Monday, July 5, 2010

Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City

Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City is a great book. It is full of jaw-dropping statistics (i.e. in the 1970s, 83 percent of white growth was in Baltimore County, and 83 percent of black growth was in the city) uncomfortable truths (i.e. the Red Cross, on orders from the Military, turned away black blood donors at an emergency blood drive), seriously shady practices (Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson ordered real estate agents to report all sales to blacks to police), fascinating profiles (i.e. in 1964, a segregationist paving-contractor named George Mahoney ran for Governor on the Democratic ticket using the motto “Your home is your castle – protect it”), revealing anecdotes (i.e. in the late 1950s, when tens of thousands of single-family homes were being built in Baltimore County, zoning was allegedly done on napkins in the back room of a popular tavern), and just plain things I didn’t know (i.e. in 1944, Robert Moses was hired to do a plan for Baltimore).

It's a really important book that I highly recommend reading, even if you aren't from Baltimore. But the most important thing about it for this blog is the fact that it is full of new entries in the Arsenal of Exclusion. Indeed, Not in My Neighborhood makes a convincing case that Baltimore should be a prominent part of the American urban narrative, less because it was a large, bustling city that produced great culture than because Baltimore was something of a laboratory for the development of tools of discrimination. Indeed many of the weapons in this Arsenal of Exclusion, from BLOCKBUSTING to RACIAL AND RELIGIOUS COVENANTS to RACIAL ZONING were invented, honed, or most successfully deployed there.

Here are a few. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, as it only includes weapons of exclusion that weren’t in the original list of 101, or that were previously unknown to me. The book is full of insights about BLOCKBUSTING, MINIMUM LOT SIZES, RACIAL ZONING, RACIAL STEERING, RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS, SECURITY MAPS, and any number of other weapons that were on the original list of 101.

AIR CONDITIONER: Pietila makes an interesting, Robert Putnam-esque observation about air conditioning: “the arrival of whirring air conditioning units further insulated neighbors. The result was that even on balmy evenings, fewer and fewer people walked around the neighborhood or sat in porches, listening to radio and gossiping, as they had done in the early years.” (Pietila, 162).

ARCHDIOCESE: One of the truly terrible people Pietila writes about is Monsignor Louis Vaeth, from St. Bernadine’s in Edmondson Village. Like many leaders in the Catholic Church, Vaeth used the pulpit to deliver white supremacist sermons, and defend his parish against black infiltration. But Vaeth fell out of favor with the Baltimore archdiocese, who began to oppose racial segregation, and who, under Lawrence J. Shehan, insisted that it was the obligation of every Catholic to work towards racial equality. (ARCHDIOCESE is thus in the Arsenal of Exclusion and the Arsenal of Inclusion.)

CONDEMNATION: According to Pietila, one of the weapons pioneered in Baltimore was COMDEMNATION. In the early 1910s—almost a decade before New York City’s pioneering zoning code and almost 40 years before Urban Renewal—Mayor James H. Preston used condemnation powers to evacuate the entire neighborhood around Baltimore’s courthouse. His incentive? He wanted to prevent poor blacks from encroaching on fashionable, nearby Mt. Vernon. Another thing worth mentioning here is that he justified it with an appeal to public health. Pietila quotes Preston as saying that “The mortality rate among negros for all forms of tuberculosis is 260.4 per cent higher than that of the white race” (Pietila, 52).

DISCONTINUOUS STREET PATTERNS: Pietila doesn’t say too much about this, but does mention a 1970 Hearing of the United States Commission on Civil Rights that argued that African American areas in Baltimore County were “isolated from their surroundings and particularly from adjacent white residential areas by discontinuous street patterns.” Anyone who has ever had to get from east to west Baltimore knows that DISCONTINUOUS STREET PATTERNS are used in the city, too. A case in point is Greenmount Avenue, which divides one of Baltimore’s whitest, wealthiest neighborhoods (Guilford) from a low-income, predominantly African American one. When traveling north on Greenmount, it is impossible to make a left turn into Guilford: Underwood Avenue and Northway are one-way streets leading out of Guilford, and 35th Street is interrupted by a landscaped barrier. One street (39th Street) is a two-way street crossing Greenmount; however, the streets that branch off of 39th Street west of Greenmount lead you either directly back out or take you in a circle pattern around the section. It’s as confusing as it sounds.

EXPULSIVE ZONING: Pietila, after Yale Rabin, describes Baltimore County’s urban renewal efforts as acts of EXPULSIVE ZONING. The weapon is pretty simple: rezone black areas for business, and leave adjacent white areas untouched. Pietila’s example is Turner Station, home to Baltimore County’s largest concentration of African Americans. Pietilia writes that by the 1980s, so much of the neighborhood had been rezoned that the population shrunk to 3,557, down from 9,000 in the 1950s. A related tactic—also practiced by Baltimore County—was to rezone the area around African American areas for low density, thereby preventing neighborhood expansion (Pietila, 232).

(LACK OF) PUBLIC HOUSING: Pietila doesn’t say much about Baltimore’s notoriously segregated public housing program, but he does underline the fact that most suburban municipalities chose not to have a public housing authority. An interesting consequence, at least in Baltimore, was that the county’s needy ended up relying on the city’s overburdened social services. Write Pietila: “Each week, half a dozen county families applied for public housing in the city, which had no residency requirements, because there was no public housing in the county” (Pietila, 233).

LAND INSTALLMENT CONTRACT: As is to be expected of a book about bigotry in Baltimore, Pietila writes a lot about Blockbusting, which is one of those weapons in the arsenal that was really honed to perfection in Baltimore. For most blockbusters, the prevalent sales instrument was something called the LAND INSTALLMENT CONTRACT. A rent-to-buy arrangement, such contracts were, in Pietila’s words, “hocus pocus on pieces of paper.” They were not recorded, no deed changed hands, and there was no settlement. Titles remained in the sellers hands until “the purchaser accrued enough equity, usually 40 percent , to qualify for a mortgage.” The problem of course is that that day often never came. Sellers routinely evicted tenants for missing even one payment or for violating some obscure clause that was buried at the bottom of the contract. Sound familiar? (Indeed, it is impossible to read Not in My Neighborhood without thinking about how little has changed, despite how much progress has been made.)

MONTH-TO-MONTH LEASE: Pietila writes that the most cynical instigators of racial panic were owners of apartment buildings: “whenever a stable neighborhood began to desegregate, they bestowed a kiss of death on integration by simply evicting all white tenants, who were on monthly rents and leases. Landlords then jacked up rents, changed them to weekly payments, advertised their complexes only in the Afro-American, and rented only to blacks” (Pietila, 175). Pietila reveals an astonishing fact: in 1962 not a single multi-racial apartment building existed in Baltimore.

TELEVISION: Pietila makes an interesting, Robert Putnam-esque observation about television: soon after the first television station went on the air in 1947, people began living according to the television schedule. “ Tuesdays were no longer good for bowling or bingo; that night belonged to Milton Berle” (Pietila, 162).

MULTIPLE LISTING SERVICE: Before Zillow and Property Shark, there was the MULTIPLE LISTING SERVICE. Before that, there were CLASSIFIED ADS in the NEWSPAPER. In the latter two cases, separate listings existed for whites, blacks, and Jews.

NEWSPAPER: The Sun was pro segregation. The Afro-American was pro integration. Lots of people read these newspapers. Their reporting, opinions, and editorials were tremendously influential.

QUOTA: Pietila tells an interesting story about The Maylander apartment building, a 507-unit building near Johns Hopkins that was finished in 1951. Three years after the Supreme Court deemed restrictive covenants unenforceable in Shelley v. Kraemer, the management company behind the Marylander instituted a quota for Jews: until the building was 75 percent occupied, no more than 12 percent of tenants could be Jewish.

REAL ESTATE SIGNS: These are in the Arsenal of Exclusion for two reasons: First, Pietila writes about how signs typically announced whether a home was for sale to whites or “coloreds.” Second, the signs were used by blockbusters to spread panic.

TRAILER: Baltimore manufactured a lot of ships, aircrafts, and rockets for World War II. As is true of other manufacturing cities, Baltimore’s population boom in the 1940s has a lot to do with this fact: the factories needed labor, and people—many of them poor blacks from the south—settled in the city to meet with demand. A housing shortage ensued (thanks to RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS and other weapons, areas where blacks could live were severely limited), but instead of building more housing, housing officials recommended providing temporary trailers. Pietila quotes Senator Millard Tydings: “If more negroes are brought here they should be housed in trailers so that they can easily be moved out after the war is over” (Pietila, 80).


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  4. "Not In My Neighborhood" exposes the insidious roots of bigotry and discrimination. Through powerful narratives, it confronts the uncomfortable truth that prejudice persists even in our own communities. Best 7 Games This eye-opening documentary challenges us to actively combat intolerance and strive for inclusivity and equality for all.