Busting Blockbusting

Summit Presbyterian Church, Mount Airy. Courtesy Germantown Historical Society

In our April “Time Machine” article, we discussed the role of redlining in the creation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps, which were published to assist the HOLC in identifying neighborhoods with the potential for high rates of housing foreclosure, due to the inability of its residents to make payments on their mortgages.

The HOLC ranked neighborhoods and parts thereof using a grading system to identify zones with different levels of risk, in part using the neighborhood’s income and racial characteristics obtained by local realtors, banks and mortgage companies, and developers, to determine the level of risk for foreclosure. This practice of redlining – drawing red lines on maps around neighborhoods experiencing or threatened with decline – would be used as a basis for blockbusting following the end of World War II.

The arrival of the 1950s brought the practice of blockbusting with it, during which unscrupulous realtors would use the HOLC’s map and other maps with similar content, to play on the fears of local white property owners, by telling homeowners that their blocks were in danger of “turning” Black. The realtors would then use scare tactics to frighten homeowners, coercing whites to sell their homes at low prices and then turning around and selling them to Black families moving north to many urban areas, Germantown among them.

Philadelphia Fellowship Commission’s Democracy in Housing brochure

This practice began during the Second Great Migration, in which many Black families moved from the South to urban centers all over the country between circa 1940 and 1970, and scare tactics realtors used included – but were not limited to – staging brawls between Black youth, selling a house in a white neighborhood to a Black family to “break” the block by promoting white flight, and hiring Black men to drive around in white neighborhoods while blasting their radios.

To combat blockbusting, local organizations like West Mount Airy Neighbors were formed. They encouraged property owners to resist the shady practices of some unscrupulous realtors. The organization, starting in 1953 as a series of meetings of area homeowners, met in Summit Presbyterian Church as well as several other area venues, was successful in its efforts, and unlike many other neighborhoods in Philadelphia, West Mount Airy was integrated, beginning in the 1950s.

In the 1950s and 60s, other local organizations were very much concerned with integration as well. For example, the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission’s Committee on Democracy in Housing published an untitled brochure which underscored the importance of diversity and having an equal opportunity for “decent housing” for all Philadelphians, advocating that “Every citizen who maintains high standards should be welcomed into every neighborhood, regardless of his race, religion or national origin.”

In similar fashion, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations noted in their early 1960s booklet : “Racial change [in West Mount Airy] began gradually around 1952 and has continued. According to a report issued by the Church Community Relations Council of Pelham, which operates in the area, ‘Those that are moving into our neighborhood show every evidence of being good neighbors, and of keeping their property up to standard.’” The booklet also provided similar comments about other areas around the City of Philadelphia: West Oak Lane, Nicetown-Tioga, and Cobbs Creek Park among them.

It remains unclear as to why Germantown was hit especially hard by blockbusting, especially when compared to Mount Airy. One reason is revealed by a review of the HOLC maps of Northwest Philadelphia: Mount Airy had comparatively few blocks redlined as “declining” in comparison to blocks in Germantown. This would have given realtors much less “leverage” when practicing blockbusting in Mount Airy, as opposed to in Germantown.

As for blockbusting, the practice was eventually outlawed and had all but entirely disappeared from the City by around 1980. Since then, many neighborhoods victimized by redlining and blockbusting have managed to overcome those obstacles, to various degrees of success.

About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing images from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at library@germantownhistory.org.

 

About Alex Bartlett 25 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

2 Comments

  1. Is there any substantiation of the practice of realtors buying frightened whites homes cheap, then marking them up to black buyers? This has been reported elsewhere and if true, there should be records. This kind of specificity would surely be useful in discussions of reparations.

    • I believe there was a big thing in the Saturday Evening Post in 1962, “Confessions of a Block-Buster. A Chicago real-estate agent who moves Negro families into all-white neighborhoods reveals how he reaps enormous profits from racial prejudice.” There are lots of books about it, including The Education of a WASP but also everyone knew they were being shady even back then so it’s not like there’s going to be a ton of evidence left behind, I wouldn’t think.

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