Articles

Artists and Activists Trace Boston’s Historic Red Line on the Streets

Heather Gordon, Mr. Marshal, and Carolyn Lomax push the chalker tool along Washington Corridor.
Heather Gordon, Mr. Marshal, and Carolyn Lomax push the chalker tool along Washington Corridor.

BOSTON — There is brick dust everywhere: on shoes, on clothes, on the street. Most of it makes it into the field chalker, which has already marked three miles of sidewalk. There are six more to go, and over 1,000 pounds of the bright red chalk-and-brick mixture with which to refill the machine. As they walk, volunteers with the “Redlined” public art project are chanting and talking to curious passersby, who want to know: what exactly is redlining? The community members came together this past Saturday, September 19, to trace its history onto the pavement.

Jamaica Plains mostly resembles Queens: single and multifamily homes with crawling ivy, concrete and brick sidewalks dotted with trees and edged with narrow yards. But near the Green Street subway station (on the orange line), whole blocks have recently been converted to condo complexes. This is the new epicenter of Boston’s gentrification.

Heather Gordon walks with City Life volunteers to educate passersby. (click to enlarge)
Heather Gordon walks with City Life volunteers to educate passersby. (click to enlarge)

This is especially significant because Jamaica Plain, known locally as JP, is touted as one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods; it is home to historically black and Latino communities — no small feat in one of the most segregated cities in America. “We’re here to facilitate an encounter with history,” says John Hulsey, one of the “Redlined” coordinators. As the walk moves down the Washington Avenue corridor, residents call out to them, shouting greetings or questions. One woman chases them down; catching up and of breath, she pants, “What’s this all about?”

On the edge of the neighborhood are grand homes with expansive lawns. What separates the two parts of JP is the historical process of redlining: the dividing of the city by Federal Housing Administration policies in 1936. The lines that were drawn helped shape discriminatory housing policies, denoting neighborhoods where the government would not underwrite loans or mortgages to residents. This process effectively limited home ownership, leading to decades of housing policies that kept property values low and residents vulnerable to predatory developers.

“Redlining, reverse redlining — it’s just another version of the same story of housing discrimination based on race,” says Hulsey. “We want to inscribe that history onto the streets of Boston, to make that history visible, to make public policy visible.” To that end, the “Redlined” group — which was part of local social justice organization City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) — walked from JP to Dorchester, to South End and the Back Bay, around to Mission Hill and back again to the Forest Hills station in JP, marking a heavy, messy red line on the streets the entire way.

Redline on Washington Avenue
Redline on Washington

Volunteers chat with residents they encounter along the route, explaining the purpose of their field chalker filled with crushed brick recycled from demolitions. “We are here to talk about redlining!” roars an older volunteer, who hands off his cane to push the chalker. “I’m an old man, but I can do this much,” he adds with a smile, leaning heavily on the handle as he goes. He mans the machine for an hour, starting right after lunch, and then other volunteers rotate. The walk will takes hours, given interruptions for chatter, refills of chalk, and water breaks. It’s evening by the time they’re done.

Ivan Richiez, of the youth coalition Keep It 100 for Egleston and a “Redlined” volunteer, notes that “Boston has a history of organizing against foreclosures, gentrification, redlining, which are essentially the same thing, just different strategies.” Local groups such as CLVU and the Affordable Egleston Coalition are advocating for residents and fighting for local affordable housing amid mass displacements as a result of gentrification.

As the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) develops new housing in the neighborhood, though, there’s no guarantee of affordability for the current residents. Protests such as disrupting BRA meetings and artistic projects like “Redlined” are attempts to educate the community and bring people together. Richiez says the issues are all connected: when properties get bought up, it often leads to an increased police presence, which results in more arrests for petty crime, which funnels more people into prison. The systems of control all fortify each other, he explains, from education to housing to policing.

Lonnie Hutton holds up the historic FHA redlining map of the neighborhood.
Lonnie Hutton holds up the historic FHA redlining map of the neighborhood.

Carolyn Lomax, a member of CLVU, moved her children from a small, primarily white community outside Boston, feeling distinctly unwanted; she eventually purchased a home in JP. Along the way she says spent some time in a shelter, unable to afford the rent closer to the city center, where she worked. She has struggled every step of the way due to misinformation and a lack of advocacy and support.“It’s interesting how redlining is still affecting us today,” she says. “People know about it, but no one really talks about it.”

By participating in “Redlined,” she was able to write her story directly onto neighborhood streets in the hopes of sparking a conversation. “We’re talking to the community, we’re pushing this machine to make this red line, and hopefully get people to ask the question, ‘What are they doing, what is this?’” Lomax says. “Redlining sparks a whole bunch of confusion for people who just want to have the basics, which is all we want.”

She adds: “If we do nothing, nothing will change. But if we come together, what we do now will forever define us.”

Mr. Marshall and Carolyn Lomax load the line marker.
Mr. Marshall and Carolyn Lomax load the line marker.
Carolyn Lomax pushing the lining tool along the route
Carolyn Lomax pushing the lining tool along the route
Ivan Richiez, Affordable Egleston Coalition
Ivan Richiez, Affordable Egleston Coalition, before the walk
Lonnie Hutton explains the redlining map to neighborhood kids.
Lonnie Hutton explains the redlining map to neighborhood kids.
The 1936 FHA redlining map that 'Redlined' participants used to plan their route. The area of Boston they covered was the largest section, in the upper right, walked pretty much end to end across the longest bit.
The 1936 FHA redlining map that ‘Redlined’ participants used to plan their route. The area of Boston they covered was the largest section, in the upper right, walked pretty much end to end across the longest bit. (click to enlarge)

“Redlined” took place on September 19, beginning at 1pm, around Boston.

Update, 9/24: This article did not originally name the subway station near which blocks have been converted to condo complexes. It has been updated.

comments (0)