Revolution #174, August 30, 2009

The Art of Red Lining

They're everywhere. You can't avoid them. "Exploding ARMs," "Predatory lending," "Toxic assets," "Mortgage backed securities" splash across headlines of major newspapers and flow from the tongues of evening news commentators. But what does it all mean? What do hundreds of thousands of Exploding ARMs (Adjustable Rate Mortgages) look like? What does it mean when housing, which people need, is a commodity—a thing to be exchanged for profit? How does the "greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern U.S. history" look on the ground? Fortunately or unfortunately you do not need to imagine or speculate.

A devastating and visceral depiction of this is a central part of Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center, a project of Damon Rich at the Queens Museum of Art in Queens New York. Using the museum's 9,335 square foot scale model of New York City that includes every building built before 1992, Rich placed a red triangle over any city block that had more than three foreclosures of 1-4 family houses in the past year. Block after block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood are covered in red as if some war game were being played with generals moving their pieces around the board showing neighborhoods occupied by their army. But this is not a game and the effects are much closer to a real war—people driven out of their homes and buildings boarded up as if a bomb went off. Whole swaths of Brooklyn (Crown Heights, Bedford Stuyvesant, East New York…), tracts of Queens (Cambria Heights, Jamaica, Ozone Park…) and the Bronx are laid waste. This exhibition gives you a real sense of the scope of the carnage and destruction.

This is America and in America race matters. Redlining was the historic practice in which Black people were systematically discriminated against by being denied mortgages and housing. This exhibition explores how this practice has been updated in the 21st century. Denying loans has been used as a club against Black people -- now loaning them money is also being used against them.

The whole exhibition is a "learning center." There are light-boxes (backlight displays that evoke advertising signs) that define words like "Blockbusting," "Disinvestment" and modern terms like "Mortgage Backed Securities." There are historic ephemera including a copy of the 1939 FHA (Federal Housing Administration) Underwriting Manual that was written by Frederick. M. Babcock whose 1932 textbook The Valuation of Real Estate laid the foundation for contemporary methods of analyzing and establishing the value of real estate. That book also codified race as the decisive factor in property value and it openly advocated segregation. There are over 20 books and manuals that you can look through that address housing, mortgage lending and investment. On one wall, a giant reproduction of a newspaper ad hangs announcing "Make Money In Real Estate Foreclosures" which encourages people to take seminars on making money off of other's suffering. Placed throughout the exhibition space are stands like one might find on a lawn announcing a house for sale, but in these signs are photographs of houses from the Detroit area—suburb to urban metro. The havoc that is shown in model New York is the tip of a much bigger and more devastating iceberg happening across the country.

Another highlight of the exhibit is a two-channel video (two separate videos played right next to each other that are actually one artwork) that is projected so that housing rights activists, mortgage brokers and investment bankers "speak" to each other. While one person is speaking, the other video projection has silent video of another person, ostensibly listening. It presents a revealing look at bankers in their own words as well as insightful comments from a range of people. In the video, sitting in front of a poster of Karl Marx, David Harvey, an internationally leading theorist in urban studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) notes, "…you had 2 million people who had lost their homes… The first wave hit very, very badly on African-Americans in Cleveland, Baltimore, Detroit and also on some white populations in California and Florida…when I looked at the map of foreclosures in Baltimore or Cleveland or Detroit, it looks like a whole series of financial Katrinas had hit them…The African American community across the United States has lost more in the way of wealth in the last couple of years than they had gained probably in the last 30 years."

Through Red Lines… in many facets, you get a sense of the historic and systemic nature of one aspect of how this system crushes Black people, people of color and poor people generally. It shows movements of people in the '60s and '70s resisting this. You get glimpse of how white people were subsidized to move to the suburbs. You begin to see the hundreds of thousands of people who now are behind in mortgage payments on subprime loans and whose houses are worth less than the actual loan. If they sell their house they will be deeper in debt than when they bought the home—a perverse continuation of Southern sharecropping traditions where you played by the rules and at the end of the year you were always deeper in debt than when you began.

The current capitalist crisis is about much more than the housing crisis and it is not only targeted at the Black masses or the poor. This exhibition points to the depth of the crisis and enables you to connect many dots and recognize how all this is part of the regular functioning of the system and see how national oppression of Black people intersects with this. You begin to understand how very powerful blocs of capital orchestrated the recent theft consciously—through intentionally steering Black borrowers towards loans that would become impossible to repay and through other means.

This exhibit is well worth a visit. It makes you think and it opens up new questions. There is much more to learn and wrangle with. As a sign at the entrance to the exhibit reads, "What could be more abstract than money? What could be more concrete than buildings and land? This exhibition sets out to explore the relationship between the two..."

Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center is on view through September 24. Queens Museum of Art / (718) 592-9700 /

More info is available online:

The video from the exhibit is available at:

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