Making the Ghetto Part 1 – Ghetto Code: Racial Zoning and Spatial Isolation in American Cities

In far too many cases, zoning is being used to protect the narrow self-interest of a particular community without regard to the health, safety, and welfare of the community and the nation as a whole.

1971 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights excerpt (Keeanga-Yahmahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership)

America no longer talks about spics, wops, niggers but talks about density, overcrowding of schools to achieve the same purpose.

Former Cleveland Mayor Carl Stoke (Keeanga-Yahmahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership)

Zoning has been used by municipalities for the past century to steer environmental growth and direct land use agendas. On the surface, zoning was designed to prevent certain negligible land uses, like hazardous industry, from encroaching on residential and common areas. Although the language in many zoning ordinances historically expressed the desire to create spatial order and prevent environmental nuisances; it was in fact, used as a tool to divide the races and keep Blacks out of White neighborhoods. Keeanga-Yahmahhta Taylor in her book Race for Profit, describes the term “snob zoning” was coined during the civil rights era “as only the latest method of discrimination in the real estate market. Through local ordinances, ‘low-income’ renters and buyers were excluded on the basis of economic segregation, but that designation enabled the exclusion of Blacks and Latinos as well” (Race for Profit, p. 114). The first zoning ordinance was enacted in New York City in 1916 and proved so effective at controlling land and people that by 1936, 1,322 cities had zoning ordinances of their own.[1] Chicago’s first zoning ordinance of 1923 stands as a good example of zoning’s racial intent. In Joseph P. Schwieterman and Dana M. Castel’s Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago, they write, “By determining what can be built or maintained in a given area, this [zoning] ordinance became a tool used to limit housing opportunities for low-income residents, particularly African-Americans.”[2] As the late Professor of urban studies, Marsha Ritzdorf explains “While in theory the original zoning ordinances of the late teens and early 1920s were designed to protect all citizens against the intrusion of noxious commercial and industrial uses into their neighborhoods and to preserve property values, they were in actuality devices designed to keep poor people, as well as industry, out of affluent areas.”[3] Urban historian Kenneth Jackson reinforces zoning’s racial origins in Crabgrass Frontier.

In actuality zoning was a device to keep poor people and obnoxious industries out of affluent areas…[zoning advocates] sought through minimum lot and set-back requirements to insure that only members of acceptable social classes could settle in their privileged sanctuaries…And in suburbs everywhere, North and South, zoning was used by the people who already lived within the arbitrary boundaries of a community as a method of keeping everyone else out. Apartments, factories, and ‘blight,’ euphemisms for blacks and people of limited means, were rigidly excluded.[4]

It can be argued that the first form of racial zoning dates back to 1865 when land on the coastal sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia (commonly called the Gullah Islands) was temporarily set aside for freed slaves along with an illusory allotment of 40 acres of land and a mule.[5] Before New York, Chicago and other cities established comprehensive zoning ordinances; Southern and Western cities used a primitive form of zoning called “racial districting” to contain blacks. Baltimore, Richmond, Atlanta, Louisville, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City all participated in this form of racial place making.[6] Baltimore led the way by creating the first exclusively black district in 1910.[7] In its defense, the mayor declared, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”[8] The mayor’s example inspired other cities and in 1922, Atlanta codified racial districts of their own as, “R1 – White District; R2 – Colored District; and R3 – undetermined”.[9] Louisville, Kentucky is one of the most remarkable cities to draw color lines in this way. They designated sections called “black blocks” to contain their African-American population.[10] Notably, a legal challenge was brought against this action in 1914 by the President of the local NAACP branch, William Warley.  Warley sued a white realtor, Charles Buchanan, for preventing him from buying land in one of the white blocks of the city. Buchanan agreed to sell Warley the property but was prevented from doing so by Louisville law.[11] The Supreme Court defended Warley and ruled that he should be allowed to buy property without respect to Louisville’s racial districts. Though on the surface this was a victory for Black families seeking to escape confinement, it actually prompted cities to be more covert in their approach to racial segregation.

By the late 1920s, zoning’s power to restrict land use and people was widespread. This provoked opposition not only from Blacks, but real estate developers across the country who were restricted from developing the kinds of property that they desired for maximum profit. In turn, another legal challenge to zoning came before The Supreme Court in 1926: The Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. Here a real estate company in a suburb of Cleveland called Euclid challenged the city’s zoning ordinance because it prevented them from developing a parcel of land for industrial use.[12] The Supreme Court upheld the Village’s zoning code and set a legal precedent that justified the rights of municipalities to restrict the use of land for purposes they deemed “undesirable”. The fact that this case does not address race specifically is irrelevant, as its implications for racial restrictions are unmistakable. In his opinion, Justice Sutherland explains that the impact of this case has social implications far beyond one tract of land.

Until recent years, urban life was comparatively simple, but with the great increase in concentration of population, problems have developed, and constantly are developing, which require, and will continue to require, additional restrictions in respect of the use and occupation of private lands in urban communities.[13]

Justice Sutherland’s dog-whistle is heard loud and clear. He would have been well aware that the massive migration of millions of Black families from Southern to Northern cities was one of the biggest “problems” to have developed at the time in White perception. In fact, by 1926 when his opinion was written, the topic of the “negro problem” in cities was widely and hotly debated in newspapers, public forums and in the courts. A series of violent race riots in Chicago and elsewhere had also made the issue unmistakable.[14] The fact that he evades the great migration as the cause of the “great increase in concentration of population” is a glaring omission.

Although zoning was upheld in the previous case, the earlier decision in Warley v. Buchanan forced city governments to make it harder to prove that zoning codes were influenced by race. Since many Black families were renters and often lived in overcrowded apartment houses, lawmakers and city planners laid out separate zones for “single-family homes” versus apartments or “multi-family homes”. This limited where rental housing could be built. Zoning was further used to exclude Blacks by defining the kind of family that could live in the “single-family” neighborhoods. City governments manipulated the definition of “family” as a basis for disqualifying Blacks. One definition of family that was used in the 1970s can be found in The Village of Belle Terre, New York (a place that actively practiced exclusionary zoning – as will be discussed later). Belle Terre defined “family” as, “One or more persons related by blood, adoption or marriage, living and cooking together as a single housekeeping unit, exclusive of household servants”.[15] This language was clearly designed to keep Blacks out who often clustered together as a means of economic survival at the time.

The Black family had to be excluded because they were a threat to the white image of the model American community. As Harvard Law Professor Gerald Frug suggests, “Support for local zoning policies has often been articulated in the anti-urban language of sentimental pastoralism: a bedroom community of detached, owner-occupied, single-family houses, located in a natural setting, is often said to be ‘the best place to raise a family’”.[16] Columbia Law Professor Richard Briffault further describes zoning as a tool for preserving the White ideal of “the home and family – enabling residents to raise their children in ‘decent’ surroundings, servicing home and family needs, and insulating home and family from undesirable changes in the surrounding area.’”[17] The Black family was therefore the anti-neighbor to be kept out at all costs.

Additional court cases expose the use of family-based zoning to keep blacks out of desirable white communities.  In 1974, a group of students in the Village of Belle Terre, Long Island, were prevented from living together in a home because they did not conform to the Village’s definition of “family”. Like many African Americans at the time, college students were mostly renters and did not occupy dwellings as traditional white families. As a result, Belle Terre denied them housing. The students sued the Village in a case that made it to the Supreme Court. The Court upheld Belle Terre’s zoning code and ruled that the students had no right to live there because they were not, by definition, a “family”. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall clearly acknowledges that the underlying issue in this case is race.

Zoning officials properly concern themselves with the uses of land with, for example, the number and kind of dwellings to be constructed in a certain neighborhood or the number of persons who can reside in these dwellings.  But zoning authorities cannot validly consider who those persons are, what they believe, or how they choose to live, whether they are Negro or White, Catholic or Jew, Republican or democrat, married or unmarried.[18]

The students were collateral damage – inadvertent casualties who suffered an unintended consequence of a policy designed to exclude Blacks. In a simple quest for student housing, they were trapped in the interstices of a racial turf war that had been going on in American cities for decades. Notably, the practice of exclusionary zoning has had a long and enduring legacy in Long Island beyond Belle Terre. Nearby Cove Neck (former home of President Roosevelt) incorporated in 1927 with a zoning code that required that homes be built with large lot sizes making it harder for Blacks to afford.[19] Long Island continued to exhibit exclusionary practices decades later in the 1990s as one-fifth of African Americans polled by Newsday said they had been discriminated against while trying to rent an apartment and 21% said the same when trying to buy a home.[20]

In 1977, lawmakers in The Village of Arlington Heights (a suburb of Chicago) refused the construction of much needed low and moderate income housing on the grounds that the Village was zoned for “single-family” residences. Arlington Heights had been successful for years in preventing a significant number of blacks from living there by holding firm to their zoning code. The 1970 census for instance reveals that only 27 of the Village’s 64,000 residents were African American (less than one tenth of one percent).[21] Though a number of Blacks worked in Arlington Heights at a major factory, they commuted as far as 20 miles away from urban areas like Chicago. When the Arlington Heights Planning Commission was approached by a developer with a federally subsidized mixed-income and mixed-race land development called Lincoln Green; the city quickly hid behind their family-based zoning classification as the sole basis for their opposition. When the developer sued the Village on the grounds that the zoning code was in violation of the Federal Housing Act, the courts ruled that refusing to rezone the land to accommodate Lincoln Green was not in violation of the law. Although they defended Arlington Heights’, The Supreme Court clearly acknowledged that the true intent of their “single-family” zoning designation was to exclude Blacks. In his opinion, Justice Powell explains, “Since Lincoln Green would have to be racially integrated in order to qualify for federal subsidization, the Village’s action in preventing the project from being built had the effect of perpetuating segregation in Arlington Heights.”[22]

Not only did municipalities hide behind established zoning codes to prevent Blacks from entering White communities; they also changed zoning codes to suit their needs when they saw Blacks encroaching. In 1969, a developer attempted to build Park View Heights: an affordable housing project sponsored by HUD in an unincorporated region outside of St. Louis, MI. If built, the development would house a significant number of African-Americans. In response, local city planners and lawmakers quickly changed the zoning code to restrict multi-family developments. “When they learned of this plan, Whites in the area (Black residents made up less than 2 percent), successfully petitioned the county to incorporate as The City of Black Jack. They then enacted a zoning ordinance prohibiting the construction of any multi-family dwelling.”[23] As Keeanga-Yahmahtta Taylor describes in Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, Black Jack’s “new [zoning] ordinance would prevent 85% of African Americans in St. Louis from being able to move to Black Jack, but race was never mentioned” (p. 129). Like Arlington Heights, Black Jack used zoning to prevent Black families from entering but the distinction in this case is that the area was already zoned for multi-family housing and was quickly changed to halt the advancement of Blacks. The town had never changed its multi-family zoning designation because they had never been confronted with the potential of Blacks encroachment. At the threat of impending Black neighbors however, Black Jack changed their entire housing plan. When the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice brought suit against them, The United States Court of Appeals ruled that rezoning the land to block the development of low-income housing was in fact a violation of the Fair Housing Act. The Black Jack decision was a victory for black families in that it made it harder for later municipalities to exclude them based on family composition, however the case lingered in court longer than the developer could reasonably pursue the project (seven years) and it was never built.[24] Notably, Black Jack continued its racial use of family-based zoning into the 21st century. In 2006, the city was sued for denying an occupancy permit to an unmarried couple with children because they did not consider them a “family” by definition.[25] Like the students in Belle Terre, this couple suffered the unintended effects of lingering race codes.

[1] Kenneth T. Jackson.  Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of The United States. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985), 242.

[2] Joseph P. Schwieterman and Dana M. Castel. Jane Heron editor. The Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago (Chicago, IL: Lake Claremont Press, 2006), 28.

[3] Marsha Ritzdorf. “Family Values, Municipal Zoning, and African American Family Life.” In June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf, editors.  Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows (California: Sage Publications, 1997), 81.

[4] Kenneth T. Jackson.  Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of The United States. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985), 242.

[5] George M. Fredrickson. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1987). 175.

[6] Joseph P. Schwieterman and Dana M. Castel. Jane Heron editor. The Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago (Chicago, IL: Lake Claremont Press, 2006), 28.

[7] Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A Denton. American Apartheid (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 41.

[8] Silver, Christopher. “The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities.” In Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows. June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf, editors.   (California: Sage Publications, 1997), 27.

[9] Ibid.,34

[10] James W. Loewen.  Sundown Towns. (New York, NY: The New Press, 2005), 101.

[11] Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A Denton. American Apartheid (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 188.

[12] Joseph P. Schwieterman and Dana M. Castel. Jane Heron editor. The Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago (Chicago, IL: Lake Claremont Press, 2006), 25.

[13] Daniel R. Mandelker, Roger A. Cunningham, and John M. Payne.  Planning and Control of Land Development: Cases and Materials: Fourth Edition (Charlottesville, Virginia: Law Publishers, 1995). 79,80.

[14] Allan H. Spear. Black Chicago: The Making of the Negro Ghetto:1890-1920. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 129.

[15] Daniel R. Mandelker, Roger A. Cunningham, and John M. Payne.  Planning and Control of Land Development: Cases and Materials: Fourth Edition (Charlottesville, Virginia: Law Publishers, 1995). 261.

[16] Gerald E. Frug. City Making: Building Communities Without Building Walls. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999), 143.

[17] Ibid., 57.

[18] Marsha Ritzdorf. “Locked Out of Paradise: Contemporary Exclusionary Zoning, the Supreme Court, and African Americans, 1970 to Present.” In June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf, editors.  Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows (California: Sage Publications, 1997), 48.

[19] James W. Loewen.  Sundown Towns. (New York, NY: The New Press, 2005), 13.

[20] Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A Denton. American Apartheid (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 105.

[21] Daniel R. Mandelker, Roger A. Cunningham, and John M. Payne.  Planning and Control of Land Development: Cases and Materials: Fourth Edition (Charlottesville, Virginia: Law Publishers, 1995). 418, 419.

[22] Ritzdorf, Marsha. “Locked Out of Paradise: Contemporary Exclusionary Zoning, the Supreme Court, and African Americans, 1970 to Present.” In June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf, editors.  Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows (California: Sage Publications, 1997), 53.

[23] Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund. (2007) Long Road to Justice: The Civil Rights Division at 50. Washington, DC: LCCREF.  Retrieved from http://www.civilrights.org/publications/reports/long-road/long-road-to-justice.pdf.

[24] Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A Denton. American Apartheid (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 229.

[25] Robert, Anthony E., American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri (personal communication, July 12, 2006).  Retrieved from: http://www.aclu-em.org/downloads/ComplaintwithCity.pdf.

Published by Kelwin Harris

Kelwin Harris is a public speaker, city planner and public engagement professional who focuses on creating equitable communities, empowering people that have been historically excluded from connectivity, and dismantling inequity in Chicago.

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