How an illegal practice banned 50 years ago shaped Philly neighborhoods of today

“A Dream Deferred” explores redlining and the hyperlocal history of housing discrimination.

A block of houses in Strawberry Mansion

A block of houses in Strawberry Mansion

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Updated Sept. 13

How’d Philadelphia’s neighborhoods get to be the way they are? We’re talking geography, demographic makeup, proximity to mass transit — a handful of attributes factor into the creation of a neighborhood.

And in this city, according to a new exhibit, a lot of those factors can be traced one abhorrent practice:


The practice was introduced back in 1934 with the creation of the Federal Housing Administration, and can be defined as the systematic denial of housing services to specific residents, often based on race, neighborhood or community. It was outlawed in 1968, but it persists into the modern day. So how did it shape the way Philly looks today?

Local marketing firm Little Giant Creative says it made a major impact — and is about to spend two months proving the point.

A Dream Deferred – Redlining: Past, Present, Future” is an interactive show that will explore the hyperlocal history of housing discrimination.

“A lot of people walk around thinking things exist because of just happenstance,” said Little Giant cofounder Meegan Denenberg. “We want to convey — in a very gentle way — that very few things exist today that weren’t manipulated to be that way.”

A flyer for "A Dream Deferred," an exhibit that will explore how redlining impacted Philly neighborhoods.

A flyer for "A Dream Deferred," an exhibit that will explore how redlining impacted Philly neighborhoods.

Courtesy Almaz Crowe

The “Dream Deferred” exhibit hopes to explain how exactly how redlining impacted Philadelphia. Set to run from Sept. 21 to Nov. 17 at 600 Spring Garden St., it will host several components:

  • Photography, sculpture and performance art will show what communities might look like if redlining had never occurred
  • Touchscreens will display interactive data on neighborhood demographics dating back to 1940
  • A 20-minute documentary will share perspectives from modern-day Philadelphians whose neighborhoods have been touched by redlining
  • A private confessional booth will allow viewers to share their thoughts on the exhibit and redlining in general
  • A series of panel discussions will offer a dialogue on the history of redlining and its present impacts

“[Redlining] was so manipulated,” Denenberg said. “I think a lot of people today are either inheriting that trauma, or they’re benefitting from that trauma. And I don’t think a lot of people are walking around understanding that.”

“We wanted to be able to really think about and compel people to understand and repair that broken history,” she added.

Crunching the numbers

Understanding data can be challenging — especially when the numbers go back nearly 80 years. But for this exhibit, data is essential to telling the full story.

“There’s a lot of demonstration of race and ethnicity, and how that has shifted over the years,” said Esther Needham, a data analyst working on the project. “We’re getting at gentrification, wealth, property and how that has impacted people’s movement patterns.”

Luckily, the project’s data analysis team thought up an easy way to present all the numbers. The touchscreen displays will allow viewers to select one of five physical routes through the city, stopping in different neighborhoods along the way and exploring historic data at each point.

A visualization of the 1940 demographics of Strawberry Mansion

A visualization of the 1940 demographics of Strawberry Mansion

Courtesy Almaz Crowe

Here are the routes you’ll be able to navigate:

Route 1: Cycling/walking

“A student from UPenn visits to Fairmount Park and the Japanese Tea Garden”

  1. Black Bottom, University City
  2. Powelton Village
  3. Mantua

Route 2: Public transportation

Riding the L train/bus

  • Kensington
  • Society Hill
  • Seventh Ward

Route 3: Driving

  1. Nicetown
  2. Temple University
  3. Chinatown
  4. Rittenhouse Square

Route 4: Driving

  1. Mount Airy
  2. Strawberry Mansion

Route 5: Driving

  1. Hawthorne
  2. I-95
  3. Eastwick

Telling personal stories

Of course, data can only say so much. Some stories need to be told also by the people who’ve felt them the hardest.

That’s where the documentary comes in.

Malkia Lydia, a filmmaker on the project, has traveled to Kensington, Chinatown and West Philly seeking longtime residents who can demonstrate the ripple effects of redlining in Philadelphia.

“They wanted first-person voices and stories to put flesh on the history and the policies,” Lydia said. “Of course we can’t go back in time, but we can talk to people who have deep roots in some of the affected neighborhoods.”

Along the way, she met a man named Roberto. An artist from a Puerto Rican immigrant family, Roberto grew up in Kensington — a neighborhood significantly undervalued because of redlining.

“He still deals with the messages he got as a young person about not being wanted, not being valued,” Lydia said. “The facilities were a mess compared to other neighborhoods. It sent a clear message about his value, that to this day has an impact.”

A visualization of the 2010 demographics of Strawberry Mansion

A visualization of the 2010 demographics of Strawberry Mansion

Courtesy Almaz Crowe

She spoke with another man from West Philly, who remembers as a child when his family had to pick up and move due to redlining — an experience so traumatic for his family that his brother died by suicide years later.

“People talk about these things as if they’re just a reality of life — discrimination, oppression,” Lydia said. “But do we get that all of these things weigh in on people’s self-determination, their ability to provide for their families and pursue their dreams?”

“This has real psychological and economic impact on people,” she added. “What will it take for us…to figure out how to make development work for everyone?”

Want some more? Explore other Neighborhoods stories.

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Exhibits, Arts, History