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  • Writer's pictureJohn Spidaliere

The Reality of Lancaster's Racist Past

How to answer the question, what neighborhood should I choose?

This map of Lancaster drawn in 1933 was used by banks to determine where and to whom home ownership loans were given. For comparison to today, see the map of Lancaster in 2022 below.

by John Spidaliere, broker of LancLiving Realty

What neighborhood do I want to live in?

Which neighborhoods do I want to stay away from?

It is a question I’ve heard more than a few clients ask me as a city Realtor.

The history of housing in Lancaster City, like so many others cities in the United States, is the story of systematic racism.

For many years, banks, mortgage companies, and Realtors teamed up in an overt effort to ensure that white neighborhoods stayed white, and black neighborhoods stayed black, and away from the white neighborhoods as much as possible.

It is an ugly history, but it is reality.

The police, zoning laws and city planning ensured the system worked and could be maintained over time. If one looks at the housing deeds of many of the homes in my community, you’ll find restrictions for anyone not of the Caucasian race, along with prohibitions about maintaining livestock.


Congress passed fair housing laws in the late 1960s that made these deed restrictions illegal, but the die had already been cast for many cities, like Lancaster. The de facto segregation ran too deep and fifty years after the Fair Housing Act, my city remains segregated.

Here in Lancaster, north of King Street are affluent, primarily white neighborhoods. City infrastructure there is well maintained and when the neighbors speak, city hall takes notice. When broadband was planned for the city through LancCity Connect, of course, it came to the whitest neighborhood first: neighborhoods that already had that level of service. Every mayor in recent memory, dating back to the 1970s came from Lancaster’s Northwest.

South of King Street are majority black and brown neighborhoods. Homeownership is rarer, and unscrupulous slumlords ravage the housing stock there. The streets are dirtier and infrastructure less attended to. The police spend an exorbitant amount of time patrolling those streets.

So what do I say when buyers ask me where they should shop for homes?

For a long time, I hedged on the question, talking about housing construction, as if brick construction was what people were interested in knowing. It was a cowardly diversion. I wasn’t lying, but it wasn’t the whole truth and I knew it. My white fragility held me back.

The murder of George Floyd changed the conversation. As America began to face the reality of systematic racism, many in my industry started asking questions about how we could work to make our industry anti-racist.

What I learned changed how I did business. The history of real estate in America is the history of systematic racism.

A friend put a book in my hand, The Color of Law, a 2017 study by Richard Rothstein of the long history of racist practices in lending, city planning, and real estate sales. The book highlights the links between national and local racist policies aimed at maintain segregation far past the end of Jim Crow and Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s.

The University of Richmond has an interactive map that offers a clear vision of how banks utilized red lining to determine where and to whom banks should offer loans. The University of Richmond teamed up with other institutions of higher learning including Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University on the “Mapping Inequality: Red Lining in New Deal America” project. The research is aimed at shedding light on this means of segregation, which Rothstein called the most successful form of “apartheid policies” ever created by a society.

The map featured in this blog is of Lancaster City in 1933. The reader should note the way the bank segregated the city along racial lines. The reader may also note how similar the dividing lines are to city neighborhoods in 2022.

For all its progressive politics today, the city is still segregated into neighborhoods defined predominantly along racial lines.

My duty as a real estate broker to be honest with my clients requires me to tell them the truth about Lancaster’s past.

I tell my clients that like so many other cities in Pennsylvania and throughout America, Lancaster’s story of growth is a history of institutional racism and maintaining white supremacy. Whites were given access to housing in the Northeast and the Northwest..

The drive to push communities of color into a corner and keep them there, pushed by banks and Realtors who “redlined” certain neighborhoods to ensure that the races stayed apart. Black Lancastrians were funneled in the southeast quadrant of the city and parts of the southwest, as European immigrant families moved out of those neighborhoods and into the suburbs.

Just to be clear, I don’t believe there is malicious intent on the part of my clients asking these question. Ignorance of the past is endemic of many white Americans.

Yet, our duty as Realtors requires us to be honest with our clients even if the truth is uncomfortable.

This map is from The map key points out that the "most desirable" neighborhoods are in green. "Average value" neighborhoods are in yellow, and "low value" is in red. The areas in green represent the predominately white neighborhoods, while the areas in red are predominantly African American and Latinx neighborhoods.

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