The past isn’t quite dead here, either: how racism shaped Santa Monica

When Fay Wells went national to write, in the Washington Post, about what happened when a neighbor called 9-1-1 on her, she brought the issue of race to the attention of the white majority in Santa Monica, a city where race is not typically a major part of the public conversation. To me the case is a lens through which to examine how racism has shaped Santa Monica.

Santa Monica has been shaped by segregation. Segregation? In Santa Monica? Well, yes. Like much if not most of America that was developed in the 20th century, Santa Monica was developed as a segregated city. The mechanisms of segregation were not blatant Jim Crow laws. Instead, segregation was implemented formally through restrictive covenants included in deeds for properties in single-family zones and by federally mandated redlining for F.H.A. financing that also kept minorities out of neighborhoods, and informally by realtors seeking to “protect property values.” While the Supreme Court declared restrictive covenants to be unconstitutional in 1948, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination weren’t illegal until the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Restrictive covenants were part of the DNA of suburban development in the first half of the 20th century, when most of Santa Monica was subdivided, much of it only for single family homes. Single-family zoning, by prohibiting apartments (which had been common in American cities), was another strategy to keep lower-income families (i.e., renters), and in particular black families, out of new neighborhoods. (This history is discussed in detail in Benjamin Ross’ 2014 book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.)

The impact of restrictive covenants and single-family zoning on Santa Monica today cannot be underestimated: about 32% of all the land in the city is zoned for single-family homes (nearly half of all land zoned residential), and to this day few black or brown people live in R1 zones. Santa Monica is about 70% non-Hispanic white, but it is more segregated than one would expect for a city that is 30% non-Anglo.

Nearly all minorities in Santa Monica, with the exception of some of Asian descent who have moved into the city in recent decades, live south of Wilshire and north of Pico (mostly in the Pico Neighborhood), with a few other clusters in Ocean Park and in non-single-family areas of Sunset Park. Not coincidentally, these were, historically, the only integrated neighborhoods in Santa Monica. And also not coincidentally, these neighborhoods mostly straddled the industrial belt that ran along the railroad tracks that ran through the city—in Santa Monica, as in much of America, most black and brown people lived “across the tracks.”

African-Americans and Latinos have lived in Santa Monica for over a century, but they didn’t have the opportunity to buy houses in Santa Monica when working-class whites were able to, part of a shameful national story of how minorities were denied the opportunity to participate in the (heavily subsidized) post-World War II real estate boom.

And racism in Santa Monica wasn’t all about what could be built, and for whom, but what could be destroyed. Who were displaced to build the high school, the Civic Auditorium, and the freeway? Black and brown property owners and renters. Santa Monica has African-American churches to which black families still return to worship from their scattered homes miles away.

From the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, Feb. 15, 1951

From the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, Feb. 15, 1951

So you’re saying, what’s the point? History is history, right, and only in places like Faulkner’s Mississippi is the past not even past, right? Well, yes, to a point. We’re not doomed to be racist because our physical environment was shaped by racism. In my lifetime I’ve seen whites go from asking rhetorically what they would do if their sister married a black man, to today, when I doubt if there are too many white Santa Monica parents who would bat an eyelash if their child brought a black or Latino boyfriend or girlfriend home (preferably without too many piercings, but that goes for a white boyfriend or girlfriend, too).

Progress does get made. I’m not calling anyone a racist. May I repeat that: I’m not calling anyone a racist.

However, the past isn’t dead. One can argue whether racial incidents involving the Santa Monica police, and there are more than the two involving Fay Wells and Justin Palmer, are evidence of institutional racism or isolated incidents that don’t reflect the police department’s earnest efforts to be fair. In fact I’ve made the latter argument. One cannot honestly argue, however, that blacks and Latinos do not have historical grounds to feel marginalized in our city, which is going to affect their interpretation of interactions with the police and other public institutions. And because of Santa Monica’s history of segregation, you’re also going to have white people who don’t see black or brown people in their neighborhoods often, and because residents want the police to protect their neighborhoods, that is bound to lead to trouble.

Would the Fay Wells 9-1-1 caller have called the police if the locksmith had been white? I doubt the caller himself can answer that question.

The legacy goes further. Politicians appeal to voters in R1 zones by talking about the importance of preserving neighborhood “character” (when, for instance, the issue is whether to allow the building of apartments on adjacent boulevards); should it matter that that character is based on a racist history? What about when politicians decry gentrification in the historically integrated neighborhoods of Santa Monica, but then side with residents who oppose building apartments near R1 neighborhoods that might (mildly) de-gentrify them by bringing in renters?

Thanks for reading.

Turns out that when it comes to local politics we’re not so exceptional

In the last couple of posts I’ve been trying, mostly by means of rereading Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, to put anti-development politics in Santa Monica into a regional context. I’ve recently read, however, another book (and reviewed it on Huffington Post), that gives a national context for politics that we think of as quintessentially local.

The book is Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, written by Benjamin Ross, who is, among other things, a transportation activist from Maryland. In the book Ross traces the history of how America, which celebrates few concepts as highly as private property and democracy, paradoxically created a regulatory system for land that (i) subordinates an individual property owner’s rights to the rights of the group (either neighbors through a homeowner’s association or government through zoning), and (ii) reserves power over real property to only a few citizens.

Adding irony to paradox, this red-blooded American system of land control has its origins in proto-socialist ideas and ideals of pre-Civil War communalist utopians. After various false starts these ideas coalesced into a replicable format in a New Jersey suburb called Llewellyn Park laid out in 1857. The formula included controls on what individual owners could build on their properties.

As one of the first purchasers of a home site in Llewellyn Park put it (as quoted by Ross), “[e]ach Llewellyn Park property owner . . .‘possesses the whole park in common, so that the fortunate purchaser of two or three acres becomes a virtual owner of the whole five hundred.’” As Ross describes the impact of this, “[h]ere in germ is the belief of today’s suburban homeowner that property rights include a veto over building on neighbors’ land – an understanding shared by even the most ardent defenders of private property.”

From 19th century private covenants evolved 20th century zoning, which developers and governments used to assure purchasers of home sites that their neighbors would be just like them, to the exclusion of anyone else. Restrictions on the use of one’s property, Ross finds, were primarily for the purpose of preserving status, although they were also marketed as a way to preserve property values. (In classical economics, however, let alone American ideology, property values are maximized when the property owner is free to exploit the property to its highest potential.)

Clearly, citizens have an interest in regulating all uses of property and, in many cases regulation can enhance the value of property. These decisions about regulating property, however, are supposed to be made through a democratic process. What Ross finds objectionable is that decisions about real property are typically made by the property owners themselves, either through private covenants or because most land use decisions are left to local governments that only represent the people already living there.

Citizens who are affected by these decisions—such as people needing places to live—have no vote or say in the matter. If you think that this didn’t apply to Santa Monica, note that much of Santa Monica’s residential land was developed with restrictive covenants that kept out minorities. The covenants were outlawed more than 60 years ago, but to this day few minorities live where there were restrictive covenants. The minority citizens never got to vote on the restrictions.

Ross finds that people invested socially and economically in the way things are find ingenious ways to rationalize their self-interest in the status quo—specifically in the exclusion of newcomers. In his words,

Unwilling to admit – and often unable to recognize – the status-seeking motivations that lurk behind their agenda, opponents of development search for any convenient excuse to oppose something that might be built nearby. Traffic is a perennial objection, blessed by the Supreme Court in Euclid v. Ambler [the 1926 case that found zoning to be constitutional] and never since out of favor. Another common tactic is to go after the builder rather than the building. Homeowners appeal to the sympathies of the uninvolved, presenting themselves as innocent victims of oppressive developers.

Now, does this describe Santa Monica anti-development politics or what? Everyone here likes to think of our beautiful town as special, exceptional in its loveliness as well as its traffic problem, but it turns out that people all over the country have been using traffic to justify exclusionary zoning since (at least) the 1920s. (As someone who hates traffic, I wish they’d come up with something that worked.)

“[T]o go after the builder rather than the building.” So it’s not only in Santa Monica that whenever there’s no fact-based or logical argument against a development, the opponents play the “greedy developer” card (that is unless the developer is a non-profit, in which case they can play the “neighborhood character” card). Developers want to make a buck, and because they typically take big risks and work in a cyclical industry they want to make big bucks, but are they are any more greedy than, say, movie producers, who also work in a high risk industry? Or restaurant owners? Or anyone else in business?

Meanwhile, who in Santa Monica (aside from a few apartment owners) benefit from the housing crisis, which causes property values to skyrocket? In an era of scarcity of homes to buy, who benefits from restricting development of market-rate housing, particularly condominiums? Keep in mind that it’s not like anyone is proposing to build apartments or condos in single-family zones.

Homeowners “presenting themselves as innocent victims.” Hmmm. It’s been breathtaking to hear recently the kvetching from some Santa Monica homeowners about increased water rates, and mandatory 20% reductions in water use that will be imposed on some of them. And of course all that’s been turned into another rhetorical tool against building (water-efficient) apartments. Look—it’s hard to think that life has treated unfairly folks who own homes in Santa Monica, whether they’ve been sitting on their capital gains and low Prop. 13 tax rates for years or have enough dough to have bought in recently.

There’s more in the book than I can describe here. Ross shows how every well-intentioned movement you can think of, from environmentalism, to historic preservation, to growth boundaries, to expanded public participation in the planning process, to negotiating for community benefits, etc., etc., gets twisted to become yet another exclusionary tool. He even points out that residents who manage to move into apartments or condos in desirable places then often want to raise the drawbridges themselves.

However, Ross ends on optimistic note. For various reasons Americans are becoming more comfortable with city living, and these cultural changes are driving an urban renaissance.

Like in Santa Monica.

Thanks for reading.