Platting Race and Space

“Plat” is an esoteric/government word for an official map showing a subdivision of land and the history of that land. Plats show a picture of the property, the shape of proposed lots, and a title block listing the previous names and configurations of that particular place. They have been used in the buying and selling of land in the United States since colonial America.

A plat is about identifying the relationship between a set of physical markers and showing the bearing and distance between them. Early Spanish conquistadors would establish the corners of a piece of property, sometimes with a pile of stones or a tree, and then pace the distances between them, marking them in vara, a unit based on the length of a Spaniard’s stride. Today the process is the same, except the people who create plats are surveyors, and the markers are metal pins driven into the ground. Every city has a platting department and plats are processed daily, sometimes for small homeowners looking to sell a lot, but more often by large land development groups who are seeking to aggregate disparate tracts of land in one large saleble entity. Their job—their calling—is to take land and program into something else. Presumably, something better.


Above: A street block in San Francisco platted in 1925 and made up of six (2 X 3) 50 vara plots.

At its core, platting is a futuristic and optimistic activity. People plat land with a dream to make it into something else. Land developers look for opportunity—a family owned ranch that used to be in the country but is now very close to the outskirts of a major city, a former industrial site or floodplain area, or a low income neighborhood with high vacancy rates. These all represent places that are ripe for turnover, for turning into something else–an apartment, a store, a hotel, a rodeo, a set of a dozen fine houses. For the same reason, platting is an inexorably predatory, colonial process; it involves physically marking out space to claim its ownership, and replicating documentation of this ownership through time and paper and bytes and bits. If a plat is defining whose space this is, it is also negating the opportunity for that space to be shared. Its absolute boundaries echo an deep cultural obsession with the inviolate nature of property rights. It is a form of taking through marking.

Many residential subdivisions in the United States bear evidence of this tension between the civilized planning of sanitized futures and the hostage taking of previously unrecorded dirt. The neighborhood of Rivercrest, a subdivision sitting in the oxbow of the Trinity River in Fort Worth, Texas, was platted in 1911. Like most residential subdivisions, this area had, in its deeds and restrictions, a set of expectations for future owners of the property, a set of rules governing how the land was to be used and what these spaces would look like. The covenants and restrictions mandate, for example, 25 foot setbacks from major roads, to create space for a front lawn and improve visibility. It also carefully delineates utility zones where future services will be provided. It identifies the directions houses will face and how tall they will be. The goal of these restrictions is to maintain the quality of the land and ensure that future residents, perhaps 100 years later, would experience only the best urban design.

The subdivision developers also attempt to regulate the qualities of their residents. Section I of Rivercrest’s covenants and restrictions reads as follows: “For the protection and for the benefit only of the present and all future owners…. the said Company hereby reserves unto itself, and all future owners of said blocks, the following rights: 1. That no sale or lease shall be made by, or any future owner or any of said blocks last above enumerated, or any part of either of them, to any negro of negroes, or to any person or persons of African decent [descent?], provided that this provision shall not prevent the use of appropriate portions of said property for servants quarters n the employ of the owners or lesses of any part of said property.”

racial covenant

Above: Covenants and restrictions for the Rivercrest subdivision.

This language is not unusual; racial covenants persisted in private land deeds until they were ruled unconstitutional in 1948. While racial zoning by cities was struck down by the Supreme Court as early as 1917, the impetus to create racially exclusive neighborhoods was still acceptable, so long as these restrictions were between private property owners and not public entities. Macabre documents like the river crest covenant show how deeply plans for long-term land futures were framed by racial identity and exclusion. When designing the perfect subdivision from scratch in a previously undeveloped tract of land, developers and planners could have requested any number of reasonable or odd restrictions on all future sales, such as tree protection or access to the water. They chose, in addition to these design and use limitations, to firmly limit the ability for black people to own land (although they envisioned many scenarios in which dependent black servants would need temporary housing to serve white residential masters).


Above: The current neighborhood of Rivercrest, which is experiencing a spike in redevelopment activity as single family lots are converted into townhomes and mixed use developments.

To reiterate: Rivercrest encouraged the exclusion of black people, but it more specifically excluded the presence of  black ownership, and black investment. The desire to thwart black wealth accumulation is built into the story of the land, a story preserved in municipal documents and private deeds, and is framed as part of the vision of this society in the future.  Those timelines are long. The original planners imagined a neighborhood gently used in perpetuity. Today still, plats and land development plans have 5, 10, 20 year buildouts, and the futurist developers carefully envision the communities they construct well beyond a few decades. So we have to ask—given our present problems with race-based displacement and our ongoing appetite for the projections of new futures, how do we best purge the colonial imagination from our spatial plans? While racial covenants are no longer enforceable (although they remain on the books in nearly all states) the logic behind them persists. Are current planners designing future enclaves that inscribe homogeneity into the land through private ownership clauses and use restrictions? Are we absolutely certain that the grand dreamers of our own time aren’t dreaming of a future society that still hinges on inequalities in the present one?

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