During an Aug. 2 community meeting about the future of the Ashby BART parking lot, City Councilman Ben Bartlett started the gathering by acknowledging the racialized history of the area surrounding the station. He explained that during and after WWII, black residents moved to South Berkeley in the thousands because they were excluded from most other parts of the city.
“They [black residents after WWII] were cordoned off, not allowed to participate to the north, to the east, so they built their own lives, right there — shops, stores, cobblers, food, prosperity, they made history,” said Bartlett.
Then, in the 1960s, BART made plans to build an aboveground rail line along Shattuck Avenue and Adeline Street, as well as to construct the Ashby station. Local activists, including Mable Howard, fought and defeated the proposal because they feared the rail line would divide the community and pollute the area. They also argued that BART would not have proposed putting in a train that divided the white community, but they had few qualms about affecting the black community.
BART was put underground in Berkeley but it “decimated commercial zones where the people had lives,” said Bartlett. Like the Fillmore District in San Francisco and the once-thriving music district along Seventh Street in Oakland, the BART construction displaced people and cultural institutions.
Berkeley considers itself a progressive city. It was one of the first places to declare itself a nuclear-free zone, to recognize same-sex relationships, to actively desegregate its schools and to ban Styrofoam. But the history of Berkeley, like most cities across the U.S., includes using discriminatory practices to segregate the races. Those decisions, made decades, ago are still playing out today.
One consequence of racially discriminatory practices can be seen in the stark contrast between Berkeley’s neighborhoods. The difference between the large homes and winding roads of the predominantly white neighborhoods of the Hills and the Claremont neighborhood, and the modest, mixed-use character of racially diverse South and West Berkeley is indicative of the city’s racial and class-based divisions. For decades, blacks and other people of color were excluded from Berkeley’s more prosperous neighborhoods. They were “redlined.”
History of redlining in Berkeley
The foundation of systematic housing discrimination in the mid-20th century has an unusual source: a government agency named the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). President Franklin Roosevelt created HOLC in 1933, as part of the New Deal, to help homeowners who were defaulting en masse on their mortgages because of the Depression. HOLC was able to offer affordable mortgages, but to make sure borrowers wouldn’t default, the agency produced maps of 250 cities around the United States between 1935 and 1940. In 1940, Congress and the president created the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), which also issued mortgages.
HOLC’s “security maps” were allegedly made to help banks assess the risk of lending money to prospective homeowners. The maps divided the cities into different grades, A = “best,” B = “desirable,” C = “declining,” and D = “hazardous” signifying the level of risk of lending money to that part of the city. This system became known as “redlining” because of its coloring of each grade, green, blue, yellow, and red; red representing the worst grade – “hazardous.”
However, in reality, these maps were used in a different way. They became a way for banks to legally discriminate against ethnic and racial minorities through selective lending practices.
“A neighborhood earned a red color if African Americans lived in it, even if it was a solid middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes,” Richard Rothstein wrote in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.
Functionally, the green and blue areas of the maps indicated the white neighborhoods and the yellow and red areas indicated the neighborhoods of color. The “risk” was code for race and class, and thus, banks would refuse to lend money to racial minorities and people of low socioeconomic status who wanted to buy a house or start a business outside of designated neighborhoods. Often, they would refuse to lend money in the redlined neighborhoods altogether.
The government’s lender, the (FHA) also had a “whites-only” requirement.
“Racial segregation now became an official requirement of the federal mortgage insurance program,” wrote Rothstein.
Redlining became one of the most important tools for producing racial and economic segregation and inequality in the United States. It illustrates the connection between government, systematic racism, and local policy. In effect, by keeping neighborhoods homogeneous, white property owners could protect the value of their land because other white people wanted to live in all-white neighborhoods. Moreover, redlining contained racial minorities to neighborhoods that had low property values, such as South Berkeley.
Before explicit residential segregation was outlawed, some Berkeley neighborhoods had restrictive covenants that prohibited racial minorities from owning or living certain properties and neighborhoods. For example, The Claremont Improvement Club enforced a covenant that restricted residents to “pure Caucasian blood,” according to Rothstein.
“The result was that almost all Asian and black Berkeleyans lived south of Dwight Way and west of Grove Street,” Charles Wollenberg wrote in Berkeley: A City in History.
Betty Reid Soskin, a 96-year-old Berkeley community member and the nation’s oldest park ranger, remembers those times. In the 1940s and 1950s, racial housing discrimination was just a fact of life, she said.
“We knew that we could not buy property above Grove Street [now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in part because of Soskin’s efforts] … Berkeley was as conservative as Kansas City,” said Soskin, whose memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom, recounts those years.
When, in 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelley vs. Kraemer that restrictive covenants were unenforceable, redlining became the primary device for the racial segregation of American cities.
The HOLC security map of Berkeley describes the Elmwood and Claremont districts as “the highest class residential district.” Regarding the Claremont neighborhood’s “inhabitants,” it explains that the “infiltration of undesirables” is “very remote” and that there are no “Negros” or “foreign-born” populations.
Conversely, the HOLC documents assess the heart of South Berkeley, the area bounded by Dwight to the north, Alcatraz to the south, San Pablo to the west, and MLK to the east, as red or “hazardous.” Under the heading “Detrimental Influences,” the document says, “Predominance of Negroes and Orientals. Also mixed classes of wage earners and colored professional people.”
In the clarifying remarks, it reads, “This area of modern type bungalows was originally put on as a white subdivision. However, now Negroes have crowded in until there is only a small percentage of white remaining, mostly Italians. District known as “Negro Piedmont”. This district will never recover its original pre-Depression values… This is a high-grade Negro area and good loans can be made here if care is exercised.” This type of documents guided the lending practices of cities large and small across the United States for decades.
The FHA also discouraged banks from lending money to people buying homes in urban neighborhoods and encouraged lending in the suburbs. This led to divestment in inner city and racially mixed neighborhoods. The government also invested heavily in developing highway systems to make living in suburbs convenient. The low-cost housing and convenience to cities that suburbs offered were largely reserved for white people, segregating metropolitan areas across the country further.
When Soskin moved to Walnut Creek with her family, they received death threats for years from the all-white surrounding community. She was prevented from insuring the building of Reid’s Records in South Berkeley.
“I went to the bank and they said that if I picked up the building and moved it six blocks in a direction they would insure me. There were drug dealers on every corner in those days. When Mel [her husband at the time] went to the police department to complain about the quality of policing, he was told that they like to have an area like that so when something happened in other parts of the city, they would know where to pick up the culprit.”
While this method was exposed and nationally outlawed in the late 1960s and 1970s by the Fair Housing Act, its legacy still lives on today. Because property, wealth, and socioeconomic status translate to wealth accumulation and similar living situations for people’s children and grandchildren. Thus, the racialized landscape of numerous cities still bears resemblance to the systematically segregated landscapes of pre-civil rights era United States.
In the early 1960s, Berkeley was also at the forefront of the battle over fair housing. In Jan. 1963, the Berkeley City Council passed an anti-segregation law that included criminal penalties for those guilty of housing discrimination – one of the first efforts of its kind. However, the opposition was tremendous. Within months, residents opposed to the new law had gathered enough signatures to place a referendum on the April ballot. Tensions ran so high that three Berkeley High students set a cross on fire on the lawn of Fred Stripps, a liberal mayoral candidate who opposed the referendum. There was a record turnout of voters — one account said 82% of Berkeley voters went to the polls — and the law was repealed. The fair housing law was rescinded on the grounds that the anti-segregation law violated basic property rights and had communist influences, according to Wollenberg.
Those opposing the law argued that the right to property should allow homeowners and landlords to sell and rent to whomever they chose. This argument was accompanied by other arguments that used overtly bigoted and racist appeals.
Wollenberg writes that one supporter of the referendum said that it was “A plot to Congo-lize our city.” A Thousand Oaks realtor said, “The day I have to sell to a Negro and ruin this fine district, I’ll close up and get out of the real estate business.”
Shortly after the Berkeley vote, Berkeley’s very own Assemblyman, William Byron Rumford, introduced an anti-discrimination housing bill. It passed in June 1963. “Real estate interests, giddy from their victory in Berkeley, launched a statewide initiative, Proposition 14, both to repeal the Rumford act and to prohibit any state legislation outlawing housing discrimination,” W.R. Rorabaugh wrote in Berkeley at War: The 1960s. The measure passed, but oddly in Berkeley, it was soundly defeated. The state Supreme Court nullified Proposition 14 in 1965.
Wollenberg described this period of Berkeley’s history as a major demographic and political transformation. More and more people of color moved into the city as the more conservative white population was moving out to the suburbs. Soon, a younger generation of white people was coming in. This change in demographics led to a new liberal majority composed of liberal whites and people of color that would control Berkeley politics for decades.
For most, homeownership is the most important form of wealth building. Access to Berkeley’s housing market has been the source of wealth and social mobility for a generation of working-class and middle-class residents who have seen their property value increase immensely in just a few decades. According to Zillow, home values have essentially doubled in only the last 10 years (not adjusted for inflation).
Such is the significance of redlining and other exclusionary housing policies in the racial wealth gap. Generations of white people were allowed access to wealth building through homeownership of valuable property, while the same was actively denied to people of color.
How redlining still impacts Berkeley today
Today, explicit or veiled housing discrimination is illegal. Yet, the structural patterns persist. MLK and Dwight Way remain important lines dividing racial and economic difference, albeit far blurrier than in the past. Those areas that were labeled desirable on the HOLC maps remain the most sought-after real estate in Berkeley, the wealthiest, and the whitest. Berkeley’s distinctive distribution of real estate value, in part created through the systematically racist local and national housing policy in the 20th century, is much the same today.
“There is a wholeness and cultural richness that is lost when we attempt to homogenize who we are.”
— Betty Reid Soskin
The current affordable housing crisis has created a high demand for housing in the neighborhoods that were described as “declining” or “hazardous.” When Berkeley established zoning regulations in 1916, it permitted apartment complexes in those areas, while requiring that only single-family homes be built in the wealthier districts.
Yet, now they are even out of reach for most working-class buyers and renters. While before, for the most part, “undesirable” people were excluded from certain parts of the city and welcomed in others, today those who cannot afford the soaring housing costs in Berkeley are excluded completely.
These rising costs have led to increasing displacement of African Americans and people of color, according to a new study by the Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley and the California Housing Partnership. As prices soared between 2000 and 2015, many black residents and others moved out of the Berkeley flatlands to more affordable areas, such as Antioch or areas of southern Alameda County, according to the report. That exodus created new poverty pockets and areas of racial segregation.
“There is a wholeness and cultural richness that is lost when we attempt to homogenize who we are,” said Soskin, who fled to Richmond from Walnut Creek because she found the predominately white city “culturally deprived.” “If it disappears I will move again… There is a lot that gets lost with gentrification and redlining, things that are really the essence of what makes this country great.”
Jesse Barber is a lifetime Berkeley resident. He attended Oxford Elementary, King Middle, and BHS before going to Brown University where he majors in Urban Studies. This summer, he received a Royce Fellowship which he used to conduct independent research on the history of race and class-based housing segregation in Berkeley and its effects on the housing crisis today.