Roosevelt's "Rainbow" Held no Pot of Gold

Syracuse Herald American
Sunday, January 9, 2000
Final Edition, Local Section, B1

by Dick Case, Herald American Columnist

One morning last week, Emanuel Carter showed me how the federal government color-coded the future of Syracuse more than 60 years ago.

It's a revelation.

And it was for Emanuel when he discovered the U.S. Home Owners Loan Corp. maps and neighborhood evaluations in a book about Philadelphia two years ago.

"I think this program almost guaranteed the demise of our cities," he said.

According to this expert, and others who've studied the federally guaranteed mortgage program that began in 1936, the program set up a system that discouraged city living and "opened the floodgates" to the suburbs.

Emanuel's a city planner, once employed by Syracuse, now an associate professor of landscape architecture at the State College of Environmental Science and Forestry and a director of a national design program called "Your Town."

This expert's disturbed about what he and his students found out about our town.  It's an interesting lesson in American history.

Franklin Roosevelt swept into the presidency in the 1930's and began to legislate reforms to get us out of the Depression.  One of his reforms was the Home Owners Loan Corp., a program to provide federal guarantees for home mortgages.  It opened up the possibility of owning a home for millions of Americans and created the long-term, guaranteed mortgages we know today.

To accomplish this, neighborhoods of all American cities had to be mapped and evaluated. They had to be rated as loan risks.

This was done in a massive inventory started in 1936 and completed the next year by teams of assessors -- real estate people, mostly -- to take the lay of the land, literally.  Surveyors filled their forms with data on population density, age of buildings and ethnicity, among other things.

Then maps were drawn, overlaying new data on existing maps.  In Syracuse, for instance, surveyors used city engineer Sergie Grimm's 1936 map that included close-in suburbs.

Neighborhoods were rated A through D and assigned colors: green, blue, yellow and red descending by grades, by the "consultants" measures.

These are samples of phrases they used:

Grade A neighborhood: Up and coming. In demand. Well-planned. Color it green.

Grade B: Completely developed. Still good but not what people who can afford more are buying.  Blue.

Grade C: Buildings aged and obsolete. "Infiltration of lower grade populations." Experts say "lower grade" citizens were blacks (called "Negroes" by surveyors), Jews and foreign-born whites.

Grade D: Detrimental influences. Undesirable population.  Mostly rented homes with poor maintenance, vandalism, unstable families. This is the red area.

Once the so-called "residential security" maps and text were ready, copies were distributed to banks, where residents would go for mortgages.

According to Emanuel Carter, residents of green and blue districts would have no trouble getting loans. In yellow areas, federal officials  listed "lower loan commitments."

If you lived in a red zone, the feds put it this way: "possible refusal" of a federal guarantee. In other words, forget it.

Emanuel has been a student of city planning since he was at Ithaca 30 yeas ago. Until he read "A Prayer for the City" by Buzz Bissinger two years ago, he knew nothing about the significance of the Roosevelt loan guarantees.

"I have a Cornell degree in city planning but this was never discussed, not even in planning circles," he said while standing next to a light table in Marshall Hall on the ESF campus. Light pours through that 1936 Syracuse map, catching greens, blues, yellows and reds.

"I could never figure out why England, Canada, France and Spain have cities that work and our don't. I'd ask, what am I missing? We had neighborhoods that worked. What happened? Then I found the book."

The book, "A Prayer for the City," is about Philadelphia when Edward Rendell was mayor this decade. The author recounts what the mayor told Bill Clinton during a visit; he shared his theory about the loan program's impact on cities such as Philadelphia.

Rendell ahd been shocked by the insight "that the reasons the American city had seemed destined to fail may be found as far back as the 1930's."

He also mentioned the survey's use of blatantly racist language to describe poor neighborhoods.

One description of a Philadelphia red district said "it is now fat approaching obsolescence, with it population almost entirely Negro." Another mentioned concentrations of "Polish, Italian, Jewish and Negro" residents.

This hits home for Emanuel Carter.  He grew up on a street in Philadelphia's Germantown that's coded red in the 1937 map.

Another book, "Crabgrass Frontier" The Suburbanization of the United States" by Kenneth Jackson, evaluated the federal loan program in the context of how it opened the suburbs to development at the expense of cities.

"People who had the money and means weren't going to build in neighborhoods the federal government said were not desirable," Emanuel explains. "The veterans who returned after World War II were paid off with low-cost mortgages for new housing, and they chose the suburbs. that began the process of emptying the cities."

He believes, as well, that the loan program set standards for mortgages that continued until 1965, when HUD stepped in and presumably outlawed loan discrimination and the practice of "red-lining" invented by the Roosevelt program.

Emanuel admits that discovering the impact of the Home Owners Loan Corp. changed his perspective of Franklin Roosevelt as the president who saved America.

"He did a good job of saving the nation but is seems now that he felt that big cities were basically unsound and that poor people couldn't think for themselves." he said.

"Not only did this splinter the old neighborhoods where people of different backgrounds got along, but gave us, now, a second and third generation of people in the suburbs who think cities are unsound and people who live here are to be stayed away from."

The revelation for this Syracusan in the Philadelphia book provoked a study of the Syracuse survey by some of his graduate students. They were able to locate the city's 1936 "residential security map" and a few descriptions done for the study in the National Archives.

When we looked at the map the other day, it was easy to see that the color codes of the '30s predicted our Syracuse neighborhoods of the '90s: DeWitt, East Genesee Street, Strathmore and Sedgwick remained green, while the red areas stayed that way and spread into the yellows.

In fact, more than half of Syracuse in 1936 is either red or yellow, with red dominating the map south of downtown. Galeville, Mattydale, Nedrow, East Syracuse and Solvay were yellow.

Emanuel scowls at what he saw. He calls it "an act of bloodless social engineering."