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Exhibit on housing segregation in Hampton Roads aims to bring academics to the masses

Photo by Ryan Murphy. 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 by Ryan Murphy. 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.

When you walk into the room off the main entry hall of the Viriginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach, the first thing you notice is the massive floor map of Hampton Roads.

It covers nearly the whole room - nearly 700 square feet.

The aerial photography is so detailed you can kneel down and pick out your house.

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"And then when you look up on the walls, we use maps, historical documents, photographs and text to kind of tell the story of the history of segregationist housing policies and then their impacts in the present day."

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

As you make your way around the room, you're first faced 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 recieived. 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.

At the exhibit, you can peruse recreations of the forms filled out by the government surveyors describing each neighborhood. But be prepared for openly racist descriptions of Black residents and their neighborhoods.

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

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

But the history isn't history.

The story of the whole exhibition is that we're living in a world created by these decisions to this day. Norfolk, for instance, is as racially segregated today as it was during the Jim Crow era.

As you move around the room, the maps on the wall start to show the downstream effects of the federal ratings.

One map shows formerly redlined neighborhoods have more concentrated poverty. Another shows summertime heat is several degrees higher in the redlined neighborhoods. The pattern emerges pretty quickly, and by the time you're looking at life expectancies or asthma rates by neighborhood, you know exactly where to look to find the worse outcomes.

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

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 can kind of better understand and grapple with the way that our community has been built in pretty profoundly unequal ways (and) to see if we can kind of think through how we can move forward and create a more socially and environmentally just future."

Finn will give a talk on the “Living Apart” project Thursday, Dec. 1, at the MOCA starting at 6:30. The exhibit runs at the MOCA through Feb. 5th.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

The world changes fast.

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