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Historic Oliver

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Urban Cipher: Black Butterfly Game

Back in February, two of our Historic Oliver residents attended the Urban Cipher Game

Workshop, an interactive workshop that was held at Baltimore Unity Hall in Bolton Hill.

Dr. Brown's book, The Black Butterfly...

The event began with libations and beautifully displayed light fare, finger food and community conversations. There was an inviting ambience and a collective buzz among the different changemakers, organizations, and Community Development & urban planning enthusiasts that happened to be in the room.


The interactive workshop, sponsored by Innovation Works, an organization that builds sustainable neighborhood economies in Baltimore, highlighted the work of author and urban Afrofuturist, Dr. Lawrence T. Brown and introduced his educational board game, Urban Cipher. Dr. Brown is the author of The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America, and coined the term “black butterfly” that is often used today when describing the visual patterns and harmful impacts of redlining in Baltimore City. He is also the director of the Black Butterfly Academy, a virtual racial equity platform. Redlining is the act of refusing a loan or insurance to someone because they live in an area deemed to be poor, a particular race or ethnic group and a financial risk.


The Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC), a government sponsored corporation that was established in 1933 under the President Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, assigned grades to neighborhoods in Baltimore City that reflected their "mortgage security" and then produced color-coded maps that reflected the graded areas. The grades were based on various factors that include comps, and the race and class of the residents. There were four grades, A, B, C and D. [Areas that received the grade of "A" were considered to be the "best" areas for investment by banks and mortgage lenders. Areas that received grade "D" were considered to be "hazardous". The term “redlining” comes from the fact that the agency marked areas that were risky for investment in red]. c1. Grade "A" was green, and represented the "best" areas, which were always upper-middle-class white neighborhoods; "B" was blue, representing "still desirable" areas that were nearly or completely White, U.S. born residents; "C" was yellow, and represented "declining" neighborhoods that comprised of residents who were often working-class and/or first or second generation immigrants from Europe; and grade "D" was red, the redlined areas, represented "hazardous", which were were considered "undesirable populations" such as Mexican, Jewish, Asian, and Black populations. c2. View an interactive map that displays this pattern during 1937. If you think of present day, the yellow areas in Map A that were considered to be "declining" at the time, became primarily black communities, except for small pockets and the areas that now form the "white L".

Map A. 1937 Home Owners' Loan Corporation redlining

"These maps were used as a tool to make it difficult or impossible for people in certain areas to access mortgage financing, become homeowners, and build wealth. They have had a long-term effect on the inequalities we still see today." c1.


Marceline White of NCRC writes in her 2020 article, Baltimore: The Black Butterfly "In 1910, the first ordinance on racial zoning was passed; in the 1930s, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City ran two separate and unequal housing programs, one for White families and another for Black families; and following the Great Depression, the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) marked up maps assessing risks of investing in certain neighborhoods, with majority-Black communities considered the riskiest financial investment and marked in red. This began the practice of redlining." c3.


Interactive Map B., below is a map by race, of the 2020 Census Tract that illustrates the "Black Butterfly"/ "White L" population pattern in Baltimore City. c4.

The workshop attendees participated in the interactive game, Urban Cipher, developed and created by Dr. Brown which demonstrates the many harmful and racist practices throughout Baltimore’s urban planning system. The game board reflects the coded colors used by HOLC to define what category these communities fell into and that were used to deny equitable opportunities for those that were poor and people of color. The game comprises of various Baltimore communities throughout various parts of the city and demonstrates the inequities of the experiences of residents living in those respective communities.


LaQuida Chancey of Smalltimore Homes, looking on as she plays the Urban Cipher game.

It was a surprise to see that Historic Oliver made it on the board, as part of the game. The object of the game is to make it around the board as many times as you can, but the game illustrates how redlining practices prevented some communities from making it around the board even once. The game board illustrates what "grade" Historic Oliver may have been given on the map and the color-code it may have been assigned circa 1937.

Urban Cipher Boardgame

During the interactive workshop, there were images displayed along the perimeter of the room which consisted of historical news prints, supporting documents & the cultural receipts needed to make the case that demonstrated consistent harm over time.


There was also a panel discussion led by Jay Nwachu, President and CEO of Innovation Works & Ignite Capital.The panel consisted of Dr. Lawrence Brown, LaQuida Chancey of Smalltimore Homes, Lamontre Randall of BeMore Environmental, and Mary Ann Scully of Ignite Capital.

Dr. Brown holding up a map demonstrating the "butterfly" shape and the effects of redlining in Baltimore

Urban Apartheid on display at the Urban Cipher Workshop
Lucky attendees who took home a copy of the Urban Cipher game. Dr. Lawrence T. Brown (center).

Articles on display at the workshop demonstrating the use of systemic predatory practices

Give us your thoughts on what impacts redlining has had on Baltimore communities, Historic Oliver, or Baltimore as a whole, that can be seen to this day.


LaQuida Chancey and Celena Owens co-wrote this article. LaQuida is the Executive Director and founder of Smalltimore Homes, Celena is founder of Baltimore Makers Collective.


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