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How a single map helped determine the fate of Atlantic City's Northside

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Atlantic City’s historically black neighborhood, the Northside, is best known for its thriving nightlife and entertainment scene during the city’s heyday.

Today it is among the poorest areas in the city and has one of the highest concentrations of black residents. It contains most of the city’s low-income apartment complexes. Poverty levels among black residents range from 36 percent to 73 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

That didn’t happen by accident. A long entrenched practice of housing discrimination, called redlining, helped set up the area as poor, black and filled with multi-family apartments. Today’s Northside neighborhoods are distinctly different from neighborhoods like Chelsea or Venice Park.

One of the first areas where black people could buy homes outside the redlined area was Venice Park. In 1959, Elaine Scott, 84, and her family became the first black family from Atlantic City to buy a home there. The area was off limits before then.

“That’s how it was, period,” she said. “We — when I say we I mean the blacks — we didn’t come over this way. You wouldn’t even cross the bridge.”

For decades, banks avoided making home loans to poor or minority communities, a practice known as redlining. And many communities in South Jersey had racial covenants, preventing homes from being sold to black buyers in the early 1900s. Redlining wasn’t banned until the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.

The issue of redlining in America is nothing new. And redlining certainly isn’t the only reason behind the low percentage of home ownership in that section of the city or the high poverty rate.

But looking at the role home ownership and government-backed mortgages played in creating America’s middle class, redlining is among the chief factors that prevented Atlantic City’s black community from fully breaking free from the city’s segregated past.

“There was an incredible amount of public, political and civic activity to maintain segregation,” said Professor Bryant Simon, of Temple University, who wrote “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.”

“Part of the point is just how typical Atlantic City is here,” Simon said. “This is the American story in the post-war period.”

As Atlantic City attempts to boost its tax base to make up for the loss of revenue from casinos that closed, it is working to increase home ownership rates, including programs with the Atlantic City Housing Authority and better use of federal housing grant programs.

“We’re trying to make it achievable as possible,” said city Planning Director Elizabeth Terenik.

But a series of decisions by the federal government during the 1930s resulted in Atlantic City’s black community, along with inner cities across the country, being denied mortgages, shutting them out of one of the main avenues to creating intergenerational wealth.

Home ownership gives people a pool of wealth to borrow against, providing them added security in case of a financial emergency, said Oliver Cooke, associate professor of economics at Stockton University.

During the New Deal, the federal government tried to boost sagging home ownership levels across the country by refinancing mortgages.

As part of this plan, the Home Ownership Loan Corp., a government entity, used local real estate agents across the country to map entire cities, giving each neighborhood a grade.

These maps color-coded neighborhoods based on perceived investment risk and potential for future growth. The areas were ranked best, still desirable, declining and hazardous. The hazardous areas were marked in red.

In reality, these guidelines laid out a path for banks to avoid lending money or making mortgages to poor people and minorities.

In the Atlantic City area, only three neighborhoods were graded hazardous, or redlined: The Northside of Atlantic City, the historically black section of Pleasantville and the southern section of Somers Point, which was described as an old fishing settlement.

In the description with each map, the surveyor made it clear why areas were deemed hazardous. In Atlantic City, the redlined area was entirely “negro,” and some of the buildings offered the minimum shelter or were no longer fit for human habitation, according to map descriptions. The description made no mention of the stable neighborhoods Atlantic City’s black community built there.

The area is approximately bordered by Marmora, Arkansas, Arctic and Maryland avenues, with a few blocks extending to the north and south. Today it is home to more than 10,000 of the city’s 39,000 residents.

Judge Nelson Johnson, author of “The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City,” said while redlining was a factor, it was one part of the larger attitude in the city toward keeping black residents in the Northside.

But over the years, members Atlantic City’s black community still managed to find a way to buy homes and build neighborhoods, especially in the 1950s, said historian Ralph Hunter.

“And it was a metropolis. It was one of the greatest communities ever known, outside of Harlem, New York, for African Americans,” he said.

An eminent domain project forced Elaine Scott and her family from her home on what was then Illinois Avenue. A local Realtor suggested Venice Park. The Venice Park neighborhood association put up some initial resistance, including taking a vote on the idea of integration, but once the family settled in, there weren’t any problems, Scott said.

“Nobody bothered us,” she said. “The children were the lifeline for integration. This is how we actually integrated ... through the children.”

As the Northside declined with the rest of the city, Venice Park transformed from a sparsely populated area of summer residences to a comfortable, middle-class neighborhood for the city’s black residents.

Today, as Hunter drives through Venice Park, he points out homes previously owned by prominent black residents. The neighborhood is changing again as the next generation moves in and the older generation passes on.

Meanwhile, the historic Northside is covered in run-down rentals and vacant row homes. Of the city’s approximately 490 abandoned properties, 165 of them — more than a third — sit within the formerly redlined area.

“What I see is that next generation wants safer schools, they want a safer area to raise their family and they don’t want to have to deal with the problems the city inherited,” Hunter said.

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Contact: 609-272-7090 SHughes@pressofac.com

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