Repercussions of Racist Maps Still Impact Neighborhoods Today

December 16, 2021 | by Amy Cohen

In November I wrote an article about the Coaquannock map of the Philadelphia region that was published by the Works Progress Administration in 1934. The map’s date immediately resonated, as I recalled that J.M. Brewer’s map of Philadelphia was published the same year. Following my deep dive into the Coaquannock map, I decided to spend some time revisiting the Brewer map—a document that I knew was considered instrumental in establishing residential segregation in Philadelphia.

J.M. Brewer, owner of a real estate company called Property Services, rated Philadelphia neighborhoods based on the age and value of the housing stock, types of businesses, access to amenities, and, most notably, the “racial concentrations” within each area. Of greatest concern to Brewer were the Jewish, Colored, and Italian races. Areas color-coded to indicate a substantial presence of these groups were deemed high risks for investment or mortgages. Neighborhoods with mixed or transitioning populations were also viewed as perilous. View this map overlaid on a modern street map HERE.

J.M. Brewer’s map from 1934 lists color-coded sections of the city by race. Areas populated by Black (red), Italian (green), and Jewish (blue) people were considered risks for investment. | Image courtesy of Map Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Brewer’s unabashed prejudice toward Jews, Blacks, and Italians reflects the era in which his map was created. From the 1890s until the establishment of quotas in the early 1920s, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe arrived in large numbers. Their language, food, folkways, and religious practice set them apart from those born in the United States and from recent immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. Progressives established settlement houses to help Americanize these newcomers. Nativists and followers of the eugenics movement predicted the end of American civilization lest their numbers continue to grow. African Americans were then, as previously, viewed as a group that was lesser than and apart from those of Northern and Western European stock.

When the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) was founded as a New Deal program to forestall foreclosures, Brewer was hired as a consultant and his map was foundational to the creation of Philadelphia’s 1937 “residential security” map. Similar maps were developed for urban areas throughout the United States. The crude racial categorization of Brewer’s 1934 map does not appear in the legend of the 1937 map. Instead of color coding according to race, A or “Best” areas are shaded in green, B or “Still Desirable” in blue, C or “Definitely Declining” in yellow, or D or “Hazardous” in red.

The same disparaging attitudes toward Jews, Blacks, and Italians, however, is apparent in the detailed survey sheets that explain the rating of each area on the map. Inhabitants of a given region were evaluated based on the threat of “infiltration,” number of “relief families,” amount of “foreign born,” prevalence of “Negroes,” predominant “type” of family in terms of social class, and estimated annual family income.

Much of Chestnut Hill is given the “A” designation. The neighborhood is described as having no “infiltration,” no “relief families,” no “foreign-born” residents, and no “Negroes.” “Executive men” are the “type” of family. The Fern Rock area also receives an A rating due to its “white collar class” of residents and lack of relief families, foreign born, and Black people. Clarifying remarks, though, warn that the “section is very desirable, but danger of Jewish encroachment is imminent.” The adjacent majority Jewish neighborhoods of Olney and Logan are rated “B.”

Most of Germantown is given a “C” rating. According to the survey sheets, the neighborhood was characterized by “infiltration” of Italians, a “moderately heavy” presence of relief families, large numbers of foreign-born from Italy, and “Negro encroachment.”

Large swaths of South Philadelphia, home to concentrations of Jews, Blacks, and Italians, have a “D” rating. Sections of West and North Philadelphia, particularly those with substantial African American populations, are also grade D.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s “residential security” map from 1937 used a color-coding system to pinpoint neighborhoods where investment and lending to ethnic populations were discouraged. | Image courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia via National Archives

The presence of Jews, Blacks, and Italians is not the only criteria for the grading system. Condition of housing stock, availability of public transit, proximity to heavy industry, and so forth are also given consideration. Nonetheless, one cannot spend time looking at these survey sheets without concluding that these three groups were viewed as scourges on society. I encourage you to look for yourself at this remarkable University of Richmond website.

It was not only J.M. Brewer and his fellow real estate appraisers who saw Philadelphia of the 1930s through a categorizing lens. In addition to the HOLC residential security map, 1937 also saw the publication of the WPA Guide to Philadelphia, an eight-hundred-page book that was the work of over 240 writers, editors, researchers, artists, typists, journalists, and magazine workers employed by the Works Progress Administration. Collectively, they viewed the city through a filter of racial and ethnic stereotypes. Although the tone of the book is more upbeat than that of the survey sheets, the exclusionary message is the same.

According to the WPA guide, Philadelphia “bears the stamp in greater or lesser degree of a polyglot humanity—the sedate Quaker; the Swede, touched by mysticism; the thrifty and methodical German; the imperturbable Englishman; the Celt, excitable, idealistic; the energetic and vivid Jew; the underprivileged Negro; the mercurial Italian; and the fatalistic Slav.” Another passage describes “the formation of special quarters by peoples not easily assimilated—the Italians, the Jews, and the Greeks.”

This type of stereotyping language, as well as overt anti-Semitism, became less acceptable after World War II and the Holocaust. Federal policy, additionally, played a pivotal role in changing the racial status of Jews, Italians, and others of Southern and Eastern European origin. David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness explains that Roosevelt’s New Deal was central to the whitening process. To secure the votes of Southern Democrats, the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded domestic and agricultural workers, occupations common to African Americans. Jews and Italian Americans were thus able to benefit from the social safety net extended by the New Deal while Blacks, generally, were not.

A crowd gathered to protest against an African American family from moving into Levittown in 1957. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

New Deal and post-World War II housing policies were particularly powerful forces in making Southern and Eastern Europeans become “white,” while isolating and underscoring the racial difference of Blacks. The HOLC, which developed the 1937 residential security maps of Philadelphia and other cities, was short-lived. But the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veteran’s Administration (VA) adhered to HOLC’s assertion that mixed race and predominantly African American neighborhoods were poor risks for loans and development. Private lenders were greatly influenced by these public entities, which led to the widespread practice known as redlining.

Northeast Philadelphia was largely undeveloped until the end of World War II. Like many American suburbs, the Northeast benefitted from government largesse that assisted whites fleeing inner-city neighborhoods. The FHA favored mortgages for new construction away from the aging urban core. Although the GI Bill provided for low down payment mortgages co-signed by the VA, this benefit was administered by local banks that often refused to extend credit to African American veterans.

A typical trajectory of this era was for the U.S.-born children of Eastern and Southern European immigrants, raised in deteriorating areas such as South and West Philadelphia, to buy newly constructed houses with easily accessible, government-backed mortgages in places like Oxford Circle, Rhawnhurst, and Levittown. Gradually, more and more city residents followed this path of White Flight further afield, to neighborhoods like Bustleton, Somerton, and Lower Mooreland—places that were closed to Black people through restrictive racial covenants, racial steering by real estate agents, and the threat of violence.

A woman stands in front of a set of new rowhouses on Unruh Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia in 1953. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

As many white and newly “white” Americans bought homes, often with government support, Black families were thwarted in their attempts to partake in this wealth-producing aspect of the American Dream. Between 1945 and 1959, only two percent of government backed mortgages were issued to African Americans. It took the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to finally end racially restrictive barriers to home ownership, though the legacy of redlining and similar policies continues to shape urban life to this day.

In 2019, the office of City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart studied connections between residential segregation, structural racism, and gun violence. A resulting report concludes, “It is clear that Philadelphia neighborhoods experiencing the highest levels of present-day violence are the same neighborhoods characterized as “hazardous” or “declining” in the HOLC map. In fact, 75 percent of all homicides in 2019 occurred in regions graded as “C” (declining) or “D” (hazardous) by the HOLC.”

J.M. Brewer’s 1934 map is nearly 90 years old. The idea of Italian and Jewish Americans being part of a different race died out about 80 years ago. The impact of Brewer’s work on both the 1934 and 1937 HOLC map, however, remains all too present in Philadelphia’s segregated, impoverished, and violent Black neighborhoods.


About the Author

Amy Cohen is an educator, historian, and writer. Her forthcoming book "Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy" will be published by Temple University Press.


  1. Joan says:

    Race IS a determinant of the risk of foreclosure, and was used as one of many factors in assessment by HOLC. Even today, in a 2010 study, blacks were 77% more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be foreclosed. Google the data.

    Rhynhart’s data could support HOLC color-coding, depending on the direction of the arrow of causation. Do some neighborhoods have more crime because they are labeled “hazardous,” or are they”hazardous” from a mortgager’s standpoint because they have more crime?

  2. Evelyn Eskin says:


  3. Leah says:

    Excellent piece!!!!

  4. Miles A.Edwards says:

    I am a blackman who has been a licensed Real Estate broker in phila for over 30 years.I sold houses in Olney and logan for more money than they should have ever been.Race continues to play a major factor in blacks getting loans.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks for sharing that.

  5. James says:

    Race and the low credit scores are reason why black men have a hard time qualifying for loans. Spending choices on expensive cars can hurt their credit scores. Criminal records can make it harder to find jobs paying gainful income.

    I have noticed black women playing an integral role in motivating the black husband to save money for down payment on a house. Goal oriented strategies have worked well in getting both husband/wife to pay for houses, furniture, vacations and investing in college for children.

    The HOLC maps were notorious in disriminating against blacks, Italians, Greeks and foreigners. Real estate investors should not be using HOLC maps to make investment decisions.

    Bottom line – whomever has cash is entitled to buy a house regardless of their race, creed or nationality.

    1. joan walker says:

      James: The Chinese, Greeks, Italians, and Irish have all managed to overcome the obstacle of discrimination over the last 160 years. And they did it just as you describe: husband and wife working hard to fulfill their goals and make a better life for their children. Getting ahead in America is not that hard. Forget jewelry and expensive cars. Avoid criminal behavior. Be respectful of authority, show up on time, delay childbearing until marriage, take education seriously, acknowledge personal responsibility, and stop pleading victimhood.

      1. David La Fontaine says:

        Joan, Of course your advice makes sense for individuals. Everyone should rely on education & work and not victimhood to get ahead.

        But that doesn’t negate the fact that Black Americans had a far, far more violent and murderous experience in the US over a much longer period than any of the other groups you mention. It wasn’t “Chinese, Greek, Italian or Irish” drivers that White drivers rioted to keep from being hired during WWII. Nor were they kept from voting. And nor were they systematically excluded from nearly every legitimate profession for 300 years.

        Sounds like you’re uncomfortable with these facts, since you’re responding to an article about very plain and overt discrimination by blaming poverty on Black people’s apparent criminality and love of jewelry and big cars.

        But these facts are both true: Personal responsibility, education etc ARE the keys to getting ahead AND horrifying levels of abuse and discrimination have meant that Black Americans couldn’t get ahead no matter how personally responsible they were.

        1. Carolyn says:

          thank you!

  6. Maron Fenico says:

    The most important point in this piece is that our current gun violence epidemic can be traced straight back to redlining. Philly wants to end gun violence, but the problem is so structural that any measure, short of real integration, will look half-baked and will be inadequate for the problem.

  7. Thank you for writing this, Amy. I grew up in the Mantua area and left the hood in the late fifties. I often wondered if the large population of immigrants at that time had anything to do with the way things were handled or not handled.

  8. JJ says:

    While the approach may be flawed, the goal is as old as time. The intent of these maps was to reduce the risk for mortgage companies. The credit score has pretty much replaced this antiquated model with better precision and over time it levels itself.

    Insurance companies do the same thing except it’s a bit more subtle. Why is the rate different on a blue car than a red car?

  9. Kimberly Hollinger says:

    Wow, Amy Cohen! What a way to start my Sunday a.m. w/o cup of coffee in my hand. Born in PHL, lived elsewhere 20+years. Returned, smh, trying to figure out whyPHL seemed so stagnant to me. I felt there were racial/ econ/ engagement divisions, differences & separations that kept city from flourishing, but I lacked visual/foundational basis on which to further my understanding. I always felt people in PHL effectively ignored “elephant in room”, thus remained unable to move obvious barriers. Of course, I was aware of area/neighborhood segregation/disparities, but lacked awareness of the historical design. Kept wondering what it was about PHL, which I believe is full of capable people, so why weren’t things better?Hmmm. So much to consider, going forth. Thank you for the insight. More discussions about what’s really ailing the city are needed. I look forward to more! p.s. Irony in the name “Hidden City” does not escape me. I just found it.

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