The Atlantic: Fresno’s Mason-Dixon line

The Atlantic, August 20, 2018: Fresno’s Mason-Dixon Line

James Helming knew every corner in Fresno. He knew which roads were paved and he knew which way the smoke from nearby factories blew. He knew the houses, and he knew who lived in them. It was his job, after all, to assess every neighborhood in the city for “desirability.” The year was 1936, and Helming, a junior field agent from a federal agency formed under the New Deal, was charged with making sense of Fresno’s shifting demographics.

Armenian, Russian, and Italian residents were moving north, and the black and Hispanic populations were growing and expanding in their place. And Helming’s agency, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, drew color-coded maps to determine who would get the credit necessary to buy houses.

White neighborhoods were shaded green, and white buyers in these areas were generally approved  for loans. Neighborhoods with large minority populations were shaded red, denied mortgages, and labeled undesirable. Fresno’s west side was red, and in his report, Helming noted the “almost exclusive concentration of colored races” present there. He noted that in more affluent neighborhoods, like Fig Garden, “residence lots were sold under careful deed restrictions as to race.” If a neighborhood didn’t have these restrictions, Helming noted they were at risk of an “infiltration of a lower grade population.” These deed restrictions, known as racially restrictive covenants, were another mechanism that prevented people of color from buying homes in white neighborhoods. Helming’s report, one of more than 200 from cities across the country, reinforced residential segregation through a practice that came to be known as “redlining.”

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