Q&A: Paige Glotzer on How the Suburbs Were Segregated

Paige Glotzer’s absorbing, vividly narrated study is a major contribution to the histories of capitalism and of American cities. She shows residential segregation’s roots in longer histories of race and empire, flows of global capital, and the actions of powerful real estate developers long before the era of mass suburbanization. An essential text for understanding and grappling with the inequalities embedded within today’s metropolitan landscapes.

~Margaret O’Mara, author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America

In How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890–1960, historian Paige Glotzer follows the money behind redlining at the end of the nineteenth century by looking at the financing and development of Roland Park, an exclusive white neighborhood in Baltimore.

We sat down with Paige to ask her about her unique archival work and the deep history and long shadow of redlining in America.

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Q: Redlining has become such a widely known example of how the federal government helped segregate housing in the United States that several presidential candidates discussed it in their housing platforms this election cycle. What new lessons does How the Suburbs Were Segregated offer about redlining?

Paige Glotzer: The book changes the when, who, and how of redlining. Redlining did not begin with the federal government and its infamous color-coded lending maps during the Great Depression. Instead, I treat redlining as a lesson in how a group gained power to shape federal policy before, during, and after the creation of the maps. 

In 1908 white realtors formed a professional association called the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB), now the National Association of Realtors, with the aim of influencing policy. It first began to exert influence on the local and state levels. By the 1930s they fashioned themselves into experts. Federal administrators tapped these realtors to consult on redlining maps. Some of the presidential candidates who have tried to contend with the legacies of redlining looked not to realtors but to activists, who have been organizing for decades around issues of housing discrimination. I end the book with a call to use history to create a more equitable future. What would happen if, instead of realtors, these organizers were the go-to experts for a new generation of federal housing policy? 

Q: Speaking of when, who, and how, your book investigates a period, place, and set of actors no one else has considered before in writing the history of redlining. You write about the British investors who financed Baltimore’s first segregated suburb, Roland Park. You begin the book with the black property owners who were displaced for that suburb and later became its labor force. Why is it important to bring investment and labor into the history of suburbs?

PG: I follow the money that financed the first planned, segregated suburb in the United States, Roland Park in Baltimore, Maryland.

The largest investors in Roland Park used capital that they had gained from business ventures connected to Native American genocide, enslavement in the Caribbean, and imperialism in Egypt, India, and the Congo. Those connected investments turn a place many in the United States might view as quintessentially American—the racially segregated suburb of single-family homes on curving streets—into a stop in a circuit of global capital that hinged on expropriation, displacement, and conquest. Likewise, beginning the book with black property owners counters a common belief propagated in histories of U.S. suburbs: that planned suburbs were developed on empty land and were very homogenous.

From the beginning, Roland Park and its contemporaries were surrounded by people whose labor, land, and even resources proved essential for segregated suburbs to function. Erasure of that fact helps to sustain racial segregation and make it profitable. Recently I was talking to a former advisor who called Roland Park a black neighborhood, to challenge today’s white residents who feel an exclusive claim to the space even though black people live, work, and go to school there. I replied that it has always been a black neighborhood, because it would never have existed without African American land and labor. Investment and labor must be central to histories of American suburbs.

Q: What most surprised you about your research?

PG: I came across a set of documents I call the Exclusion Files. These were a set of interoffice documents where Roland Park Company salesman recorded their transactions and ultimately decided not to sell to potential homebuyers after an investigation into some aspect of the homebuyer’s life such as religion, social networks, or occupation. The Exclusion Files also reveal more about the give-and-take between excluded home buyers and developers than well-known mechanisms of exclusion such as restrictive covenants, because salesmen also recorded follow-ups from homebuyers trying to determine why the Roland Park Company suddenly stopped doing business with them. 

I had never seen nor read about documents like these before. They provide insight into the daily nuts and bolts of how housing segregation worked. It is important to realize that for white suburban developers, exclusion was mundane, malleable, and constructed over time.

Q: American metropolitan areas remain deeply segregated. How can people tell how their city has historically been segregated just from looking at its landscape?

PG: There are three quick ways to “read” segregation in a city’s landscape.

First, notice any borders and boundaries between neighborhoods. Do streets in one neighborhood turn away from streets in the other? Do the houses all face away from the adjoining neighborhood? These might be signs that one of the neighborhoods was planned to be exclusionary, as was the case for Baltimore’s first segregated suburbs, such as Roland Park and Guilford, that I discuss in my book. Sometimes neighborhood borders were not planned at one time by developers but instead were retroactively designed to create segregation through a fortress-like effect. In Baltimore, the Bolton Hill neighborhood is a stark example of an affluent majority-white neighborhood that worked with city and state agencies to cut itself off from nearby majority-black neighborhoods in the mid-twentieth century. In Bolton Hill, streets that used to funnel traffic to major arteries or to other neighborhoods suddenly and awkwardly dead end. In addition, a large state office complex was built on its perimeter to stand between it and a public housing project.

Second, consider the routes of highways and major roads. Highways often follow race- and class-based demolition decisions and intentionally create divisions in cities.

Finally, there’s infrastructure. If you can you spot uneven resources in different city neighborhoods, this is a sign of segregation. Municipal priorities often reflect uneven access to power, at the cost of health and safety. In the early twentieth century, Baltimore city government prioritized wealthy suburbs for sewers instead of older neighborhoods with frequent outbreaks of diseases. Today, two good indicators of continuing segregation are the placement of bike lanes and trees, both indicators of health and, sadly, signs of a neighborhood’s privilege. 

Q: What can the history of housing tell someone about American history?

PG: The history of housing is American history. Consider how much housing can link every aspect of someone’s life: where somebody lives impacts where they can work, the credit they can access, where their children go to school, and how well the school is funded. It potentially influences their voting behavior, relationships, and health. These are just a few examples. Now imagine how important each of those individual impacts on education, employment, politics, finance, and health becomes when scaled up to the societal level and extended over decades. A focus on the development of segregated housing adds even more layers to American history: how places are planned and linked to one another; how policies get codified; how businesses work. In other words, through the history of housing you can see the making of modern America at different scales, local, national, and international.

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