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Seeing red: racial segregation in LA’s suburbs

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The urbanisation of Los Angeles racially segregated its citizens through ‘redlining’ policies, an urban violence that perseveres today

Only a few years after the 1965 Watts Riots, British architectural critic Reyner Banham declared his great and controversial love for LA in the influential 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. In it he writes: ‘the language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement … the city will never be fully understood by those who cannot move fluently through its diffuse urban texture, cannot go with the flow of its unprecedented life’.

Sadly, precisely the opposite is true. Full freedom of movement has always had a colour in the US, its urbanism designed to segregate. The brilliance of Banham’s insight is precisely that LA is orchestrated to ensure movement from enclave to privileged enclave for a few, enabling ignorance of the poverty and structural violence experienced by millions walled into place. Preservation of this ignorance is foundational to white supremacism and other privileges of gender and class. LA exemplifies the way it has been built into the urban landscape over time through the enormity of its sprawl, the fragmentation of its governance, the abandonment of inner-city residents by capital, followed by efforts to displace them on capital’s return. 

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This Tract is Exclusive and Restricted, Sunkist Gardens

This Tract is Exclusive and Restricted, published in 1950, illustrates how Sunkist Gardens was promoted to white clients, placing restrictive covenants barring African-Americans and other minorities from buying or renting. Image courtesy of California Eagle

It is only those who are not able to move fluidly and go with the flow who are able to see the true nature of LA and the extractive link between the outer suburbs and the neighbourhoods they surround. In the face of outside stereotypes of the ghetto, the real history of these neighbourhoods is one of love, hope and struggle against white mob violence, de jure and de facto discrimination, redlining, and the withdrawal of services and resources from schools, fire stations, hospitals, supermarkets and banks. The fight back inspires awe, yet this structural inequality underpins a quotidian violence that make every day a battle, and fills every life with loss. 

‘The violence of this struggle cannot be understated, nor the collective bravery that faced it down’

The roots of this structural violence stretch back a long way. Conquest accomplished the dream of an America stretching from sea to shining sea, with title to this never-unoccupied land taken through the genocide of native peoples and the wholesale transfer of property from Mexican landowners. In 1924 the LA Chamber of Commerce could proudly declare: ‘For centuries, the Anglo-Saxon race has been marching westward. It is now on the shores of the Pacific. It can go no farther. The apex of this movement is Los Angeles County.’ 

Such open rhetoric of white supremacy filled neighbourhood news-sheets and predicated racially restricted covenants inserted into deeds to maintain tight legal walls around neighbourhoods like Chinatown, ‘Mudtown’ and Mexican colonias. These restricted occupation of homes to Caucasians only, with exceptions made for servants. They first appeared in 1900 after an attempt to use zoning to keep neighbourhoods white failed in the courts.  

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The Los Angeles Sentinel on 6 May 1948 reported on the US Supreme Court ruling that racial covenants were legally unenforceable. Unfortunately this was not quite the case, as the court did not fully invalidate the covenants. Image courtesy of LA Sentinel

During the Depression, the federal government invested heavily in rebuilding property markets, incorporating both white supremacist rhetoric and covenants into the process. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation developed formal appraisal criteria to underpin property values, mapping neighbourhoods across the country. Graded from red to green, the primary criteria for red or ‘hazardous’ areas was the (non-white) race of the occupants. This is where the term redlining comes from, as the Federal Housing Administration and banks used these maps and those that followed to restrict investment and refuse loans. Federal loans required racial covenants, and government documents mobilised the language of ‘invasion’ and ‘defensibility’ in their appraisals. Developers, realtors and homeowner associations worked together to protect neighbourhoods through covenants, racial steering, and violence.  

A shift did come when the Second World War brought the Double V campaign in African-American communities across the country – victory abroad and at home against fascism and white supremacy. As the US sought to take a leading global role in defence of democracy, it became increasingly important to respond to international criticism of institutionalised segregation. The government submitted a brief in support of the NAACP arguments against restrictive covenants, and the Supreme Court found them unlawful in 1948. Why when the legal supports for segregation were removed, did segregation not end? The answer lies in the dual nature of housing itself. It is an asset, something bought and sold with its value defined through a market. It is also a home, the place where children are raised. It defines where kids go to school, the friends they make, the jobs available to them and the social networks they form, their extracurricular activities and above all, the people they marry. It is here that racial anxieties enter the market equation, ensuring that the green of money cannot in fact equalise white and black, brown, red or yellow. 

This duality meant that whites did lose home value as the red lines crept closer, driven by and driving ever deeper fears of black and brown bodies. They fought street by street year on year to keep their neighbourhoods white, so reinforcing race as the main commonsense characteristic of membership in both community and country. 

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street protests against the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)

On 1 March 2015, a homeless man was shot dead by police on Skid Row in LA, sparking street protests against the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and calls for more homes and fewer police. Image courtesy of Al Seib / Getty Images

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Tents house the homeless on the pavement near Skid Row in LA

Tents house the homeless on the pavement near Skid Row in LA. Existing housing is under threat from developers intent on converting Single Room Occupancy dwellings for the poor into loft living and boutique hotels. Image courtesy of Frederic J Brown / AFP / Getty Images

The violence of this struggle cannot be understated, nor the collective bravery that faced it down. White mobs invaded homes, lit fiery crosses, and in 1945 in Fontana burned to death the wife and two children of O’Day Short. Letter bombs ripped through homes on South Dunsmuir Avenue in 1952. Tacks were scattered on lawns, threats spray-painted over walls and pavements, shots fired through windows, hoses left running through windows to cause flooding. 

At the same time, capital freed from wartime production was being invested in real estate, and the government poured money into the infrastructure that allowed suburbs to swallow up farms and fields. Government subsidised the mortgages of primarily white GIs returning from the war to live in their new-built homes. Whites fled in increasing numbers to these new suburbs with their all-new defences. They brought industry, union jobs and good schools with them, stripping old neighbourhoods to the bones. 

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a figure from a CORE leaflet used in picketing in the city of Torrance, LA County in 1962

A figure from a CORE leaflet used in picketing in the city of Torrance, LA County in 1962

The effort to integrate these new suburbs was a large part of the Civil Rights struggle in LA in 1961 and ’62. The Congress of Racial Equality marshalled thousands to march to integrate a suburb in Torrance. After a year of resistance, the city council drove through an ordinance to privatise the city streets, to limit picketing and to restrict parking, all enforced by police who arrested hundreds of protesters. Both the campaign’s high publicity and failure would be the subject of a documented gathering of investors, real-estate developers and community builders. It seems hardly surprising, then, that the ’60s ushered in the rise of Common-Interest Developments (CIDs), which institutionalised Torrance’s tactics. Homeowner associations now oversee restrictions on ownership and a privatised infrastructure of roads, parking and amenities protected by private security accountable only to residents. CID numbers exploded in the 1960s after the passage of national civil rights legislation, going from 500 in 1964 to 10,000 in 1970. Today 32 million Americans reside in over 150,000 CIDs notable for their homogeneity of class and race.  

The 1960s and ’70s also saw the rise of the Lakewood Plan, which allowed the new suburbs to incorporate as towns despite being too small for true viability. They contracted with the county for key services, thereby preserving their tax base and starving older areas of resource. LA County now contains a patchwork of 88 municipalities and unincorporated areas, a nightmare for planning and governance. These variegated geographies of home-ownership alongside the explosion of land value over the past 60 years also explain the vast differences in average wealth between African Americans at $4,000 and whites at $355,000 (De La Cruz-Viesca, 2016). Poverty also has a colour in LA, bound up in the ways that communities of colour have been trapped in place.

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in 1954, William A Garnett captured the rapid mass production of 17,000 nondescript dwellings of Lakewood Park

In 1954, William A Garnett captured the rapid mass production of 17,000 nondescript dwellings of Lakewood Park. Image © Estate of William A Garnett

As David Harvey writes in The Limits to Capital, real-estate capital follows a particular logic of uneven development to maximise its returns. It drew on federal subsidies to drive outwards – open land allows development at scale with none of the expensive complications of brownfields – but even LA would encounter its limits and the anti-development struggles of suburban slow-growth movements described so brilliantly by Mike Davis. The past 20 years have seen capital return to a city disinvestment has left ripe, bringing with it all the racial logics of suburban development.

This is why redevelopment and new-urbanist infill has been experienced as racial cleansing by communities in LA and across the US. The lessons learned and wealth gained through restrictive suburban development have been reapplied to help disperse and dismantle communities of colour – the use of private security, the privatisation of public spaces and streets, the development of gated and defensible spaces with amenities such as pools, playgrounds, green spaces and gyms removed from public access. 

The efforts to cleanse LA’s Skid Row – where the homeless have been concentrated through an official policy of containment – are perhaps the most visible manifestation of this. Community groups such as LA Community Action Network (LACAN) have long been fighting for power to implement community-driven solutions such as Housing First, mental health services, community gardens and healing work around violence and addiction. 

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Michael Maltzan’s Star Apartments building for the Skid Row Housing Trust, 2013

Michael Maltzan’s Star Apartments building for the Skid Row Housing Trust, 2013, cantilevers its prefab rooms over the street, like a suspended kasbah

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Michael Maltzan’s Star Apartments building for the Skid Row Housing Trust, 2013

A one-storey commercial structure was transformed into this mixed-use complex, which contains 102 apartments for formerly homeless individuals. Both images courtesy of Iwan Baan

New development and an influx of investment could have supported such efforts, worked to undo the inequalities generated over a century of disinvestment in communities of colour. Instead developers and business interests have made concerted efforts to rid downtown and surrounding areas of these old residents to entice new residents back from the suburbs. They have emptied apartment buildings and Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels of tenants for conversion to lofts and boutique hotels, and criminalised basic acts of survival for the homeless. Vast sums have been spent to sweep poverty out of sight, moving it into prisons and neighbourhoods of colour where gentrification has not yet taken hold. It has not been as easy to displace a proud and organised community as to wall them out, but the resources being marshalled to do so are extreme.

This connection between race, community and land value forms the racial logic that we need to pull apart. We cannot allow such logic to continue to distort efforts to build the liveable, walkable, densely populated cities necessary for our survival on this planet. We can’t remain blind to how lack of opportunity and movement has cut short millions of lives. Racial and social justice, and the voice of those fighting for both, need to be central to re-imagining and rebuilding cities.

Lead image: The 1939 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation ‘redlining’ map of central LA. Image credit to ‘Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America’

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today