By Chelsea Gazillo
Have you ever wondered why some neighborhoods in Bridgeport have more wealth than others? The disparity between the wealth held by residents of different neighborhoods in Bridgeport – often correlated with the racial composition of each neighborhood – were not created by chance. In his book The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein discusses racial disparity as a product of public policy: “Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest and West is not the unintended consequences of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulations but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States” (Rothstein, 2017, VIII).
This Grassroots Historian Article looks at how these “unhidden public policies” have influenced the socio-economic makeup of Bridgeport’s diverse neighborhoods. This article will argue that historical redlining policies shaped the racial geography of Bridgeport. Redlining was a program established in 1934 by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) program. The federal government insured private mortgages, which resulted in lower interest rates and a decline in amount owed for the down payment to purchase a new home (Coates, 2014). Redlining is defined as the refusal to give someone a mortgage on a house because they were deemed a financial risk or too poor. The HOLC program decided who these individuals were based on the neighborhood in which they lived:
“On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage” (Coates, 2014, n.p.).
This program has been criticized for denying black and brown residents equal access to home mortgages, often offering sub-prime loans that came with unusually severe terms (Rothstein, 2017). Like many post-industrial cities across New England, the history of the racial geographical division within Bridgeport dates back further than the 1934 creation of HOLC mortgage lending maps.
During the Civil War, Bridgeport became industrialized and transformed to meet the demands of wartime. It was during this time that the city saw industry as an economic opportunity. The city’s industrial wealth peaked early in comparison to other cities in New England (Tisdale, 2017). World War I and World War II led Bridgeport to thrive and job opportunities abounded for residents, similar to most cities in the US. During this time period, many immigrants, particularly Europeans, moved to Bridgeport in search of work. Conversely, people of color who lived within the city were not granted access to the same jobs as their immigrant counterparts (Tisdale, 2017). As immigrants assimilated, residents who identified themselves as African-American or Latino remained marginalized and were denied many of the economic opportunities available to those who were seen as white. Most black and brown people were segregated into the city’s South End and East End communities (See U.S. Census Bureau Map, 1940).
In 1934 the United States government launched the HOLC program as part of the New Deal. This program aimed to refinance mortgages for “over a million struggling homeowners” (Onion, 2014, n.p.). HOLC was designed to give affordable mortgages to low-income first-time home buyers, however it often excluded African American and Latino citizens. Bridgeport was not exempt from this phenomenon. Historical census records suggest that home ownership within the city has remained something readily acquired by white residents, often leaving those who have been labeled as non-white forced to rent homes.
According to the 1930 Census, the total population of Bridgeport was 146,716 people. The demographic breakdown by race included: 102,566 of people identified as native white (70%), 40,756 people identified as non-native white (28%), and 3,314 of people identified as black (2% ) (U.S. Census Bureau, 1930). The population of black individuals within Bridgeport remained steady until after World War II, when the total population of Bridgeport rose from 147,121 to 158,709 by 1950. This included an increase in black residents from 3,767 people to 6,748 people. It is important to note that while the populations of both black residents and white residents increased post-World War II, the number of homes owned by black people remained steady. According to the 1940 Census, there were 40,233 dwellings in the city; of the 10,191homes that were owner occupied, 10,068 were owned by whites (25%), while only 128 of homes were owned by black residents (.3%). (U.S. Census Bureau, 1940). By 1960, the number of housing units in Bridgeport had increased to 51,654; 20,075 of homes were owner occupied (39%), 19,256 were owned by whites (38%), while the remaining 819 of homes were owned by non-whites (1.5%) (U.S. Census Bureau, 1950). These Census Bureau statistics suggest that while the number of houses owned and occupied by residents in Bridgeport nearly doubled, the percentage of homes owned by non-white residents remained stagnant in comparison, which meant that many non-white residents were renting homes instead, often from white landlords. Redlining was used to control the number of homes owned by non-white residents within the city because they were not given access to the same mortgage lending opportunities as their white counterparts.
Racial segregation within the housing sector was apparent not just for those who owned homes, but also those who lived in public housing developments. While HOLC was designed to “provide housing to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families,” (Rothstein, 2017), people of color and other minority groups were intentionally left out of the development of public housing. Many early housing developments were built exclusively for white people (Rothstein, 2017). For example, a 1919 public housing project, which is still standing in the city’s South End neighborhood, was constructed by the U.S. Housing Corporation (USHC) for the city’s white families who were working in war-related jobs (Rothstein, 2017). However, after the Great Depression, the racial demographics within public housing shifted as the United States started looking into public housing options for all Americans, especially those who were working in factories. In 1937, the United States Housing Act created the National Public Housing Program “to remedy insanitary [sic]conditions and address the acute shortage of decent and safe workforce housing” (Housing Authority of Bridgeport, 2013, pg. 7).
The National Public Housing Program created opportunities for low-income black families to move into public housing developments. In 1939, Bridgeport broke ground on Father Panik Village, the first public housing development in New England (Lavoie, 1994; Rierden, 1993). The development opened in 1941 with the hope of moving immigrants who were living in “slum” living conditions into high-rises that would provide temporary stable housing for factory workers (Lavoie, 1994). The 40-acre complex was built to house nearly 5,000 people in 46 three-story buildings (Lavoie, 1994). Like many housing complexes, the development was at first a place that brought together residents of diverse backgrounds, including immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe (Housing Authority of Bridgeport, 2013). Many residents who grew up at Father Panik remember a place that was well maintained, with small community garden plots adjacent to many of the buildings (Lavoie, 1994; Rierden, 1993). During the 1950s Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans started to occupy the units of Father Panik and by 1969, it is reported that the housing infrastructure began to drastically decay, including an increase in crime-related activities (Housing Authority of Bridgeport, 2013).
The increased number of black families that moved into Father Panik shortly after World War II did not happen by coincidence. Shortly after the construction of Father Panik, at the end of World War II, many returned veterans in Bridgeport were granted access to the GI Bill, also known as Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. The GI Bill gave government-guaranteed mortgages to veterans that helped them become homeowners in suburban areas (Rothstein, 2017). As a result, white veterans across the nation moved their families into wealthy suburbs. In Connecticut, many white soldiers who returned from the war were able to afford homes in Bridgeport’s wealthy neighboring suburban towns of Trumbull and Fairfield. Conversely, veterans of color were denied the benefits of the GI Bill – often they did not even apply to the Veterans Administration for GI benefits because they were aware that “these applications were rejected on account of their race” (Rothstein, 2017, pg. XI). Without access to the mortgage assistance provided by the GI Bill, black veterans remained in Bridgeport. Many could not afford to buy homes in the city’s suburbs without mortgages and thus were not able to build capital as property owners unlike their white counterparts who fled Bridgeport and were able to purchase land (Tisdale, 2017).
As many black veterans remained in Bridgeport after World War II, Father Panik village saw an increase of black residents, many who worked within the industrial sector. In the 1970s, industry started to slowly move out of Bridgeport. As this shift continued, Father Panik Village become a “blighted” part of Bridgeport. By the 1980’s, the housing development because the primary distribution point for crack cocaine within New England. The crack epidemic predominantly affected people of color and led to mass incarceration for many users. As a result, the community gardens and beautification efforts started to disappear from Father Panik, and crime grew rampant – the city began tearing down the project in 1986. Father Panik village closed permanently in 1994 (Lavoie, 1994).
Since Father Panik shut its doors in 1994, the city has remained segregated by wealth and race. Bridgeport remains the largest city located in Connecticut and in one of the state’s wealthiest counties. The city is home to roughly 141,000 people. The demographics of the population consist roughly of 40% White, 35% Black or African-American, and 38% Hispanic (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). According to a 2016 DataHaven Fairfield County Wellness report, most people of color that live in Fairfield County are located within Bridgeport. Within the city, the racial division of neighborhoods is starkly apparent, especially in wealthier neighborhoods such as Black Rock, where most residents are white, compared with the East End and East Side which have remained low-income and a majority of the population are people of color (Personal Observation, 2017).
Today, the percentage of homes in Bridgeport that are owned by people of color is still relatively low compared to homes owned by white individuals. As this article shows, the city’s racial demographics have shifted dramatically over the last 80 years. However, the percentage of homes owned by people of color has remained low. According to the 2010 Census, 51,255 homes were occupied within the city. Of these, 21,822 were owner-occupied. The breakdown of demographics of owner-occupied homes is as follows: 5,886 home were owned by African-Americans (9%), 1,188 were owned by Asian-Americans (2%), and 5,463 homes were owned by Latino or Hispanic people (11%). This compares with the 9,012 (18%) of homes owned by white families. This does not include the percentage of African-Americans, Asians or Hispanics who are currently renting homes. Nearly fifty-seven percent of homes in Bridgeport are occupied by renters. Eighty-three percent of renters identify with a race other than white (U.S. Census 2015). These numbers suggest that remnants of historical racialized housing policies still affect individuals of color from becoming homeowners within the city.
In closing, redlining explains most of the reasons why the city is currently racially divided. Many people of color who were able to purchase homes were forced into neighborhoods that the Home Owners Loan Corporation deemed “undesirable” for whites (Rothstein, 2017). Housing discriminating still affects black and brown residents to a greater degree than their white counterparts. When the housing crisis of 2008 swept the nation, people of color were displaced from homes in much higher proportion than their white counterparts. Many people of color were given mortgages that lenders knew they would default on in the years leading up the economic recession (Blinder, 2014).
While completing this Grass Roots Historian piece for the Bridgeport Public Library, it became apparent that more research needs to be done into how the Home Owners Loan Corporation used maps to divide Bridgeport neighborhoods along racial lines, and to further demonstrate the legacy of redlining that exists within the city. The data collected for this Grassroots Historian piece is evidence that housing discrimination is still prevalent, 40 years after the United States Congress signed the Fair Housing Act. However, anti-racist organizations across the state such as CT-CORE (Community Organizing for Racial Equity) are organizing harder than ever to change this historical discourse and create equitable housing opportunities for all Americans.
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