Hands on the Past

As part of the exhibit, visitors are invited to write down their own experiences with housing discrimination and pin them on the timeline.

The quote is from 1936: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.”

The statement was issued by the Federal Housing Administration and it’s been hanging on a wall of Impact Hub in Station North, evidence of a practice known as redlining and the subject of the interactive exhibit Undesign the Redline which occupies the co-working space from June 7 to 23.

Redlining involved restricting access to credit for prospective homebuyers based on the racial demographics of their desired communities. It began in 1935 after the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation compiled a color-coded map that indicated the risk of real estate development in various neighborhoods. Areas with a majority black populations were colored red, sending a clear message: Don’t lend here.

Undesign the Redline, which was created by for-benefit design studio Designing the WE in summer 2015, uses maps, intricate timelines, primary source documents and photographs to illustrate the historical context of the practice, how it was orchestrated and its lingering effects today, which include social issues from the heroin epidemic to police brutality.

But the most important part of the exhibit is its interactivity. Visitors to the Baltimore installation can place tacks on the 1935 map of the city where they or their loved ones have lived, or hang up handwritten notes answering questions about how the problem can be solved and sharing their own experiences with housing discrimination.

“My family moved to the (new) suburb of Levittown, NY after WWII,” one such note reads. “After the first black family bought a house there, some residents went door to door with a petition against the sale.”

April De Simone explains a point on the timeline to visitors.

“One of the most powerful things is the stories,” says Designing the WE co-founder April De Simone. “To hear … that more people are about camaraderie and creation and wanting to see a very different society than not.”

Though the traveling exhibit began in New York and will visit Washington D.C. in September, Baltimore has its own place in redlining history that makes it the perfect host for the project. In 1911, Mayor J. Barry Mahool instituted the country’s first racially restrictive zoning law. The Baltimore riots in 1968 and the uprising in 2015 also demonstrated the racial tensions bred by redlining.

“I think Baltimore is an epicenter for a lot of the complexities that embody overall our national footprint of where we’re at today,” De Simone says.

But Baltimore also stands out for the enthusiasm of its visitors. De Simone says she’s received many questions and follow-up emails since the exhibit’s run in town, which means it has achieved one of its main goals: educating and engaging people so that they can work toward a change.

“People who normally wouldn’t come together have conversations, you’re finding them hovering around certain things, and sharing an experience, which I think is baseline for us as human beings,” De Simone says.

Undesign the Redline will move to Gallery CA at City Arts Apartments I in Greenmount from June 26 to July 9. It will be open to the public 12 – 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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