresponsible. Richard Rothstein writes in his book The Color of Law, which describes the extent of de jure segregation, that we must undo and reverse the effects of these policies. They were so explicitly racist that their end goals should not still be true. We cannot let them succeed. He argues that we have a responsibility to reverse the effects of redlining. In my walking tour I compare “good” versus “bad” areas and show the injustice that remains today thanks to redlining. In doing so, I hope to, like Rothstein, leave an impression on people regarding a problematic issue in order to inspire change.