Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Best Book of 2018 - "The Color of Law"

"I read a book! 368 pages.  -Jim Gaffigan",
                                                                 Chris Andrews

It has been a while since I had read a book cover to cover, especially anything that was purely for leisure reading. But, in a new place, with a bit less commute time and a toddler that's not as demanding as a newborn, I found a bit of time to squeeze in a good read. (Thankfully, I finished right before our second child was born at the end of September.) I had heard a good deal about Richard Rothstein's The Color of Law, and decided to give it a read myself. I was perusing the local library's section of city-related books and noticed it on the shelf, so I grabbed it and began to read.

I'd recommend that anyone interested in city planning, real estate or development, or anyone that cares about social justice and equity, add this book to the top of whatever reading list they might have. Rothstein's work lays out what many planners and urbanists already know, in that the housing policies at the beginning of the 20th century were terribly segregating and racist, and have had a lasting impact on our city neighborhoods and the generational wealth of countless families. But, for many, the understanding of how that segregation and development pattern persisted for so long is rather unknown.

Rothstein covers the segregating effects of zoning ordinances in many cities, which aimed to provide separate living areas for black and white families" (p 44).  These are examples of de jure segregation, legally recognized by some sort of governing body. Rothstein also covers the historic and continued application of de facto segregation, segregation as a matter of fact, in many housing and development practices. As a younger planner, the reality of segregating private agreements was foreign until reading many of the deed restrictions for subdivisions in Houston. Houston's Oak Forest was one of the first subdivisions financed by the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Affairs (p 72). Seeing such plain language in deed restrictions preventing others of different races from living in a particular subdivision was quite eye opening, and is something that any planning student should be exposed to during their education. These forms of restrictions have had too great an impact on our cities to only learn about them once on the job.

The chapter of "Local Tactics" was eye opening, showing what efforts municipalities undertook in order to segregate development. Increasing minimum lot sizes, rezoning of adjacent properties to desirable or undesirable uses, condemnation of land, and slum clearance were all popular tactics. However, highway building has likely had the greatest impact on cities and non-white neighborhoods. The scars of deep cuts into cities are still present today, slowly being repaired by planners who have recognized errors of past generations.

If you read any two chapters of The Color of Law, make them chapters 11 and 12. "Looking Forward, Looking Back" offers perspective of the impacts that policies have had on generations, especially the impact of those who are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, and the impact of our nation's transportation system. Children growing up in poor neighborhoods face a compounding set of disadvantages, and those who have been displaced during the process, due to any number of reasons, often find themselves in places undeserved by public transportation, and tied to the costs of private automobile ownership.

"Considering Fixes" gives us a look at some of the ways leaders and residents alike can move for change in consideration of the effects the policies described in the book have had on neighborhoods and their residents.

While it's not a technical handbook that planners can flip to on a regular basis, it can serve as a constant reminder to planners of the economic, social and personal impacts that development practices, both de jure and de facto, have on people. Having a shared understanding of the history that is highlighted by Rothstein can help us all to make more conscious decisions in the future that will allow cities to be places for everyone.


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