Nichelle Monroe’s ties to Santa Monica are deep.
Your great-uncle is believed to have been the first black baby to be born there more than a century ago. Apartments and other buildings in the beach town were designed by her architect grandfather Vernon Brunson.
Monroe recalls when her grandparents drove her past the intersection of 20th Street and Michigan Avenue and pointed out an alley where their maisonette once stood.
This is where the 10 freeway looms today, which cuts through the Pico neighborhood of Santa Monica as it was built to extend to the Pacific Ocean. Monroe’s grandparents lost their homes along with about 600 other mostly black families.
More than half a century later, Santa Monica is offering some of them a chance to return. Starting in January, the city will offer affordable housing to those displaced by the construction of highways and those removed in the late 1950s when the city bulldozed yet another black neighborhood, the Belmar Triangle, around the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Children and grandchildren of people who have lost their homes are also eligible.
Santa Monica’s act of civic penance is an attempt to recognize the damage inflicted on mostly black communities during the era of highway construction and urban renewal after World War II.
The program is part of a nationwide movement to compensate residents for racial damage related to home and property. Efforts have picked up pace after the assassination of George Floyd in the spring of 2020.
In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed law allowing the return of land on the coast known as Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of a black couple evicted from Manhattan Beach nearly a century ago.
Earlier this year, Evanston, Illinois became the first city in the country to introduce an explicit redemption program that provides money for down payments or home repairs to black residents who faced discrimination during much of the 20th century or their descendants.
For Monroe, the construction of the motorway left a family wound that has never fully healed.
“If you had something and lost it to some major domain or to racism, think about it and it affects your every move after it,” said Monroe, who lives in a one-bedroom duplex in the Alhambra. “It’s almost like PTSD. It influences how you think about yourself in society, what you think is possible in this society. “
In the first two decades of motorway construction alone, more than 1 million people across the country lost their homes. Early on, highway planners aimed to destroy many black neighborhoods, and displaced families often received little compensation.
Residents of the Pico neighborhood of Santa Monica watch the construction of the 10 Freeway in 1964. Approximately 600 families in the predominantly black community lost their homes when the freeway was built.
(Santa Monica History Museum)
The legacy of those choices remains in tourist-friendly Santa Monica. Fewer black people live in the city today than in 1960, before the motorway was built. Those who are pushed out say that people they meet often are surprised to hear that Santa Monica used to have a robust black community.
The city program will initially be open to 100 displaced families or their descendants with limited incomes and give them priority access to apartments with below-market rents. But the city guides hope their efforts will become a national model to address the racist policies of the past.
“We will be able to redress a historical injustice,” said Santa Monica Councilor Kristin McCowan. “At some point we’ll do that for more and more people. And when other communities start doing their part, you may see a real tidal wave across the country. “
Santa Monica officials say they understand the program cannot make up for what was taken.
Tenants got nothing when they were forced out; only their landlords did. Homeowners lost the opportunity to earn generational wealth by owning real estate near the Southern California coast.
In front of Freeway 10, many children in the Pico neighborhood went to school together and gathered their friends along the way. At night, her parents grabbed hamburgers in a drive-in theater and played Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Otis in the jukebox. After that, they danced in the Marimba nightclub on Olympic Boulevard.
Most Mexican-American and black working-class families lived as neighbors in cottages, Spanish-style bungalows, and apartment complexes. Many black residents came to Pico from the deep south to escape brutal racial segregation.
“That was our little church,” said Evelyn Whitaker, who was in high school when the freeway took both her mother and grandmother’s home. “It was only great because we did great. With our friends and family and the people we loved. “
When the 10 freeway to the ocean was upgraded, Santa Monica Citizens’ Groups pushed for their city to be their terminus, believing the promotion of the Santa Monica Freeway would be a blessing.
But business interests wanted to protect nearby commercial and industrialized land, so the planners cut through Pico – a decision they based on the lower property value, a fact that was fueled by government-backed mortgage redlining policy, investing in areas deterred with large poor or non-white populations.
“It’s not like they say, ‘We all hunt black people. We all hunt down low-income people, “said Alison Rose Jefferson, a Getty Conservation Institute scholar who wrote a story of the black experience in Santa Monica. “But it tells you they don’t value these people.”
Some Pico residents faced bulldozers. The NAACP advocated an alternative that would not crowd out so many black families.
A survey of homeowners along the then freeway route found that the average family had lived on their property for more than 17 years. And because families got little for their homes, Santa Monica found it hard to buy anywhere else.
Fair housing activists went door-to-door in 1966, interviewing property managers in white neighborhoods to see if they would rent to black residents. Only one in 27 said they would. When a black family tried to integrate a white community a few years earlier, two Molotov cocktails were thrown on their porch.
Whitaker’s mother eventually bought a house in South Los Angeles and joined many black families there.
“We moved where my mother’s money could get her,” said Whitaker.
Whitaker owns a house in Baldwin Hills and will not be returning to Santa Monica under the new residential program. But she often ponders how much of a difference it would have made to her family to own land in the wealthy city.
“I think of my mother’s property there, what it could have been worth at the time, and all the options there are in Santa Monica,” said Whitaker. “The chances weren’t there for blacks. What hurts me the most is when I think about it, if everyone started with a level playing field, how wonderful that would be. “
The Santa Monica program is similar to that in Portland, Oregon, which began six years ago, and features affordable housing programs for families and descendants forced out of a historically blackened neighborhood by the construction of Interstate 5 and urban renewal the city.
Through redlining, exclusionary zoning, racially restrictive agreements, and evictions through highways and new developments, almost every urban area in the country prevented black families from accessing the same riches and opportunities that were available to white residents and their children, said Sheryll Cashin, law professor from Georgetown University and author of “White Space, Black ‘Hood: Opportunity Horarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality”.
Given that story, Santa Monica’s efforts make sense, she said.
“It’s an example of what needs to happen when a city honestly looks at its past to understand that much of the dramatic inequality in the present is racial,” said Cashin.
Discussions about the housing program began in 2019 when Santa Monica officials decided how to commemorate the city’s historic black communities during the construction of a sports field in the former Belmar Triangle. A footpath around the field now shows photos of Santa Monica’s early black families and signs describing how the highway and urban renewal projects were devastating neighborhoods.
Ultimately, the city council decided to give discarded families on the waiting list for low-income housing preferential treatment.
To qualify, residents must provide evidence that they or their families have been evicted and meet the income requirements. In general, they don’t make more than $ 66,250 for a single person or $ 94,600 for a family of four. You’d get homes that are now limited to rents from $ 1,891 per month for a one-bedroom to $ 2,896 for a four-bedroom – amounts well below what you could find on the open market.
But as a sign of how difficult it is to find affordable housing, the current waiting list extends to more than 6,000 families. Low-income households living in Santa Monica who are evicted if their rent-controlled homes are demolished or other measures lead to immediate evictions have the first opportunity to obtain housing.
Even so, city officials are confident the program will offer homes to dozens of families displaced by the construction of Freeway 10 or the Civic Auditorium.
Monroe could be one of them.
When the freeway took their grandparents’ maisonette, they moved to another piece of property in Santa Monica that they owned.
On this land, Monroe’s grandfather designed a two-story house with five apartments in the back. For years the family centered their lives there, and it remained Monroe’s vacation and summer base even after she and her parents moved to Mississippi at the age of 10.
Photos of Nichelle Monroe’s family members can be seen on posters in a park dedicated to Santa Monica’s first black residents at the turn of the century.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Monroe returned to attend Santa Monica College, where she now works, and lived in one of her grandparents’ apartments. But 15 years ago, after her grandparents died, a relative sold the property and Monroe’s physical connection to Santa Monica was severed, though the emotional connection never faded.
“Everywhere I’ve been,” said Monroe, “there is no place like my beloved Santa Monica.”
Monroe said she had mixed feelings about the new housing program and the city’s other recent efforts to recognize black history. Monroe believes the city should make it easier for her family to actually buy a house in the community.
She is proud of the photos of her grandparents and great-grandparents that can be seen on the new Belmar triangle hiking trail.
“But what else is there?” said Monroe. “The theft is still there. The generational wealth is still gone. “