“Undesign the Redline” Promotes Community Discussion of Redlining

Photo By Tyra Wu ’19 | The “Undesign the Redline” exhibit uses history to encourage students to start their own social justice initiatives.

Tyra Wu ’19
Assistant News Editor

“Undesign the Redline” is a traveling exhibition from the design studio, designing the WE, that displays the history of racial segregation and connects it to current political and social issues. Located on the second floor of the Neilson Library, the project combines graphics, primary documents and photographs to educate the viewer about redlining, a practice that began in 1934 in which people of color and immigrants were shut out of neighborhoods and denied mortgages.

At the time, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation compiled maps of 239 cities indicating the risk of real estate development in that particular area. These maps divided the cities into zones based on investment security. Properties in the green zones were considered safe for real estate investment and properties in red zones, which were populated by mostly African Americans and immigrants, were considered risky. This exhibition has been in pop-up storefronts, abandoned buildings and corporate headquarters.

“What was really great about designing the WE’s project is that it has been hosted by different kinds of organizations that want to talk about how do we solve problems in communities such as building truly affordable and equitable housing or using empty lots to create something that will benefit the community, like urban farms,” exhibit curator and Digital Scholarship librarian Miriam Neptune, said. “When we’re deciding to do those things, we really do need to look at the history to figure out how we got here.”

The exhibit was customized for the Smith community with references to Pioneer Valley history and maps of Boston, Hartford, Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield. While Neptune had originally asked design the WE to come to Smith just to hold a panel discussion, it soon became clear that a lot of other departments on campus had interest in the topic. There are several events scheduled to accompany the exhibit including a panel on Feb. 16 called Race+Class, Space and Design, featuring the designing the WE partners and professors from UMass and Mount Holyoke. There will also be a zine workshop on Feb. 23 at the Knowledge Lab and a screening of the film “MAJOR!” by Professor Jennifer DeClue on Mar. 9. “Undesign the Redline” is also part of Neilson library’s effort to create communities around specific themes by creating pop-up libraries.

“The pop-up libraries are designed to showcase what we have in the library that helps people understand something in a new way,” Neptune said. “We thought this would be the perfect opportunity to bring the exhibit and create a pop-up library so we can encourage an interdisciplinary dialogue about this topic.”

The exhibit features five different sections, each chronicling a part of redlining’s history and connecting it to current events. The last section is devoted to brainstorming possible solutions moving forward. The exhibit emphasizes audience participation by providing tags that people can use to contribute or comment on the time line. Viewers can contribute to the housing maps by marking where they live or where someone they know once lived. There is also an app that shows people, whose hometowns are not depicted, how their communities might have been affected.

“Designing the WE wants this to be a conversation,” Neptune said. “In the library especially, one of the things I find really important is that we honor the knowledge that people come in with. Someone will come in knowing something in a very personal way and encouraging people to do that with this topic was really important.”

Traci Williams ‘AC ’18 decided to share her personal experience once she realized that she had experienced this firsthand. Williams saved for years in order to purchase her first home in 2003. Many of her neighbors began moving away because they felt the neighborhood had become “too black.”

“I started putting pieces together,” Williams said. “It wasn’t just people being ignorant, stuck in racist ideas. This is actually a practice. Cause you think you can turn people’s hearts and get them to not look at you that way. When you find out that it’s ingrained, it’s standard, that hurts. Because it’s easier to sway someone’s heart than it is to sway an institution.”

The exhibit organizers hope that more students will feel comfortable enough to share their stories as well. These personalized additions to the exhibit underscore the importance of understanding history and connecting it to present day issues. There has been growing interest from outside of the Smith community as well. Neptune is currently looking for students with an interest in the topic, who also have bilingual skills to help broaden the reach of the exhibit. Both Williams and Neptune emphasize that everyone can learn something from the exhibit.

“Those who feel distant, or feel like it’s happening to ‘them’, understand that that ‘them’ is right there,” Williams said. “These are your friends and your classmates.”

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