Updated: Nov 16
By Sam Bigham
“Old property in poor condition, concentration of negro & foreigners,” reads a 1937 report of Pittsburgh’s West End.
Another part of the same report describing Elliott and parts of Sheraden reads, “Obsolescence setting in parts of the area, slowly going foreign.”
In 1937 during the Great Depression, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation was created to provide government-backed mortgages to prevent a housing crisis. The corporation did not want to give out mortgages to people they did not believe could pay them back, so they graded neighborhoods in metropolitan areas across the country based on desirability. Green was best, blue was still good, yellow meant decline, and red was for undesirable neighborhoods. The grades for the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area can be found on the website called Mapping Inequality sponsored by the University of Richmond.
Home quality and demand were considerations, but much of the grading was based on the size of the foreign-born or African-American population. The larger these populations, the worse grade a neighborhood received.
Pittsburgh’s West End was given a red grade and Elliott and parts of Sheraden were given a yellow rating. The Eastern half of McKees Rocks was given a red rating for its large foreign-born population while the Western half was given a yellow rating and had a low foreign-born population. Crafton, Ingram, and parts of Sheraden were given a blue rating and did not have an African-American or foreign-born population.
Carnegie was given three different ratings. Rosslyn Heights was given a blue rating and was a majority-white neighborhood. Cubbage Hill, Irishtown, and downtown were given a red rating and had a large foreign and African-American population. The report also described overcrowding. The rest of Carnegie was given a yellow rating because of “obsolescence.”
This practice, known as redlining, had an enormous impact on the wealth and quality of these neighborhoods that lasts up to today. A report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that 74% of redlined districts are low to middle-income today.
It also significantly contributed to segregation as almost all African-Americans at the time lived in neighborhoods that were graded poorly and were thus unable to purchase government-backed home mortgages. Without these mortgages, African-Americans were unable to build up the generational wealth that whites were able to. Many African-Americans now live in low-income neighborhoods because of redlining and other segregationist policies. More than 800 landlords operate in McKees Rocks alone.
Richard Rothstein, author of “The Color of Law” and expert on segregation, wrote, “Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.”
The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s prevented future discrimination and segregation but did nothing to remedy the damage that was already done.
The effects can be seen in the disparity between the education received by white students and by minority students in Pennsylvania. The nonprofit, Research for Action which is dedicated to advancing equity in education, found that students of color were much more likely to be enrolled in “high poverty schools” that “provide less access to educational opportunities.”
Today, Montour School District, which includes Ingram, Kennedy Township, Pennsbury Village, Robinson Township, and Thornburg is predominantly white and wealthy. These communities were also given high grades. The school district is 82.8% white, only 17% of students are on free or reduced lunch, over 70% of students score proficient in math and more than 80% of students score proficient in reading. Only 17.2% of students are students of color.
Carlynton School District includes Carnegie, Crafton, and Rosslyn Farms and these neighborhoods were given mixed grades. Crafton and Rosslyn Farms were given good grades while different parts of Carnegie were given low or high grades. There 70.3% of students are white, 56.2% of students are on free or reduced lunch, and the proficiency scores for math and reading are 65% and 75% respectively. Only 29.7% of students are students of color.
Sto-Rox School District, which includes McKees Rocks and Stowe Township, is 73.5% students of color and only 26.5% of students are white. The district reports 96.3% of students are on free or reduced lunch and proficiency scores for math and reading are only 33% and 50% respectively.
Brashear High School, which is part of the Pittsburgh School District and is for students living in the West End, is 67.5% students of color and only 32.5% white students and 100% of the students are on free or reduced lunch. The proficiency scores for math and reading are 32% and 41% respectively.
What this shows is that the legacy of segregation is still with us. Schools that have a high percentage of students of color perform worse because their neighborhoods were consigned to poverty and much of a district’s funds come from property taxes. The disparity in school performance perpetuates poverty and segregation and according to Rothstein, it is on all levels of government to remedy this.
Carnegie resident Sam Bigham attends Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he serves as news editor of student news source “The Penn.”