Not in My Neighborhood

A Digest

Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City By: Antero Pietila



Written in the early 2000s by Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City examines and highlights the history of racial segregation in Baltimore. Pietila guides the reader through the city’s segregated history, from the residential segregation law passed in 1910 that banned Blacks from living in white neighborhoods to riots following Dr. King’s death in 1968 to the zoning of Blacks leading into the 2000s. Originally from Finland, Pietila moved to Baltimore, Maryland after visiting the city in the summer of 1964. As a former reporter of The Baltimore Sun newspaper, Pietila provides excerpts from previous articles in The Sun, as far back as the late 19th century, regarding housing discrimination. Most of the articles he refers to contain racial bias and advertisements warning whites not to move into certain neighborhoods from a time where The Sun openly supported and advocated for racial segregation. Not only does Pietila depict the residential segregation faced by African Americans from whites, he also highlights the discrimination faced by Jews in the housing market.  Pietila creates an engaging narrative that walks the reader through a historical narrative of segregation, and more specifically, residential segregation in Baltimore, while presenting and defining terms that are essential to understanding the history of this segregation.

Part one of Not in My Neighborhood, “A White Man’s City,” tells the early history of residential segregation as is pertained to Baltimore from the years 1910-1944.  Pietila begins in 1910 with the first residential segregation bill passed in Baltimore by Baltimore City council which was actually the first residential segregation law passed in all of America. It was passed under the title “Ordinance for preserving order, securing property values and promoting the great interests and insuring the good government of Baltimore city.” What the law said was that blacks could not move onto majority white blocks and whites could not move onto majority black blocks. The idea was to keep neighborhoods as segregated as possible and discourage any sort of integration. The specifics of the law weren’t mapped out at all by the city government, making it confusing and subject to many lawsuits. The bill was eventually nullified by the Supreme Court in 1917 (Buchanan vs. Warley). This rejection led to new tactics for segregation at the community level. White blocks and neighborhoods would come up with ‘covenants’, or agreements, that kept blacks out of their neighborhoods. They would refuse to sell to blacks as a community. There were also many other unofficial bans on blacks in white neighborhoods that were enforced by local authorities, as in the case of Mayor James H. Preston who enlisted ‘hall monitor’ figures to harass white sellers into not selling to blacks. The city of Baltimore was segregated as were many other cities in America on the account of scared whites. When black families would manage to move into white neighborhoods, or black neighborhoods expanded into white neighborhoods, whites created a phenomenon known as ‘white flight’. White Flight refers to whites moving out of urban centers and into the suburbs, away from blacks who they feared lowered the property value. The whites in these neighborhoods would take their resources from these neighborhoods and when black families would move in, the property was in the process of being devalued. This was many even worse in the mid 20th century by the HOLC (Home Owners Loan Corporation)  and then FHA (Federal Housing Association) which were government organizations that made maps outlining ‘dangerous’ neighborhoods that banks were not allowed to invest in or give loans to. These ‘dangerous and hazardous’ zones were almost always black neighborhoods. Through his narration, Pietila shows that residential segregation has a history and is not something that ‘just happened’ at the fault of the black community.

In the second part of the book, “Blacks Next Door”, Pietila introduces the reader to Fulton Avenue. Once a segregated avenue with Blacks living on one side and whites living on the other side, the first Black family moved into the segregated community in 1944. This disruption in the homogeneity of the white neighborhood caused many white families to flee, an example of white flight. Pietila also re-introduces the reader to Blockbusting, which is a practice wherein buyers sought out the declining white neighborhoods near African American districts and bought that land at rock bottom prices, re-selling to blacks at a huge profit. He contrasts the effects it had on white residents and Black residents. White residents viewed Blockbusting as forced integration and believed that when Blacks moved into their neighborhoods, the property value decreased. On the other hand, Black residents viewed Blockbusting as an equal housing opportunity even though the Blockbusters charged them more than what the house was worth.

The third part of the book, ‘The Noose’, focuses heavily on the corruption that has plagued Baltimore. Pietila begins with the noting the petty, but influential, crimes that are deeply rooted in the culture of the politicians and people who reside in Baltimore. Bribing, although performed at a lesser rate, is an example of such corruption, and Dale Anderson was used multiple times as the norm for corrupt political officials. For high bribes, contractors could get zoning approvals and ordinary families could build homes without permits, or on floodplains. Zoning is a consistent theme in this section, and more specifically expulsive zoning. Expulsive zoning, as highlighted in the piece, promotes racially homogenous neighborhoods and limits where minorities can live. Lastly, this section focuses on how blacks are nearly always the last to inhabit certain housing districts. Pietila looks at the transition of non-jewish, to Jewish, and eventually African-Americans  — meaning that blacks consistently receive the neighborhood in it’s most decrepit condition, much older and much more underserved than those who utilized the space before. Blacks obtain what has been left behind.

Not In My Neighborhood does a very good job of revealing a long legacy of housing strife in Baltimore and is an essential work in understanding the history of residential segregation in the American city. Community activists and organizers should use this as a source to help people understand the historical effects that have lead to the present housing situation. A comprehensive knowledge of the systemic effects of racism in housing policy are key pieces of information for those who fight for change. Anything that involves persuading representatives and persons in power to remedy long-lasting historical effects need to show them that the situations have been brought on by the institutions that they hold positions of power within. Those who control housing policy and community development should not be able to ignore hundreds of years of malignant influence. Those looking to change the situation can, wielding the knowledge of a in-depth historical look at Baltimore as a powerful weapon.