Zoning Didn’t Segregate Bloomington. It Won’t Fix Us Now.

By William Coulter

In the current debate over upzoning of core neighborhoods, supporters have asserted without evidence that upzoning will increase racial equity and neighborhood diversity. A closer examination of the history of zoning in Bloomington does not support that assertion.

Segregation in Bloomington has a long history, but zoning ordinances did not segregate Bloomington. It is illogical to expect that a zoning ordinance will increase racial equity or diversity in Bloomington’s neighborhoods.

In December 1917, the Supreme Court of the United States, in Buchanan v. Warley, declared segregation by city ordinance unconstitutional. By the time Bloomington passed its first zoning ordinance, in 1942, segregation by ordinance using explicit racial language was no longer workable and Bloomington never used this technique.

Richard Rothstein writes in “The Color of Law” (a 2017 book that has been continually cited by Bloomington’s upzoning advocates) that two types of tactics were used to work around Buchanan v. Warley: Zoning ordinances without explicit racial language that instead manipulated economic conditions to create segregated neighborhoods (exclusionary zoning), and non-zoning approaches. One non-zoning approach appears extensively in 20th Century Bloomington real estate transactions, the racial covenant.

The first deed with such a covenant was recorded in the Monroe County Recorder’s office on November 6, 1912 and transfers 15 acres in Section 28 Range 9 North Township 1 West to the Showers Brothers Company. The covenant reads “none of the above tract of land is to be ever sold to colored people.”

Rothstein, in the “The Color of Law,” writes that such provisions spread throughout the country in the 1920s as the preferred means to evade Buchanan. This type of language would become so common in early and mid-20th Century Bloomington that today the Monroe County GIS Division web site contains a trigger warning.

The rationale for the racial covenant was that since it was an agreement between individuals and not an ordinance passed by a municipality, it did not violate the Constitution. In May of 1948 the Supreme Court declared racial covenants unconstitutional because enforcement of such clauses by a court of law violated the Constitution (Shelley v. Kraemer). They continued in use nonetheless, and not until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and a subsequent federal appeals court ruling in 1972 was the act of recording these clauses determined to be a violation of the 14th Amendment.

Two Faces

Rothstein writes after Buchanan v Worley: “Zoning…had two faces. One face, developed in part to evade a prohibition on racially explicit zoning, attempted to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods by making it difficult for lower-income families, large numbers of whom were African Americans, to live in expensive white neighborhoods. The other attempted to protect white neighborhoods from deterioration by ensuring that few industrial or environmentally unsafe businesses could locate in them. Prohibited in this fashion, polluting industry had no option but to locate near African American residences.”

Rothstein describes the first goal here: “To prevent lower-income African Americans from living in neighborhoods where middle-class whites resided, local and federal officials began in the 1910s to promote zoning ordinances to reserve middle-class neighborhoods for single-family homes that lower-income families of all races could not afford. Certainly, an important and perhaps primary motivation of zoning rules that kept apartment buildings out of single-family neighborhoods was a social class elitism that was not itself racially biased.”

Did Bloomington zoning laws engage in these tactics? Ordinance No. 7 of 1942 defined three zones, including a “Residence district.” The list of permissible uses for the residence district included one-family dwellings, two-family dwellings, multiple dwellings, boarding houses, hotels, clubs, churches, hospitals, libraries, parks, playgrounds, farming, truck gardening and many other uses.

The zoning ordinance of 1950 (Ord. No. 6, 1950) created multiple residence districts:

  • R1 One-family zone.
  • R2 Two-family zone.
  • R3 Multiple dwelling zone…

R1 allowed single family houses, city parks, churches, and truck gardening. R2 allowed any use permissible in R1, duplexes and row dwellings of not more than four units. R3 allowed any use permissible in R2, plus “multiple dwellings,” apartment hotels, fraternity or sorority houses owned by students or alumni, “lodginghouse or tourist home.”

It is possible that the only motivation for zoning rules that kept apartment buildings out of single-family neighborhoods after 1950 was “social class elitism that was not itself racially biased.”  But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the motivation included racial segregation. 

Industrial Sites

For the second type of economic zoning, Rothstein references the St. Louis zoning ordinance of 1919: “With no reference to race, the ordinance pretended to be in compliance…it designated land for future industrial development if it was in or adjacent to neighborhoods with substantial African-American populations.”

Bloomington in its early history had industrial sites scattered about town. The original Showers Brothers furniture factory was near the intersection of East 8th Street and North Lincoln, providing jobs for African-Americans living nearby. There was a woolen mill on East 4th Street, a spoke factory where Second Street Park is now located and a washing machine factory on East First Street. But over time industries such as these closed down and were replaced by residences or migrated to the Near West Side to be near the Monon railroad that ran north-south through the center of town. A fire at the original Showers factory in 1884 helped the process along, with African-Americans migrating to the west side along with the factory.

Did Bloomington zoning ordinances target neighborhoods with substantial African American populations for industrial sites? Bloomington’s first African-American neighborhood was de-industrialized beginning with the Showers factory fire. The creation of Bloomington’s second African-American enclave predates the first zoning ordinance. It was near industrial sites, but in an era before automobiles and their relative affordability (and with factory workers decidedly not being part of the “carriage trade”) living within walking distance of a place of work actually was a benefit.

Industrialization in mid-century Bloomington was largely a “green field” event taking place on the Far West Side, with Otis Elevator, Westinghouse and General Electric locating along Curry Pike. Subsequent business parks arose even farther west and even farther away from the African American population.

Non-Zoning Segregation

If Rothstein is a reliable source, Bloomington was an early adopter of the racial covenant and latecomer to the racially exclusionary zoning practices of the years after 1917 – if it ever used them at all. It never attempted the explicitly racial zoning tactics of the years prior to 1917.

With the primary, or perhaps only segregating technique being a non-zoning approach that has not been effective for nearly 50 years, it is difficult to see how a zoning ordinance could increase racial equity or neighborhood diversity. The zoning changes before us now, sometimes described as “Rentrification,” are especially difficult to imagine as a remedy.

Rothstein proposes a three-part remedy for past discrimination, but does not include upzoning as part of it. The specific issue that he addresses is that state, local and federal agencies and bankers deprived people of color the opportunity to accumulate wealth through homeownership as white people were able to do. His solution:

  1. Legislation leading to subsidies for African Americans to own homes in neighborhoods where they were formerly banned,
  2. Repeal of exclusionary zoning laws where they exist, and
  3. Affirmative action in education and employment.

Upzoning advocates in Bloomington have taken a Chinese menu approach, choosing only one item from Column A: Doing away with what they assume to be exclusionary zoning.  That’s the only potential remedy at hand, locally.

The result? Capital floods into our core neighborhoods; developers build expensive new rental housing and demolish naturally occurring affordable housing. No new single family homes are available, and existing homes that would have been available have been converted to multi-unit rentals or have been demolished. How does African Americans’ position improve? It doesn’t; there is less affordable housing. There are fewer single family homes available for purchase. They have no additional money to help buy the homes that remain in the neighborhoods from which they were previously excluded.

Invoking the “The Color of Law” as justification for the proposed zoning changes in Bloomington is not a coherent stance.

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