Redlining the LES: How Discriminatory Lending Policies Solidified Pre-Existing Inequalities

Posted on: May 19th, 2022 at 5:03 am by

On a crisp April Sunday, I walked downtown from my apartment in Flatiron to track along the boundaries marked in red on the map of Manhattan. I made my way down Third Avenue and onto the Bowery, stopping at the corner where it met Houston. As pictured on the map above, redlined and non-redlined territory meet at this juncture. I wondered whether I would see a starkly identifiable difference between formerly redlined pockets and the rest of the area. That wasn’t quite the case, but the historical backdrop of the neighborhood was palpable. Tattered buildings covered in graffiti were juxtaposed with the quintessential image of gentrification: a massive Whole Foods facing a shiny apartment complex.

Walking down the Bowery, I came across the familiar set of red double doors that caught my eye. It was the Bowery Mission between Stanton and Rivington. The Mission is the oldest Christian institution of its kind, and was created in 1879 by Reverend Albert Gleason Ruliffson and his wife in an effort to address suffering among immigrants and other low-income populations. The Mission remains a staple in the community, hosting over 300 people nightly and continuing efforts to donate food, clothing, and other essential materials to homeless and hungry New Yorkers.

It’s clear that redlining in the Lower East Side was a total lack of investment in the community, the consequences of which are long-lasting and disparate. Although President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 to protect individuals and communities against discrimination in renting or buying as well as mortagage assistance, it was too late to recoup the damaging impacts of redlining.

Histories of immigration, redlining, and poverty in the Lower East Side are complicated and deeply intertwined. Today, we see the lasting impacts in the LES of how redlining intentionally disadvantaged populations already suffering from low paying jobs and dreadful living conditions. That is—policies rooted in prejudice have led to the entrenchment of inequality over time.

The history of redlining, particularly in the LES, reminds me of the concept of “slow violence,” as coined by scholar Rob Nixon. The term refers to violence occurring gradually, such that it may go overlooked, yet overtly targets and disadvantages a population over time. The idea of slow violence is a useful framework in understanding how the buildup of policies and inherent discrimination stemming from a significant immigrant population procured long-lasting impacts on the Lower East Side.

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