July 31, 2007

On "Building Out Of Democracy:" How Did Housing Policy Shape Race Relations in the US?

If you haven't seen Josh's blog yet, please do make the time. Previous posts in this series have been on Not Saussure, Ruthie, and Matthew Sinclair.

This is perhaps Josh's finest post, finer than even his musings on Anselm and the ontological proof. What makes it so good is that it hearkens back to the idea of monuments being an age's legacy. Pericles hopes Athens will erect monuments that stand for all time in The Peloponnesian War. What are our monuments?

If Democracy can be built, that is, be made and fostered by the type of building we engage in, then it stands to reason that democracy can be degraded, destroyed even, by the same process. Our democracy was literally built... the ideals of the enlightenment put down in stone and mortar. Our independent nation was born of that building and we perpetuated this nation by following a similar design town from town.

Our monuments rise and fall with how we build. Building is not an activity for the future as much as the present. It demonstrates our values fully and is useful, as opposed to merely being something to show future ages they have nothing. Now it looks like the "present" in the 1950's, when America was confronted with the specter of communism, led to a certain view of what should be built:

In America one could own their house, yard, garage, and car. This was the might of capitalism, the individual elevated and praised. The suburbs were the places to raise the next generation of Americans, the places to raise a family. Not everyone had an opportunity to do this and for many the “American Dream” was actually a nightmare.

Who was excluded from the Dream?

The move to a more suburban environment began well before the 1950’s, back in the mid-twenties, and would have continued unabated if not for WWII. The cities were considered “blighted to the very core” and so deemed unlivable. The depression brought about the creation of the FHA to help secure housing loans in the nation. To help guarantee loans, and set standards for the real-estate industry, the FHA created a coding system to determine if an area could be loaned to. This system ranged from Blue, the best, to Red, the worst. Blue neighborhoods were all upper class and white, thus the phrase “blue blood,” while red neighborhoods were all African American. Red neighborhoods could not receive FHA loans, and as a result of this policy many other lending agencies followed suite. Since most of the cities were becoming “redder” less money saw its way there. The money was being channeled to the suburbs....

In this context the American dream is just the extension of institutionalized racism into the housing industry. In reality only white and affluent families could partake, and as a result the suburbs became the built representation of intolerance in this nation. Just as our democracy had been built it was slowly being built out of.

It should be noted that Josh is very conservative - he's pro-life, very much for the war, faithful to Catholicism. And it is precisely because of that conservatism that he can see moral issues a mile away. Plenty of people work in planning (many of the ones I know are way too liberal in a really obnoxious way, I'd rather hang with Marxists) thinking they can help others - but to what degree are they just perpetrating a faulty vision of humanity for the sake of what they feel is better?


Vino S said...

Interesting post. To some degree, though, I think - especially given the large surface area of the US - suburbanisation may have been inevitable as people got richer. Once people are rich enough to own a car, they need not be close to work. Also, given the (relatively, compared to Europe) cheap price and availability of land - I can see why builders would choose to build suburbs.

I do agree, though, that racial segregation may well have been increased by this. Also, living in an individual house and living in streets where people don't necessarily hang around and chat may well be contributing to growing individualism as well.

Gracchi said...

Indeed- the GI Bill is fascinating in that context as well- Ira Rosencrat has done a lot of work on that and how it enabled white working class people to get mortgages but particularly in the south very few blacks got mortgages.