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Powerful maps: Groundbreaking report exposes ‘redlining’ in Pittsfield’s past that kept Black citizens in poverty cycle

'Jim Crow in everything but name'

12 and 14 Satinet Street.jpg

12 and 14 Satinet St. on Pittsfield's West Side, photographed in 1966 and demolished in 1967. The photo shows members of West Side Legends founder Tony Jackson's family at his grandparents' house. Jackson is standing on the front step, arms crossed. His late brother, Brett, is standing out front. Properties here were demolished and the Berkshire Peak Apartments eventually built. 

PITTSFIELD

In 1940, residents in an area of the West Side neighborhood petitioned the city in complaint of housing conditions that were dirty and unsafe.

“A menace to life,” they wrote.

In 1956, the situation had only worsened. Philip Ahern, a Planning Board executive assistant, wrote in an Eagle column that year entitled, “Minorities and Bad Housing,” that the city had both “blighted housing and segregation.”

Ahern and others had begun to publicly make the connection between race and housing. A coalition of church leaders also pressed for changes. Two city-commissioned housing studies spanning 20 years had documented the problem.

But the housing and its effects only got worse through the decades.

The West Side’s Black and other low-income residents were the unknowing victims, in part, of a quiet government practice whose harm to their lives would continue into the present.

It wasn’t Jim Crow laws that helped lock a poverty cycle in place — those were illegal in Massachusetts.

It was a map of Pittsfield.

Homeowners Loan Corp. redlining map HOLC Pittsfield

The Homeowners Loan Corp. map of Pittsfield created in 1931 shows color-coding based on lending risk for mortgages. The areas in red tended to be blighted, and were also the home to Blacks and marginalized people. The practice of "redlining" stripped those neighborhoods of investment. 

The map was one initiative by the federal government and its Homeowners Loan Corp., part of a 1934 New Deal housing program. The HOLC, as it is known, made color-coded maps that divided neighborhoods in U.S. cities by creditworthiness and risk for lenders.

It coded the “hazardous” neighborhoods in red, subjecting those residents to a lack of investment that would continue to plague future generations and segregate a city to this day.

The authors of a groundbreaking report, “Redlining in Pittsfield: A case study,” lay all of this out, focusing on the West Side neighborhood, and revealing that the Berkshires, like the rest of the Northeast, had its own way of keeping people of color down.

A 15-page version of a larger report due for release soon.

“We didn’t have Jim Crow laws but we had Jim Crow in everything but name,” said Kamaar Taliaferro, an NAACP Berkshire County Branch officer and community leader specializing in housing, and one of the report’s leading authors. “Capital flows into and out of neighborhoods was definitely tied to race.”

Maps, he said, are powerful.

The full, 125-page report is due for release soon to city officials, community leaders, lenders, county libraries and the NAACP Berkshire website. Its authors in January released a 15-page summary of the findings, and presented those at an online event held by the NAACP this month.

Greylock Federal Credit Union commissioned the report roughly one year ago with sponsorship from the NAACP’s Berkshire County Branch, Berkshire Bank and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Foundation. Serendipity would have it that NAACP officer and retired MCLA professor Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed had already planned to do this research. Greylock also wanted it done, and so it asked her to pull this team together for the redlining project.

Jones-Sneed and others said county data reveals the way racism and discrimination operate in places where they don’t appear to be an issue.

“Many folks don’t think of Berkshire County as a Detroit or a Chicago,” she said of what the report calls a “false distance.”

Jones-Sneed

Frances Jones-Sneed, a professor of history emeritus at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, chairs the local NAACP’s education committee and serves on the Clinton Church Restoration board.

After its release, the team and its partners plan to set up meetings with city officials, banks and real estate investors to brainstorm solutions. They also want to know what residents of the affected neighborhoods want.

“Oftentimes these things come from the top to do things for people on the bottom, and people say, ‘Hey, you didn’t ask me what I wanted,’” she said, noting that a Black oral history project also is in the works, and will help with this.

Broken bonds

The report lists a number of possible solutions that try to answer this question:

“How can we repair the broken bonds of the human covenant between Black Westsiders and local government, financial institutions, and other city residents caused by segregation, housing discrimination, and disinvestment?”

56 Deering Street.jpg

A house at 56 Deering St. on Pittsfield's West Side, photographed in 1966 and razed in 1969. It is now the location of Berkshire Peak Apartments. 

Some ideas include the creation by the city of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, restitution, compensation and measures to increase Black home ownership and stabilize neighborhoods.

Using historical documents, U.S. Census and other data, the report goes beyond the 1931 HOLC map — which proved difficult to get from the National Archives due to the pandemic, and ultimately required the help of U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield.

HOLC map codes for redlining

Codes that assess risk for lenders on a Homeowners Loan Corp. map of Pittsfield created in 1931 and updated in 1936.

The map documents what is already known about racial and financial segregation in Pittsfield. Combined with census and other data, the picture is clear.

More than half of the city’s residents who identify as Black live in three census tracts in Pittsfield, and roughly 35 percent of all Berkshire County residents who consider themselves Black also live in those three tracts, according to the report. On the West Side, we see lower life expectancy, lower incomes and other fallout from past policies including redlining and zoning changes.

17 and 19 Deering Street.jpg

Another home on Deering Street on Pittsfield's West Side photographed in 1966 and demolished in 1968. Properties here were demolished to eventually make way for the Berkshire Peak Apartments. 

Over the years, barbershops, bakeries and other businesses left. Planners cleared those blighted areas for housing like the Jubilee Hill Urban Renewal Project, but sealed the area off from the downtown and other areas.

“A combination of political and social factors resulted in Pittsfield’s implementation of these programs producing current market conditions that are recognized as causing disinvestment and resting blighted conditions,” the authors write.

They also note that as of June of last year, the West Side had 35 buildings that had been condemned and slated for demolition.

Municipal decisions contributed. Comparisons of West Side zoning maps from 1952 to a current version shows “a significant contraction” of commercial zoning, creating a “lack of opportunity,” the report says.

Co-author Taliaferro is a native Pittsfielder, raised in subsidized housing. His research of what he says is a “heavy history” helped him better understand his own family’s local Black and Italian history in the context of housing policies. He hopes to delve further into how racial and economic covenants might have spread into suburbs. Subdivisions in Becket and Williamstown had racial covenants, he learned.

Some of the color-coding of the HOLC map surprised the team, since they didn’t necessarily line up with what he would have expected. Some areas have shifted, though housing conditions today on the West Side are consistent with redlining, Taliaferro said.

Kamaar Taliaferro

Kamaar Taliaferro, co-author of the relining report, and chair of the Housing Committee, NAACP Berkshire Branch.

He noted a redlined section of the East Side of the city, where Southern and Eastern European immigrants had settled. Discriminatory New Deal policies weren’t just aimed at Black citizens.

“That is, I believe still known today as Little Italy — that was also redlined,” he said.

‘Buying back our neighborhood’

Getting a foothold into financial wellbeing hasn’t been easy. More than 40 percent of West Side residents rent, and the rents keep rising, said Tony Jackson, who grew up here and whose forebears in the neighborhood date to the Civil War.

It was a neighborhood, he said, where white and Black children played together and families co-parented.

“The same parents that scolded me for doing something bad cheered for us when we won the Berkshire County championship,” Jackson said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Jackson, founder of community revitalization nonprofit West Side Legends, is working with others in the organization to mentor people for homeownership. They are trying to turn around the effects noted in the report, and are meeting with success. They have a partner in Greylock, which is offering 100 percent financing to those in the program. The Westside Homeownership Program can be accessed on Facebook.

Legends is also working to buy up run-down properties, renovate and sell them as single family homes, in a “buying back our neighborhood” initiative, Jackson said. They’ll also build more homes on lots with enough land to do so. Two properties they’re buying will ultimately yield six or seven single-family homes, said Jackson, who lives in Atlanta.

He’s trying to educate residents about an economic system they’ve been disconnected from and intimidates them.

“If you can pay a $1,200 rent, you can own your own house,” he said. “They don’t feel that they have that opportunity. But once they see one of their friends doing it, they want it. So the desire is there. It’s just that a vehicle to get [them] there wasn’t available.”

The report, Jackson said, deepens what is already known about baked-in housing discrimination.

“It redefines the pain of the whole thing,” he said. “The same house on the other side of town is worth $50,000 to $60,000 more. That just sort of hurts. You can’t really turn it around if you keep people renting and living in an environment where they cannot participate in building personal wealth.”

The rate of overall home ownership by Blacks in Pittsfield is lower by more than half than the citywide rate, according to the report.

Historically, it’s gone downhill: Black homeownership rates in the city are 7.6 percent lower than they were in 1950; for whites, it’s now 13 percent higher from that year, according to the data.

Greylock is committed to raising these numbers for people of color, said CEO John Bissell, of what is part of the credit union’s mission. He and others there had studied financial discrimination at the national level and wanted to know about how this played out in the Berkshires, and to rectify any past complicity in the problem.

“Homeownership is a primary pathway to financial wealth,” he said. “We’re going to be at work on this for decades to come.”

So will Pittsfield. Mayor Linda Tyer said city officials will do a deep study the final report and look at where policies might help. She said the city, now in possession of this “proof” that neighborhoods have been held back economically, “has an obligation to respond and find ways to not repeat those terrible mistakes.”

“It could be traditional things like zoning or creative things that we haven’t thought of yet,” she said.

The city also could use federal pandemic relief money, as well as other funding including opioid settlements.

“[The report] is coming at a time when we have so many resources coming our way that we ought to be able to use to recover from these horrible practices,” she said. “We’ve got some work to do.”

It might take several City Hall administrations to undo decades of harm, said A.J. Enchill, a native Pittsfielder and co-founder, president and executive director of the Berkshire Black Economic Council. With nurturing and money, other parts of the community have regenerated, he said. Applied to the West Side and Morningside, those neighborhoods also can transform. But it’s got to be consistent.

“The funding can’t come and go,” he said. “It has to be there, and it has to be dependable and it has to be accessible so that communities can thrive.”

Enchill also would like to see a real reckoning with the city’s commercial zoning and other policies that damaged the neighborhoods over time. City officials, leaders and residents will have to work together.

“We as a community need to guide and support this administration in providing the information that they need, and the community has to open up its mind to new possibilities and opportunities,” he added. “I think folks are aware of the issues, but it’s really time for people to put their money where their mouth is.”

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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