Do You Know How Redlining Shaped This City? A New Installation Wants To Show You.

Earlier this September Little Giant Creative Founders, Tayibb Smith and Meegan Denenberg unveiled the comprehensive and interactive installation - A Dream Deferred: Redlining Past, Present Future. Using a mix of art, technology and a ton of historical research, their team has created a seamless experience that not only teaches us the history of redlining but what we can do to change this practice in the future.  


A Dream Deferred PHL: Redlining Past, Present Future - - Q+A with Meegan Denenberg and Tayyib Smith, Co-Founders, Little Giant Creative.

Q: Let’s start from the beginning, when and how did this project come about? Were there any other variations of it prior to settling on this interactive installation?

The project came about during an initial conversation between Little Giant Creative (LGC) company co-founders Meegan Denenberg and Tayyib Smith about what Philadelphia could have looked like if redlining and other discriminatory practices had not occurred. Meegan developed the concept and laid the foundation of the project with a focus on using culturally connecting platforms like art and media and ensuring the accessibility of information. LGC applied for the Knight Foundation Knight Cities Challenge grant, which received over 4,500 submissions, and was selected as one of the winners in June 2017.  Work on the project began in July 2017 with finding key partners to work on the various project elements with historians, data mappers, touchscreen coders, filmmakers, artists and evaluators.

Prior to the installation, there were websites created mostly by experts in the academic institution and utilized the redlined maps with Geographic Information System (GIS) software.  These sites were often difficult to understand due to heavy use of jargon and not user friendly, especially for those who are not as familiar with either the content or technology. While this information is not new, what is unique about our exhibit is that we are breaking it down in a creative and relatable manner.

Q: Of all the racial/socioeconomic issues, why redlining as the focus?

Redlining is a visually compelling beginning point since the map clearly illustrates how neighborhoods were being segregated.  Redlining is the starting point of the conversation and the exhibit provides a long historical context in how immigration, environment and real estate policies along with social practice all intersect and impact the state of our city today.

Q: There is so much historical data and research involved with this project, did you learn anything that surprised you? What was it/why was it surprising?

What was most surprising is the classifications that were constructed to categorize and rank different racial groups which many may not be aware of.  For example, Homer Hoyt, the first principal housing Economist for the Federal Housing Administration, constructed a system to rank races and nationalities to determine their beneficial effect or negative impact on land values. Groups considered most favorable were listed at the top and groups least favorable being listed at the bottom:

  Image courtesy of A Dream Deferred PHL.

Image courtesy of A Dream Deferred PHL.

  • English, Germans, Scotch, Irish, Scandinavians

  • North Italians

  • Bohemians or Czechoslovakians

  • Polish

  • Lithuanians

  • Greeks

  • Russian Jews of the lower class

  • South Italians

  • Negroes

  • Mexicans

In reviewing this list, it is startling to see how many ethnicities beyond African Americans were considered “less than”.  We hope when audience members see the evidence of these discriminatory practices that they recognize many are vulnerable to the social manipulation perpetuated on a systemic level.  

Q: There is, clearly, a heavy aspect of education with this installation. What are your hopes/goals with A Dream Deferred? What do you want people to walk away thinking?

The hope is that visitors walk away learning something new, about the city, about how the past has impacted where and how they live and encourage self-reflection and empathy.  We want people to review how they learned this history in the past and if and why it’s different. Of course, in the longer term, the goal is that this exhibit serves as a catalyst for action, and empowers local members of the community to change the status quo.

Q: On the official website you say — “A Dream Deferred says it plain and with purpose: to engage, inform and inspire a fairer way forward.” How are you hoping to this project will inspire that change?

We hope with a greater understanding of history and data audiences will be compelled to continue their learning, stay engaged in the development of their neighborhood, the city and on the federal level.  With the power of this information in hand, we hope that it will create a collective movement since issues of redlining and other discriminatory practices impact many across the demographic divide. We hope that attention and focus will start shifting to equity in terms of wealth building and what transformative steps are needed for truly shared resources rather than fostering the myth of meritocracy.

  Image courtesy of A Dream Deferred PHL.

Image courtesy of A Dream Deferred PHL.

Q: What has the response been thus far?

There’s been an overwhelmingly positive response. We’ve had a consistent flow of daily visitors, ranging in backgrounds, and we continue to receive requests for group tours which will be ramping up in October. Many of the group tours have been requested by high schools and universities, which is great, but we’d really like to reach more community groups, recreation centers, and youth because we believe that these issues can speak to both longtime and new residents living in neighborhoods that have been impacted by redlining and other related policies.

Q: So you’ve held one panel already (back in December 2017) and have several more lined up. How did that initial panel inform the planning process for the rest of the project?  

The first panel in December 2017 was organized in partnership with Next City and WHYY.  We gathered multidisciplinary experts including community organizers, academics, journalists and policy maker.  We were intentional about the panelists invited since we often see the same people coming to the table to have these discussions.  We wanted to make sure those who are burdened by these practices along with those who are informing and creating policies can have honest conversations to debunk the myth of meritocracy. Our goal is to have real dialogue to work towards breaking cycles that result from broken history, foster greater understanding and ultimately, greater empathy.  Empathy was the focus of the first panel, with discussion about the consequences of consistent displacement and denial by examination of how that trauma lives through generations. The data component served to underscore the reality of the cycle. The research and intention behind the exhibit informed the first panel which set the stage for the entire series.

Q: The “Freedom Makes Negroes Crazy” panel (titled after the controversial John C. Calhoun statement) is set, in short, to discuss “government’s use of propaganda to convince the country of the dangers of inclusion and equality” - what parallels do you see between then and now? How will you use this panel to unpack those issues?

The propaganda perpetuated from the past still remains lodged in the current zeitgeist and is embedded on an individual level within our implicit biases.  It’s even more evident of how the narrative established by the propaganda continues to be at the forefront of our political system. The narrative and fear of immigrants has been exploited throughout the history of this country.  An example of this is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers because of the fear that was fueled by the government’s use of propaganda. We clearly see the relevance of this type of fear-based propaganda with the current day rhetoric about immigrants.

Q: How did you curate the themes for the remaining panels? Why do you think these conversations in particular are important to have?

In debunking the myth of meritocracy, we recognize this has to be addressed on a multitude of levels since the topic is a complicated one. The layers of the series builds by first providing context with historical facts and data, then drawing a clear line to the generational impact of these policies and examining how social engineering created on a systemic level plays into our current biases and finally to the iterative nature of othering and denial and the practices that are courageously and thoughtfully breaking these cycles. Through these different levels of conversations, we hope that people will empathize with one another and understand how these issues touch a multitude of race and class.

Q: What’s next? Will A Dream Deferred live on in other forms? Travel elsewhere?  

We would like to develop a version of the exhibit and its content into a curriculum that may be incorporated into high school and undergraduate level education, made available especially to schools throughout Philadelphia and hopefully to other cities. These are topics that are often not included in history or social studies classes, and again the focus is on informing youth so they are empowered to push change in our communities.

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Accessibility Information: The space is still undergoing construction and therefore not ADA accessible, for updates or questions please contact hello[at]adreamdeferredphl[dot]org.

Zoe Rayn Evans