Monday, June 23, 2014

The Persistent Problem of Housing Discrimination

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In a recent issue of The Atlantic. Ta-Nehisi Coates presented “The Case for Reparations.”  Coates argued in favor of monetary reparations for historical injustices committed against African-Americans.  While he touched briefly on things like slavery and Jim Crow, his primary focus was on 20th century housing discrimination in big cities like Chicago.  You don’t have to go too far afield, however, to find a history of housing discrimination.

In the decades after the Civil War, hundreds of newly freed Blacks came to Elmira and settled on the Eastside in an area known as Slabtown.  (There was also a handful who settled on the Southside).  Slabtown was a decidedly working-class neighborhood filled with shoddily-constructed homes and tenements.  The neighborhood was bounded by the Lackawanna Railroad on the north, East Clinton Street in the south, Lake Street on the east and State Street on the west.  Initially, the inhabitants of Slabtown were a mix of African-Americans and poor immigrant from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe, but whites abandoned the area as their finances improved.  Blacks, meanwhile, were often prevented from buying or renting homes outside of the area.  There they built a community with organizations, churches and businesses owned by and catering to African-Americans. 

Map of Elmira's eastside
Dickinson St., 1880s
During and immediately after World War II, Elmira was flooded with people looking to work in the city’s many factories.  This created a serious housing shortage.  In order to alleviate the difficulties, the city built Hoffman Plaza (1941) in the west, Hathorn Court (1943) in the north and Jones Court (1953) on the eastside.  Jones Court was initially authorized in 1942, but construction did not begin until 1950 and it was not occupied until 1953.  While Hathorn Court was built on sparsely inhabited land across from Woodlawn Cemetery, Jones Court was built right in the heart of the city’s African-American community.  In order to build it, the city seized and demolished homes, businesses and one of the city’s oldest black church.  The African-American community was both literally and figuratively gutted by the project. 

Construction of Jones Court, 1951

Throughout the 1950s, preference in housing at Hoffman Plaza and Hathorn Court was given to white veterans.  Blacks, meanwhile, could only live at Jones Court.  Because there were only 86 apartments at Jones Court (verses the 250 at Hathorn Court), this meant that there was often a long backlog of Blacks looking for affordable public housing.   In 1960, Elmira’s African-American community waged a successful campaign to open up the city’s public housing units to people of all races.  It was still a few years before any Blacks actually moved in.

Jones Court, 2014

Today, there are laws against that sort of explicit discrimination in public housing.  Still, the problem of discrimination in the private home-buying and rental markets persist nationwide.  African-Americans are also often caught between so-called respectable banks which regularly deny mortgages to minorities and the predatory practices of sub-prime lenders.   In Elmira, Jones Court is an empty, deselect eyesore.   Do we owe the victims of housing discrimination restitution?  Maybe, but, first and foremost, we owe it to them to fix our broken system.


  1. A compelling case, I would say. Thank you.

  2. its almost heart breaking to hear that even in today's culture and societies we still have a lot of discrimination not only here in Chemung County but all over America.

  3. John W. Jones Court emerged in the planning stages as one of the Elmira Housing Authority's first two projects in 1942--a product of WWII defense housing needs and requirements of the Housing Act of 1937. Even in the North, all public housing had been segregated by race and community since its inception during the Great Depression. The architectural fabric of "Slabtown" declined greatly during these lean years--and was declared by the City to be a slum.

    A prohibition during the War on the use of civilian material and manpower for slum clearance put off reconsideration of the Jones Court project until 1947. When taken back up by the authority, it became more of a battle between economic values of property, and solving the "negro housing" problem and requirements under the Housing Act of 1947.

    At the tail of it all, the City began demolition of the central core of Slabtown--and erasure of the cultural core of the Elmira African-American community. This is an oft repeated story in urban areas of America during the 1950s--all accomplished under the rubric of "urban renewal."

    Public policy can be a dangerous game of social chess. In this instance and elsewhere, projects such as Jones Court significantly impacted and diminished the logic of Booker T. Washington's social integration philosophy, and by removing black enterprise and community set in motion a long and notorious impediment for social progress in those "renewed" communities.

  4. Great article and thank you, Patrick, for the added commentary.

  5. Hello, maybe you can help me. In 1968 there was a fire on September 22. Bond paper and Fickenger Fire. Thank you.

    1. Hi Barbara,

      You should reach out to our archivist Rachel (the author of this piece) at 607-734-4167 ext. 207 or She can see if we have any materials about that in our collection.