A reckoning in Palm Springs decades after a ‘city-engineered holocaust’
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, April 24.
After decades in the shadows of history, the city of Palm Springs’ role in the organized dismantling of the multiethnic, low-income community known as Section 14 has received considerable desert sunlight in recent years.
Now, the families who lived on the land and their descendants are moving forward in their quest for racial justice.
The Palm Springs City Council is set to vote this week on a plan to hire a reparations consulting group to research the history of the Section 14 evictions, vet claims from affected families and develop a plan for compensation. That follows a reparations claim filed late last year seeking more than $2 billion from the city.
My colleague Gale Holland, who covers homelessness and addiction for The Times, spoke with some of those involved in the claim and recently reported on the history of the Section 14 clearing, in which the homes of Latino, Black and other families were bulldozed or burned in what a 1968 state investigation called a “city-engineered holocaust.”
The razing of a multiethnic community may strike some as a relic of a time when Black, Latino and Asian people throughout California and the nation faced systematic housing discrimination. But the displaced Palm Springs families say the racism that drove the burnouts lingers…
The reason so many nonwhite families lived in the square-mile parcel known as Section 14 is squarely rooted in racism: it was one of the few places nonwhite residents were allowed to live as segregation thrived in the desert community.
The land belonged to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, but held in trust by the federal government. The arrangement barred tribal members from leasing parcels for more than five years.
That provided an opportunity for thousands of Latino, Black, Indigenous, Filipino and white working-class families to rent small plots. The community grew, as families put up shacks, concrete-block houses, churches, a cafe and more.
In the late ‘50s, the federal government loosened the lease restrictions, and soon big developers came calling. But it wasn’t tribal members who answered. That’s because Congress deemed the tribal landowners incompetent to manage their own business dealings. Instead, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Superior Court in Indio “dipped into the good ol’ boy network to name conservators and guardians, ostensibly to prevent tribal members from being fleeced,” Gale explained.
Among those appointees: the chief of police, real estate agents, a moonlighting judge and the mayor of Palm Springs; hardly neutral parties in the development of the desert community.
Through the 1950s and ‘60s, officials enacted “slum clearance,” Gale writes, and “ran Black families … as well as Latinos out of prime downtown land, without proper notice or relocation aid, and burned down their homes to clear a path for hotels and shops.”
One descendant of Section 14 residents told Gale that land conservators “colluded” with the city by sending people to knock on doors during weekdays when many residents would be at work or school. If no one answered, bulldozers and firefighters arrived to knock down and burn down homes.
“It got to the point when you saw smoke, you were pretty well freaked out because you didn’t know if it was your house or one of your neighbors’ houses,” former Section 14 resident Joe Abner told Gale. “They were tearing houses down right in front of your face.”
Many families driven out by the burnouts struggled to find housing in Palm Springs, which continued racist deed and lending practices, and moved elsewhere.
Some residents and supporters of city officials of that era push back on the narrative from the affected families, arguing that substandard conditions on the land made evictions necessary.
Areva Martin, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the reparations claim, argued that conditions were bad because the city refused to provide services for the people living there.
The claimants, known as the Palm Springs Section 14 Survivors, say the exodus of as many as 2,000 families out of Palm Springs robbed residents of political power and generational wealth.
The city formally apologized in 2021, with then-Mayor Christy Holstege saying:
“[Those actions] were wrong then, they are wrong now, they created devastation in our community and different outcomes for the Black community and Latino community that still exist today, and segregation that still exists today.”
Should the city reach a settlement, Martin said the money could go toward cash payments, college funds, infrastructure improvements, a Section 14 memorial park and a Section 14 Day, among other things.
“As for the former Section 14 residents, reparations might make amends — officially,” Gale writes, “but they can’t erase the trauma.”