Triptych Tuesday: A Legacy of Inequitable Infrastructure

If the people centered-transportation movement can become a champion for racial and economic equity, it will play a direct an important counter-point to 20th century infrastructure decisions.

A major feature in Slate last month, the past and present of auto-centric infrastructure pockmarks nearly all U.S. cities with the brunt of the externalized consequences being shouldered by communities of color. Unfortunately, Buffalo is no exception.

As described in the One Region Forward Fair Housing Equity Assessment, from Interstate 190 to NYS Route 33 and NYS Route 198, in green lighting these highways:

“Public officials leveraged massive public works projects aimed to facilitate the rise of the automobile and expedite suburban commuting to additional end: the construction of highways through urban neighborhoods served to displace and disconnect emerging bases of African-American political power. At the same time these interventions undercut economic opportunities and activity within neighborhoods by allowing traffic (and customers) to quickly bypass city neighborhoods for new auto- centric commercial development. The legacy of these roadways has further created communities of environmental justice concerns where low-income and minority populations are now subjected to high volumes of car and truck emissions. 

Nowhere in Buffalo was the intrusion of highways on neighborhoods more apparent than the construction of Route 33. Also known as the [Kensington] Expressway, this highway was named after the grand Olmsted-designed Humboldt Parkway that was torn out for its construction. Humboldt Parkway was the spine of emerging black middle- class neighborhood of Hamlin Park and its link to the great public spaces of The Parade (now MLK Park) and Delaware Park. However, the local (white) power elite welcomed the destruction as a sign of progress. In fact, as New York State footed the lion’s share of the bill for the project, Buffalo’s then-mayor Steven Pankow reportedly proclaimed, “Never has Buffalo been offered so much for so little”.

humboldt pkwy with trees

humboldt pkwy trees cut  Streets_Humboldt_Mudpit_construction_1960s_B.jpg__320x259_q85

The Restore Our Community Coalition was formed in 2010 with a vision for restoring the grand parkway that was once the central defining and unifying element of this neighborhood. They are building a strong cohort of organizational and individual stakeholders to rally momentum for beginning to right the wrong done to this neighborhood. More information about this important work and more back story about the Parkway and ways to get involved can be found on their website.

A Legacy of Segregation and Discrimination: Redlining

…the housing sector is a prime example of the confluence of influences, often working together, to tilt the playing field away from communities of color.

In Tuesday’s post, we alluded to the multiple institutions, agencies and individual actors that contributed to the development of racial and geographic segregation and discrimination in the Buffalo Niagara region.

When it comes to the shape of our communities and the vast geographic disparities that exist, the housing sector is a prime example of the confluence of influences, often working together to tilt the playing field away from communities of color. In the 20th century and through the subprime lending crisis that still reverberates today, the federal government, private lending and real estate industries each played explicit and interconnecting roles in the decline of urban areas, particularly in communities of color.

We can see the seeds of the de-urbanization and sanctioned housing segregation that was rampant throughout the middle 20th century planted in the tail end of the Great Depression. Redlining, the practice of denying one group of people equal service, terms or access, became an official federal housing policy beginning in 1937, and the trajectory that it established for communities throughout the city has continued to this day. Based on this policy, the federal government would not insure mortgages in areas they deemed prone to “adverse influences”, with those influences being defined almost entirely on the presence of residents of color.

HOLC redline map

As described in the One Region Forward Equity Assessment (FHEA):

“[The] practice of redlining restricted the flow of capital to many neighborhoods, essentially sealing their fate as communities of decline. Terms such as “protection from adverse influences” and “infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups” were at best thinly veiled phrases used to delineate of minority neighborhoods where banks were advised or self-determined not to lend or to lend sparingly… [It has been] argued that the Federal Housing Administration “did more to institutionalize redlining than any other agency by categorizing mortgages according to their risk level and encouraging private lenders who wanted insurance for their mortgages to do the same”… the harm caused by this [ensuing] decline was both individual and collective, immediate and long- term, impacting at first housing but eventually nearly every facet of access and opportunity for communities of color across the country and specifically in Buffalo Niagara.”

A City of Buffalo neighborhood conditions analysis shows 60 years after the institutionalization of redlining shows how government created maps became a self-fulfilling prophecy for communities of color.
A City of Buffalo neighborhood conditions analysis shows 60 years after the institutionalization of redlining shows how government created maps became a self-fulfilling prophecy for communities of color.

[Recently, CityLab highlighted mapping work done by Evan Tachovsky at Belt Magazine revealing similar lasting impacts of redlining in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland.]

Combined with other federal policies, such as suburban mortgage incentives through the Veterans Administration, the interstate highway system, the HUD – Neighborhood Composition Rule used to segregate and ultimately stigmatize public housing and, later, the exclusion of single and two family houses from fair housing laws, helped dramatically fueled and, arguably, created white flight. Again from the FHEA:

“While some of the residents of diversifying city neighborhoods were content to live in integrated communities, others fled because they did not want to live near blacks. And while some preferred the allure of the white picket fence, others’ hands were forced by a slew of programs and regulations that severely restricted their options. White flight from the city was aided and abetted by the previously mentioned government backed mortgage insurance providers, with additional FHA policies drove investment away from home renovation projects, multiple unit dwellings, attached housing and houses on small lots – essentially most forms of urban development. The combination of low interest rates, low down payments and new construction techniques additionally made it cheaper in many cases to buy a home in the suburbs than to rent a home in the city.”

Far from acting alone, these government policies were extremely lucrative for many in the private sector, especially the finance, real estate and construction industries. Real estate and financial industry manipulation, restrictive race-based housing covenants, blockbusting, steering, speculation and unfair and exploitative lending practices all played a role and fostered a geographic imbalance and generational wealth gap that still exists today.

The One Region Forward Equity Assessment goes into these practices in greater detail, but it also outlines a history of resistance of everyday citizens — such as the early efforts of the Masten District Community Relations Council, and the ongoing efforts of Housing Opportunities Made Equal — fighting for ethical business practices and equal treatment under the law.

It’s available here.

Separate and Unequal in Buffalo Niagara

“The consequences of racial and ethnic segregation and discrimination directly impact individuals, neighborhoods and the region as a whole.”

In the 120 years since the case of Plessy v. Ferguson — which established the doctrine of separate but equal — morality, experience and, eventually, the law have proven time and again that separate can never be equal.

Yet in Buffalo Niagara we struggle, as do nearly all U.S. regions, with intense racial and ethnic segregation.

From the opportunity gaps that we experience, and that our research verifies, it is clear that Buffalo Niagara is also intensely unequal.

A Statistical Explanation of Segregation  SOURCE: Brown University US2010
A Statistical Explanation of Segregation
SOURCE: Brown University US2010

The stats can get complicated but simply reinforce what we have known to be true for too long. For instance, the Regional Index of Dissimilarity measures how one racial or ethnic group is distributed throughout the region as compared to another racial or demographic group. On a scale of 0-100, with 60 generally being considered a very high level of segregation, this measure conveys the percentage of one group that would need to move in order to achieve perfect integration with the other group. The divide between black and white is largest of any differential in Buffalo Niagara at a striking 71.

The “Main Street divide” is real, and it is stark. Nationally, the Buffalo Niagara Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) ranks high in segregation – as 6th most segregated on the White-Black index of the 102 largest metros, 21st in White- Hispanic segregation and as the most segregated on the White-Asian index.

Far from just dictating what sign of a geographic line people live on, the divide also greatly affects the access to opportunities and to services that people have on a daily basis. This unequal access leads to employment and achievement statistics that are skewed against people of color. The poverty rate of the white population in the region, then, is only 9.6%, but for African-Americans it is 36.1%, for Hispanic/Latino populations it is 35.8%, Asian/Pacific Islander 25.6% and Native Americans 23.5%.

An On-the-Ground Explanation of Segregation East Ferry (above) One Block East of Main Street West Ferry (below) One Block West of Main Street
An On-the-Ground Explanation of Segregation
ABOVE: East Ferry One Block East of Main Street; BELOW: West Ferry One Block West of Main Street via Google Maps

Because this inequality is widespread, pervasive and long standing, many of the factors contributing to segregation are buried under assumptions, stereotypes and misinformation so that the victims of an unequal system are too often blamed for its outcomes. Yet this imbalance continues to hold back individuals and region as a whole. As further described in the One Region Forward Equity Assessment:

…populations [of color] in the region suffer from reduced opportunity and outcomes in academic and occupational achievement, suffer poorer personal health and reduced quality of life.

The lack of economic vibrancy in poor neighborhoods reduces the municipal tax base making it more challenging for local governments to provide adequate levels of services, amenities and infrastructure throughout the region.

The inability to access employment, or additional challenges faced in accessing employment, in economically isolated neighborhoods means direct costs to government in the form of increased public assistance.

Concentrations of poverty and lack of mainstream economic opportunity have also led to higher areas of crime, reflecting an increased burden on the criminal justice system. However, disparities in law enforcement skewed against minority populations have also created huge familial and social strains within minority communities as a disproportionate number of families lose loved ones to incarceration.

Sanctioned and covert institutional financial policies and practices and the distorted economies of low-income neighborhoods further restrict access to the main stream economy and compound the difficulty of breaking the generational cycle of poverty.”

In short, there is a high universal cost of concentrated and racialized poverty. In fact, the The Equality of Opportunity Project has found that both whites and non-whites have lesser chances of escaping poverty and climbing the economic ladder in regions that are more highly segregated.

There is a distinct advantage to the region in addressing these issues and, as mentioned in an earlier post, a host of individuals and organization are working on these issues, growing a large and inclusive movement to achieve racial equity in Buffalo Niagara, but the work is far from complete.

In future posts, we’ll delve into both some of the root policy and practice causes of segregation and inequality in the region, as well as the recommendations coming out of the One Region Forward Equity Assessment.