Neighborhood Character and Redlining’s Legacy

“Neighborhood character,” it turns out, can be legally defined and covenanted, as I learned recently when I spent a morning conducting research at the Ramsey County records division.

I found the warranty deed abstract for the multi-block plot of land that includes my lot and house, and a significant swath of Highland District Council (HDC) Grid 1, to include nearby neighbors who have been the nucleus of the political action group “Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul.” Drafted in 1923, the abstract states “that any building or buildings it may erect upon said premises shall be for residence or dwelling purposes of white people only … the restrictions and covenants shall run with the land and bind the successors.”

Development Deed

Excerpt from the deed laying out the multi-block land development where my house sits in Highland Park.

When my house was built on the subdivided land, the deed for the property stated that the house “shall never be occupied by a colored person or persons.” When it was sold, the subsequent deed specified that the property was “subject to restrictions set forth in the warranty deed recorded … from the Zenith Land Company to Wilfred D. Proven.”

The first residents of Highland Park intentionally built a walled fortress, which would eventually come under siege when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948 that covenants were unenforceable. The Minnesota Legislature followed in 1953 with prohibitions on their continued use, but neighbors still often invoked racial covenants until they were made explicitly illegal under the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

House Deed

Text on the original deed to my house, forbidding occupancy by a “colored person or persons”

House Deed Continuance

Racial covenants were passed on in more innocuous and brief text.

The shadow of racial redlining exerts a powerful gravity on the present in innumerable ways, but I’d like to focus on a few discrete examples.

When someone invokes “neighborhood character” in order to block development, they often do so by starting their argument with, “I’ve lived in Highland for 30-plus years.” This is relevant because, if a Baby Boomer purchased their Highland home 30 years ago, it is a statistical likelihood that they purchased in the 1980s from another longtime resident who intentionally bought a home that was “protected” by racial covenants. My own home transferred in 1982 to a couple who, had they stayed, would currently have membership in the “I’ve lived here 37 years” demographic. They purchased from a homeowner who purchased in 1960, before the Fair Housing Act. It is also reasonable to surmise that, in the twilight of legal racial covenants, homeowners still made intentional choices about whom they sold to.

I used to find it merely personally irritating whenever someone suggested in public that the opinions of older residents who had lived their entire lives in St. Paul (Highland, particularly) were inherently more valuable. Now, I think it’s fair to question the cultural source of that implied validity. Many current longtime residents are only a generation removed from legally covenanted “neighborhood character.” Even if they were not explicitly aware of the walls that had circumscribed the boundaries of the “good neighborhoods,” it is logical to assume they possessed at least an implicit and unspoken cultural understanding of them. The Fair Housing Act might have blown a hole in the walls, but even by the 1980s, the new generation of homeowners was still clustered protectively in the walls’ shadow so that the light of day need not burn their white skin.

A more institutional legacy of racial redlining might be the Neighborhood/District Council system itself. District Councils are 501(c)(3), non-governmental entities that purport to represent the constituents within their geographic bounds, and they exert a strong influence in zoning decisions. The HDC in particular has been dominated by the voices of “I’ve-lived-here-35-years” and “preserve-neighborhood-character,” which until recently I thought was an accidental flaw, exacerbated this year by a combination of a freak snowstorm during elections paired with widespread apathy. However, chronology and research suggest that it might be an intrinsic feature.

According to the history of the District Council system on the city’s own website:

“Neighborhood associations in Saint Paul stretch back to the early 20th century. Through the 1950s and 1960s, residents in many neighborhoods began to organize in response to major development projects happening associated with a national movement of ‘urban renewal.’ Large federal programs brought major federal [sic] into city neighborhoods across the country, often with little or no input from the residents in those places. By 1967, neighborhood organizations in Saint Paul had built enough momentum to be able to form a coalition as the Association of Saint Paul Communities.”

The history goes on to state this: “In 1968, local government also began its first formal program for resident participation in planning and community development” and then references a “response to demonstrations against a number of developments in neighborhoods by the Housing and Redevelopment Authority.” The HRA began in 1947 with a mission to end slums and provide a decent home for everyone — in other words, to combat redlining. Neighborhood associations and committees were formalized as the District Council system in 1975.

The usual caveats of the historian apply here: that neither correlation nor chronology necessarily equals causation. But chronology is the historian’s most compelling tool in narrating cause-and-effect, especially when deciphering the subtext, which in this case is very compelling. Additionally, events and proximal causes are connected in time, and the past, of necessity, must be one from which the present could have plausibly evolved.

Screen Shot 2019 11 08 At 10.25.21 Pm

They thought a neighborhood development project was “unbelievable” near a “unique historical treasure.” Some things never change.

To root the narrative in its time: During the aforementioned organizing period, what was happening that might define “urban renewal”? And what federal programs were overriding local interests? This happened to be the exact time period when racial redlining fell under federal siege, in direct opposition to local interests. Those were the years when white people were plowing highways through black neighborhoods and fleeing to the suburbs. One of the first local causes championed by the neighborhood associations was in 1968-69, to oppose “spot” rezoning in the city, which was often a corrective measure implemented in the wake of the Fair Housing Act. They fought against five zoning variances for apartment construction all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, where they lost under the ethos of the Fair Housing Act. They continued, however, in their mission to oppose “nuisance” developments. It might have been nice if they had fought just as hard to support local (black) interests against bulldozers and interstate highways.

In other words, the chronology of events, and the record of causes, strongly indicates that the District Council system was created by the heirs of racial redlining as the last line of defense in the long siege. It stretches credibility to suggest it is merely coincidence that certain voices and interests still dominate to this day, and that the HDC has virtually no participation from grids that were built mostly after the Fair Housing Act struck down redlining. Can it also be coincidence that the voices in the crowd and on the board of the HDC are nearly a diametric inversion of every recent municipal election outcome?

What does all this mean? We as citizens should question, with surgical intensity, the precise meaning and cultural roots of the terms “neighborhood character” and “I’ve lived here for multiple decades,” when used as arguments for stopping progress and diminishing the voices of so-called “newcomers.” There should be no more “Minnesota Nice” on this point; shine a light on it and call it what it is.

Highlandpark Streets

The Highland Park neighborhood has a history of redlining, erecting walls to keep white people in.

As for the District Councils, particularly the HDC, the adoption of an effective equity plan should be their overriding priority at present, and not one consisting merely of friendly and inspirational marketing phrases. It is essential to the legitimacy of District Councils.

Here is an equity plan, in two paragraphs:

First, research which developments in Highland Park were defined by racial covenants. I cared enough to do some research into my own little corner of the city, and if the HDC cares, they can dedicate their city-granted equity funds to doing this research and mapping it on the website that was paid for out of those equity funds, similar to what has been accomplished by Mapping Prejudice in Minneapolis. Along with this public education, the HDC can resolve to acknowledge that racial covenants were a founding pillar of the community, that they are renounced and that all decisions henceforth will be made with the aim of actively reversing their legacy.

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The “Mapping Prejudice” project interactive map of “redlining” and racial covenants in Minneapolis and Hennepin County

Actively reversing that legacy leads to the second part of the plan: ensure that grids historically defined by racial covenants constitute a minority of board representation, if that is not already so. Depending on how the map looks in the end, this might be geographically impossible in Highland Park, but we’ll know only if the research is done. The best option then is to break up the redlined grids and apportion the pieces to any surrounding, non-redlined grids, if they exist. If such a thing is impossible, then either granting non-redlined grids extra representation or merging covenant-defined grids to reduce their representation might effectively change the ratios. Or, perhaps, base representation on population, like the U.S. House, rather than on territory, like the Senate.

Some might argue that measures like this are no longer necessary in St. Paul, given that I, as an Asian-American, can now live in my house, or because we elected a black mayor. Yet I contend that a cultural inertia prevails in neighborhoods that were founded on redlining, and that without a strong oppositional force, that culture will continue to roll along in a polite vacuum, poisoning the community.

Michael Daigh

About Michael Daigh

You might have seen Michael Daigh riding his bike around the Twin Cities metro. He resides in St. Paul, but only since 2015, so his opinions don't count. Michael holds an MA in History, and is the author of the book: "John Brown in Memory and Myth". He is also a decorated fighter pilot.

23 thoughts on “Neighborhood Character and Redlining’s Legacy

  1. Monte Castleman

    “There should be no more “Minnesota Nice” on this point; shine a light on it and call it what it is.”

    OK, What it is regrets for not having the for-site to realize when they bought their house in a quiet, low density residential area that in 30 years someone might want to build apartment towers on all sides of their property, and that they would be called nasty names if they were not OK with being surrounded like that, regardless of the actual demographics of the newcomers. I have a feeling these people would oppose a condo tower if the cheapest unit sold for a million dollars.

      1. Monte Castleman

        So I can open an auto parts storage yard at my house because my neighbors bought the house, not the neighborhood?

    1. Dan H

      If someone was actually proposing apartment towers on all sides of your property, ok

      But if we are talking about opposition to the Ford site plan, Mike’s got it exactly right. Let’s call it what it is.

      1. Monte Castleman

        I didn’t see any mention of the Ford site in the article. My take was it would be allowing apartment towers and such in existing single family detached house neighborhoods.

        1. Dan H

          Your were making a strawman argument, just as you were with your auto parts argument. Allowing multi-family housing into residential neighborhoods isn’t the same as eliminating zoning laws altogether.

          I brought up the Ford site because same hyperbole was used by the opposition there

    2. Mike

      Monte you are correct that many people in currently low density areas would and have objected to large buildings put down next door to them independent of the price or income requirements to live there. sometimes an affordable housing project with smaller units and less/no parking may raise more concerns because it brings a bigger density impact but the shadow of a 6 story building is the same whether the kitchens have Formica or granite.

      There are also people who object to ANY changes. they don’t like a 2.5 building, or townhouses, or a tear down….. that’s never going to change – but we should separate people who fear having their neighborhood “character” dramatically changed out from underneath them from people who object unreasonably to modest incremental changes that are consistent with other historically non-conforming structures.

  2. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    I’m curious what you think about district councils in neighborhoods that were red lined. How might their history and experience be different? Do we see differences in them today based on their and the community’s history?

    I agree with your analysis of Highland, but curious how it plays out in other neighborhoods. For example, West 7th/West End was one of the few red-lined majority white neighborhoods. I suspect that has a lot to do with the large European ethnic communities that were very poor (Bohemian, Czech, Italian, and Polish) and often Catholic. The Fort Road Federation was the first district council and its early work was often fighting HRA developments as well. But, those developments involved tearing down residential areas (typically immigrant slum clearance) to build industrial developments. Irvine Park, for instance, was slated to become factories. The Fed also helped get money to connect Kipps Glen to the city’s sewer system when the city wanted to tear the entire neighborhood down for industrial. The city wanted build a strip mall along West 7th where Pajarito and the Sokol are now and that was another one the Fed fought to keep. The biggest was RIP 35E and fighting against a freeway through the neighborhood.

    Our board (I’m currently the president) and ED are working very hard at increasing involvement from renters and people of color and looking at how we as an organization need to change to be relevant to the residents of the neighborhood today. We’re doing a lot of listening. How can the city support district councils to do this work, which I see as a lot more nuanced than quotas or just withholding money?

    Highland has an amazingly complicated grid system, BTW. Ours is a lot simpler.

    Red line map:

    1. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

      It would also be interesting to look at neighborhoods that have historically been predominantly inhabited by POC. I think of the Rondo neighborhood. So many long term generations and residents of color there. Just recently, the debate about the development at Lexington Ave included many people in neighborhoods like the Rondo community and Frogtown. Some in the neighborhood were opposed to the development because they were afraid of the change in neighborhood character, in this instance- afraid of gentrification and eventually not affording property taxes or rents in the area. Proponents said that a developed lot was better than a vacant lot and said area was “a long way from gentrification.” I think reality in this situation, and probably any neighborhood situation, is somewhere in the middle. It’s easy to be dismissive of either side, but best outcomes usually happen if we can reach people beyond their emotions somehow.

  3. Andrew Evans

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here to be honest, or I’m thinking about the training materials I’m writing here at work and didn’t comprehend the entire article.

    Neighborhood groups, at least across the river in Mpls, are notorious for the same board members sticking around, lack of diversity or representing their neighborhoods, and lackluster attendance. I guess you can’t force people to go to these meetings and get involved, so the turnout is what it is. Someone, or a group, if they wanted can recruit neighbors to go to these meetings and go to the elections, and it has happened, but that’s really what it takes. With the wide array of avenues for someone to get involved with politics or causes, these groups and their boring meetings aren’t usually on the top of peoples lists.

    Going to the St. Paul council that was linked to, shows a upcoming meeting or something about the Ford site. Maybe I’m reading into this too much, but it seems like the article is trying to paint those opposed to a certain plan for that site as out of touch or linked back to the now illegal housing practices of the past. From talking to a friend who lives a few blocks from the site, it seems there hasn’t been much of any meaningful outreach and their views (opposed) aren’t listened to. The project seems to be too much of a darling to the progressive left in the city that they will get their way anyway. So no need to call names to people opposed, they aren’t having a voice in the process and no need to drag them through the mud.

    As far as older members of the community, they are the bridge that connects the area to the now, and their stories will help it go into the future. If they didn’t mean anything then why try and document neighborhood history, or even keep the records you were looking at? If it’s all looking forward to the future, than none of that matters much, especially after the laws were changed way back when.

  4. Dan H

    Explaining to someone that their views on a topic are rooted in racism is not the same as calling them names.

    And as to the Ford site, the idea that there hasn’t been outreach or that they don’t have a voice is nonsense. Its just that they are outnumbered by people who believe in progress and have rejected the racism that guided past development. The undemocratic and unrepresentative district council system effectively gave white, wealthy homeowners a veto over change they didn’t like. That leftover legacy of the written racial covenants finally seems to be ending.

  5. Amy Caron

    While this may be the history of the Highland District Council, Highland’s history doesn’t reflect the entire city.
    Lexington Hamline was the city’s first community council. It was, and still is, an integrated neighborhood and a place where interracial couples felt comfortable in the 60s. The Lex Ham Community Council was founded in the 1960s in a tumultuous period, and neighbors came together to stabilize the neighborhood. And, they mostly succeeded. In the 1960s, the Council actually purchased the neighborhood’s boarded-up homes from HRA/HUD and rented them out for decades, with many POC as renters. Current housing policy efforts in Lex Ham try to balance new trends (Airbnb, sober houses, etc.) with the historical usage of the neighborhood, and our ability to support more density. And, affordability affects us all, but that feels like a runaway train.

    Here’s a snip from the Lex Ham history:
    In the 60’s our neighborhood was faced with an increase in crime, deteriorating housing stock (abandoned and boarded up houses started to appear) and a “flight to the suburbs” followed. Real estate values dropped dramatically. It was during this period that the LHCC came into being and through the hard work, commitment and diligence of our residents this scenario was reversed.

  6. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I agree with a lot of what you write here, Michael, and also think you leave some important things out.

    I agree with the rejection of “neighborhood character.” I believe this term is both extremely subjective and often used as a code for race or class in ways that are historically rooted and continue to be problematic. It’s my opinion that it should be stricken from our city’s zoning code, along with some other syntactic remnants of a more explicitly racist era.

    On the other hand, I’m working on a research project about Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood right now, and their community groups that formed to reject and transform city HRA efforts did so largely not because of a legacy of racism and segregation, but because the city HRA wanted to demolish hundreds and hundreds of historic working-class homes and busiensses. These groups successfully transformed these HRA efforts, despite being redlined themselves (as Dana points out here, that also happened) and the resulting mix today is a stable urban neighborhood that retained many rare and historic homes, and has also changed to become home to some of Minneapolis’ largest communities of new immigrant residents. This is only to say that these late 60s groups had many different motivations. Some of those were surely racist, but some others can continue to inspire us today.

    That said, I would absolutely endorse plans in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul that would create more accountability for these groups around representation and democratic practices. There is a wide range of engagement approaches and representativeness across both cities, and the degree to which elected officials should pay neighborhood groups any credence at all must hinge on how well they reflect their diverse communities.

    1. Andrew Evans

      Independent of the Seward group, more a comment on your last paragraph.

      I’m not really sure a lot of these groups really fall into the democratic process. Mostly they are convenient scape goats for city councils to use as “we solicited community input by going to these groups” so council members don’t need to do leg work on their own – and put up potentially with the same lackluster attendance.

      Sure some do good work, but others are mostly in name only and get a ton of money here in Minneapolis for running meetings and doing nothing that couldn’t be done by the city and a few more staff members. The meetings they do could easily be carried out by the council members staffers, at worst one would need to be hired per member, which would be cheaper than the whole program Minneapolis is running.

      Another point is a lot of the really bright political future leaders are going to get involved with more exciting topics or with city/state politics. It’s hard to get people to boring meetings, and keep them coming, it’s harder to get them interested enough or with enough support to run for the council and get elected. Then it’s rare that some of them have the marketing skills to help with attendance, getting the word out, etc. Also the directors of these groups make a difference. My local one wanted nothing to do with the email list, any new marketing, and was mostly concerned about writing for grants so they could keep their job. It’s hard with leadership like that to really make changes in tactics that would help get rears in seats at meetings.

      Which is why I think it would be best, at least in Mpls, to run outreach through the councils office. At least then they are elected every so often, and usually then the turnout for an election is a little better or at the very least a little more visible and important for local voters.

  7. Steve Subera

    I appreciate the research, Michael. Have you been able to sit down with some of the folks you mention who use the “neighborhood character” phrase or who have lived in their neighborhoods for many decades and asked them about their perspectives and why they say what they say?

  8. Michael DaighMichael Daigh Post author

    To both Ms. DeMaster and Mr. Lindeke,

    I appreciate your input and perspective. However, believe it or not, despite the length of this essay, brevity is something that I am actually earnestly working on. So the type-space I devoted to the caveats of the historian might have also included the fact that the backgrounds and motivations of various neighborhood councils were and are varied. Some councils exist in neighborhoods that were formerly not white-only enclaves, and whose histories and concept of character are very different than others. Given the context of the times, I still strongly suspect that the system is rooted at some level at push-back against Federal efforts to dismantle red-lining.

    So. This is not an exhaustive study of the history of each neighborhood council. I tried to keep the narrative fairly tightly focused on source document archival research of my house, and the multiple blocks surrounding my house, and the rooting the history of the council system itself in the context of its time. As well as on my own experience with this particular district council, and with my neighbors that live within the area of my records research.

    I should have also mentioned “historic preservation” alongside “neighborhood character” as well. As a historian, I do have a love for old buildings and antiquities. And yet, I had to wonder where the protests were when two “historic” single-family homes on MRB near my house were torn down and replaced with some very modern, very sleek, single-family homes worth well upwards of $1M. Those homes were just as “historic” as the ones that were torn down over protest in order to build a three-story condo building.

    There are two important takeaways, in my opinion. The first is the need to interrogate critically “neighborhood character” and “historic” blocks and protests. “Neighborhood character” might mean a lot of innocuous, or subjective, or substantive things. Or, it might be rooted deeply in red-lining culture. Secondly, I am completely earnest in my two-paragraph equity plan recommendations. Acknowledge, change, research, educate, and, if necessary or possible, zone to ensure that redlining’s legacy does not define majority representation on the HDC board. I think doing so will actually do a lot to uproot subconscious historic inequities. It’s the most concrete and “real” thing we can do.

  9. Michael DaighMichael Daigh Post author

    I would also like to point out that the HDC is NON-GOVERNMENTAL. They are not subject to any laws, save their own bylaws, regarding election practices, access, or outreach.

    As a single point of illustration: I couldn’t vote in the last election because I was away performing military duty. In any “real” election, this would actually be a violation of election law, and of my rights as a servicemember. And I have more powerful laws protecting my access to ACTUAL elections than the overwhelming majority of Americans do. But it’s not a real election. It’s a function hosted by a 501(c)(3) that happens to exert a lot of influence in city zoning.

    So rearranging the map and board to ensure that a cultural legacy of redlining doesn’t define the strong influence the board has on zoning isn’t an act of civil disenfranchisement. It’s a proactive use of the bylaws of a 501(c)(3).

    Additionally, it’s worth considering the fact that HDC participation seems to be diametrically opposed to the results of ACTUAL elections within Highland and Ward 3. So something is going on here culturally.

    1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

      The Fort Road Federation recently changed its bylaws to allow online and in person voting the week before the annual meeting so that people who cannot attend have an opportunity to vote for the board. Hamline Midway does this as well as a few other. Change is coming, albeit sometimes slowly!

  10. Sally Bauer

    Thanks for doing this research and sharing it. As a fellow grid 1er, it’s not surprising to see the connection between redlining and Livable St Paul folks in our area. It was the same if you look at Minneapolis and the opposition to their 2040 plan (SW Mpls had the most historic redlining and also the greatest number of comments opposed to 2040). Though I also have felt a little better when I look at larger voting trends in Ward 3 (mayoral support, council, trash referendum, etc) as it seems that it’s possibly just a very vocal, loud, well-organized/financed minority than the majority of our neighbors.

    Just one point of clarification, the HDC grid map is based on population. We just updated the grid map in 2019 which is why the elections process was messy as all 12 grids were up for election due to the new map. The map was created based on research by an intern (I wish I could remember her expertise, but it was a connection from Nate Hood) and then reworked to make sure the map made sense from a neighborhood standpoint (not drawing lines across areas that generally correlate together, etc). The goal was to balance the population by grid and the bylaws have now been updated so that we can update the grid map on a semi-regular basis as population shifts (of course with the Ford Site a lot change is in the horizon). The most recent redrawing of grids increased representation along W 7th, however, and this returns to the bigger problem, we struggled to get candidates to run from all those grids.

    I am chairing a task force on the HDC to look at the Annual Meeting and Elections process to hopefully make improvements that will make the process more inclusive and welcoming. Everything is on the table, though anything that requires a bylaw change would likely need to be approved at the 2020 Annual meeting and implemented in 2021.

    To Dana, I would love to hear your thoughts on how the changes you’ve made are positively contributing to better representation and engagement on your district council, we’d love to learn from other group’s successes.

    It’s an uphill battle to work through both historical and current systematic racism to make these boards better represent their neighborhood demographics, but it’s better to try what we can vs giving up entirely. I’ve seen some really great things come out of the District Council, in particular as it relates to pedestrian safety (medians on Snelling, sidewalks near Expo, Stop for Me events, etc). District Councils have a relevant place in advocating for the needs of their residents and neighborhood, we just need to figure out how to better engage and represent our full neighborhood.

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