Digital Project Review

While Americans still debate the legacy of the New Deal nearly ninety years after it began, few think of it as a time when the federal government codified residential segregation and established it as the national standard. Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America seeks to change that. Created by a collaboration between the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, history faculty and students at Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland’s Digital Curation Initiative, and history faculty from Johns Hopkins University, Mapping Inequality provides users with digitized, interactive maps made by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) between 1935 and 1940.

The first thing users will see is that when you open the website, it will use your location data to show your location relative to the HOLC maps. This immediately localizes the data users will see. If you are accessing the website from an area mapped by the HOLC, you will see an information box to the side that tells you the information that HOLC recorded about your area and an option to view a scan of the original documents (although in some cases these documents and information were not available). Users can also zoom in and out on the map of the United States and click on any city marked by a multicolored circle. There are also map options to choose from, which allow you to see either the full HOLC map or varying degrees of the HOLC map overlayed onto a modern city map. 

One of the obvious benefits of this project is that it provides broad access to the HOLC maps which were previously only available in print form at the National Archives. While a basic digital archive of these maps would have been a useful enough tool for scholars and students, the creators of Mapping Inequality chose to take it a step further in hopes of also reaching “residents and policy leaders in local communities.”1 By overlaying the HOLC maps onto current city maps and making them interactive, residents and policy leaders in those cities can begin to see the ways in which HOLC policies may have impacted their present city. This localizes the national story of the New Deal’s enforcement of residential segregation and makes it more relevant to those who do not have a scholarly interest in the subject. 

Another helpful feature of Mapping Inequality is that it includes additional information for users. For example, the website includes an introduction which explains what the HOLC was, where the maps come from, and links users directly to the digitized primary sources used to write it. There is also a helpful bibliographic note that describes how scholars’ views of the HOLC have shifted over time—in large part due to the discovery of the organization’s maps. A bibliography for further reading is also provided. This information is certainly useful to scholars but is especially helpful to students and the general public—both of whom have less access to accurate sources than do scholars within academic institutions. 

The only major problem with Mapping Inequality has to do with the quality of the scans. The HOLC maps are highly detailed, showing every street and block within a city. Street names were written by hand with very small lettering and when they were scanned the quality is such that once you zoom in close, the street names become illegible. This problem is solved by switching to the modern map underneath. 

Overall, Mapping Inequality has made the history of residential segregation more visible to scholars and the public alike. It has made previously inaccessible sources available online and has made other primary sources more visible to users. While this project is by no means the final word on residential segregation, it is an excellent starting point and will continue to be a useful tool for anyone seeking to learn more about the role of New Deal programs in the perpetuation of residential segregation. 


References

  1. “Introduction,” Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/. Accessed January 30, 2021.

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