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Rare Maps Reveal Fresno's Overlooked History Of Segregation

Oct 27, 2015

Southwest Fresno has had a long history battling poverty, poor planning and lack of investments. But why is that? FM89’s Diana Aguilera reports how a set of 80-year-old government maps sheds new light on Fresno's troubling and often overlooked history of segregation.

Mary Curry moved to West Fresno in 1956. Over the years she’s seen the neighborhood transform but not in a good light.

“There was a lot of businesses in the community when we moved here. Grocery stores, retail, and we don’t see any of that anymore it’s all gone.”

It’s now filled largely with low income housing units and heavy industrial facilities. The transformation has left West Fresno at the top of the charts when it comes to poverty and overall poor quality of life.  And according to the California EPA, the 93706 zip code is the community that’s most vulnerable to environmental burdens in the state.

"West Fresno I think has been neglected for numerous years. I have not seen a lot of change as far as housing patterns and businesses ... there isn't any. There used to be a vibrant downtown where people can go and shop it's gone." -Mary Curry

But how did this community get to where it is now?

It all started in the early 1900s when ethnic communities and affordable housing were primarily located in the west corner of the town. At the time federal government policies encouraged housing discrimination and segregation. Experts say the city which we live in today still reflects that legacy of discrimination, especially in West Fresno.

Historian David Goldberg with UC Irvine says racial discrimination led to economic segregation and divided communities.

“And those divisions are fields, or parks, or highways. So you have to cross a highway, or cross a park to get from a worst of area to a better area.”

In the 1930s Congress created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. This gave low-interest, long-term loans to new homeowners across the nation. But not to everyone.

To show which areas of the city were good investments, the government created residential safety maps. Neighborhoods were classified in four categories, from most to least desirable. The worst was red, that’s why this practice has become known as redlining.

A 1936 original Fresno "residential security map" created by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation.
Credit University of Maryland's T-Races project

Goldberg says the more racially diverse a neighborhood was, the lower it scored. That sent a strong message about investment in West Fresno.

“All strongly to be discouraged and certainly no loan should be given there,” he says. “Or if loans were to be given they should be at a much higher interest rate.”

In the 1900s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation based the grades on favorable and detrimental influences. Several factors were weighed in including terrain and age of buildings, and “threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population.”

These color-coded maps quickly became adapted by other agencies and private banks. Across the country many of the areas that were redlined 80 years ago still suffer a lack of investment.

In Fresno, a number of neighborhoods were redlined. And the largest area was West Fresno.

Former city manager Jim Aldredge grew up in this part of town. He says this area has always been the port of entry for new comers.

“If you’re new to Fresno and you’re low income you’ll be looking in West Fresno where the public housing is.”

Last week I meet up with him at Hinton Park next to Edison Computec School. We sat down on a bench looking over the redline maps from 1936. I asked him to read one of the descriptions of a Fresno neighborhood.

Aldredge: “There are a few colored families living in this area, but it appears there is little danger of infiltration of other colored races found in the large red area to the south.”

Aguilera: Did it surprise you the language they used?

Aldredge: Yes, it’s very bold statements it’s hard for me to read crazy stuff.

Aldredge and others say these racist policies encouraged racial and economic segregation. As the city grew to the north and east, people of color and low income residents – as well as heavy industrial facilities – became established in the corner of the city. With lack of investments and less opportunities for residents, those who could afford it relocated to different parts of town.

Below is the re-created interactive version of the original HOLC map of Fresno, created by the University of Maryland’s T-Races project. These maps show the HOLC’s neighborhood classification used back in the 1930s.

Despite the passage of The Fair Housing Act of 1968, community leaders say housing discrimination based on race and class has made a big impact on what our communities look like today. With some neighborhoods thriving and others lacking basic resources.

Tate Hill, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce says even though redlining is a thing of the past, it still influences how people think of West Fresno.

“Some of the sentiments, and perceptions are still there, that West Fresno is not a desirable location for investment.”

And how does someone change this perception? Hill says it starts with residents, community leaders, and city officials believing that this neighborhood can thrive.

He points out the Kearney Palm Shopping Center close to Highway 99 and Fresno Street. For more than two decades, residents fought for the opening of the first and only major grocery store in the area.

Tate Hill shares his thoughts about the Kearney Palm Shopping Center in West Fresno.
Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

“One of the concerns that a lot of individuals had from outside the community they said it just wouldn’t work and when they completed the construction of this location, the Food 4 Less which was the anchor tenant in the first couple of months it became the number one Food 4 Less in their whole chain.”

Hill says this shopping center is a testament to the community’s potential, proving that with the right investors and the right mindset West Fresno can be a vibrant neighborhood once again.