Biking Seattle’s Redlining: An Interview with Merlin Rainwater

“The policies that created segregation have been so successful, that if you live in a white world, it’s kind of hard to see out of it. You just have to learn to see it.”

-Merlin Rainwater

Consider the following language. When was it written? Where was it written?

No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property, or any building thereon; except domestic servants may actually and in good faith be employed by white occupants of such premises

No residence property shall at any time, directly or indirectly, be sold, conveyed, rented or leased in whole of in part to any person or persons not of the white or Caucasian race.

Tracts or parcels of land in this plat shall be used or occupied only by members of the white or Caucasian race, excluding Semites, and no other persons shall be permitted to use or occupy said tracts or parcels, except employees may occupy the premises where their employer resides.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, this language was widely written into deeds in housing stock not in Detroit, or Chicago, or St. Louis, but rather in Seattle. Now documented on the “Racial Restrictive Covenants” section of the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History project at the University of Washington, much of this language—although outlawed by the 1968 Housing Rights Act—still exists on today’s home deeds, acting as a vestige of the racial restrictions that pervaded Seattle in the early 20th century. Despite that past ubiquity, many Seattle residents remain unaware of the ways in which the city was (and arguably still is) systematically racially segregated: through these restrictive covenants (private agreements made by white homeowners to exclude non-white and ethnically white residents), and through redlining.

Redlining, as many have documented, was the system begun in the 1930s by which the federal government worked with banks to spur the economy during and after the Great Depression. They did so through homeownership; in particular: racially restrictive homeownership. Banks drew up color-coded city maps based on existing and desired racial segregation. Banks then offered white residents seeking homes in white areas (areas drawn on the maps in green and blue) the best mortgage rates, and contrastingly, black residents seeking homes anywhere, but especially in black areas (drawn in red — hence the naming redlining), either no option for home loans, or exorbitantly high rates. Redlining took place in 239 cities across the U.S.; the process was backed by the federal government, invested money and wealth-making property into white people and neighborhoods, and divested from black and other non-white people.

Many residents of progressive-ish Seattle remain unaware about restrictive covenants redlining and their effects on the city today. Due to the growth of Amazon and other companies, Seattle has been the fastest growing city of the last decade. But that population growth took place without equitable urbanist policies in place. As such, many residents have dealt with drastically increased rentslack of protections for vulnerable residents, displacement of non-white neighborhoods of color including the historically black Central District, and increased homelessness (an estimated 41% of Seattle’s homeless population is black). These changes and their racialized impact dialogue with past urbanist practices that dispossessed people of color from neighborhood space.

Merlin Rainwater, a Seattle-born resident, has been trying to change how Seattleites—in particular mostly white Seattleites—understand the history of race and racial dispossession within Seattle’s neighborhood spaces. Earlier this year, she launched the Red Line Rides, a bike tour (and subsequent walking tour) of redlining in Seattle. So much of her tours are about teaching white residents to, in her words, “learn to see” how and where white Seattle was built by systemic and racially restrictive practices, and the strong residues of those practices today.  I interviewed her to learn more about the what, when, why, where and how of the tours.

Interview edited for clarity. 

JASMINE MAHMOUD: Tell me about your history in Seattle. Where did you grow up? What are your initial memories of the city?

MERLIN RAINWATER: I was actually born in Seattle, but I grew up mostly in a little town … about 16 miles out of Seattle: Edmonds. We belonged to the Quaker meeting that met in Seattle, so I had a strong connection with the neighborhood around the University [of Washington], the University District. Both of my parents were born in Washington State. My father’s grandparents on his mother’s side were pioneer settlers outside of Seattle. And my mother’s parents homesteaded in Eastern Washington.

When I moved back to Seattle in 1974, Seattle was in the middle of a major recession, and it was pretty cheap to survive here. When I got married, my husband and I were able to buy a house, a very reasonably priced house in an area that had been redlined and that was on the margins on the Central District, the historically black part of Seattle. Looking back on it, almost 40 years now, we were really the first wave of white gentrifiers moving into the historically black part of town.

Read the full post on Urban Cultural Studies.

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