February 18th, 2021


In which I ask you to give money, and spread the word.

Donation Link! Mapping Inequality: Digitizing our Redlining History

As most people who would bother to read this probably know, in the past few years, I have gotten involved with trying to reform our broken system for regulating how housing is built, and how land use is managed more generally. Along the way, I got curious about whether I could dig up "redlining" maps for my area. I found the Mapping Inequality project, a collaboration among three universities in VA and MD, and I ended up emailing them, as well as emailing the local branch of the National Archives. We happen to have one right here in my town of San Bruno, which I was familiar with because they bought some Tesla PowerPacks a couple years back, and I was on the team that commissioned that equipment.

The answer to the original question of whether there might be redlining maps of San Bruno was "probably not" -- the pretty color-coded maps were only produced for about the 200 largest cities, and the academic team is pretty confident that anything from the Bay Area has already been captured. But the conversation kind of snowballed, because it turns out that there are hundreds of boxes of supporting documents sitting around in DC, and out in satellite NARA offices. The satellite offices may have some more maps -- the team says due to notes they've seen elsewhere they think in particular that Denver may have some, for cities in the middle of the country -- but just in general, digitizing all of these ancillary records, like parcel-level survey info and the surveyors' notes about neighborhoods, has immense value to historians and economists, and will allow for the Mapping Inequality tool to add stuff like outlines and pins where you'll be able to zoom down and see what the federal authorities had to say about your neighborhood, or even your specific plot of land.

There's a whole category of interesting records in there where they have interviews with the actual mortgage writing officials -- your pillar of the community, George Bailey types. They also have info on the total amounts distributed to them, and exactly what parcels they were connected to. I have some sample images from a box relating to the wealthy Naglee Park neighborhood of San Jose. We can basically see how federal money flowed through these finance companies, to particular (White) neighborhoods.

The existing data collection is already making an impact on public consciousness, and moving the needle on policy. New York is looking at redressing issues in the Buffalo mortgage market. The federal EPA and CalEPA are both looking at how the history of redlining connects to air quality and urban heat island issues today. We can't even anticipate all the ways historians and econometricians are going to extract useful insights from this collection.

We want to get all of this information out to the public, in a usable form, within a few years, instead of leaving it to molder in warehouses for another generation. Every year these papers are just sitting around, without being digitized and shared, they're at risk of getting lost in some kind of disaster, like the Universal film archive.

We've set an initial fundraising target of $21k, which will pay for upgrading scanning equipment at the NARA offices. In exchange, NARA will be prioritizing access for the Mapping Inequality team. If we raise more than the initial target, the academic team can easily absorb any plausible excess, to spend on research assistants' wages and travel costs over the next couple years. We've already raised about half the main goal from private requests to generous friends and family. So now it's time to try to make the campaign go viral. If you'd be willing to chip in to support, at whatever level you can afford, and broadcast widely to family and friends, it would be much appreciated.
  • Current Mood
    hopeful hopeful