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Exhibit highlights housing segregation in Hampton Roads

A person stands in a museum exhibit with projected maps
Christopher Newport University professor Johnny Finn stands amid the exhibition of his work on the lingering effects of residential segregation at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach. (Photo: Ryan Murphy/WHRO)

The first room off the main entry hall of the  Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach is covered by a massive floor map of Hampton Roads.

It covers nearly the whole room — about 700 square feet.

The aerial photography is so detailed individual houses can be picked out.

That’s where Johnny Finn, a geography professor from Christopher Newport University, wants you to start.

"And then when you look up on the walls, we use maps, historical documents, photographs and text to kind of tell the story of the history of segregationist housing policies and then their impacts in the present day," Finn said.

The exhibition, titled "Living Apart: Geography of Segregation in the 21st Century," is a culmination of  five years of Finn's work.

Along the walls, the exhibition begins with a slate of old maps that originate in the 1930s.

During the Great Depression, the U.S. government dispatched surveyors across the country to rate neighborhoods. The aim was to tell banks which were safe investments for home loans and which weren't.

Race played an outsized role in determining the ratings each neighborhood received. Minority neighborhoods virtually always got lower designations, marked on the maps in red.

Every Black neighborhood in Hampton Roads was shaded red. The process is now widely known as redlining.

The exhibit contains re-creations of the forms filled out by government surveyors describing each neighborhood, including openly racist descriptions of Black residents and their neighborhoods.

The description of the Norfolk neighborhood Atlantic City — which no longer exists — describes it as a community that includes low quality housing " occupied by a poor class of [Black citizens]." Atlantic City was among those that were redlined.

Those low ratings translated to less investment in those communities, the effects of which have compounded over the last eight decades.

But the history isn't history.

The story of the whole exhibition is these decisions created today’s Hampton Roads. Norfolk, for instance,  is as racially segregated today as it was during the Jim Crow era.

Farther along the wall, maps show the downstream effects of those federal ratings.

One map shows formerly redlined neighborhoods have more concentrated poverty. Another shows summertime heat is several degrees higher in redlined neighborhoods. The pattern emerges pretty quickly, and the same neighborhoods stand out on maps of life expectancies or asthma rates.

"What we're looking at is the cumulative impact in the present day of a century of discriminatory and racist housing policies and practices," Finn said, "and how they accumulate and create and continue to reproduce inequality."

Too often, this kind of work just bounces around the academic sphere, Finn said. He hopes the exhibition exposes the information to people outside the university bubble.

"What I'm really interested in this project is engaging a much wider audience so that we can better we as a society understand and grapple with the way that our community has been built in pretty profoundly unequal ways," Finn said. "[And] to see if we can kind of think through how we can move forward and create a more socially and environmentally just future."

The exhibit runs at the Virginia MOCA through Feb. 5.

Read the original story on WHRO's website.

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