In December, Colorado Springs City Council will consider PlanCOS, the first comprehensive plan for the Springs in more than 15 years. As city leaders debate how to move forward at a time of remarkable growth, it is worth considering the lessons of the past.
In the 1930s, a federal entity called the Home Owners Loan Corporation tapped local appraisers to create city maps showing investment risk by neighborhood. Instructions were explicit: Appraisers were to assess the quality of housing and institutions in the neighborhood — and also judge the quality of people living there, based on race and ethnicity.
The results were shamelessly racist. In Pueblo, for instance, according to historical documents obtained by The Colorado Trust, appraisers justified a D grade in one neighborhood by noting that it “contains the heaviest concentration of Negroes of any in the city.” They added that an “inferior class of white people, many of them foreigners, chiefly Mexicans, also occupy this section.”
This process was known as redlining.
The resulting maps depressed home values in C- and D-graded neighborhoods for decades by systematically robbing them of investment, punishing people of color as well as their white neighbors. Today, historically redlined neighborhoods are often poorer and unhealthier than nearby areas.
A redlined map of Colorado Springs was never published. But that doesn’t mean that the city was free from the effects of redlining.
The Colorado Trust’s recent request to the National Archives found that in 1936, local lenders were commissioned to create a map of Colorado Springs. The justification for the appraisers’ decisions are lost to history, but the resulting map draft still exists.
Marked in blue were the neighborhoods deemed most worthy of investment — including what we now call the Old North End and Monument Valley. In the middle were neighborhoods like Middle Shooks Run, Divine Redeemer and Old Colorado City.
Appraisers assessed as risky neighborhoods like Hillside, Mill Street and the Conejos district, a historically working-class neighborhood that was eventually razed to make room for America the Beautiful Park.
Creating redlined maps, even ones that were never published, guided local business owners to see neighborhoods in terms of race.
Today, the Old North End has high home values and a low poverty rate; its residents are mostly white. Mill Street and Hillside — which certainly would have been flagged by those 1930s-era appraisers as housing non-white residents and, therefore, “risky” — have struggled against official and informal neglect. Homes in Mill Street were torn down to make room for a power plant. In Hillside, the community center and a church are squeezed between a wastewater treatment plant, salvage yards and a concrete supplier.
None of this is the fault of today’s city planners.
But without being aware of this history, our city risks repeating it.
Like the draft redlining map of the 1930s, PlanCOS’s draft neighborhoods framework shades the Old North End in blue. Along with Old Colorado City, parts of Westside and Old Broadmoor, it is seen as an “established historic neighborhood.” PlanCOS gives these neighborhoods “an especially high value for preserving the existing design and architecture.”
Other neighborhoods, just as historic, don’t get the same designation. But why don’t Hillside and Mill Street merit the same level of protection from the burdens of rapid change and heavy development?
Hillside and Mill Street are experiencing a spate of investment intended to revitalize downtown: plans for a new stadium in Mill Street, and new parks, trails and bike lanes in both neighborhoods. None of these are bad in themselves. But they have the potential to drive up housing costs and drive out current residents. The beneficiaries of these changes are not necessarily the people living in the community.
Colorado Springs has an opportunity to assure that the benefits and burdens of growth are equitably distributed. We can build a more inclusive city and address areas of concentrated disadvantage, so that we don’t reinforce historic patterns of segregation and division.
Let us build a city that values equity and inclusion, acknowledges its history and learns from the past.
Mia Ramirez is a community partner for The Colorado Trust, a foundation that works to advance health equity in communities across the state, including the Colorado Springs neighborhood of Hillside.