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A Legacy of Redlining
by Kiara Fish
The first time I learned about environmental racism, I was a student at Drake University. While working for the Office of Sustainability, I was tasked with updating their organizational website. I decided to research and include a history of the Drake neighborhood. The neighborhood was once referred to as Oakridge or Center Street, a bustling Black community with restaurants, nightclubs, small businesses, and family homes. Black families that made up the neighborhood were displaced when I-235 was constructed, and the areas surrounding the interstate were redlined.
Now all that remains of the Oakridge neighborhood is a nonprofit housing and human services agency. Public officials demolished the neighborhood to construct the interstate–an action that has had health consequences. There are higher rates of asthma and respiratory-related illnesses in communities surrounding interstates. The placement of interstates in communities of color, and the health consequences, are iterations of environmental racism.
Redlining, the intentional division of neighborhoods along racial lines, was not a phenomenon unique to Des Moines. In the 1930’s, The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) led a campaign of disinvestment. They marked communities of color red on their maps. Redlining signaled “hazardous” areas. Financial institutions made a smaller number of loans to those neighborhoods. This disinvestment led to fewer resources pumping into these areas. Housing went downhill, falling into disrepair. Polk County Housing Trust has an excellent website detailing the legacy of redlining in Des Moines.
I had spent time researching and piecing together this narrative for the Office of Sustainability’s website, but this information was not published. There was concern that it would upset the university to talk about how they had benefited from the displacement of the Black community. The relationship between Drake University and the surrounding neighborhood remains fraught as the university continues to buy up real estate and push out the predominantly Black community.
There have been many articles written on topics of environmental racism across Iowa, though they are not labeled so boldly. An article from KCCI from February, 2022, describes how redlining puts communities of color at higher risk of flooding due to their disproportionate placement within flood zones, an issue compounded by climate change. Iowa’s natural flood mitigation systems, its deeply rooted prairie grasses, were ripped and plowed up long ago, much of the land paved over for roads. This disaster in the making will impact communities of color the most.
The Des Moines Register has run articles about toxic air contaminants in Iowa and the cities that are most affected. The most polluted cities include: Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, and Burlington. Demographics across the state of Iowa are: 89.09% white 3.92% Black and 2.95% other races. Respectively, the demographics of these areas are: Cedar Rapids is 80% white, 8% Black, and 4.1% Latinx, Waterloo is 73.5% white, 17.4% Black, and 7.1% Latinx and Burlington is 86.3% white, 8.25% Black, and 4.2% Latinx. There is a clear correlation between poor air quality and an increased minority population.
When I worked on the East side of Des Moines, I would pull off of interstate 235 and onto the SE 14th exit, then I would drive past one factory after another. This area of Des Moines has historically and is currently predominantly populated by people of color. Driving towards Ankeny, the white suburbs, the open spaces increase, and the air feels cleaner. Because it is cleaner–by design.
Our cities have been intentionally segregated. The placement of interstates, waste systems, manufacturing plants, and flood plains in communities of color are racist by design. We have been living in this inherited system for so long it can be easy to accept that this is the way things are without questioning how we got here. Our cities are created landscapes that have been shaped by racist policies, and we are all living in an inherited legacy.
Kiara Fish is a recent Drake University graduate currently working in an AmeriCorps Food Recovery position at Oakridge Neighborhood in Des Moines, IA. She has worked as a community organizer in the political and non-profit realms with a passion for social and environmental advocacy.
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