Cross Post: "Segregated by Design" by Sara Patenaude

Our own Sara Patenaude has written an insightful article over at The Metropole: The Official Blog of the Urban History Association, titled “Segregated by Design: 'Free Choice’ and Baltimore Public Housing”.

The article is adapted from her recent PhD dissertation. In it she writes:

The rise and fall of public housing is a popular topic for urban historians. The story has been told for cities from Chicago to Los Angeles, New York to San Francisco. While the story in Baltimore may not, at first glance, seem unique, the city has become known for its public housing and related issues of poverty, drugs, corruption, and crime since the critically-acclaimed HBO series, The Wire,debuted in 2002. More recently, the tragic death of Freddie Gray and the resulting uprising in the city’s streets have brought Baltimore’s housing problems back to the public mainstream. Though its official motto is “The Greatest City in America,” Baltimore, Maryland is more likely to be colloquially referred to by the pejorative, “Bulletmore.”

Yet the projects have been home to thousands of Baltimore residents since 1940, when Poe Homes (named for one of the city’s most famous residents, Edgar Allen Poe) opened in West Baltimore. Poe Homes, and the twelve housing projects that followed, were divided into “Negro” and “White” projects. After 1954, when the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) officially desegregated the projects in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, applicants to public housing were legally allowed to apply for residence in whichever projects they preferred, regardless of race.

When it came to implementing these desegregation policies, however, the reality was not so simple. By ignoring the legacy of segregation and ongoing systemic racism, the focus on removing official barriers to “choice” did little to actually alleviate segregation among public housing residents. Even as federal officials mandated a new policy aimed at ending continued segregation, allowing local control provided Baltimore officials and residents ample opportunity to maintain several all-white projects—primarily in the interest of maintaining any white residents on their public housing rolls. In Baltimore, as elsewhere across the country, residential segregation was enforced not by government decree, but by individuals abandoning “block-busted” neighborhoods for the suburbs, pressuring elected officials to stop “encroachment,” and loudly proclaiming racially coded complaints about declining property values.

It is worth a read. Go check it out at The Metropole.

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