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