Project Reviews

Redlining Richmond
Created and maintained by the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond.

The New Deal is recognized as one of the most important periods for influencing the function and role of government in American History. However, how these changes affected people's daily lives is still being studied and debated by Historians. The concept of redlining is important for understanding how people lived in an urban environment because it refers to denying or increasing the cost of access to services in some areas over others. Thus studying redlining in the context of the New Deal will show how much more some neighborhoods benefited from the services of the new government programs over others. Redlining Richmond is a project which uses the assessment surveys of the New Deal Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) in the 1930s to demonstrate the importance of race in evaluating how each neighborhood of the city was redlined along racial lines. Neighborhoods with majority black populations were consistently evaluated lower in every criterion than other neighborhoods. These assessment surveys were supposed to grade each neighborhood as to how safe a mortgage would be there. The HOLC's mortgages were significantly more long-term than those which had previously been offered and were supposed to make homeownership more secure. Neighborhoods were given a grade of A, B, C, or D. Neighborhoods graded "A" were deemed to be safe places for the HOLC's mortgages while neighborhoods graded "D" were seen as risky (Home and Introduction Tab).

This project does a good job spatializing the HOLC records and bringing them into the digital medium. In order to give a neighborhood a grade, these assessments were supposed to provide a description of terrain, favorable influences, detrimental influences, inhabitants, buildings, history, occupancy, sales demand, rent demand, new construction, availability of mortgage funds already, and trend of desirability in the next 10-15 years. A list of each of these factors is included and if the reader clicks on a particular factor a map of the neighborhoods of Richmond appears and if the reader clicks on a neighborhood what the assessor wrote about that particular neighborhood in that particular category pops up (Factors and Neighborhoods Tab). A neighborhood tab is also included so readers can get at the same information from a different direction by starting with the map first. A text argument which does not rely on the maps too much is found in the Introduction Tab. Some quotations were pulled out of the assessments to demonstrate that assessors did not care about the geography of a neighborhood if it was primarily made up of blacks. There was only one neighborhood in Richmond that was predominantly white that received the lowest grade of "D" in these assessments (Introduction tab). Despite all the information about the HOLC assessments, the original records are not provided.

The interface is relatively user-friendly and easy to navigate. There are links at the top of every page that list the major topics on the site. Hyperlinks are embedded in the body of the text that readers can use to further explore topics that interest them. The maps all have links in each neighborhood that a reader can click on to get information. However, some of the percentages in the lists are hard to read. This is an open website that anyone is free for anyone to visit. This website would be improved by incorporating some more varied sources of evidence. For example, pictures of the different neighborhoods that show what redlining did to black housing might be effective. Some type of recollection from people who lived in these neighborhoods when redlining developed would help contextualize the importance and impact of this topic.

The citations of this site reveal that it has a problem reaching its intended audience. This project has not been cited too often by others, despite the fact that it has been around since 1999. The only citation of Redlining Richmond found on Google was a PowerPoint presentation on the importance Geographic Information System put together by the University of California-San Diego. This indicates that the use of maps is what this project is most known for, but also that not many other projects have found Redlining Richmond useful or relevant to their own work. This is disappointing because the authors geared this site to academics. The intended audience is primarily fellow scholars interested in topics such as Richmond History, New Deal History, or Urban Race History. This is evident by the use of many secondary sources on redlining and preconceptions of urban blacks in this period, however there are not links to these sources on this site (Introduction Tab).

Redlining Richmond uses a few different aids, but not much unique to the digital medium. Overall, this site relies too heavily on text to make its argument rather than utilizing tools unique to the digital medium. The footnotes in the text are set up just as they would be in a print document. This project spatializes some data from the assessment records by attaching it to a map of the neighborhoods of Richmond, but, other than that, nothing was done with those records that cannot be done in the print medium. Information on each neighborhood is presented in both a list and map format. Each neighborhood in both these formats is color-coded to show the grade it received. These two formats provide a lot more information about these neighborhoods beside race. The maps are the only areas of the site where the reader can interact with the material. However, the maps on this site are relatively limited, especially by contemporary standards. There is no zoom-in/zoom-out function. (Factors and Neighborhoods Tabs). More opportunities for the reader to interact with the material would significantly improve this site.

This project has a few limitations in what it addresses that the reader should be aware of. Anyone looking for new information on the development of race relations in this period will be disappointed. There is also no information on the impact that these assessment grades had on the future of these neighborhoods. The redlining this site talks about had already occurred by the time these assessments were done. As the project acknowledges, many HOLC mortgages actually went to neighborhoods graded "C" or "D" so there should be some explanation for how this redlining affected people on the ground in this period (Introduction tab). All the links to maps pull up the same map in Google Maps with the same neighborhoods marked on it. The only difference is the different information provided on each neighborhood in each map when the reader clicks on it.

Thus Redlining Richmond does a good job being a spatial digital exhibit for the HOLC's assessment records for Richmond. Any reader who is looking for demographic information on neighborhoods of Richmond in the 1930s will find this website useful. However, this project does not provide a wider understanding of the phenomenon of redlining or the New Deal's contribution to it. The authors argue effectively in the text part of the site that race was an influential factor in these assessments, but that will hardly come as a surprise to those somewhat familiar with the academic literature. Adding something to the archive besides these assessment records would significantly improve this project.

Trevor Magel
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2011