How Racism Makes the Weather in Cleveland (And Elsewhere)

A 2020 study found that formerly redlined neighborhoods are hotter than other areas in the same city. Here’s why.

 

It’s a beautiful, 70 degree fall day in Cleveland, and Gregory Underwood is standing on the sidewalk with his three-year-old son in Arbor Park Village, where he’s lived for four years. But he says the summers are less pleasant. The saplings that line the sidewalk in the East Side housing development don’t offer much shade. 

When I tell him Arbor Park Village is a heat island—meaning it’s hotter there in the summer than in surrounding areas—he says he’s not surprised. He thinks of his mother’s home in Ravenna, a rural Ohio town. He says a giant tree shades her house, keeping it nice and cool on hot days—a luxury Arbor Park Village doesn’t have. “In the summer, we try to go outside every day,” he says. “If I want shade, I just hide next to the car.”

Hotter summer days aren’t just inconvenient. They can be dangerous to people who can’t get away from the heat. Between 2016 and 2019, sixty-seven Ohioans died of heat exposure, according to death data from the Ohio Department of Public Health. One study found that an increase of just 1 degree Fahrenheit in the peak temperature during a Midwestern heatwave can increase mortality by almost 2 percent.

Long-term heat exposure can take a more insidious toll by contributing to hypertension—a common condition, which Underwood told me he has. Underwood like 85 percent of his neighbors in the census tract, is Black. He worries about spending too much time in the heat. High blood pressure can lead to heart failure and stroke, and it’s more common among Black Americans than White Americans. (In Cleveland, nearly 40 percent of adults have high blood pressure, which is about 10 percent higher than the national average.)

The story of why the ground in Arbor Park Village was sizzling hot last summer—97 degrees near midday on July 18, the hottest day of 2020, compared to 86 degrees in Wade Oval, less than three miles away—goes back about a century. It’s the story of how racism makes the weather in Cleveland, and in cities across the country.

By now, most tuned-in Americans have heard about redlining, a racist system the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) instituted in the 1930s. When the FHA started guaranteeing mortgages, it created a series of maps that color-coded neighborhoods in cities across the nation with ratings from “hazardous” (red) to “best” (green), depending on their racial composition. Areas with all-Anglo populations were coded green. Areas with large Black populations were coded red. It became expensive or impossible to get a mortgage in the redlined neighborhoods, where Black people were corralled by widespread housing discrimination, according to historian Kenneth Kusmer.

Redlining is now officially illegal, but the racism codified by those maps continues to shape life in our neighborhoods today. A study last year used infrared satellite readings of cities across the country and found that, in nearly all the cities researchers examined, the average ground temperature was hotter in redlined areas than in parts of the same city that were rated green nearly a century ago.

The study’s authors argued this is because redlined areas were devalued by city planners, who built parks and other outdoor amenities in White neighborhoods—marked green on the maps—and used cheap land in redlined neighborhoods for large developments that soak up heat. Trees and lawns mitigate ground heat, while roofs and parking lots make it worse. Heavily built-up or paved areas thus tend to be hotter than neighborhoods with parks, big lawns and shade trees.

The discrepancy holds true for Cleveland, one of the ten most segregated cities in the nation. The study found that redlined areas in Cleveland were, on average, almost 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than formerly green-rated areas like Rocky River and Shaker Heights.

Kusmer’s research found that Cleveland’s Black residents were relatively scattered in the nineteenth century. But as Black people fleeing the Jim Crow South flocked to the city in the 1910s, White landlords in many neighborhoods started offering their properties to White tenants only. Black residents were increasingly limited to a part of the East Side called Central, which now includes Arbor Park Village.

Central became the most densely populated neighborhood in the city, and the city government, through selective enforcement, allowed “vice” industries like gambling and sex work to flourish there. According to Kusmer, the city didn’t build a single park or playground in neighborhoods that were predominantly Black in the 1910s.

When government surveyors redlined the part of the city where Arbor Park Village now stands, they wrote, “Concentration of negro population in this area is the heaviest in the city. Area is characterized by its heavy relief rolls, high disease and mortality rate, crime and unemployment. . . . This is the most undesirable area in [the] entire city.”

In the 1950s, the federal government gave out funding for cities to reinvent “blighted” neighborhoods by buying up land and clearing the residents to make way for huge projects, an initiative known as “urban renewal.” By sheer land area, Cleveland had the largest urban renewal program in the country, and completed one of the first urban renewal-funded housing complexes. City administrators used urban renewal to clear out Black neighborhoods and move Black neighbors away from the city’s central hubs—downtown and University Circle.

City planners started with the neighborhood that’s now the site of Arbor Park Village. The city bought up parcels of land throughout the area, most of which were rentals where Black people lived, and sold them to developers for a deflated price. The neighborhood was razed to make room for new apartments. In the process, more than a thousand families—99 percent of whom were Black—were forced from their homes

Development began in 1955, on a project known as Longwood. Daniel Kerr, a historian who has written about Longwood, said the methods used for large construction projects in the 1950s might have contributed to making Longwood a hot spot for years to come. Around that time, he said, traditional construction methods were becoming less and less sustainable. Major projects like Longwood followed a new process for building homes on an industrial scale. “[Houses] were all essentially bulldozed,” Kerr said. “All the trees and all the buildings were demolished. . . . They clear-cut a neighborhood and left it essentially bare dirt.”

When Longwood was built out of the old neighborhood’s rubble, planners included few trees. Kerr told me trees weren’t a popular planning trend during the era, which focused on parking and big lawns. When city officials talked about why the “slums” of Cedar Central needed to be demolished, they talked about the neighborhood as “dark” and “shadowy”—which was also code, Kerr says, for Black. To become a healthy neighborhood, according to the logic of the era, the area needed lots of bright sun, and that meant little shade.

Tenants, both Black and white, started moving into Longwood in 1957. But the apartments weren’t meant for the people who had been forced out of the old neighborhood. The units cost two to three times Cuyahoga County’s median rent. White tenants’ first three months of rent were free, while Black families had to pay a deposit, plus the first month’s rent. After rent strikes and wholesale evictions, a new company bought the complex, brought down rent, and abolished special deals for White tenants. But the project never turned a profit. After a few years it was converted into public housing.

In 1987, a Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial referred to Longwood as “Cleveland’s Cabrini Green,” referring to the infamous housing project in Chicago, a comparison which was also racially coded. In the early 2000s, another developer leveled Longwood and built up Arbor Park Village in its place. 

Arbor Park Village is spattered with trees, but they’re still tiny compared to the huge shade trees at Outhwaite, a public housing complex just across the street that was built in the 1930s. On July 18, 2020, it was about 3 degrees Fahrenheit cooler in Outhwaite than in Arbor Park Village. More than 20 percent of the Outhwaite complex has tree canopy coverage, according to the county’s 2017 canopy assessment. For Arbor Park Village, that number is under 5 percent.

At the turn of the millennium, a firm called The Finch Group bought the Longwood Estates complex and rebuilt it from the ground up (they sold it in 2019). A Cleveland firm called City Architecture was hired to design the site. Their vision won a Smart Growth award for best housing development in Northeast Ohio.

August Fluker was the program manager for City Architecture on the project. He said environmental equity was high on the firm’s priority list. “If you look at where we were prior to [the redesign], there were hardly any trees,” Fluker said. “If I recall, it was mostly bunker-type housing and parking lots that were relatively barren.”

Fluker said the design tried to remedy the area’s shortage of greenspace by creating courtyards accessible only to residents, far from cars and dumpsters, where kids could play while their parents watched through apartment windows. The site was also designed to revive the area’s tree canopy. Old-growth trees on the edges of the projects were carefully preserved, and new trees were planted along the streets.

When I called Fluker, he was disappointed to hear that, twenty years later, the site only has 5 percent canopy cover. He told me that speaks to a lack of ongoing attention. No matter how many trees are planted, Fluker said, they’ll never reach full size if they aren’t cared for. Especially in the first few years after they’re put in the ground, they need to be watered and fertilized regularly to become healthy shade trees.

“It all comes down to maintenance,” he said. “I know we planted trees that would generate a generous canopy once mature.”

 

Federal urban renewal funds came with a caveat: the city had to find new homes for all the people displaced by its project. Cleveland came up with a creative solution.

Kingsbury Run, a narrow ravine carved by a polluted stream, had long been considered a blighted place. The steep valley walls made it impossible to develop, and unsavory things happened in its thick woods. In the 1930s, when shantytowns crept up to its lip, Kingsbury Run became infamous as a dumping ground for several of the Torso Murderer’s victims. (Today it serves less as a recreational green space and more as an illegal dumping ground for tires.)

Cleveland hatched a plan to fill in a patch of Kingsbury Run near the edge of the city with useless byproducts of steel manufacturing, then build low-income apartments on top of the slag heap. They dubbed the project Garden Valley.

A mix of public and private housing was built on the site. But the city didn’t stop dumping junk there, even when tenants started moving in. The land right next to the housing development continued to be used as a city landfill. Dump trucks rumbled past the apartments until 3 a.m., every night. A constant cloud of smoke from burning trash hung over the area, and residents complained about rats, mice, and flies from the dump invading their homes. Things came to a head in 1961, when a dump truck ran over a child. 

Garden Valley residents resorted to blockading the landfill, which forced the management company of Garden Valley’s private housing to resign. Cleveland’s mayor, Anthony Celebrezze, told them, ”All people have to sacrifice at times.”

For decades, Garden Valley had a reputation for poor living conditions and violence. Underwood, the Arbor Park Village resident, said he lived in Garden Valley when he was just a few years old. “Garden Valley was bad,” he said, especially during the summer heat, when violence would increase—another common effect of civic disinvestment. He remembers his father got into a lot of fights when they lived there. And it was sweltering in the summer. Back then, Underwood recalls, the units didn’t even have air conditioning.

The same firm that redesigned Longwood Estates also took on the Garden Valley site a decade later. Starting in 2011, the city demolished the public housing at Garden Valley and had it rebuilt and rebranded as Heritage View Homes. The development’s southernmost—and hottest—apartment buildings survived as privately-owned Section 8 Housing and were renamed Rainbow Terrace. In 2001, the city sold Rainbow Terrace to a Connecticut-based company called Vesta.

Heritage View Homes includes a mix of new apartments, townhomes, and single-family homes. The new houses have solar panels to bring down residents’ utility costs. Many were set back from the street so City Architecture wouldn’t have to tear out mature birch trees on the lots. “That was very intentional. [It] was literally to save those trees,” said Alex Pesta, a City Architecture planner who worked on Heritage View Homes. “There’s a sense of permanence, there’s a sense of belonging that comes with old trees.”

But Garden Valley’s trees had been neglected, and they left some residents feeling ambivalent about having trees at all. “Different folks feel differently about trees,” said Pesta. “A lot of the trees that we started with were unhealthy. They weren’t maintained. They had a lot of damage.” Some residents associated trees with blight and neglect, said Juleian Curtis, a city planner with City Architecture. And some thought trees enabled predatory behavior, offering people with ill intentions a place to hide.

While there’s tree coverage for less than 5 percent of Rainbow Terrace, some of the single-family houses at Heritage View Homes now have 63 percent canopy cover. Some stately old trees are scattered over Rainbow Terrace, but most of the outdoor areas are empty fields and parking lots. As a result, in the midday heat on July 18, 2020, the apartment complex was 96 degrees Fahrenheit—about 8 degrees hotter than the single-family homes in Heritage View Homes.

 

Over the past century, racial inequity has become ever more deeply imprinted on the landscape. Public awareness of how redlining shaped modern cities has taken off since the turn of the millennium, and the local effects of climate change have become more and more visible in the past decade. Ten or twenty years isn’t much time to turn around a trend that’s been eighty years in the making.

Cleveland has made gestures toward addressing environmental inequity. In 2015, the city launched the Cleveland Tree Plan, which aimed to stop deforestation in the Forest City and restore the urban tree canopy. “Trees planted over the next several decades should be planned equitably, for areas in most need and in places where they will provide the most benefits and return on investment,” the plan states. The Central neighborhood, which contains Arbor Park Village, is shown in the report as one of the neighborhoods in the greatest need.

But unwinding the environmental impact of decades of racist planning is difficult. Fluker, who sits on the planning commission, was surprised and dismayed to learn that the lion’s share of trees planted by the city have been in Ward 3, which includes downtown and Ohio City, a gentrified neighborhood on the West Side. That ward received 356 new trees, or roughly one per square kilometer, according to data provided by the city. Ward 5, which contains both Arbor Park Village and Heritage View Homes, got less than half as many trees total, or about two-thirds of a tree per square kilometer.

Fluker said there’s talk at City Hall right now about a new tree protection ordinance, but it would likely face the same problem of uneven implementation. He stressed that planting trees isn’t as simple as it seems. To create a healthy shade tree, the city needs to find a species that’s appropriate for the site, that will survive and thrive in Cleveland’s weather, and has a root structure deep enough it won’t damage nearby sidewalks. And if the city plants too many of one type of tree, they’ll be vulnerable to species-specific epidemics, like the fungus that nearly drove American chestnuts extinct in the 1900s.

Before this year, the city’s top priority was replacing trees killed by the emerald ash borer, according to city spokesperson Nancy Kelsey-Carroll. She said the city is currently focusing on parts of the city with the fewest existing trees. But according to the city’s tree inventory, Ward 3 has more than twice as many trees as Ward 5, and about 55 percent more per square kilometer.

If the racism embedded in Cleveland’s landscape is ever to be undone, it’ll take not just lip-service about equity, but actively anti-racist city planning and ongoing commitment. Projects like Longwood and Garden Valley in particular present a conundrum. Apartment complexes built in the 1950s tended to pack lots of people into a single building, which meant big, heat-soaking roofs and no greenspace. That’s hard to change without tearing the whole project down and starting over, like City Architecture did with Arbor Park Village and Heritage Valley Homes.

Demolition has its own environmental costs. In Cleveland, where lead contamination is pervasive, demolitions can send plumes of lead-laden dust into the air unless workers soak the building continuously with a firehose. “I think the replication of, ‘Let’s go clear those buildings and demolish them, and build something new, is kind of the default solution for policy makers,” said Kerr. “You don’t really think through all of the natural resources that went into that home that’s being destroyed.”

Kerr stressed that the communities affected by this kind of geographic racism should get to decide how to work toward a greener, brighter future. And the solutions may need to be tailored to their communities. In some places, that might mean small changes, like putting in more gardens. In others, it might require more dramatic transformations. But whatever those changes are, the work needs to start now. It will take years to see the effects—and to learn what works and what doesn’t, as the ground continues to heat up. 

Pesta, the architect who worked on Heritage View Homes, said he still believes change is possible. “Juleian and I wouldn’t be practicing what we do if we didn’t believe in that,” he said, but added, “It’s going to take probably twice as long to create value in places that were systemically stripped.”