Oakland is the main site of my research, but to understand what’s happening in The Town, you have to understand what’s up with the The City. San Francisco was and is the dominant city center, and it led the rest of the Bay in executing 20th-century housing maneuvers. Like other cities, San Francisco planners were obsessed with blight, which was both a physical/social condition as well as a theory of urban decay. The Great Depression had sent American cities into retreat from their 20th-century highs, and blight became the physical sign of that change. “For the first time,” economist Mabel Howard wrote, “We are becoming blight-conscious as a people.” In San Francisco, a blighted area generally meant an older neighborhood in which poor and/or non-white people lived. Thanks to the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Berman v. Parker, designating an area “blighted” stripped rights from its residents and vastly expanded what local officials could do its residents. They used this power to enact “urban renewal,” a set of policies that had tragic consequences for black communities.
As in other cities, the Works Progress Administration-funded Real Property Surveys helped San Francisco see itself in new spatial and quantitative ways. These were massive undertakings involving hundreds of people who blanketed the city, generating new information about the structures of the. city. The data from these surveys informed both local policy as well as feeding the burgeoning national government housing agencies like the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration.
Generally, these surveys cut the city up into census tracts and then calculated statistics for them, which they plotted onto maps. Minus the kind of computational power we have now, these maps acted as a way for city leaders and planners to eyeball the data for decisionmaking. They drew on University of Chicago’s mapmaking tradition, which had long been used as a way of finding correlations between urban phenomena.
The data show clearly that Negro households paid more, on average, for worse housing than any other group. A segregated housing market can be profitable landlords.
The survey also generated reams of block-level statistics in which they recorded 9 key economic and physical factors, as well as “the percent of occupied dwelling units occupied by persons other than white.”