‘Disregarded as human beings’: survivors of Palm Springs demolition demand justice 60 years on

‘Disregarded as human beings’: survivors of Palm Springs demolition demand justice 60 years on

Sonya Singh Sun 15 Jan 2023 11.00 GMT

Alvin Taylor in front of the Section 14 lot of land where his childhood home used to be in Palm Springs, California. Photograph: Taya Gray/The Desert Sun/USA TODAY NETWORK

Palm Springs had razed Section 14, a Black and Latino community, to make way for commercial development

Six decades ago, hundreds of people in Palm Springs, California, came home to ashes. Their houses had burned, sometimes with their belongings inside – no time to evacuate or no place to go. It wasn’t the work of California’s notorious wildfires, but of the city itself, which razed the Black and Latino community known as Section 14 to make way for commercial development.

Now, survivors are organizing to demand justice. While Palm Springs – a desert resort town about 100 miles east of Los Angeles – issued a formal apology in September 2021, little has happened since. To help spur action, survivors filed a new amended reparation claim with the city at the end of November, which details alleged legal violations and offers a preliminary harm assessment. According to a damage estimate by Julianne Malveaux, an economist and dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, families lost between $400m and $2bn in today’s dollars.

“I’m a grown man with tears in my eyes and my heart,” said Alvin Taylor, 69, a member of the survivor group. He was about 10 years old when his family lost their home in the 1960s. His father, a carpenter, had built the house by hand. His mother worked as a maid for stars such as Lucille Ball. Together, they saved enough money for the building materials after the bank denied them a loan.

“We were treated like animals and literally disregarded as human beings,” he said. “And to relive, in my mind, coming home from school to see neighbors’ homes being burned and bulldozed to the ground … I mean, this was really a terrible and horrifying memory that’s indelibly etched in my mind.”

The city is accepting proposals through 26 January for an outside consultant who will develop a reparations program. A firm will be selected later this month, according to the request. As it collects bids, Areva Martin, the lead attorney representing the survivor group, said she is planning to hold meetings starting in February to provide information and to engage with community leaders, faith leaders, elected officials and others who have stories to share about Section 14. She hopes to take what they’ve learned to the city to work together on solutions informed by those affected.

Survivors on a walk through of Section 14 in October 2022 stop to pray. Areva, in black, is the lead attorney representing the survivor group. Photograph: shot by Robin Marshall and courtesy of Areva Martin

Lisa Middleton, mayor of Palm Springs, said in a statement in November: “The city of Palm Springs is deeply sorry about the action taken toward those affected by the Section 14 displacement in the 1950s and 60s. Over the past two years, the city council and staff have set out on a course aimed at making right what happened during that period. While this process may seem to be taking longer than some might like, the city has an obligation, not only to those who were displaced, but also to its residents, businesses and taxpayers, to thoroughly investigate the history as it develops remedial programs that are fair to everyone.”

This is the second claim the survivors have filed against the city; a previous one was filed in April. The amended claim is not a lawsuit, but it puts the city on notice, Martin said, by showing causes of action and factual support that could form the basis of a suit.

But no monetary figure can ever encapsulate all that was lost.

“They didn’t care about our generational wealth and about the kids growing up,” Taylor said. “Our boys club was taken from us. Our churches were taken from us. Just a mess. We lost everything.”

Over the years, Taylor hadn’t stopped to process that loss – not really. Recruited as Little Richard’s touring drummer at 14 years old, he catapulted into a career built on keeping time, leaving little to look back.

He’d find himself sitting behind the kit for Elton John, recording in a neo-Gothic mansion with George Harrison, drumming with Billy Preston on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live and dozens more. Taylor reflected on all of it in 2018, when he was set to receive a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. From now on, 24 February would be known as Alvin Taylor Day. As then Mayor Robert Moon walked to the podium, he stopped to greet the musician. Tears rolled down the mayor’s face.

“What is he crying for?” Taylor thought. “Is he that happy that I’m getting a star?”

“Alvin, I’m so sorry about what happened to you as a child growing up here in Palm Springs,” Taylor recalled Moon telling him.

“It dawned on me heavier than ever before,” Taylor said.

The Taylors, like many people of color in Section 14, were forced out without legal proceedings or compensation in what a 1968 report from the California attorney general’s office called “a city-engineered holocaust”. The report also found that the city kept no official record of those displaced and couldn’t prove they were offered sufficient notice of eviction. While Taylor found eventual success in music, his family was still forced to live in different places. For many of his neighbors, the loss of their homes drove them out of Palm Springs and led to financial hardship that would last generations.

As Palm Springs began to flourish as a celebrity and tourist destination in the 1950s, the city turned its eye toward Section 14, a one-square-mile area near downtown. It was owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who offered short-term leases to minority families unable to own property elsewhere because of racially restrictive housing covenants, Martin said.

When the federal government eased tribal land restrictions to permit 99-year leases, the city saw an opportunity for financial gain – and to erase something it considered a threat to that prosperity.

“I was scared to death that someone from Life magazine was going to come out and see the poverty, the cardboard houses, and do a story about the poor people and horrible conditions in Palm Springs just half a mile from the Desert Inn, our high-class property,” Frank Bogert, the mayor at the time of the forced removals, told the Los Angeles Times in 2001.

When the city issued its apology, it also started the process of removing the statue of Bogert in front of city hall. The statue came down in July, but advocates say this isn’t enough.

Martin said the razing of Section 14 should be understood alongside other historic racial atrocities, such as the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, which destroyed a thriving Oklahoma district known as “Black Wall Street,” and the 1923 Rosewood massacre, which wiped a Black town in Florida off the map.

“What’s even more appalling is that not only has nothing been done, this story has been buried,” Martin said. In her informal conversations, she finds that many people, even those in positions of power, don’t realize minority communities lived in Palm Springs.

“They’re even more shocked to learn of the tremendous contributions that African Americans made to that city, building that exotic playground in the desert and working in the homes of the celebrities and wealthy people that made Palm Springs their vacation getaway,” she said.

This education, she said, is paramount. Burnouts and forced removals are always shocking, but possibly more so in California, a liberal state that joined the Union as a free state. History, though, tells a different story.

Now, California is having robust discussions of its racist past, creating the nation’s first reparations task force in 2020 to travel, study and develop proposals for rehabilitation and restitution on a large scale. Its full report will go to the legislature by June.

The state is seeing momentum on a smaller scale, too. In Northern California, the City of Hayward issued an apology for its role in displacement. Last summer, LA county transferred ownership of Bruce’s Beach to the great-grandsons of Willa and Charles Bruce, a Black couple whose resort property was seized by Manhattan Beach in the 1920s through eminent domain. The city offered little compensation, financially devastating them. On 3 January, the Bruce family decided to sell the land back to the county for nearly $20m. “This is what reparations looks like, and it is a model that I hope governments across the country will follow,” said Janice Hahn, the chair of the county board of supervisors, in a statement.

Across the nation, several states are taking financial steps to reckon with discriminatory pasts. Last year, the Chicago suburb of Evanston became the first city in America to approve a reparations program of up to $10m in housing grants, while Asheville, North Carolina, committed $2.1m to its reparations program.

But Section 14 remains unique – residents could not own the land on which their structures stood. Even the tribe that owned the land was overseen by court-appointed conservators. This is unlike other land reclamation cases, according to Kamala Miller-Lester, an attorney and the research lead for the group Where Is My Land, the advocacy group that first helped Section 14 survivors organize, prepare key materials and find its initial legal representation. Miller-Lester said she didn’t think the specifics of this case would introduce legal barriers, though.

Plot of land in Section 14 that was burned down and still hasn’t been developed since. Photograph: shot by Robin Marshall and courtesy of Areva Martin

“I have faith because there’s a lot of documentation about this,” Miller-Lester said. “There’s the entire attorney general’s report and investigation that shows just how horrible it was … It is just so apparent on the face of this claim that they deserve justice.”

Miller-Lester echoed the need to inform the public. The reason stories like Section 14 remain untold, she said, is multilayered: atrocities can seem literally unbelievable, so people do not believe; survivors are traumatized and may not share what happened; beliefs about urban renewal and the potential to create jobs and opportunity persist, even if something was destroyed in the process. Still, she said she’s hopeful.

“Now, everybody can see that it really did happen,” Miller-Lester said. “Now that we’re investigating these things, we’re looking up deeds, we’re going through record halls and really digging in so we can see the patterns. People are actually looking at it. All of those voices from our ancestors are speaking to us and letting us know.”

Martin said city officials want to be collaborative as both parties work toward a fair remedy. That gives the city the chance to create a blueprint for how to engage with an example of specific harm, as opposed to places addressing redlining and other limitations placed on larger groups over a longer time.

“All eyes are on California,” Martin said. “California has an opportunity to lead on this from a state perspective [through the taskforce], and Palm Springs has an opportunity to do something from a local government perspective that’s unique.”

It’s easy for reparations talks to jump to dollars and cents, she said. And while that’s a part of the discussion around the loss of generational wealth and opportunity, Martin hopes Palm Springs will also set an example of centering the people harmed and allowing them to shape what a fair remedy looks like.

Alvin Taylor, center, made Palm Springs his home again. Photograph: shot by Robin Marshall and courtesy of Areva Martin

Alvin Taylor made Palm Springs his home again more than a decade ago, when he married his childhood sweetheart, Delia Ruiz, whose family also lost their home. He knows the continuing conversation around Section 14 will not be easy, but finally seeing traction is something.

“It literally means the world to me,” he said. “I tell you, I’m just overwhelmed with joy to see that somebody understands, somebody can feel my pain. There’s empathy.”

Going forward, his message for the city isn’t complicated.

“Just do the right thing,” Taylor said. “That’s it. Just do the right thing.”

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