In his landmark 2014 Atlantic piece, “The Case for Reparations,” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued, rather convincingly, that racist policies by the Federal Housing Authority between the 1930s and 1960s “destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived.”
A federal program established to refinance mortgages for underwater homeownersthe Home Owners’ Loan Corporationsent to American cities appraisers who drew lines around black and low-income neighborhoods. The HOLC then refused to extend loans to people in those “redlined” neighborhoods.
The HOLC “pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenanta clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites,” Coates wrote.
This happened in Durham, of course. The largest red blobs in the city’s 1937 HOLC map are, not surprisingly, in East Durham. (There’s also a small red trapezoid in Walltown, as well as redlined areas that were subsequently razed to make room for the Durham Freeway.)
As it happens, 1937 is also when Durham began planting trees in its rights of waythe strips of city-owned land between sidewalks and city streets.
“And what we found is that [the HOLC] map influenced where trees were planted,” says Gregory Cooper, a master’s student in environmental management and forestry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.
Along with two other Duke graduate students, Anne Liberti and Michael Asch, Cooper has spent the better part of the last year examining how the effects of discriminatory federal policies from eighty years ago affect Durham’s tree canopy today. Last week, Cooper and Liberti presented a study of their findings, titled “Durham’s Urban Forest: Living in the Shade of Injustice,” to the city’s Environmental Affairs Board.
Put simply, Durham neighborhoods that were redlined in the thirties continue to suffer from a lack of tree canopy today.
Trees are good for cities. They reduce air pollution, mitigate stormwater runoff, cool homes naturally, and generally improve the health of the ecosystem. They’re also good for people; recent studies have found that trees reduce stress and brain fatigue. Greater numbers of trees correlate to lower crime rates, according to a 2001 study by the University of Illinois: Urbana-Champagne. Trees have also been linked to lower levels of obesity and higher property values.
In Durham, neighborhoods like Trinity Park, Duke Park, and Watts-Hillandale are blessed with a city-owned canopy cover of more than 50 percent, meaning that more than half of the neighborhood is covered by trees. Between 2007 and 2014, the city planted at least 150 new trees in each of those neighborhoods.
But in Cleveland-Holloway, Edgemont, Golden Beltpredominantly black neighborhoods in East Durhamthe canopy cover hovers at just around 10 percent, according to Cooper, Liberti, and Asch’s analysis. Those neighborhoods received fifty trees or fewer between 2007 and 2014.
Alex Johnson, Durham’s urban forestry manager, says this inequity is something of a negative feedback loop brought about by an underfunded tree budget and a rapidly dying tree population. All those trees planted by the city in the 1930s? They’re almost all willow oaks, and their lifespans are coming to an end, all at the same time. A 2015 report by the Environmental Affairs Board recommended that 1,680 new trees be planted every year just to keep pace with the trees that are dying. Right now, Durham’s planting about half of thatin a good year.
“When I got here, ten years ago, my predecessor would plant maybe fifty trees a year,” Johnson says. “The job was mainly just to keep the existing trees healthy. Now, all of our resources go to taking care of these willow oaks that are dead, dying, diseased, shedding limbs.”
Trees the city has purchased for planting often languish in a holding area for months on end while Johnson’s staff works to clear the docket of outstanding service requests to clean up dead trees.
“And when we do plant trees, we’re usually responding to a work order to replace a dead tree,” Johnson says. “We just don’t have the time or resources to proactively identify the neighborhoods where maybe those trees should have gone to begin with, eighty years ago.”
In other words, the places that didn’t have trees to begin withthe redlined areascontinue to be neglected.
For this reason, Johnson recently asked the city’s general services manager to double the urban forestry staff (he has six employees) and equipmentan increase of about $900,000. But the request the general services manager passed along to the city manager and city council was considerably smaller: two new full-time employees, plus another $45,000 to do a tree inventory. An inventory, Johnson says, will allow his department to remove risky trees before they become dangerous and identify specific areas in particular need of more canopy.
In the meantime, the deck will continue to be stacked against low-income neighborhoods, where residents are more likely to rent and thus have less say about the environment that surrounds them. And affluent areas like Trinity Parkwhere there were 569 new trees planted between 2007 and 2014, three times as many as any other neighborhood in Durhamwill continue to get the bulk of the available trees.
“We’ve made a difference in our neighborhood,” says Shelley Dekker, who chairs the Trinity Park Street Tree Committee. “Every year, the neighborhood kicks in a thousand dollars to the city for trees, and we have a planting day with volunteers. But not every neighborhood can do that.” (Dekker says she recently applied for a grant to bring trees to lower-income neighborhoods.)
Johnson adds that the Duke study’s recommendations, however well intentioned, might not be so simple to implement. He recalls, a few years ago, a volunteer planting project in Old North Durham with, he says, “fifty or a hundred trees.” Most of the trees were planted west of Manguma gentrifying areaand he was criticized in the community for not planting east of Mangum, in the part of the neighborhood that remains lower-income.
“So, the next year, we made a huge effort to plant trees on the east side of Mangum,” Johnson says. “And nobody from east of Mangum showed up to help. I had to get volunteers from elsewhere. And there were complaints in the neighborhood that I was planting trees there.”
Given the urban forestry department’s strained budget, Johnson says, it’s up to neighborhood leaders to be the squeaky wheels.
“The policies just aren’t in place right now to address those issues [in the Duke study],” he says. “If my mandate was to correct the wrongs of history, believe me, I would be happy to do it. But that’s not the way it is.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Throwing Shade”