Santa Monica aims to bring home families it once displaced

The city of Santa Monica used a significant area two generations ago to evict thousands of families from their homes to make way for the Interstate 10 freeway and the city’s Civic Auditorium. Both “urban renewal” projects targeted black, Hispanic and low-income neighborhoods.

Now, more than half a century after the government took action to evict the families, city leaders are acknowledging the historical injustice and are trying yet another government action to welcome some of them back.

A pilot program launched this month will give up to 100 families who lost their homes — or their descendants — in the 1950s or 1960s priority access to the city’s scarce supply of affordable rental housing.

Santa Monica’s attempt at public penance comes amid a state-level effort to investigate and recommend reparations for black Californians harmed by systemic racism. A September 2020 bill created a task force on the issue, which has been meeting regularly since June.

Vernon Brunson is featured in a Public History Panel at Historic Belmar Park. Brunson’s parents came to Santa Monica in 1905. In the 1960s, his semi-detached house in the Pico neighborhood was leveled to build the Interstate 10 freeway. Now his daughter, Nichelle Monroe, is applying for Santa Monica’s priority housing program. Photo by Aaron closet.

Nichelle Monroe grew up in Santa Monica hearing the stories of how her grandfather Vernon Brunson’s semi-detached house was taken away in the 1960s when the freeway split his Pico neighborhood in two. Monroe’s great-grandparents, Selena and Charles Brunson, were among the first African Americans to live in Santa Monica in 1905. Her grandfather, Vernon, was an architect, and Monroe notices his craft around town.

“I remember my grandfather saying he didn’t get anywhere near the value of the property,” says Monroe. “The accommodation was new, modern. It was like, ‘We got a little piece, you know?’ And then the government says, ‘No, no, you don’t, black people.’”

The Interstate 10 freeway to Santa Monica opened to traffic on January 5, 1966. Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

Unlike many other displaced families, Monroe’s grandparents were able to stay in town when the freeway divided the Pico neighborhood. They moved to another estate they owned nearby, which became a center of family activity for decades to come.

“All my fondest childhood memories were of Santa Monica. We went to my grandparents’ house and spent weeks terrorizing them and had the best clay court times of our lives,” says Monroe. “I love Santa Monica, I love my beach.”

Today, Monroe lives in Alhambra but regularly commutes to Santa Monica for her job at Santa Monica College and to attend the Calvary Baptist, the historic black church where she grew up. Though her grandparents lost their home before she was born, she says she feels the financial and psychological impact every day. “You feel like you don’t own anything,” says Monroe. “As long as there’s a system in place to make sure you have less, they can always change the rules for some stupid reason. It doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to be fair. It’s easy.”

On July 1, 1953, city sanitation workers burned down a run-down house on Belmar Place between Main and Third Streets north of Pico. Santa Monica city planners sent photos like this to local newspapers to rally support for the demolition of the Belmar Triangle. Photo by Clyde V. Fitzgerald. Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Picture Library.

The erased history of families like Monroe’s who once lived in Pico, the Belmar Triangle and other parts of Santa Monica will be commemorated in a public history exhibit on permanent display at the city’s new multipurpose athletic field, where the Quarter Belmar stood.

Located in historic Belmar Park, the exhibit includes a sculpture by artist April Banks entitled A Resurrection in Four Stanzas, which evokes the narrow rectangular “shotgun houses” that once lined nearby streets. Many were burned down or bulldozed in the 1950s. Photo by Aaron closet.

“If this had remained an area where there were African Americans owning property and developing businesses, this could be a very different area,” says Alison Rose Jefferson, the local historian who designed and first championed the exhibit. “It might not look quite white like it does now. “

Today, only 5% of Santa Monica’s population is black. The city’s black population has grown steadily over the first half of the last century, more than doubling between 1950 and 1960. Then she leveled off. In fact, according to census data, fewer black families live in Santa Monica today than in 1960, even though the population has been growing.

According to Jefferson, Belmar was a center of black-owned establishments such as Caldwell’s Dance Hall and La Bonita Bathhouse.

Those companies are all gone now, but Jefferson helped preserve their stories in 15 information plaques surrounding a sports field the city named Historic Belmar Park.

Historian and author Alison Rose Jefferson stands in Santa Monica’s historic Belmar Park next to one of the plaques she designed to commemorate the neighborhood’s erased black history. Photo by Aaron closet.

Most black families who lived here had few options when they were evicted, Jefferson says.

“Many of the homeowners who were evicted were unable to buy real estate in Santa Monica,” says Jefferson. “It was discrimination from the white brokers and from the people who lived in the neighborhood, so many of these people that they moved.”

“And I’m excited about the idea that in the next few years some families who have been displaced from our city will be welcomed back,” said Kevin McKeown, former mayor of Santa Monica. McKeown first proposed the city’s housing pilot project for displaced households.

The pilot moves these displaced households to the front of a long line for Santa Monica’s below-market housing program. This program matches people based on their income with real estate vacancies that are asking affordable prices due to deed restrictions.

McKeown says it’s a small step toward justice, but hopefully one of many.

“As much as this is an act of restorative justice, it falls short of what has happened in our country for centuries,” says McKeown. “This is a good first step, but I hope no one thinks this is the end of what we need to do in Santa Monica or in the country.”

Since the 2020 killing of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, local governments have come under increased pressure to reckon with historic injustice. In nearby Manhattan Beach, the state recently agreed to return a piece of land called Bruce’s Beach to descendants of the Black family, from whom they stole it a century earlier.

The Santa Monica program does not offer returns of lost property. It simply offers a chance at affordable housing.

Nichelle Monroe, whose grandparents’ home was taken, applied but says the program won’t make up for what she’s lost.

“We’re supposed to be thankful that we might be put on a list for paying too much rent?” says Monroe. “Rent — for stolen property. “We stole your property, we gave you two cents for it. Here, just rent this property. Give away your money, your hard-earned money.’ What is that? What should I think of that?”

Jeremy Divinity’s great-grandfather lost his home in the Pico neighborhood to highway construction in 1959 and moved to Pacoima. Divinity says the construction pilot sounds good, but he agrees with Monroe. It doesn’t really restore anything that was stolen from his family.

“Real justice is really money worth of this property that we lost in 1959,” says Divinity. “It’s like it’s just lost generational value, lost generational wealth, lost generational opportunity.”

Divinity says one of his family members filled out an application for the program, only to find they earned too much income to qualify.

The city isn’t sure how many beneficiaries are out there, but they’re only promising to help 100. Displaced residents of the Pico neighborhood or Belmar Triangle have until February 22 to apply. Applicants are tasked with locating deeds or other documents to prove their displacement, which can be challenging.

If more than 100 historically displaced households enroll, they will all be entered into a lottery system, and some applicants will get nothing.

“It sums up Santa Monica, doesn’t it?” Divinity says. “Where it’s this liberal bastion of hope and ideals and diversity, but … it’s a face show in a sense. It’s very performative. It doesn’t depend on the actual problem of repression.”

Nichelle Monroe says if leaders in Santa Monica or anywhere else in the country really want to talk about reparations, they should start by asking themselves a question.

“If you and your family were here, what would you like to have done?” Monroe says. “What would you like to see? And be honest with yourself. What would you want in return? You would want fair market value, you would want to get back what was taken. And I want nothing less than that.”

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