A redlining map of Syracuse. Credit: Courtesy of CNY Fair Housing

This story is part of a series of submissions to Central Current by CNY Fair Housing explaining its Run the Redline event and how redlining affects Syracuse. CNY Fair Housing is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring housing access and eliminating housing discrimination. Read the first story in the series here and the second here.

CNY Fair Housing will host the first ‘Run the Redline’ through portions of downtown Syracuse on Sept. 17. The route — which can be run, rolled or strolled — traces a portion of the red lines drawn across the city by federal and local housing officials during the 1930s.

Redlining may have been a federal policy, but its implementation in Syracuse relied on local prejudice. 

To create the city’s redlining map, local municipal officials, and private real estate professionals used two local preexisting discriminatory policies: racially restrictive covenants and municipal zoning.

Racially Restrictive Covenants

Restrictive covenants — contractual agreements between real estate sellers and buyers that prohibited certain uses of a property — were part of a new style of suburban development in the beginning of the 20th century.

As electric trolleys and increasing car ownership opened up new land for residential development, large real estate developers built entire Syracuse neighborhoods from scratch, including Sedgwick, Strathmore, and Scottholm.

Some of these companies assured wealthy potential homebuyers that the neighborhood would remain exclusive by placing restrictive covenants in every deed that forbid commercial uses, multifamily housing, and even small or inexpensive single-family housing in the subdivision.

Some developers, such as the East Genesee Extension Corporation that built the Scottholm neighborhood, stipulated that no lot could be “occupied by or conveyed to negroes as owners or tenants.”

Syracuse’s redlining map accounted for the restrictive covenants governing various subdivisions across the city and its early suburbs. The map repeatedly cites the presence of restrictive covenants to justify a neighborhood’s “first-class rating.”

An example of a racial covenant from the Scottholm neighborhood in Syracuse. Credit: Courtesy of CNY Fair Housing

Municipal zoning

Syracuse’s municipal government enacted a citywide zoning ordinance in response to fears of racial and ethnic integration. During the summer of 1919—also known as the Red Summer because of the numerous large-scale anti-Black race riots that rocked cities across the country—a labor dispute at a local iron factory led to several weeks of racist street violence. 

Globe Malleable Iron Works’ largely Polish workforce went on strike, and the factory managers responded by hiring Black workers instead. For weeks, Syracuse newspapers depicted clashes between the two sets of workers in overtly racial terms.

In response, the city’s government attempted to map the geography of race and class in Syracuse. The resulting map distinguished residential neighborhoods from industrial and commercial areas, it identified residential neighborhoods according to the economic class of people thought to live there, and it divided working-class neighborhoods by racial or ethnic identity.

This map formed the basis for Syracuse’s first municipal zoning ordinance. This law was explicitly designed to shield wealthy city residents from racial, ethnic, and labor unrest by segregating neighborhoods by race and class. 

The map is also strikingly similar to the city’s redlining map, produced 15 years later. It even uses the same four colors to distinguish between different neighborhood grades, and it uses the racial, ethnic, and class makeup of each neighborhood to assign its grade.

The impacts of redlining

Redlining relied on the same racist logic that shaped restrictive covenants and municipal zoning. But redlining was a fundamentally different policy mechanism and had a greater impact. 

Older discriminatory policies essentially prohibited racially integrated neighborhoods, but they could not ensure the construction of racially exclusive neighborhoods. 

The redlining map’s description of Maple Drive and Orvilton Park in DeWitt, an area colored green and rated “first grade,” noted that, despite room for expansion and what it referred to as favorable factors like racial “restrictions,” houses were “not selling as well as expected due to market not absorbing new houses.” 

The private housing market could not create segregated suburbs on its own. Redlining helped subsidize white households’ purchases of new houses in racially exclusive neighborhoods, making segregated suburbs possible.   

“It could have been different,” said Alex Lawson, Policy Coordinator at CNY Fair Housing. “The federal government had the power to mitigate the impacts of local discriminatory housing policies by directing investment to racially, ethnically, and class-integrated neighborhoods. Instead, prejudiced federal officials worked with and deferred to the very architects of housing segregation in Syracuse.”

Read more of Central Current’s Coverage

Suggested Reading