The Racist History of Zoning Laws

By Michael H. Wilson

Many people have been sold on the idea that zoning laws are here to protect the value of their homes from a chicken slaughterhouse or a bar opening next door to their bedroom.  There is some merit in that but that is not an honest reason we have zoning laws and other housing regulations.

If you and I use racial slurs in our everyday conversation most likely we will be considered rude or crude and most people will avoid us. However, if we are an elected official or someone in the planning business few people will be bothered when we support government policies that actually are a burden and discriminate against others because of their race or ethnic history.

In 1880 San Francisco passed a law requiring licensing for laundries in wooden buildings. That might have been a good idea because of the potential fire hazard but those enforcing the law singled out the Chinese. All white owned laundries received a license and all Chinese were denied a license. Mr. Yick Wo, if that was his real name, refused to shut his place, was arrested, confined to jail, and fought the city. The case, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, went all the way to the Supreme Court.  The court ruled that the law appeared to be race-neutral as it was written but it was enforced in a discriminatory manner and that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment applied to Mr. Yick even though the law at the time denied him an opportunity to be a citizen.  That effort to control where people lived, and work wasn’t the last. It was only the beginning.

The Progressives introduced the ideas of scientific management to government in the nineteenth century and applied that to land use planning, an idea that they borrowed from Europe. Germany and England were two of the first nations to adopt land use planning and ones that the United State codes were modeled after. Los Angeles, Boston, and New York were early adopters.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a number of public issues come together. Public health concerns were being discussed along with immigration and eugenics. Science and pseudo-science were all mixed together. Immigrants from southern Europe, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native-Americans and just the general poor all fell victim to political decisions based on poor information while people who were trying to make a name for themselves or feather their own nest benefitted.

In 1910 Baltimore adopted the first zoning laws that were openly drawn to keep African-Americans and whites separated by law. In 1910 when Baltimore Mayor Mahool said “Blacks…should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.” Many other cities soon followed.   

This process spread quickly but was overturned in 1917 by the Supreme Court in Buchanan v. Warley. Regardless the court’s decision did not stop cities and towns nationwide from passing such laws.

As African-Americans began to leave the South in response to the need for workers during WWI more cities outside of the South adopted zoning laws that were racist in the manner they were drawn. Even if the Supreme Court had ruled that cities could not specifically target African-Americans, cities, especially in the South did everything they could to corral African-Americans to specific areas.  Then in a 1926 case, the issue became one of economic interest when the Supreme Court handed down the famous Euclid v Ambler decision that is used to permit zoning today.  When Justice Sutherland wrote the decision, he referred to a planned apartment complex as “a mere parasite” on the neighborhood and how it would affect the neighborhood values.

With economic concerns as a source of control, it became easy to set standards that kept African Americans out of certain areas.

While most of the public tends to think that the way their city is designed is unique in reality a small group of city planning consultants have had a hand in designing many of the nation’s cities. Since the early 1920s keeping the races segregated has been major goal in many urban plans. Central to the planning for the future were planners such as Harland Bartholomew, and Fredrick Law Olmstead Jr. These men are responsible for much of the racial discrimination that was written in the zoning laws across the nation.

Harland Bartholomew was a major consultant to many city planning departments and involved in designing plans for cities nationwide and in some other nations.

Harland Bartholomew began working in planning with a company that was developing the plans for Newark, New Jersey. Shortly after that he was hired by Newark as the first city planner in the nation while in his early twenties. In 1916 he moved to St Louis where he remained until 1953 as city planner. During that time, he started his own firm and eventually worked on the plans for five-hundred or more cities across the nation and internationally.

Bartholomew focused on slum clearance in an effort at urban renewal to make the city more efficient and designed for the automobile which was a rapidly growing source of urban transit.

Sources quote, him as denigrating African-Americans and suggesting that the races be separated to protect “…neighborhood property values.” He saw blacks as burden on society and while he knew the law prohibited outright segregation, he worked to find a way around it. Eventually, in St. Louis 70,000 blacks would be relocated. Only a fraction would be adequately compensated. Not only did they lose financially they also left behind family and friends which added to the strains their families endured.

In their zeal to control what people do the political elites often end up with little too show for their efforts. The 1926 Euclid v Ambler decision had a wide impact nationally but locally it was a bit different. The land involved would remain vacant for twenty years. Maybe the local kids played ball on it. Eventually the federal government seized it during WW II and built a defense plant there. After the war General Motors used the place to build auto parts and today the property is used mainly to sell used industrial machinery. It might be interesting to know how those uses effected the value of the nearby property?

A few years ago the city placed a memorial on the site to remember the importance of the decision the lot was the subject in.  No mention is made of the damage to the relations between the races or the costs to the public caused by zoning regulations on the memorial.

Published 5-21-19

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