“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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