Tag: African Americans

Reviews

Plantation Empire: A Review of Waite’s West of Slavery

Brian McGinty

Historical studies of American slavery have focused most intensely on events that took place in the southeastern part of the United States, and on the social, economic, and political developments that surrounded it there. In West of Slavery, Kevin Waite demonstrates that slavery was in the process of expanding in the southwestern part of the country before the Civil War began, and that efforts to establish what he calls the “Continental South” grew in strength and intensity as the conflict continued. If those efforts had been successful, he argues, slavery would have extended across the southern part of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and even into foreign lands. Waite’s statement that “slaveholders lusted after a transpacific dominion” is vividly supported by this book.

Waite’s definition of the “Continental South” includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah. Although plantation slavery never took root there, he demonstrates that other forms of coercive labor received strong legal protection there and, for a time, flourished. During the Civil War, supporters of this labor threatened to bring the region into the conflict, encouraging the Confederate rebellion and promising the creation of a continent–wide nation devoted to the perpetuation of slavery and other forms of oppressive labor. West of Slavery’s purpose is to show how this proslavery influence began, continued, and was ultimately crushed.

White southerners transported an estimated 500-1,500 enslaved African Americans into gold rush California. Here, an interracial party mines for gold in Spanish Flat, El Dorado County, in 1852. Although the status of these black men is unknown, they were likely enslaved, as El Dorado County had one of the highest concentrations of slaveholders in the state at this time. Joseph Blaney Starkweather, Spanish Flat, 1852, California History room, California State Library, Sacramento.

Much of Waite’s book is devoted to the rise of pro–Southern and pro–slavery influence in Southern California, where Democrats under the leadership of California’s U.S. Senator William M. Gwin held sway during the 1850s. (Gwin actually owned about two-hundred slaves in Mississippi, although he did not bring them to California.) Southerners from the southeastern United States, motivated first by John C. Calhoun, who died in March 1850, later by a prominent plantation owner and railroad promoter named James Gadsden, and then by Jefferson Davis, who served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, supported Gwin and his efforts to bring a southern railroad from the west banks of the Mississippi to San Diego and to permit plantation owners to establish slave colonies in Southern California. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but not for want of trying.

The story of the slaveholders’ efforts to bring a southern railroad to California is compelling. All westerners hoped for a railway that would cross the plains, valleys, deserts, and mountains that separated the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. But there were different hopes for where it should be built. Some wanted it in the north, some argued that it should be built across the center of the country, and yet others in the extreme south. The southerners supported the southern route, of course, but acquiesced in a survey that would determine where the best route would be. While waiting for decisions to be made, and facing the critical question of whether the federal government should lend its financial support to the construction of the railroad, southerners supported a wagon road, first called the Overland Mail Road, later the Butterfield Overland Mail Road (John Butterfield was the man who actually ran the company that operated the road), and, after Butterfield fell into financial distress, the Wells Fargo Overland Mail. Although many Southern political leaders asserted constitutional arguments against any federal financial assistance to the proposed railroad, they were happy to support the Overland Mail road, which at considerable federal expense carried mail as well as west–bound travelers, some of whom were looking for places where they could establish colonies replete with slave laborers. When Davis learned that the southern railroad route was faced with looming mountain obstacles, he urged Pierce to send Gadsden to Mexico to purchase additional land through which the railroad could pass south of the mountains. This effort resulted in what is now known as the Gadsden Purchase. The Overland Mail was rendered unprofitable by the short–lived Pony Express, which in 1860 crossed the middle of the country, and by the development of rail routes across Panama and Nicaragua, before the last link in the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Waite’s account of how all of this happened, and how Southern efforts to build what they affectionately called the “great slavery road,” ultimately failed, is long and detailed. His scholarship raises the story to a new level.

A crowd gathers as a Butterfield stagecoach prepares to depart from San Francisco. The San Francisco Bulletin called the Overland Mail “the most popular institution of the Far West.” Harper’s Weekly, December 11, 1858.

West of Slavery plunges deep into the Civil War history of New Mexico and Arizona and the efforts of slavery supporters to extend their empires into those territories. Political struggles were matched by military conflicts that for a time gave hope to the Southerners that they would prevail. Jefferson Davis authorized two military officers, Colonel John R. Baylor and Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, to invade New Mexico from Texas and, after they did so, they achieved some notable victories, capturing Mesilla, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, then going on to Tucson. Ultimately, however, they did not prevail, due in large part to anti–slavery forces that moved eastward from California to meet them. U.S. Army Colonel James Henry Carleton’s 2,000–man “California Column” left Camp Drum on the Southern California coast in the spring of 1862, passed through Yuma, went on to capture Tucson, then proceeded along the Rio Grande to Santa Fe, ultimately forcing the Confederates to retreat back into Texas. Waite’s description of these events is detailed and compelling.

The US military installation at Drum Barracks, Wilmington, California, circa 1865. Note the camel in the foreground, a Unionist repurposing of Jefferson Davis’s antebellum pet project. USC Digital Library, California Historical Society Collection, Los Angeles.

Waite includes informative descriptions and analyses of events that took place in his “Continental South” as the war drew to a close, then proceeded into the post–war era of Reconstruction. African Americans did not fare well in these events, nor did the Asian Americans and the Native Americans who were faced with an almost unending chain of bitter opposition. This part of West of Slavery effectively extends the bigger story of the efforts of the slave powers to extend their empire across North America and, after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, to perpetuate all that they could of that empire.

The book includes a study of efforts to remember the pro–slavery “Continental South” through the formation of organizations that celebrated slavery, that built monuments to Confederate heroes, and that sought to honor those heroes by applying their names to mountains, valleys, roads, and soaring trees––all in the land that the Confederates had hoped to build a great slavery empire in. Through these efforts, they sought to perpetuate the memory of what Waite calls “the presence of the Old South in the Far West.”

A granite pillar in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, honoring some thirty Confederate veterans buried in the surrounding plot. Erected in 1925, this was the first major Confederate memorial in the Far West. It was removed in August 2017, following the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph by the author.

Kevin Waite is not only a determined scholar. He is also a wonderful writer. Those who are impatient to quickly arrive at the conclusion of his story must be patient, however. The book is filled with detailed discoveries. Sometimes it can be tiring to reach the end of a story, but the end rewards the reader’s patience.

One slight objection is the title of Waite’s book. When first read, West of Slavery suggests that the book is about a part of the West that is beyond slavery. It is not, of course. It is a land in which forced labor was strong and rampant, in which the hopes of spreading slavery and the efforts to do so were vigorous and determined, and in which the failure of those efforts was far from inevitable. If the title had been The West of Slavery, it might have been clearer. Waite himself hints at this, writing that the “preposition in this book’s title is possessive. In other words, the Far Southwest was a land of slavery and slaveholding influence; it was not free from it.” This objection is, however, not only slight––it is very slight.

West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire by Kevin Waite. Copyright © 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. http://www.uncpress.org

Brian McGinty (BA, American History, JD, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley) is the author of twelve books and 200 articles that have appeared in popular magazines and scholarly journals. His Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2015) and Lincoln and the Court (Harvard University Press 2008) discuss important chapters in the life of Abraham Lincoln. His Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom: The True Story of California Gold, the Nation’s Tragic March toward Civil War, and a Young Black Man’s Fight for Liberty (Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield 2019) and The Rest I will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2016) describe important chapters in the struggle of African Americans to escape slavery and win freedom both before and after the Civil War. His John Brown’s Trial (Harvard University Press 2009) describes the sensational judicial proceeding that made the abolitionist John Brown one of the most famous (and controversial) martyrs in American history. See more of Brian’s work at http://brianmcgintyauthor.com/

Reviews

Breathing Life into the Archive: A Review of Richardson’s Bearing Witness While Black

Elizabeth E. Sine

Seas of cellphones floating above the anchors of outstretched arms; the litany of hashtags bearing the names of the dead; livestream footage broadcasted by protestors with boots on the ground; the videos that capture for the world to see the life being taken from Black bodies by police—all of these have become recognizable features of the movement against police brutality and for Black lives, which has swept the nation and the world over the past decade.  But they are more than mere characteristics. They are critical mechanisms by which the movement travels, transmits messages, grows, and pushes back against the daily horrors of structural racism and state violence within the United States.  They are examples of a political practice that Allissa V. Richardson calls “Black witnessing,” which has played a constitutive role in what has arguably become the most powerful movement of our time.  In her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Richardson examines the forms of Black witnessing that animate the Black Lives Matter movement, while situating them within the much longer arc of witnessing practices that have helped shape historic struggles for Black liberation.  In the process, her book brings into focus just how much efforts to combat the horrors of white supremacy and to sustain movements for racial justice have relied on often-overlooked acts of seeing and truth-telling that have been undertaken by Black witnesses past and present.

As she builds on a growing body of research that investigates African Americans’ use of cell phones and social media, Richardson bases her study especially on a pool of interviews she conducted with fifteen prominent Black witnesses, along with in-depth analyses of their Twitter timelines.  Her interviewees are diverse in their gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationships to the Black Lives Matter movement, offering important insight into the patterns, interconnections, and differences that characterize their experiences and perspectives as Black witnesses.  She organizes her analysis into three parts: Smartphones, Slogans, and Selfies.  Across these three sections, the broad strokes of her work situate the smartphone era in a longer history of Black struggle, provide an archaeology of contemporary Black witnessing practices, and examine the visual iconography of Black protest journalism in the age of Black Lives Matter, along with its implications for Black witnesses and broader efforts for racial justice.

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

One of Richardson’s core contributions in Bearing Witness While Black is her centering of Blackness within her exploration of witnessing and its relationship to movement formation.  In positing a distinctly Black witnessing as the focus of her study, she makes the case not only that Black people bear witness differently than others but, further, that witnessing has been a vital arena in which Black people have staked the evidentiary foundations of an oppositional narrative about race, power, and democracy within the United States.  Black witnessing carries important legal weight for the pursuit of racial justice in courts.  It also has a powerful capacity to mobilize public action, fueling pushback against racist policing patterns and the institutional racism that undergirds them.  At least as significantly for Richardson is the role that it plays in linking Black people to one another.  Particularly in the context of crisis, as Richardson puts it, Black witnessing functions as “a form of connective tissue among Black people that transcends place.”[1]  Rather than distancing or depersonalizing the connection between the victims of atrocity and the viewers, as the main currents of media witnessing scholarship suggest, she argues that cellphone footage of anti-Black violence, when seen by Black people, “blurs [the line] between viewer and victim.”[2]  For those who bear witness while Black (and some allied people of color, whom she includes in her analysis), Richardson’s work underscores that incidents of anti-Black violence are never isolated or episodic in nature.  Rather, they grow out of, occur within, and are experienced through the context of systemic violence and generational trauma that history has wrought upon Black people for centuries.

As richly nuanced as it is in the ways it engages and builds upon media witnessing theory, Richardson’s work is also firmly anchored in and driven by the imperatives of praxis.  Drawing on her experiences as a journalist, as a teacher of mobile journalism, and as an African-American woman who grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland in the age of the police assault on Rodney King and the L.A. Rebellion, she writes with an acute attentiveness to the stakes of the news-making practices she analyzes, including for witnesses themselves.  Having worked with citizen journalists in a wide range of contexts, including in South Africa at the front lines of the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis and in Morocco in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, she also speaks to the comparative dimensions of witnessing practices across a variety of social movements.  She highlights a certain degree of relatability that links the use of smartphones and social media by participants in the Black Lives Matter movement with that of people in the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Arab Spring.  

Yet, in significant ways, she also emphasizes that the scope, scale, and systematic nature of racial violence to which African Americans bear witness make their witnessing even more akin to that of Holocaust survivors than to protestors in these other movements.  As she explains, when Black people bear witness to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and far, far too many others, their actions simultaneously memorialize “the more than 10 million Africans who were sold into bondage across the Atlantic Ocean . . . the 5,000 African American men, women, and children who continued to be victims of lynching across the United States . . . [and] the more than 1 million African American and Latinx men and women who have fallen victim to mass incarceration since the late 1970s.”[3]  Black witnessing honors those subjected to suffering and premature death, all the while refusing to let the public forget the past, or, for that matter, look away from the horrors of the present.  Therein lies its urgency.

It is not only the long history of anti-Black racism that weighs on the present.  As Richardson demonstrates, contemporary Black witnessing practices also carry forth the legacies of Black survival, struggle, and resistance.  As she situates the Black Lives Matter movement within a much longer genealogy of Black liberatory struggles, Richardson charts a history of Black witnessing that links the role of slave narratives, African American newspapers and magazines, television, early internet-based social networks, and Black Twitter along a historical continuum—forming “an unbroken chain of brave seers.”[4]  Earlier generations laid the groundwork for the modes of witnessing we have seen in the past decade, Richardson argues.  The primary factor that distinguishes the witnessing practices of our contemporary moment is the accessibility of the technology involved.  With the introduction of the smartphone, witnesses the world over acquired “a tool that would allow anyone to create and distribute media quickly, without the need for a privileged gatekeeper.”[5]  Combined with social media platforms and speedy internet connections, the smartphone has equipped today’s Black witnesses to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, while at the same time enabling them to share, collectively grieve, strategize, and organize in response to news of police brutality at a more rapid pace and on a more thoroughly mass scale than ever before.

While Richardson makes clear her position on the side of viewing Black witnessing as a positive force for racial justice, her endorsement is not the kind that romanticizes.  In fact, some of the richest parts of her analysis are those where she explores the tensions and contradictions inherent in the practice.  Among the troubling aspects of Black witnessing she examines is the way that the smartphone technology on which today’s protest journalists rely—“the very tool that empowers the activists”—carries with it “the potential to extinguish them.”[6]  Highlighting the growing use of Stingray tracking technology by authorities and harking back to the role of COINTELPRO in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Richardson complicates any inclination to celebrate the smartphone’s democratizing effects without reckoning with the ways it expands the terrain for surveillance and political repression. 

Graphic illustration of the impact of COINTELPRO by Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, 1976

Another set of challenges Richardson investigates is the potential harm that comes from seeing itself.  On one level, bearing witness to atrocity can have serious emotional and psychological effects on the viewer, not to mention the threat of backlash from authorities to which they expose themselves.  (Many will remember Ramsey Orta in this respect, the video witness who was the only one from the scene of Eric Garner’s death in 2014 who was arrested.)  On another level, when footage of Black police victims’ last moments is shown repeatedly, often unedited and without freeze frame or face blurring techniques, the imagery may do more to normalize racist violence and uphold the terror of white supremacy than to challenge it.  All this leads Richardson to the assertion that how such footage is shared is as significant as whether it is shared. 

Poster by Tony Carranza

It is noteworthy that Bearing Witness While Black entered into print in June 2020, at the very same moment that the nation’s racial uprisings reached peak levels of intensity following the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others.  While Richardson could not have anticipated the exact synchronicity of events, it is a testament to just how “on time” her work truly is.[7]  Questions remain about how Black witnessing practices may vary across class lines, since Richardson’s interview sample overwhelmingly comprises graduates of prominent universities with advanced degrees, a factor that Richardson herself acknowledges.  The relational dynamics that link the experiences and perspectives of Black-identified witnesses with those of non-Black witnesses of color is another topic that some readers may wish to see analyzed further, as her discussion on this front is relatively brief.  Still, well researched and engagingly written, the book offers a fresh critical lens on the Black Lives Matter movement and on the possibilities and perils of efforts for social change more generally, adding significantly to both scholarly and broader public conversations.  It will be of particular interest not only to media and journalism scholars, but also scholars of race/ethnicity, social movements, technology and history, as well as social activists and organizers for whom it bears lessons.

Elizabeth E. Sine is a historian of race, labor, and social movements in California and the broader United States (Ph.D., University of California San Diego) and Lecturer in History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is author of the recent book, Rebel Imaginaries: Labor, Culture, and Politics in Depression-Era California (Duke University Press, 2021) and co-editor of Another University Is Possible (University Readers, 2010).  She is also on the steering committee of R.A.C.E. Matters in San Luis Obispo, California.


[1] Allissa V. Richardson, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism (Oxford University Press, 2020), 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richardson, xii-xiii.

[4] Richardson, 44.

[5] Richardson, 39.

[6] Richardson, 114.

[7] The reference here to being “on time” comes from Ivory Perry, qtd. in George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 269.

Excerpts

A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area

Rachel Brahinsky and Alexander Tarr

In the long saga of the Bay Area, the East Bay is often cast in a secondary role to the more famous San Francisco. Perhaps best known as the place where UC Berkeley thrives, the East Bay is home to decades of urban and industrial growth that brought the whole region to global prominence under the moniker “San Francisco.” Though much writing on the region follows this line—that San Francisco is the central city of the larger region—we are interested in the ways that the East Bay is also, and has always been, central. At this book’s writing the entire East Bay was experiencing intense and rapid change as Silicon Valley tech firms moved in, and as Oakland sought to fast-track housing development to serve the broader regional economic boom. Meanwhile, the East Bay is home to a broad spectrum of communities, who collectively speak some 125 languages and who have forged social movements that shape national and even international politics, from the Left to the Right.


Posted: No alcohol . . . No racism. Rules announce a radically inclusive space for overlapping subcultures at the 924 Gilman music venue in Berkeley (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

A Shifting Center

We center many of the stories of this chapter in The Town, which is the affectionate local name for the city of Oakland, but we’ll also take you out to Emeryville, for a quick stroll through Berkeley, and north to the cities of Albany and Richmond. In choosing sites for this chapter, we were interested in broad representation, but we also looked for places that are suggestive of some of the larger struggles of the area, from policing to racial justice, economic development and cycles of displacement. We’re interested in the ways that today’s built environment reveals layers of the past—including important traces of the long history of human habitation prior to the Spanish and Anglo conquests.

As the original terminus of the trans- continental railroad in the nineteenth century, Oakland could have emerged as the socioeconomic powerhouse of the region. Instead, urban developers logged Oakland’s forests and capitalists built wealth around San Francisco’s deep-water port first, leaving Oakland to persist as a “second city” culturally, politically, and economically—even as the two cities shared workers, families, and ecosystems. The 1906 San Francisco quake and fire, which destroyed San Francisco’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods, could have shifted the regional urban core east to Oakland. But even though a large share of San Francisco’s industry and residents left at that time to populate the East Bay—Oakland’s Chinatown expanded, for example—and even though the educational powerhouse of UC Berkeley fostered generations of public intellectuals and planted the seeds of activist movements with global influence, San Francisco remained the capital city of the region.

Two of the key drivers of this ongoing dynamic are the wicked problems of race and class. Race-class exclusions drove post–World War II disinvestment, which meant that capitalist and middle-class wealth withdrew from Oakland. This flight-by-capital left the once-vibrant downtown relatively vacant for decades and weakened the urban tax base, even as urban-fringe neighborhoods boomed. By the 1960s, African Americans had made Oakland a central home, having been both displaced by San Francisco’s redevelopment of the Fillmore District and excluded from East Bay suburbs. At the same time, Oakland leaders also pursued urban redevelopment, uprooting those same communities to make way for free- ways and mega-developments. These projects improved regional mobility, but they left gaping wounds in the cityscape across Oakland’s multiracial working-class com- munities, disproportionately hitting Black, and later Latinx, homes and businesses.


Mandela Grocery Cooperative in 2019, just before plans were announced for a major expansion (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

These urban rearrangements intersected with the social configurations of the time. Before WWII, white violence was, at its most extreme, embodied by the Ku Klux Klan’s growth in Oakland and the island city of Alameda. After WWII it continued in the practices of the police and sheriff departments. The counterforce of groups like the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets emerged in part as a response to those conditions—and more. Though pop culture narratives tend to remember them for posing with guns in front of Oakland City Hall, for example, the Panthers’ “Ten Point Platform” included an emphasis on universal literacy and feeding people. It was a stance that emerged out of members’ everyday experiences of poverty and over-policing in The Town. These politics also grew from members’ intellectual investigations that crossed urban borders through- out the East Bay, with the public university and college systems playing a fundamental role in offering young people the chance to develop their ideas, and with intersecting social movements—including South Asian, Chicano, and labor movements—all learning from each other and in some cases joining together to demand better education at UC Berkeley and beyond. These earlier struggles set the stage for today’s Oakland and greater East Bay, in which the collective lived experience of people, across ethnic and racial lines, includes the apparent paradox of deep poverty alongside the riches of successive booms. With each force comes a counterforce.

Community struggles over access to affordable and safe housing offer a lesson in the complexity of the East Bay and its place in the region. In the 2010s, for example, the cost of housing rose sharply, housing development didn’t match job creation, and new proposals lacked sufficient affordable housing or enough protection for vulnerable residents in redeveloped neighborhoods. Oakland moved from the police blotter to the travel section of big city papers in the 2000s, and its reputation was reshaped by commercial boosters who encouraged a renaissance of new, young transplants to the area. But the housing crisis of the gentrification era was a problem with deeper historical roots. Outside of the urban cores, much (though not all) of the East Bay was first developed as a series of low-density urban-fringe neighborhoods, initiating a pattern of housing inequity that remains. Meanwhile, the capital that fled the Oakland core fifty years ago has returned quite unevenly.

Wealth’s renewed interest in Oakland has meant that some areas are receiving much-needed upgrades to dilapidated housing and commercial building stock, as well as city services, but often in forms that push out longtime Oaklanders, sparking revivals of housing-centered social movements. In fact, community members’ efforts to remain in their homes and neighborhoods are central to their role in making the East Bay. Indeed, the East Bay’s legacy of political organizing and creativity is quite alive, and community organizations have pushed for a vision of “development without displacement,” motivating a regional coalition to push for expansions of state and local rent protections, widening the geography of protest and struggle. These efforts intersect with energized local campaigns in many Bay Area cities, including the relatively small city of Richmond to the north. There, a long-growing progressive coalition turned ideals into pragmatic policy. Aiming to curb the toxic impact of local refineries, Richmond residents organized to raise the local minimum wage, bought back guns to remove them from the streets, and threatened the use of eminent domain (which is the city’s power to retake private property) as a way to help stop foreclosure-related displacement.

A 2006 mural outside the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. Artist Jason Dobbs; restored 2018 by the Community Rejuvenation Project (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

The stories of housing struggles thus link to the larger challenges of urban life and the balancing act between encouraging needed investment and supporting existing communities. With that in mind, this chapter raises issues and tells stories that are rooted in place, but tries to do so in a way that treads lightly on the very same landscapes that we find so interesting; we are aware of the mixed blessings of tourist attentions.

There are many other stories and paths that we trace in this chapter, stories of culture and art, innovations in everyday life, and long-buried histories that come to light. For us it adds up to this: it’s time to see and listen to the East Bay. Listen to the stories of the people who have built and fostered its many cultures and communities, giving these cities their character and sense of place. Dig deeper to understand the geographies that make and continue to remake these places from the ground up.

1500 Block of Adeline Street
Adeline Street Between 14th and 15th Streets, Oakland 94607

The fallout from the foreclosure crisis of the 2000s is written in the streets of Oakland. Much of that story is a painful one of displacement, but there are some important legacies of community organizing and resistance, and this block of West Oakland represents one epicenter for organizing where some residents used mass community pressure to save their homes. On December 6, 2011, for example, Adeline Street resident Gayla Newsome decided to put the rallying cry of a nationwide “Occupy Our Homes Day” into action. Together with a group of about a hundred activists from Occupy Oakland and ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment), Newsome and her three daughters successfully reclaimed their home of fifteen years, which was under active foreclosure. The family lived on this block, at the heart of one of the long contested residential spaces of West Oakland, where waves of eviction and foreclosure compounded upon decades of disinvestment. We’re not including her exact address here to maintain residential privacy.

Between 2005 and 2015, banks foreclosed on well over twenty thousand homes across Oakland, according to research by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP). The mass evictions of small property owners and renters that ensued were largely the result of predatory lending practices actively targeting low-income communities of color, as was later widely uncovered by researchers across the country. A report conducted by the nonprofit Urban Strategies Council in 2011 found that 42 percent of homes foreclosed in Oakland between 2007 and 2011 were acquired by large institutional investors, many of whom are based outside of Oakland. Some of them had previously been mortgage brokers, meaning they not only had access to valuable insider knowledge, but might have also played a part in creating the crisis in the first place. Others would later be prosecuted by the FBI for conspiring to rig foreclosure auctions in their own favor.

West Oakland saw a thick concentration of foreclosures and large-investor accumulation. Neill Sullivan’s REO Homes LLC, for example, snapped up over one hundred fore- closed homes in West Oakland alone. Sullivan focused on single-family homes, which are exempt from rent control by California state law; he followed those acquisitions with a round of evictions, serving 357 eviction notices between 2010 and 2016, according to public Rent Board data collected by AEMP researchers. The evictions helped clear the way for a neighborhood rebranding as West Oakland was sold as the “eclectic West Side” and the “new edge of Silicon Valley.”

Even as investors like Sullivan were taking control of the neighborhood, activists turned their energy toward the foreclosures and joined in to support Newsome and other neighborhood leaders. They formed the Foreclosure Defense Group, which sought to disrupt foreclosure auctions at the Alameda County Courthouse. The group worked to reclaim the homes of community members through direct action by reoccupying emptied homes; they would initiate a campaign of community pressure, garnering media attention and rallying a mass phone campaign to pressure the banks. Newsome’s home on Adeline Street was one of the success stories of this tactic. Organizers also used the foreclosure activism as a base-building effort, which meant that each home they reoccupied was an opportunity to knock on doors and talk to neighbors. Through this process they sought to develop stronger networks for community solidarity and support. (Section authored by Katja Schwaller)

Albany Bulb
1 Buchanan Street, Albany, CA 94706

The Albany Bulb is a place literally made from the ruins of Bay Area urbanization. This former landfill turned quasi-public park represents the alternative lives that capitalist cities inevitably produce through redevelopment and continual creation of consumer detritus. At the same time, the Albany Bulb is a phenomenally beautiful place to visit and offers a fascinating story about a Bay Area place that remains a bit less regulated and controlled than just about everywhere else.

Views from every corner of this park provide a panorama of the region. San Francisco looms misty and dreamlike across the bay. The trails teem with a wild mix of grasses, flowers, overgrown fennel—and art. Freestanding murals once dotted the edge of the marshy shoreline, and a mix of large sculpture and other installations, all of which can change year to year, is typically scattered throughout the park. The space has also often been home to people—disaffected, houseless, seeking connection that they couldn’t find in the urbanized parts of the region—those who, long before the Occupy movement, found ways to reclaim and reuse public spaces.


This is one of many works of art made from found and scrap materials at the Albany Bulb. Berkeley attorney Osha Neumann, who is known for representing houseless people, created this one, called The Beseeching Woman (foreground, photographed 2019 courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

For many years the city of Albany used this site to dump construction debris and municipal waste. The result was a thirty- one-acre lollipop-shaped peninsula colloquially known as the Bulb, with a landscape of twisted metal, slag left over from nearby mining, rusty pipes, and chunks of redeveloped streets, sometimes retaining their yellow lane-stripes. The landfill that produced the Bulb was one of several major sites along the East Bay waterfront that inspired the creation of the environmental nonprofit Save the Bay, which targeted the Bulb’s land- fill for closure in the early 1980s. The closing of the landfill in 1983 both created an opportunity for artists and coincided with the modern period of rising homelessness, so it is no surprise that people without homes adopted its knolls and tucks as their own. In between the chaotic beauty of wildflowers and trash-turned-art, people built outdoor kitchens, small homes from driftwood, and other shelter.

A move to incorporate the Bulb into the larger McLaughlin Eastshore State Park—named for Save the Bay cofounder Sylvia McLaughlin—has been underway since the early 2000s. This shift toward park formalization has raised the challenging question of which public has the right to use the space as they want. Those who found shelter here note that they improved the land, having built many of the long-used trails and gardens. City and state officials argue they must enforce regulations against overnight camping and off-leash dogs. Artists and hikers often enjoy the place for its unregulated surprises. The struggle has inspired feisty artistic responses to the exercise of state power. In 1999, for example, the landfill’s residents faced a highly publicized eviction. After the eviction, artists erected a monument to the homeless: a massive pile of shopping carts that was later mined for sculptural work across the park. However, in 2014 the most definitive of the many rounds of eviction took place, with the city paying people to leave with the signed promise of never returning.

Creative resistance to formalize the landscape into a planned conservation district has been taken up by the nonprofit Love the Bulb, which organizes art and cultural programming and walking tours that emphasize the unregulated nature of the place. Free-range artists continue to make and remake the place. Enter from the parking lot at the end of Buchanan, near the Golden Gate Fields racetrack; bring extra layers, as it’s typically colder out on the Bulb than in the parking lot.

Berkeley High School
1980 Allston Way, Berkeley 94704

Infuriatingly, many US schools are more segregated now than any time since the end of the Jim Crow era, a fact that undermines the narrative of civil rights progress that many hold dear. That’s part of what makes the Berkeley High School story unique. Back in 1994, the New York Times labeled Berkeley High the “most integrated school in America.” The school reflected the city’s diverse population, making the institution fertile ground for political and cultural debate and home to the country’s first and longest- running high school African American studies department. But all of this did not come easily—even in Berkeley. It was hard fought, and keeping programs like this alive continues to be a conscious struggle in a rapidly changing Bay Area.


Joshua Redman is one of several alumni featured on the art boxes that surround Berkeley High, which has
a history of student and teacher activism (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

In the heat of the civil rights struggle, Berkeley Unified School District launched a 1968 desegregation campaign titled Integration ’68 and became one of the first districts in the country to voluntarily integrate its elementary and middle schools by busing children of color from neighborhoods in the south and west areas of the city to schools in the overwhelmingly white north and east, and vice versa. The impact of the busing tactic here, as across the country, was mixed, and it was hard for parents to remain involved or feel that their kids were learning in culturally appropriate ways. Although the busing program was not aimed directly at Berkeley High, the new racial landscape profoundly impacted education there. That same year, educators inspired both by the national call for Afrocentric education (see Nairobi School System, p. 104), and by the intersecting struggles of the Free Speech and Ethnic Studies movements underway at the college level, founded African American studies at Berkeley High. The school was already racially integrated, but it lacked an inclusive curriculum, and educators sought to give Berkeley’s students a sense of racial equity that busing could not address. This was part of a wave of new Black studies and African American economics curricula at Bay Area institutions, from grade schools to universities.

At its height, Berkeley High’s program offered courses in African American literature and history, the Black Social Experience (later to be called Black Male-Female Relations), Black Psychology, African American Economics, and African-Haitian Dance. Students took Kiswahili language courses, and enrolled in a youth empowerment class called Black Soul, Black Gold, Black Dynamite. The program produced its own newspaper, Ujama. Inspired by this legacy, in the early 1990s students successfully pushed to expand this programming to include Chicano and Asian American studies courses. Implementation of this programming, however, has always been contested by more conservative residents and administrators, in what the Reverend Robert McKnight, former teacher and chair of African American studies, has described as a “perpetual struggle” to maintain the programming.

The social and racial justice activism of the student body has remained a corner- stone of the school’s identity. In 2000, a group of immigrant students—primarily South Asian girls—formed a group called Cultural Unity to reflect the diversity of the English Language Learner student body and to highlight their relative isolation within it. In the months after 9/11, harassment of Muslim and Sikh students increased, with two documented on-campus assaults on Cultural Unity members. In response, South Asian students wrote and published a short book of stories and poetry for use in the school’s curriculum. They also organized free legal clinics for the local Muslim com- munity and organized “Unity Assemblies” that emphasized cultural performance and cross-cultural political dialogue. The legacy of diversity and struggle at Berkeley High is commemorated in visible ways. One can begin by visiting the utility boxes along the perimeter of the high school, illustrated by the Arts and Humanities Academy Class
of 2012, which depict some of the school’s famed activist alumni, including Black Panther Bobby Seale, writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Chinaka Hodge, as well as musicians Phil Lesh and Joshua Redman. (Section authored by Diana Negrín da Silva)

Black Cultural Zone
2277 International Boulevard, Oakland 94606

In the mid-2010s, the artists and activists connected to the nonprofit East Side Arts Alliance began work on establishing Black Cultural Zones (BCZ), conceived as a series of “safe Black spaces” at points served by new transit lines along International Boulevard, as well as the MacArthur and Bancroft neighborhoods. This effort was a response to the ongoing outmigration of Black people from Oakland. The International Boulevard corridor is the commercial and cultural heart of the racially and ethnically heterogeneous neighborhoods of East Oakland, stretching from Lake Merritt to the southern border of Oakland (the street continues, under other names, through several cities). More broadly, East Oakland, often overshadowed by the dynamics of downtown and West Oakland, has become known for creative approaches to urban change, including a much-lauded program of transit-oriented development that specifically guarded against displacement around the Fruitvale BART station. The Black Cultural Zone is another such effort, an example of proactive grassroots planning to prevent further displacement of residents and what are now commonly known as “legacy businesses.”

The effort grew out of cultural work that dates back to 2000, when four arts organizations in this area organized the first Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, an annual May event in San Antonio Park (1701 E. 19th Street), featuring local and visiting musicians alongside graffiti battles, dance performances, and booths representing local crafts and community organizations. The East Side Arts Alliance (ESAA, 2277 International Blvd.) was born from that first festival, positioning itself as a voice in local politics, advocating for “development without displacement” in city government meetings, and securing properties in East Oakland through nonprofit and grassroots partnerships. The organization bought its own building, offering a counterpoint to gentrification in the area by incorporating affordable housing into its art-and-politics organizational structure. When the city developed a new bus rapid transit route along International Boulevard, ESAA secured foundation grants and city support to help align the transit corridor with the values and experiences of longtime residents. Building on these efforts, the Black Cultural Zone project envisions a shift in Oakland’s land use that highlights the economic and cultural resources of long- time residents as a platform for equitable development. Working with neighborhood partners, the BCZ will be integrated into new public plazas that will partner with existing businesses, nonprofits, and religious institutions as well as new mixed-use developments with below-market housing. At this writing, the large historic building that once served as the headquarters for Safeway, at the intersection of International Boulevard and 57th Avenue, had been proposed as the BCZ’s geographic hub. (Section authored by Diana Negrín da Silva)

“Black Panther Park” (Dover Park)
Dover Street, between 57th and 58th Streets, Oakland 94609

Tucked behind the former Merritt College site on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, this is one of many places associated with the creation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1966. BPP founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton lived and studied together in this neighborhood before forging, with many others, the vision for Black liberation codified in the party’s Ten Point Program. Their political message, a response to the conditions of this neighborhood and others like it at the time, spoke of transforming power relations with the police, uplifting Black people, and providing for the basic needs of everyday Oaklanders.

Serving as a framework for the party as it expanded from its Oakland roots, the program articulated a set of baseline beliefs that shaped the politics of the organization while inspiring others around the world. “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community,” they wrote. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Under this banner, they created free breakfast programs for kids, and international solidarity with other working-class people, across racial lines. The community college where they polished these ideas, and where they anchored some of their early community- organizing efforts, was relocated in 1960; the building on that site is now a senior center.

By the fiftieth anniversary of the BPP’s founding in 2016, things had changed significantly in the Bushrod, which is one of a few names for the neighborhood surrounding Dover Park. By then the real estate website Redfin had labeled it the hottest neighbor- hood for housing sales in the country. This shift in the neighborhood’s fortunes came not long after officials created a gang-injunction zone in the area, which Restorative Justice (RJ) activists used to show the connections between policing and real estate speculation. They showed, for example, that the decreased visibility of young men of color on local streets and the increased police presence (both of which were produced by the gang injunction) fed into the intensified marketing of the neighborhood as “safe” to new home buyers.

Traces of the political history of the area remain in the landscape, and Dover Park continues to maintain and reinvigorate the message of Black Panther activism. Since 2010, Dover Park has served as host to the Phat Beets food justice collective, which merges urban agriculture with social justice organizing, maintaining an edible public garden here. The garden circles the park with fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and native plants, labeled to serve as tools of beautification, education, and public engagement. The food grown here has at times gone to support Aunti Frances’s Love Mission Self Help Hunger Program, a local group that cooks free meals in nearby Driver Plaza at the intersection of Adeline, Stanford, and 61st Streets. Aunti Frances’s program is one of many organizations around Oakland that was explicitly inspired by the BPP’s call for self-help on a community scale. Frances has said that she learned the value of community care and organizing as a child, when she personally benefited from the BPP’s free breakfast programs.

Black.Seed Demonstration, one expression of #BlackLives Matter
San Francisco Bay Bridge, just east of Yerba Buena Island
210 Burma Road, Oakland 94607
(This is the parking lot with closest access to the bike/walk trail on the bridge.)

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016, west- bound traffic on the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge came to a halt. Activists— chained together to block the road—raised their fists and displayed a banner declaring “Black Health Matters.” To see this site, you should not stop in a vehicle on the car lanes of the Bay Bridge. But you can get close to it via the bike and pedestrian path that runs from Oakland’s industrial waterfront along the bridge to Yerba Buena Island. You may want to bike, bus, or drive all the way onto the island, where you can look back at the eastern span of the bridge from Forest Road. From there you can get a sense of the impact that a takeover of the bridge would have, with all six westbound lanes blocked in the middle of the afternoon.

The 2016 demonstration was led largely by gender-queer African American activists and their allies affiliated with Black.Seed, one of many groups that formed in the first few years of the Black Lives Matter movement. The group coordinated their entry to the bridge through the East Bay car toll- gates. Once they stopped, they chained their bodies to each other through the cars to create a true barrier across every lane. Posing with their sign about Black health, they sought media attention to shift the public dialogue.

The name of the larger struggle—Black Lives Matter—was born from a social media post coauthored by Bay Area activist Alicia Garza, who cofounded that movement in 2013 in the wake of the acquittal of the killer of young Trayvon Martin in Florida. Soon after, transit and transportation disruptions across the nation sought to draw public attention to the problems of overpolicing, mass incarceration, police killings, and health disparities in the Black community. Drawing from the civil rights playbook, activists employed the strategy of reaching the public as they engaged in everyday activities; with their urgent message about the value of African American life, activists blocked highways from Minnesota to Dallas. In Oakland a shutdown of the West Oakland BART station in 2014 stymied trans-bay trains for four and a half hours to remind the public of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, after which police left Brown’s corpse on the street for more than four hours. Others took speeches and poetry on Sundays to restaurants around the bay in predominantly white neighborhoods as part of a “Black Brunch” action.

The Black.Seed bridge takeover brought together many of these concerns. The group issued a set of demands, including “the immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco.” They also called for the firing of officers involved in police killings locally—including that of Mario Woods, Richard Perkins, Yuvette Henderson, Amilcar Lopez, Alex Nieto, Demouriah Hogg, Richard Linyard, and O’Shaine Evans—and for the resignation of mayors and police chiefs who failed to hold officers accountable for shooting residents. They weren’t the only ones calling for this, and San Francisco’s police chief resigned under pressure a few months later.

While you’re here, we’ll note that the views on this four-and-a-half-mile bridge are incredible, but they come at significant financial and social cost. The state rebuilt the eastern span of the bridge in the 2010s to replace a 1936 structure that had been a source of concern since its dramatic partial collapse during the 1989 Loma Prieta earth- quake. Completed in 2015, the eastern span went far over budget, costing $6.5 billion to date. The new span has its own structural problems, however, and more spending has been required for repairs and adjustments to ensure the stability of the span when we face the next big earthquake.

Frances Albrier Community Center
2800 Park Street, Berkeley 94702

San Pablo Park’s Community Center commemorates the life of African American activist Frances Albrier as part of the long and rich history of cross-class multi-ethnic culture, community, and social struggle in South Berkeley. Albrier’s life story sheds light on the character of her neighbors, who fostered a strong sense of community that was often forged in the sports fields of San Pablo Park.

A flyer from 1940 outlines the goals of an anti-discrimination campaign: “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.” (Below Right) Frances Albrier photographed in a successful 1940 demonstration against workplace discrimination in South Berkeley (Presley Winfield photos)

Born in 1898, Albrier grew up in Alabama with her grandmother, a former enslaved woman and midwife who cared deeply about education. Albrier’s grandmother was a founding supporter of the Tuskegee Institute, the prominent Black school where Frances studied before joining her father in Berkeley in 1920. She received further training as a nurse, married, and settled into a house nearby at 1621 Oregon Street to raise her three children. Racial discrimination prevented Albrier from securing work as a nurse, but she later found employment with the Pullman train company and became active in a labor union. Having been refused a job as a welder at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond (although she had twice the hours of training needed), Albrier leveraged her knowledge of a new federal anti-discrimination law to pressure Kaiser. She won and began work as the first Black woman welder in 1942. Her persistence helped pave the way for thousands of African American and women workers to get better-paying jobs in the shipyards (see Rosie the Riveter Monument and National Park, p. 65).

Outside of her own workplaces, Albrier engaged in a series of campaigns to challenge discrimination and social injustice. She organized a women’s club that pressured the Berkeley schools to hire the first Black teacher at nearby Longfellow School. She initiated a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work Campaign” at Sacramento and Ashby—just a few blocks from San Pablo Park—that pushed local shopkeepers to hire Black employees. She was the first African American to run for Berkeley City Council in 1939. She didn’t win, but she went on to hold prominent positions in the local and statewide Democratic Party and served on Berkeley’s Model Cities program, which brought federal community-development dollars to South Berkeley.

Albrier was a powerful person and leader, but she was also a product of a remarkable community. Byron Rumford lived nearby at Acton and Russell. His Sacramento Street pharmacy became a neighborhood institution, and in 1948 Rumford became Northern California’s first Black elected official when he won a seat in the state assembly through

the work of an alliance of African Americans, progressive labor unions, and liberals of all ethnicities. He leveraged these coalitions to pass landmark state legislation for fair employment in 1959 and fair housing in 1963. A statue of Rumford by sculptor Dana King stands in the median on Sacramento Avenue, near his former pharmacy.

Berkeley’s Japanese American community was centered just east of this area in a thriving community with dozens of organizations, churches, and cultural groups. During WWII the federal government incarcerated more than thirteen hundred Japanese American Berkeley residents. Under Albrier’s and Rumford’s leadership, Berkeley’s Interracial Committee protested war- time treatment of Japanese Americans, and some entrusted the deeds to their homes to Albrier while they lived behind barbed wire. (Section authored by Donna Graves)

Marcus Books
3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland 94609

The East Bay offers a strong counter to the notion that the age of independent booksellers is over. Between Oakland and Berkeley alone, an array of independently owned and operated stores and small local chains serve niche audiences and the broader community alike. Marcus Books holds a special place on this list as the oldest continuously operating Black-owned and operated bookstore in the United States. Marcus was founded in 1960 by Julian and Raye Richardson as the Success Book Company in San Francisco. The institution was part of a wave of Black book- stores that opened in the 1960s and 1970s, offering access to books by and about people of the African diaspora, including information absent or scarce in other bookstores, public libraries, and schools. The spread of books by W.E.B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, Frantz Fanon, and many others provided intellectual foundations for transformations in Black community consciousness.

The Richardsons opened the original Success Book Company in the front of their independent San Francisco printing shop, where they published writers who were shut out of the white-dominated publishing industry or whose work was difficult to find. Julian Richardson published Marcus Garvey’s Philosophy and Opinions in 1966 after discovering that it had been out of print for forty years. He also printed two influential literary magazines of the Black Arts movement, Black Dialogue and the Journal of Black Poetry, and published a number of books of poetry under his own imprint. The bookstore–print shop was a hub for Black artistic and cultural activity in San Francisco, hosting events and political meetings, playing an active role in local political struggles.


The outer wall of Marcus Books, painted with titles by Zora Neale Hurston, Carter Woodson, Elaine Brown, and others. Malcolm X (left) and Marcus Garvey (right) stand watch. Mural coordinated by Community Rejuvenation Project (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

In 1970 the Richardsons opened a second location in Berkeley and changed the name to Marcus Books, after Garvey. The East Bay expansion allowed Marcus Books to conduct business with schools and other large institutions in Alameda County, such as prisons and social service facilities, according to a 1978 interview with Julian Richardson. They moved the East Bay store from Berkeley to its current site in Oakland in 1976. The new location was around the corner from the recently opened MacArthur BART station and close to the first storefront location of the East Bay Negro Historical Society (the earliest predecessor of the African American Museum and Library of Oakland). This new location was central to political activity in the neighborhoods of North and West Oakland as well as downtown.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco location moved to the heart of the Fillmore district in 1980, to Victorian Square, a small cluster of buildings that had been rescued from the redevelopment bulldozers some years earlier. In 2014, after a long community struggle to save it, the San Francisco location at 1712 Fillmore shuttered. The Oakland location remains and stocks a catalog of Black books in all genres and hosts events on-site and in partnership with other organizations. Even amid the Black outmigration of the 1990s and 2000s that has changed Oakland’s demography dramatically, and after financial troubles that plagued the store for some time, Marcus Books remains rooted here on MLK Way. (Section authored by Simon Abramowitsch)

Notes: Excerpt taken from A People’s Guide to the SF Bay Area (UC Press, 2020)

Authorship
The majority of this book is written by Rachel Brahinsky, Alexander Tarr, or the two of us together. Our individual and collective work has no additional byline. We are honored to also include the contributions of a wonderful group of Bay Area geographers, researchers, and public historians. Their names are noted at the end of any site entry that they authored or contributed to, with the caveat that we have edited the whole book for consistency.

© 2020 by Rachel Brahinsky and Alexander Tarr; used with permission by University of California Press. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Reviews

Black California: A Review of West of Jim Crow

Kevin Waite

Mallie Robinson and her five children came to California in search of something better, only to find more of the same. When the Robinsons relocated from Cairo, Georgia to a family home on Pepper Street in Pasadena in 1922, their white neighbors greeted them with a flaming cross on their front lawn. Mallie discovered that most jobs were closed to Black women, aside from domestic work, while her children attended segregated schools. They were also barred from Pasadena’s public pool. The Plunge finally reopened to African Americans in 1930, but only for one day a week. Tuesday was known as “Negro Day,” when the Robinsons were allowed to swim alongside other people of color. That evening, the city drained the pool and filled it with fresh water for white swimmers on Wednesday. “Pasadena regarded us as intruders,” recalled one of Mallie Robinson’s children, a young man named Jackie. 

When it opened in 1914, African Americans and other people of color were only allowed to use the facilities at Brookside Pool one day a week. By the 1930s, when this photograph was taken, “Negro Day” had been renamed “International Day.” Courtesy of the Pasadena Public Library, Pasadena, California

Pasadena is now eager to claim Jackie Robinson, the sports legend who broke professional baseball’s color barrier, as one of its own. A community center and a city park are named for him, and two mammoth brass sculptures to Jackie and his brother Mack, an Olympic medalist, occupy a central courtyard across from Pasadena City Hall. Yet nowhere in in the city’s landscape are markers or acknowledgements to what Jackie and his family endured, when Pasadena largely closed itself to African Americans. The wealthiest city in the nation when Jackie Robinson was growing up, Pasadena was also one of the most rigorously segregated.

Pasadena was no outlier among California cities, as Lynn M. Hudson explains in her urgent new book, West of Jim Crow. Although officials in Pasadena policed the color line with particular vigilance, they represented a mere sliver of the segregationist apparatus in twentieth-century California. Hudson brilliantly illustrates how this vast network – including city and state officials, politicians, lawyers, policemen, and everyday citizens – turned California into a bastion of Jim Crow segregation and a hotspot for anti-Black violence. But she also documents the numerous ways in which African Americans fought back. From a certain perspective, the virulent force of white supremacy in California can be seen as a testament to the remarkable achievements and prominence of Black men and women in public life.

Myra Weiss wrote this pamphlet after the murder of her sister and brother-in-law and their two children. Weiss was a leader of the Socialist movement in California, and fought to keep the Shorts murder in the public eye. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California.

California’s history of race-based segregation, of course, runs deep. Modern California – now one of the most outwardly liberal and cosmopolitan states in the nation – was built upon the forced relocation and dispossession of multiple ethnic groups. That history includes the seizure of vast amounts of land from Indigenous inhabitants and Mexican rancheros in the nineteenth century. And it includes the violent removal of Chinese immigrants from their communities across the state, as well as a sixty-year ban on migration from China, beginning in 1882. The hostility that Black Californians faced (and face still) belongs to this longer history.

Hudson’s canvas is broad – one of the many reasons her work will appeal to scholars, students, and general readers alike. West of Jim Crow spans the antebellum era up to the start of the Civil Rights movement, with a focus on the Black struggle for justice in the early to mid-twentieth century. Hudson ranges across space and time to cover a diverse range of moments in California’s Black history: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, the building of all-Black town in the Central Valley, the African American anti-lynching campaign, the rise of Ku Klux Klan in the Inland Empire, and the long fight against segregation in Pasadena.          

Colonel Allensworth and the eponymous town he founded with the artist Josephine Leavell Allensworth courtesy of the Smithsonian Learning Lab (Public Domain)

The Black struggle for racial justice in California is as old as the state itself. By the early 1850s, hundreds of enslaved African Americans had been forcibly imported to work the gold diggings around Sacramento. When many of them won their freedom later in the decade, they still faced a raft of discriminatory laws and practices. African Americans could not legally testify against whites in courts of law, nor could they marry across the color line. They were also routinely barred from streetcars and viciously parodied in San Francisco’s popular minstrel shows.

Against all odds, some early Black Californians prospered. Biddy Mason, a former slave from the plantation belt, personified hard-won fortune for this first generation of African American migrants. Born into slavery in Georgia, Mason was forcibly transported across the country, before she finally won freedom for herself and thirteen others in a Los Angeles courtroom in 1856. First as a nurse and midwife, then as a real estate entrepreneur, Mason built a business enterprise that made her one of the wealthiest women of color in the American West. Her success seeded a family fortune estimated at $300,000 by the turn of the century. At that point, Los Angeles had one of the highest proportions of Black homeowners of any city in the country. Yet as the Black community grew in numbers and affluence, it encountered mounting hostility and discrimination.

The story of racial struggle in California is largely one of self-empowered Black women like Mason. Generations of female leaders – Delilah Beasley, Josephine Allensworth, Carlotta Bass, Ruby Williams, and Edna Griffin, among many others – endowed their communities with strength and vision. Hudson, the author of an excellent biography on the San Francisco businesswoman, Mammy Pleasant, is well-equipped to recover these women’s contributions. She does so by placing them within the larger networks in which they operated, rather than rendering them as individual biographies. The effect is to highlight the cumulative power of Black women’s organizing. They never struggled alone.

Portrait of Delilah Beasley

Hudson locates influential Black women in places that historians typically overlook. Allensworth, the first and only all-Black municipality in California, was often advertised as a retirement community for Buffalo Soldiers. The town’s founder, Army veteran Allen Allensworth, embodied the masculine initiative that he hoped would propel his Central Valley settlement to prosperity. But it was the women of Allensworth who deserve much of the credit for the town’s survival in the 1910s and 20s. Some of the most successful businesses in Allensworth, including the hotel and boardinghouses, were owned and operated by women. Women also constituted the leadership of Allensworth’s church, and they taught generations of students in the schoolhouse. Their lessons in Black history proved transformative. “It was really the first time I’d ever heard nice things said about black people from a historical perspective,” one former student recalled. The moral was a simple but powerful one: “There was nothing inferior about me. I was pretty hard to stop from there on in” (115).

Scholars might quibble with certain aspects of the book, including its terminology. Hudson affixes the label “Jim Crow” to virtually all acts of anti-Black discrimination, beginning with the Reconstruction period. Most historians, however, generally date the start of the Jim Crow era to the late nineteenth century, when the former Confederate states adopted a series of laws to segregate and disenfranchise their Black populations. The term “Jim Crow Law” doesn’t appear in print until the 1890s. This isn’t to suggest that the racism African Americans faced in 1870s California was somehow less damaging. But Hudson would have been wise to explain why the term, which otherwise appears anachronistic, should have purchase for this earlier period. In doing so, she might have convincingly extended not only the geography of the Jim Crow era but the chronology as well. 

Minor critiques aside, West of Jim Crow is among the best introductions to Black California history yet written. It should be read alongside the seminal works of Albert Broussard, Quintard Taylor, Stacey Smith, Mark Brilliant, Lonnie Bunch, Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Douglas Flamming, Scott Kurashige, and Josh Sides. Because many of their books are more tightly focused – centered on particular cities or on a few decades of state history – Hudson’s ambitious and wide-ranging work will appeal especially to those looking for a primer on the subject. West of Jim Crow is an elegant synthesis that will doubtlessly stand the test of time.  

Jackie and Mack Robinson Memorial in Pasadena, California Courtesy of s.t.srinivasan

Jackie Robinson never forgot the trauma or humiliation of his segregated childhood in Pasadena. For Black families like his, the city’s affluence and upscale public services weren’t points of civic pride; they were reminders of what had been denied them. Even apparent victories for African Americans could be transformed into defeats. After a protracted court battle, Pasadena was finally forced to open its public pool to people of color by 1947. But rather than integrate, the city instead chose to drain its pool of funding, as it had been drained of water after “Negro Day” every week. If white families couldn’t have the pool to themselves, no one would.  The Plunge, once the most popular public pool in California, deteriorated. And Jim Crow lived on.

Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of American history at Durham University in the UK. His first book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in April 2021. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he co-directs a collaborative research grant on the life and times of Biddy Mason.

Reviews

South Central is Home: Race and the Power of Community Investment in Los Angeles

Claudia Sandoval

What makes a space a home? While we often think of it as the site for the nuclear family, home is also the space that communities create. In this sense, cities and neighborhoods evolve in much the same way as singular households. Individuals make a community their own by ensuring that the area reflects the needs and identity of its residents. Yet, as gentrification grows throughout many U.S. cities, marginalized communities are being stripped of the very essence that made these spaces home to its members. The anger over the loss of these spaces takes many people by surprise, even as others view the transition of their communities as a marker of progress. However, one loses the rich history of how these cities and spaces became home to millions of individuals in the face of structural divestment, disinterest, and overall erasure.

Through a historical analysis, Abigail Rosas discusses the ways in which a marginalized community, like South Central, California, became home to the thousands of Black and Latinx residents that have migrated to California since the 1960s. It is a beautifully written narrative of the work that Black and Latinx residents put into a community to make it their home. And it is ultimately a plea against gentrification’s displacement of Black and Brown bodies.

To contextualize and ground the project, one has to remember that the United States is quickly becoming a minority-majority nation. Most research continues to focus on the white population as representative of the average American, while rendering the life and experiences of other groups as marginal. According to a 2015 Census report, more than half of the U.S. population is projected to belong to a minority group by 2060, with Black and non-Black Latinx groups accounting for almost 43% of the population.[1] This is precisely why research that focuses on Black and Latinx communities is not simply a one-off project, but instead represents the future of the United States and is the reason why the importance of South Central is Home extends well beyond the borders of California.       

Rosas shapes her historical analysis by grounding the discussion around ideas of place-making, community-building, and race relations in South Central, Los Angeles (or South L.A., as it is now known). From beginning to end, the book eloquently narrates the ways in which African Americans began their place-making journey to South L.A. in the 1960s, against a backdrop of systemic racial oppression and racial covenants that segregated Black communities. In their journey from the U.S. South, Black residents migrated to the Southwest with the hope of starting anew, in a community whose history was not bogged down with the burdens of slavery.

Mexican and Central American immigrants began moving into the predominantly Black South Central neighborhood in the 1980s. Many of these immigrants left for economic and/or political motives in search of a more decent life. However, like African Americans, Central American and Mexican immigrants were relegated to the same “forgotten places” of the city.[2] Rosas contextualizes the environment in which Black and Latin American peoples would come to make South Central their home. More importantly, it provides the historical background in which these residents came together to advocate for their own community and well-being, often against the interests of powerful government entities. As Rosas puts it, “South Central African American and Latina/o residents advocate for investment and care for the community, but an investment that would not leave them behind.” It is through this collaboration that Rosas identifies the power of relational community formation.

Photo Courtesy of Abigal Rosas
Mural By: Imelda Carrasco, Edwin Cuatiacuatl, Tevin Brown, Florinda Pascual, Karen Vega, Antonia Rivera, Brayana Harris, Jasmonz Bron, Raul Lopez, Fransico Aquila, Alex Truatisky, Jennifer Roman, Manny Velazquez

The seven chapters in this book can be broken down into three important categories: place-making, investment, and race relations. Impressively, Rosas situates the historical realities of Black and Latina/o/x residents in South Central. Within these historical accounts, Rosas intertwines the ways in which systems of oppression and racialization created the conditions in which these residents were required to maintain and preserve a community that would serve the needs of its members. Even when it comes to government investment initiatives like the Head Start program and healthcare clinics, it was the community members themselves that had to work together to make the programs fit the needs of the people in South Central.

In the chapters dedicated to Head Start and healthcare clinics, Rosas effectively captures how the programs were first rolled out, the difficulties encountered, and the way in which Black and Latina/o/x folks worked together to make both institutions a success. Interestingly, while both the Head Start program and Drew King Hospital were funded through important government initiatives, both instances of investment were often used to racialize the community through the insidious narrative of a culture of poverty. By interacting with and attempting to shape these spaces Black and Latinx residents were forced to interact with each other.


Photo Courtesy of Abigal Rosas
Mural by Xolotl Kristy Sandoval Joseph Dias

While Rosas demonstrates the power that Black and Latinx communities have when they work together, she also brings up two important points that are not fleshed out in their entirety: the erasure of the Latinx community and negative race relations. As she notes on many occasions, the increased immigrant presence in South Los Angeles has done little to “erode the African American identity and character the people readily associate with the area.”[3] Rosas worries that the Latino and Latinx presence will be erased from the popular image of South L.A.. While I do not think Rosas suggests that the Latino and Latinx experience is more precarious than the Black experience, Rosas could have spent more time explaining the persistent association of South L.A. with African Americans. In other words, thinking about the ways in which understanding South L.A. as a Black community, even if demographic numbers tell us otherwise, is also about the importance of place-making for a community whose history in the United States is founded on the erasure of its people. Rosas’ focus on the positive aspects of Black-Latinx relations is noteworthy. However, understanding why they do not always get along is just as important as highlighting when they do.

Photo Courtesy of Abigal Rosas
Mural by Xolotl Kristy Sandoval Joseph Dias

South Central is Home will be of interest to sociologists, political scientists, historians, and ethnic studies scholars, among others. As a book that centers race relations in communities of color, this book would be especially useful for undergraduate and graduate students, community organizers, and even political leaders. For young scholars, it provides a model for writing about communities that formed us, communities that we unapologetically love. Many traditional scholars continue to view scholarship that center ones community or family as “me-search”. This critique of course is rarely made of white scholars researching white communities. Lastly, by disentangling the rich history of South Central, Rosas shows us the future of cities across the United States.

Claudia Sandoval is a professor in the Political Science department at Loyola Marymount University where she teaches courses on Race, Immigration, and Black/Latina/o relations. Professor Sandoval is a first-generation Mexican immigrant who grew up in Inglewood, California. Sandoval received her B.A. in political science from UCLA in 2006. She graduated from the University of Chicago with both her master’s and doctorate in political science in 2014.


[1] Colby, Sandra L. and Jennifer M. Ortman.  “Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2016. Accessed January 29, 2020.            https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p25-1143.pdf

[2] Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning”. In Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles R. Hale, 31-61. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 2008.

[3] Rosas, Abigail. South Central is Home: Race and the Power of Community Investment in Los   Angeles. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Reviews

“Making the Impossible Possible”: Octavia Butler Reimagines Space and Time

Mike Sonksen

The Pasadena-born science fiction author Octavia Butler is considered among the most prescient writers of the last several generations. Her superbly crafted stories deconstruct race, gender, politics, religion, and sexuality while travelling back and forth across space and time. Recent Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis describes Butler as being “on the frontier of human imagination.”

Though Butler passed in 2006, her work has never been more popular. Butler’s Parable of the Sower reached number one on both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists in the fall of 2020, 27 years after original publication. In 2019, the Los Angeles Central Library named a do-it-yourself studio space in the library, the Octavia Lab. Adding further momentum to Butler’s lasting significance is a new book A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by the award-winning author Lynell George that showcases Butler’s inner world.

George demystifies the legendary science fiction author by using archival material from the Huntington to meticulously uncover how Butler constructed herself through a regimented autodidactic recipe of reading, writing and ritual. A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky is creative non-fiction as inspiration without solipsism.

Make the Impossible Possible

Years before Butler won the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1995 and had published any of her eleven celebrated novels like Kindred, Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower, she was a humble soul growing up in Pasadena stealing time to write in the middle of the night or making a small paycheck stretch for weeks at a time. Butler made, as George writes “the impossible possible” and expanded space and time through her discipline and concentration. The fact that she wrote science fiction is further proof of her intention to create new worlds. 

George reveals how Butler’s “most ambitious and remarkable creation was the shapeshifting narrative of her own life–the one she honed and sharpened, draft after draft after draft. It was a work of art that was not complete until she made the impossible possible; the unseen, seen. Who is Octavia E. Butler, ‘That tall girl who was always writing?”

George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. George came to call her weekly forays into the archive, “Fridays with Octavia.” George committed to “let the archive lead her.” George’s instinct to let the archive lead her proved fruitful as she found some of Butler’s most insightful thoughts on scratch pads or even on the back of an envelope. It was this marginalia where George found the portal to Butler’s inner world. It was this personal voice that would prove the most fidelity to Butler’s intent. George also found hundreds of newspaper clippings Butler kept on topics like global warming, cancer, vampires and social unrest. These saved articles showed how much research Butler did to write her prophetic stories. 

These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money. From the time she was a teenager, Butler crafted her life, filling dozens of notebooks with to-do lists, budgeting and contracts with herself, complete with extra specific wishes serving as willful manifestations. George’s book artfully includes images of artifacts from the Butler archive like a library card, an old calendar, a few pages from Butler’s journal, bus passes, covers of her notebooks and ticket stubs. Butler’s candid handwriting on an old notebook testifies to just how miraculous her journey was.

Visiting Octavia E. Butler at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, Courtesy of Lynell George

Octavia’s Way

In our contemporary 21st Century era when New Age commentators on Instagram talk about “the law of attraction,” and “creating your own reality,” George’s portrait of Butler shows us someone who did just that years before these ideas permeated popular culture. “If you read these pages in succession, day after day,” George writes, “they are nothing short of a prayer.”

“Art may be the finest form of prayer,” writes Julia Cameron in her book, Walking In This World. Cameron’s made a long career out of writing books on world building like her perennial bestseller The Artist’s Way.  Many of the journaling strategies Cameron offers corroborate with practices Butler was doing instinctually years before Cameron’s book was published. One more Cameron quote connects to Butler: “We make art not merely to make our way in the world but also to make something of ourselves, and often the something that we make is a person with an inviolable sense of inner dignity.”

Butler meticulously constructed her life and vigilantly protected her time and energy to preserve her dignity and achieve her destiny against all odds. Though Butler did not have the specific instructions presented by Cameron, George discovered in the archive that Butler read self-help books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, J. Lowell Henderson and Claude Bristol among others. The writings by these men advised her. “Her advisors, she acknowledged,” George writes, “may not be on the same page socio-politically, may even be dead, but she’d intuited that something essential could be gained from submitting to their worldview, even if she was never meant to be the target audience.” The clues Butler gained from these books taught her how “to keep her own counsel” and write her own affirmations. “These affirmations,” George declares, “are her safety net. They are her therapy she has neither the time, money nor constitution to undertake.” Butler discovered these books in the Pasadena Central Library as a teenager and by the time she started submitting her writing for publication in her early twenties, she had created her own practice to keep herself going. She conquered her fear and self-doubt by using these affirmations and following her strict discipline of research and writing.

Interspersed throughout George’s text are various quotes from Butler that show how she kept herself inspired. Consider this: “We don’t have to wait for anything at all. What we have to do is start.” Butler jump-started her journey in the dark without a map to follow. She grew up in Northwest Pasadena, an omnivorous reader and lifelong hermit who purposely never drove a car. Nonetheless she crisscrossed Los Angeles on public transit and took long walks to find her way in the world. George reveals all of this and shows how Butler’s worldbuilding and writing processes were methodical. She charted her life with such precision that she would often write on the calendar how many pages she wrote each day. 

A Lifeline for Writers

The celebrated Angeleno novelist and USC professor Dana Johnson calls George’s book on Butler, “a lifeline for writers.” In conversation with George for a virtual event hosted by Vroman’s Books, Johnson tells her that, “[she] shows us an Octavia Butler we have not seen before.”

George saw Butler speak a handful of times over a three-decade period. The first time George ever saw Butler was when George was in her late teens and she attended the reading with her mother, an English teacher and voracious reader. George’s mom was a fan of Butler and they attended a few of her readings together. George cannot remember if it was at EsoWon Books or the long gone Midnight Special in Santa Monica but she does know that attending these readings impressed themselves upon her as her own journey as a writer was beginning.

Years later George saw Butler in Seattle in 2004 for “Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival.” George travelled to the Pacific Northwest to cover this event for the Los Angeles Times and she even briefly spoke to Butler that day. George’s Times essay, “Black Writers Crossing the Final Frontier,” published on June 22, 2004 described the event and explained that when Butler began writing science fiction in the early 1970s she was often one of the only Black writers doing it, let alone a woman in a male-dominated genre. They made an agreement to speak again but as fate would have it Butler passed two years later in 2006.

Another important point George told Dana Johnson the night of the Vroman’s reading was that this book is a product of serendipity. In 2016 Julia Meltzer, the Executive Director of Clockshop invited George to participate in their year-long program celebrating Butler. This is how it all started. Meltzer recently told me via email: “When we first dreamed up Radio Imagination –a year-long program celebrating Octavia E. Butler where artists and writers were invited to work with her archives at the Huntington Library—I knew that writer Lynell George had to be a part of it.”

“I felt certain that learning about Octavia’s life through what she left behind,” Meltzer states, “would resonate with Lynell and that she would bring her intrepid, dogged and steady journalistic eye to the project. Very early on in Lynell’s research process I sensed that a book was soon to be born. I’m thrilled that my hunches were correct. How lucky we all are to be able to learn more about how Octavia E. Butler deliberately and carefully made herself into a science fiction writer.”

Clockshop’s 2018 book, Radio Imagination includes writing from George, Tisa Bryant, Robin Coste Lewis, Fred Moten and artwork by Laylah Ali, Malik Gaines, Lauren Halsey and Alexandro Segarde. George’s piece was a “posthumous interview” for which she immersed herself countless hours in the archive. As George communed with Butler’s archive, she felt as if she could hear her voice and the channeling for the piece began.

A modest Pasadena Bungalow, Courtesy of Lynell George

Forecasting the Future

Though readers marvel at Butler’s seeming ability to predict the future, journalist and former editor of LA Weekly Judith Lewis Mernit recalls soliciting Butler for an essay on the “future of reading”. Instead, Butler wrote about how she still wrote on her typewriter because she liked to be methodical and deliberate with her process. However, it was her careful attention to her craft that allowed her to turn a keen eye on the present and imagine the future.

According to Mernit and Lynell George, Butler also observed the world around her by reading hundreds of articles on climate change and taking daily walks around Pasadena. Butler always paid close attention to the plants and trees in her neighborhood, noting the different species and details, such as, whether a tree was producing as many fruit as in the previous year. Like a scientist, she carefully cataloged her observations in her notebooks in detailed lists.

George’s book includes lists that Butler created from her walks and bus rides around the city. In these trips, Butler observed the city up close. The lists she wrote often read like poems. Here is one of Butler’s poem-like lists exactly as it appears in George’s book:

#79 Bus

Brown and deep green hills of early summer

The grass is dry for the most part.

Blond with a little green grass

And many deep green trees.

•••

Alvarado + Sunset—N. on Alv.

Small El rancho mkt—not chain

Way into hills

W. on Sunset—through cut hills

Both sides—houses cluttered on hills

Much wood frame

@ Sunset to sea—enclaves + open

Thru-way

As George’s narrative reminds us again and again, Butler’s careful attention to the world around her empowered her with the x-ray vision to write about the environmental conditions of the future. She was watching her immediate surroundings so closely that she could read the writing on the wall about rising temperatures or social unrest before everyone else.

A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky spotlights Butler with the same verisimilitude that Butler herself used to show us the future of our world. George writes that she found the book’s title while reading a passage in the archive: “Science fiction allowed her to reach for something beyond what she could visualize. Reading through a draft of a speech Octavia was puzzling out, I was struck by a particular answer. Science fiction is a handful of earth, and a handful of sky and everything around and between.”

Lynell and Octavia

George shares several commonalities with Butler beginning with the fact that she lives in Pasadena just minutes from where Butler grew up. Moreover, both Lynell George and Octavia Butler write the type of impeccable prose that only comes from countless drafts and years of practice.

Indeed, George has practiced her own diligent writing regimen with the same dedication as Butler, having written thousands of essays over the last 30 plus years for publications like Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Essence, LA Weekly, Alta Journal, the Smithsonian, and others. George’s countless articles have mapped Los Angeles and crisscrossed California with the same veracity as Butler’s fiction. And finally, they both were very close to their mothers and were gifted typewriter’s by them when they were little girls. George’s dedication in the book reads, “To my mother, who bought me my first typewriter.”

A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky accomplishes many missions simultaneously. Whether the reader wants to learn more about what made Octavia Butler so influential or if they want to learn how to be as influential as Octavia Butler, Lynell George provides a roadmap that reveals Octavia Butler’s secret recipe for expanding space and time.   

Mike Sonksen is a 3rd-generation Angeleno. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK. He teaches at Woodbury University. 

Copyright: © Mike Sonksen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Evicted in the Central Valley: The Avoidable Crisis and Systemic Injustice of Housing Displacement

Amber R. Crowell and Janine Nkosi

Virtually nowhere in the metropolitan United States could rent be called affordable for the average family, and there are certainly no places where a family on poverty wages could pay rent without assistance. In California, a family must report a household income of roughly $100,000 to make the median rent in the state. These numbers vary widely depending on region, reaching their most extreme levels in the Bay Area cities. However, even in Fresno, the largest urban center of the Central Valley, a family needs to earn nearly $20 per hour to afford the median rent in the area while the current state minimum wage is only $12 per hour.[1] These gaps are not static over time but are growing as rent increases outpace wage increases, a point recently explored by The New York Times.[2] The fallout from this feature of the affordable housing crisis is the subject of so many other stories that characterize California – homelessness, substandard housing, population decline, and displacement. 

Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City[3], directed the affordable housing crisis conversation toward one particularly devastating consequence that ultimately links the unaffordability of housing to homelessness: evictions. Often, evictions happen because the tenant failed to pay their rent. Other times, evictions occur with no fault on the part of the tenant – because of a foreclosure, habitability issues, or, egregiously, because of retaliation against the tenant by the landlord. In addition to formal, court-ordered evictions, Desmond estimates from survey data in Milwaukee that informal evictions may as much as double the total amount of evictions that take place. These are evictions that occur outside of the judicial process and reflect the vulnerable position of the tenant, who vacates the premises prior to the court filing out of fear of entering the court process or because they cannot afford the court process. Evicted forced researchers, reporters, advocates, and policymakers to realize that the process of evicting a family from their home is a key culprit in exacerbating family poverty, unemployment, and neighborhood instability.[4] More importantly, Desmond’s work illuminated the harsh reality of a court system that is designed not to protect families from entering a downward spiral into poverty and homelessness, but to protect property.

Often, the conversations about the affordable housing crisis and its consequences focus on the major metropolitan areas of California in the Bay Area and Southern California. In a database search on scholarly articles, graduate level theses, and newspaper articles over the past 20 years using the key phrases “housing crisis” and “California”, we found 1109 results for “Bay Area,” 3081 results for “San Francisco,” 1586 results for “Southern California,” and 3525 results for “Los Angeles.” In contrast, over the same period with the same key phrases, we only found 288 results for “Central Valley” and 250 results for “Fresno.” This demonstrates that both the scholarly and popular attention has been largely focused on the housing crisis in the southern and northern metropolitan areas of California, with far less given to the Central Valley. 

Yet, in Fresno alone the California Housing Partnership Corporation reported a nearly 35,000 unit shortfall in affordable housing, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates a 41,000 unit shortfall for the county overall.[5] More alarmingly, Central Valley counties, where approximately 45 percent of households are renters, experience far higher rates of evictions than anywhere else in California.[6] The typical renter in the Central Valley is rent-burdened, which is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a household that spends 30 percent or more of its income on housing costs. Fully a quarter of those households are severely rent-burdened, defined as a household that spends half or more of its income on housing costs. For this and other reasons, including higher rates of poverty, the virtual non-existence of tenant protection programs and laws at local levels, and increased migration from Southern and Northern California metropolitan areas into the Central Valley in search of lower housing costs, the affordable housing crisis conversation must include the Central Valley.

In this piece, we examine evictions and displacement in the Central Valley. This work developed through our research and experiences as scholar-activists and housing justice advocates in the Central Valley. We focus primarily on Fresno County, a sprawling, diverse metropolitan area comprising both urban and rural settlement in the heart of the Central Valley, but also include some findings from San Joaquin and Kern Counties, which are located in the northern and southern regions of the San Joaquin Valley, respectively. We draw on data from eviction court filings, observations in eviction court, and stories from tenants in Fresno County to answer the question: What accounts for the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley? In answering this question, we develop three main points: 

  1. The affordable housing crisis conversation in California must include the Central Valley, where stark social inequalities are intricately tied with housing and neighborhood inequality. This means that scholarly work must consider the complexities of the housing crisis in California from the high-cost, high-income urban areas outside of the Central Valley to the lower-cost, lower-income urban and rural areas within the Central Valley. Housing activists as well must include the population and the needs of the Central Valley in their advocacy work and support the activism taking place within the Central Valley; 
  2. Evictions happen at a higher rate in the Central Valley than anywhere else in California. They are a devastating outcome of the affordable housing crisis and are an effective tool of the court system used to prioritize the protection of property and property-owners over poor families and families of color, and;
  3. Immediate action could be taken by policymakers in the Central Valley at the local level that would bring balance to the relationship between tenants and property-owners and prevent further displacement, systemic social inequality, and neighborhood instability, which is particularly urgent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact.  

Background: The Central Valley

The Central Valley is a vibrant, dynamic region known for its representation of over a hundred cultures, nationalities, and racial and ethnic identities, according to 2018 American Community Survey estimates. But it is also an area known for its high levels of social inequality by a multitude of metrics – income and wealth inequality, residential segregation, health disparities, and opportunity gaps in labor and education. The nature of social inequality in the Central Valley is so complex that it would be impossible to identify any one cause or solution. However, it becomes very clear through a spatial lens that many of the inequalities observed in the Central Valley are tied to neighborhoods and housing. When we map median income, median home values, percent in poverty, and percent nonwhite by census tract in the urban center of Fresno County, we see an indisputable overlap (Figures 1-4).[7] To the east is the city of Clovis, a predominately White, wealthy suburb where the availability of affordable housing is so inadequate that it prompted a lawsuit by a local legal aid organization.[8] Yet even within the more racially and socioeconomically diverse city of Fresno, it is apparent that there are distinct boundaries drawn which prevent low-income families of color from entering certain neighborhoods and in turn concentrate these families in identifiable areas of the city. 

Figure 1. Median household income in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.
Figure 2. Percent in poverty in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.
Figure 3. Median home values in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.
Figure 4. Percent Non-Hispanic White in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.

These boundaries are in part historical, tracing back to the days of racial covenants[9], and later redlining, which prompted further public and private disinvestment in neighborhoods where families of color resided[10] while resources and opportunities were diverted to Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. In addition, public housing, which shifted to become a resource for families of color neglected by the federal government, was primarily built in racially segregated neighborhoods where Black and Latinx families resided.[11] This history is an important piece in understanding housing insecurity and inequality in Fresno because it led to widely disparate home values between neighborhoods. 

Because families of color saw their neighborhoods forced to depreciate due to the actions of federal and local government, wealth and class inequality are now almost inseparable from racial inequality in Fresno. In White, affluent neighborhoods, housing values appreciated by directly benefiting from the inequities created by racist and classist housing policy. White families have enjoyed both wealth accumulation and racial exclusivity because the unaffordability of housing in these areas for low-income families has mostly meant that it is unaffordable for families of color as well. In Clovis specifically, experts argue that the deliberate choice to not zone low-income affordable housing is precisely why it is a predominately White community. These neighborhood-based inequalities created a setting where larger economic forces, in particular rising housing costs combined with depressed wages, would lead to a far more troubling human crisis: displacement and homelessness. 

Evicted in the Central Valley

Given that financial hardship is responsible for both the triggering of an eviction and the vulnerability of the tenant, poverty is part of this story, but focusing on individual poverty does not capture the full effect of what changing economic conditions can do. Douglas Massey demonstrated in a compelling simulation how segregation can create a scenario where economic downturns are heavily absorbed by areas of concentrated poverty.[12] When race and class segregation are interrelated, this specifically means that poor communities of color shoulder a heavier economic burden. In the context of an ongoing housing crisis in an area that was hit particularly hard by the housing bust, the pattern of segregation in Fresno County created an uneven distribution of evictions and displacement, with families of color seeing the most precipitous drops in housing value and poor families of color experiencing evictions at a higher rate than anybody else.[13] 

The eviction rate in 2016 in Fresno County was 2.16 percent, meaning that just over 2 percent of renters were formally evicted that year.[14] While this seems like a negligible percentage, 2 percent amounts to over 3,000 families displaced from their homes in a single year. The volume of evictions physically manifests in the form of standing room-only crowds within the courtroom. In relative terms, the eviction rate in Fresno County is substantially higher than in both San Francisco County (0.25 percent) and Los Angeles County (0.58 percent), as well as in the state of California overall (0.83 percent). In addition, we have reason to believe that the number of families evicted each year in Fresno is perhaps thousands more when informal evictions, or evictions that happen outside of the court system, are considered.[15]

Families who are informally evicted often vacate before the formal eviction process begins in order to avoid court action, which could incur fees and tarnish their record as a tenant. These are more likely to be impoverished families who cannot afford the added costs of responding to a court Summons and Complaint. In Fresno and surrounding rural communities, where there is also a large population of undocumented and mixed-status families in addition to families in poverty, we suspect that the number of informal evictions is even higher because of families who fear court action due to their immigration status. Even without data on informal evictions however, the number of formal evictions alone is shockingly high. Our research suggests some possible explanations for why evictions occur at such a significantly higher rate in the Central Valley than in areas with more notorious affordable housing issues.

In our previous report[16], we found that in 80-90 percent of eviction cases, the reason for the eviction was unpaid rent. In the majority of these cases, the amount of rent owed was less than two months’ worth. Here, then, is the first clue: rent burden. Rent burden is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as the percentage of household income that is spent on rent. A family that spends more than 30 percent of their household income on rent is considered “rent-burdened.” The number is somewhat arbitrary, but it captures families who have less of a financial cushion when something goes wrong – an unforeseen medical incident, an accident, a sudden job loss or drop in income. In San Francisco County, where rents are among the highest in the country, rent burden is 27.5 percent, which means the typical family spends just over a quarter of their income on rent. In contrast, in Fresno County rent burden is 34.7 percent. Rental costs may be higher in the Bay Area, but costs relative to income matter. In Fresno County, the typical renter household is rent-burdened.[17] In areas characterized by high levels of poverty, the typical family is severely rent-burdened. To reiterate, a severely rent-burdened household is defined by HUD as a household that spends half or more of its household income on rent. 

Eviction Court and the Prioritization of Property

With the typical family spending over 30 percent of their income on rent, it is not a surprise that many families fail to pay rent, triggering an eviction filing almost as soon as rent is past due. From the perspective of property-owners and the court, this is reason enough to abruptly order a family out of their home. In eviction court, this process is quick and brutal. We have seen families appear for their court date unaware that their story of impending homelessness, catastrophic financial loss, and emotional and mental trauma would hold no bearing in a setting where the main priority is to protect the property and the financial interests of the landlord. Eviction court is a sphere dominated by attorneys who have made a career out of representing landlords, the same handful of predominately men appearing every week with an attitude towards the whole affair as something routine, each judgment seeming to be a foregone conclusion in favor of the landlord. The gender and racial disparities are apparent, with women of color overrepresented among tenants who appear in eviction court and White men overrepresented among the attorneys. As one tenant, a single Black mother in Fresno County, remarked on the power imbalance in the tenant-landlord attorney dynamic, “It was a lawyer against a little Black girl.”[18] This mother was ultimately evicted with her young son after a confusing court process that left her with no option to fight her case.

In our previous study of evictions filed in 2016 in Fresno County, we found that 73 percent of the landlords in our sample had legal representation compared to only 1 percent of tenants.[19] Not once, after months of observation, did we witness a judgment in favor of a tenant. Most families who we observed or spoke to appeared in court without any realization that they were entering partway through an ongoing process of filed paperwork, evidence-gathering, and legal consultation on the plaintiff’s (i.e. landlord’s) side. In many cases, tenants were not aware that they had missed their opportunity to file an answer, which must happen typically within five days of receiving the eviction notice, or that to have their side of the story heard they would need to have a trial separate from the unlawful detainer hearing. These trials usually occur the same day, catching tenants by surprise and without the needed evidence or witnesses to defend their case. This gives tenants little time to seek legal advice and gather documents. Oftentimes, we witnessed trials occurring within an hour of the hearing. And here, in seeking to understand why evictions happen at a higher rate in Fresno County than in other areas, is our second explanation for why evictions are so frequent: a woefully imbalanced justice system with few protections in place for tenants. 

While some court processes, such as small and large claims cases, are slow and cases can carry on for months, eviction cases, known in legal terms as unlawful detainer cases, are moved through the system with astounding speed.[20] In Fresno County, we found that most cases end in default or they are resolved and renters are evicted within a month of the initial court filing. The emphasis on property and the prioritization of the needs of property-owners is a key reason why this is so. Judges often frame their decisions as prioritizing the return of the property back to the property-owner. When talking about the property itself, judges use terms such as “expedite” and “urgent.” In contrast, there is little concern in the legal process for the tenant and their far more urgent need to stay housed. In the rare instance that tenants are truly able to confidently present their case to the judge, tenants openly express anxiety over not knowing where to go once they are locked out. Pleas are often met with expressions of sympathy from the judge but nonetheless cold resolution from the ruling, which holds that they must vacate the property or be forced out. Evictions are whiplash-fast and are considered a concluded matter almost as soon as the tenant is served with a notice. Ultimately the law is designed to put the needs of the property-owner over the needs of the tenant, who has no claim to ownership. Thus the matter of returning the property to the property-owners is often handled very quickly and decisions almost always fall in favor of the landlord. As evidence to this point, Eviction Lab data reports that of the 3,058 eviction court filings in Fresno County in 2016, 3,036 resulted in evictions – 99.3 percent. Meanwhile, the remaining issue of determining money damages that the tenant may be responsible for can be placed on a different, slower timeline. 

Other actors in the eviction process, including the attorneys and law enforcement, also demonstrate the prioritization of property over humanity. In our survey research and advocacy work, tenants have described sometimes overly forceful behavior from authorities, such as sheriff’s deputies kicking down the front door while children were home alone. The overall motivation of landlord attorneys is to win cases and to collect fees that renters are typically ordered to pay, leading them to ruthlessly confuse and mislead tenants. Tenants are called to meet with landlord attorneys, without attorneys of their own, in the hallway or in small conference rooms in the courthouse. As the attorneys interact with tenants, it becomes clear whose interests they represent. We observed on numerous occasions landlord attorneys frame the situation in ways that discredit tenants’ statements and evidence, invoking anxiety and fear in the tenant, which only adds to an already stressful and confusing situation. Some of the tactics that we observed include presenting ledgers that do not include all of the payments that the tenants have made and muddling timelines so that the tenant can no longer recall dates or the order in which events occurred. Even though tenants bring their own evidence of money orders purchased and rent checks cashed, they soon begin to doubt their own account or worry that the evidence will be insufficient to win their case. Landlord attorneys make matters worse by explaining to tenants what the cost will be if they lose their case rather than settling for an agreement with the landlord.

Tenants have everything to lose, and within minutes they are forced to make a decision that is far from their original objective when they arrived at court, which was to keep their home. Now, after feeling intimidated and confused, their objective becomes: escape the court process with as little long-term consequence as possible. The property and the interests of the property-owner are the primary concern of the court, and while there are mediators to facilitate negotiations between landlords and tenants, nobody stands up for the tenant in the courtroom. The roles of advocates and activists could make a significant difference here, a factor that we discuss further in our conclusions.

Finally, the third explanation is the lack of local policies that protect renters. In California, there are jurisdictions where renter protections are well-established. However, they are very few in number: according to Tenants Together, only 23 out of 482 cities in California have rent control and/or “just cause” policies in place.[21] Rent control effectively caps increases on rent to keep housing costs more affordable, while “just cause” requires landlords to justify their reason for issuing an eviction. Tenant protection laws are not without their controversy[22], but regardless of what other effects they may have, we found that in cities where these laws are in place, evictions are far more likely to be on the decline in tandem with an improving post-recession economy. In an analysis of eviction rates from 2006 to 2016 in California, we found that 70 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities with tenant protection laws in place saw eviction rates decline over the ten-year period. In comparison, only 46 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities without tenant protection laws experienced a decline in evictions. Notably, none of the twenty-three cities with local tenant protection laws are located in the Central Valley. 

The recent enactment of the Tenant Protection Act of 2019[23] in California, which among other things makes “just cause” evictions the law across the state and caps rent increases, may improve matters in this regard. But the Central Valley continues to be notoriously lacking in local protections for tenants, a fact that is not well-understood but certainly observable in most jurisdictions, and this is reflected in the court system where tenants have little power to defend their rights by law due to a lack of legal representation and an unjustly opaque legal process that leaves many of them in a losing position over a failure to follow procedure. Recently, Nelson[24] highlighted the discordance between how the tenant perceives the legal process of eviction and the process itself. Oftentimes, tenants misunderstand their relationship with the landlord and do not expect the swiftness of court action. Community advocates and grassroots organizations who fight for housing justice are carrying much of the critical work of educating tenants through “Know Your Rights” workshops, flyers, and resources. With local tenant unions in the Central Valley, outreach and organizing efforts could go even further.

Evictions as a Tool of the Social Divides

We have up to this point written in very general terms about eviction trends and procedures in the Central Valley and more specifically in Fresno, but our discussion about the historically established class and race divides in Fresno is important to bear in mind, because these determine who is more likely to face eviction. According to national estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey, 3.3 percent of Black renters reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to only 1.3 percent of White renters. For those who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, the disparity is even more staggering, with 4.4 percent reporting an eviction threat. Poverty and rent-burden are also factors, reflecting the relationship between housing insecurity and financial insecurity. Of those who are severely rent-burdened, 2.6 percent reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to 1.4 percent of those whose housing costs relative to income are moderate. Of renters who live below the poverty line, 3.2 percent reported receiving an eviction threat compared to only 1 percent of those whose income is 200 percent of the poverty threshold. 

The obvious consequence of evictions is that families who are evicted find themselves suddenly severely housing insecure. But the fallout of an eviction is even more widespread and far-reaching than its effect on housing options. In our analysis of eviction court records in Fresno County, we calculated a measure that we call “compounded burden.” As we described above, most tenants are evicted over failure to pay rent. But the final money judgment includes the original amount owed plus other costs: holdover damages (i.e. the money that the landlord has lost in unpaid rent since the eviction) and attorney and court fees. The compounded burden is the factor by which the initial amount owed is multiplied when the final money judgment is made. 

On average, tenants end up having to pay four times what they initially owed. The average tenant in our study owed approximately $1000 at the time of eviction. Based on the average compounded burden, the average tenant will find herself owing $4000 when the final judgment is made. If this amount goes unpaid, the State of California permits a 10% annual interest rate on the amount owed. Each year that the amount goes unpaid, this hypothetical average tenant who no doubt struggles with a multitude of financial hardships will owe another $400. Indeed, from our observations in eviction court it was not unusual to hear of a money judgment that would include nearly $1000 in attorney and court fees alone along with holdover damages that would amount to 1-2 more months’ rent in addition to the initial amount owed. Another factor associated with compounded burden is the prolonged period of time that vulnerable tenants are forced to carry debt. For example, a tenant and landlord enter into a stipulation (agreement between two parties approved by the judge) in the amount of $4,300, which includes past due rent, holdover damages, and court and attorney fees. The tenant, who makes a minimum wage, can only afford to pay $35 per month and is now carrying this debt for 10 years. Evictions alone may not affect a tenant’s credit score. However, if a tenant is ordered to pay money damages and fails to pay, they can be sent to collections. A credit reporting agency then places derogatory information on their credit report. Evictions with money damages are a twofold blow. Threefold, if you include the fact that a judgment accrues interest.[25]  

And this measure of compounded burden does not account for all of the other costs incurred from a sudden displacement – moving costs, storage fees, hours missed at work, extra transportation costs to handle legal obligations, search for a new place, and drive children to schools in neighborhoods that they no longer live in, the exorbitant cost of taking up temporary shelter in a motel, which many families do in Fresno[26], and the repeated fees attached to each rental application (up to $35 per application[27]). It becomes apparent that an eviction, triggered by financial hardship, begets even greater financial hardship. When one considers that the families who are more likely to face an eviction are families of color, have children, and live in poverty, we can understand how so many social disparities can persist. 

Consider, for example, the impact that an eviction has on a child – after all, children are one of the most likely populations to experience eviction.[28] The social lives of children are anchored in multiple ways – their families, but also their neighborhoods and especially their schools. When a family is evicted, they are not likely to stay in the same neighborhood. This disruption removes a child from their neighborhood and may eventually force them to enroll in a new school, breaking critical social ties with teachers, classmates, and neighborhood friends. When we examined the frequency of evictions by month in Fresno County, we found that evictions happen at a high rate every month out of the year, which means that hundreds of families are evicted in the middle of the school year as well as during summer and winter breaks (Figure 5).[29] Even if a child is able to stay in the same school, school attendance becomes difficult to maintain while the family is displaced and the parents are managing the situation. An eviction event can be traumatic for a child despite a parent’s best efforts to protect them, particularly when the eviction is carried out by law enforcement. Children coping with instability in their lives are more likely to face challenges when it comes to mental health and development.[30] With conscious support from educators, this sudden disruption can be mitigated in its impact on the child’s social, emotional, and academic outcomes. However, while school districts track an overlapping population of students who are homeless, they do not specifically track students who have experienced an eviction. 

Figure 5. Eviction filings by month in Fresno County, 2016.

The spatial dynamics of these trends again must be considered. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in their influential work American Apartheid[31], drew out how segregation works as an effective mechanism for reinforcing inequality and oppression. When segregation is in place, it becomes very easy for the dominant group – wealthy Whites – to hoard resources and opportunities even while living in the same metropolitan area as other groups. In a metropolitan area, this can happen through municipal boundaries, with Whites moving to suburbs with exclusionary zoning and cutting off Black and Latinx families from their tax base and resources.[32] As mentioned previously, this is the story that is told about the city of Clovis. In a single city, however, where all residents to a limited degree have access to the same tax base, more covert tactics must be used to maintain race and class boundaries and restrict access to the higher investments and newer development of White neighborhoods. The favored tactic in this scenario is housing discrimination. 

There are many ways that housing discrimination can occur: for example, through steering, whereby realtors and property managers selectively show properties to families on the basis of their race and/or income[33], through housing loan discrimination[34], or through screening out prospective tenants who have Section 8 vouchers, (i.e. housing assistance). In California, all of these tactics are now outlawed under federal and state laws (e.g. Fair Housing Act of 1968 and SB 329). While this does not stop these forms of discrimination from occurring and enforcement is weak at best, it certainly reduces their frequency. But there is one extremely powerful, legal way to screen out low-income applicants, which in a city like Fresno can also effectively block many Black and Latinx households: deny them housing on the basis of an eviction record. When a tenant is evicted by the court, the eviction appears on their tenant record for seven years. Evicted tenants are placed on what is essentially a tenant blacklist with little chance of finding rental housing outside of areas of high poverty. In talking about the eviction on her record, one tenant said, “I’ve got seven years,” as if it were a prison sentence. In a way, an eviction on record likely does have a similar impact as a felony conviction when it comes to finding housing, especially in an area with an enormous deficit in affordable housing. Another tenant, a single mother with her daughter, expressed fear of losing her Section 8 housing following an eviction judgment. The loss of public housing assistance is an enormous blow, given that the waitlist for public housing assistance is closed in Fresno County and families on the list wait years to receive assistance.

The financial and emotional destruction that an eviction can create for a family is so immense that it is difficult to overstate, but evictions also contribute to instability in neighborhoods. If there were no geographic pattern to evictions, we would speak only of the effect on the family. But evictions are not geographically random and they happen in certain areas with remarkable frequency. In Fresno, specific parts of the county and especially in the city of Fresno experience higher rates of eviction than others (Figure 6).[35] In neighborhoods of concentrated poverty where the population is predominately Black, Latinx, or Southeast Asian, and the typical family is spending over half of their income on rent, the eviction rates reach as high as 10 percent, which means that nearly 1 in 10 families are evicted every year in these neighborhoods. This, again, does not account for the informal evictions that are also occurring in these areas. 

Figure 6. Eviction rates in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.

With such a high rate of turnover, neighborhood cohesion and solidarity is very difficult to establish, which makes it challenging for residents to build safe and healthy communities and, importantly, mobilize and wield political power. This particular consequence of evictions is two-sided: while poor communities with high instability have difficulty developing political capital, wealthier stable communities are able to lobby on their own behalf and claim more of the city’s resources and investment. The blame for this imbalance is often directed towards the poor communities, with local agencies such as the police department referring to them as “broken” neighborhoods and letting others assume that it is the residents themselves who did the breaking. But the instability of these neighborhoods is largely affected by external mechanisms of destabilization, including evictions.  

Given that evictions happen at a higher rate in neighborhoods where poor, Black, and Latinx families live[36], segregation is reinforced. Because these families now have an eviction on their record as a tenant, they find themselves barred from entering wealthier, Whiter neighborhoods where families enjoy better-funded schools, maintained roads, more parks and greenspace, and newer housing stock. They not only become stuck in neighborhoods marred by disinvestment, they actually sink deeper into these areas as they must now find housing where landlords are willing to overlook their eviction record. In a city like Fresno where slum housing is numerous[37], these families have a higher likelihood of finding themselves in the clutches of slumlords, living in substandard housing with an even higher risk of eviction. 

Many more evicted tenants may end up homeless, but the likelihood of homelessness following an eviction is not equal for all tenants. National estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey reveal that among renters, White households, households above the poverty line, and households who are not rent-burdened are more likely to say that they can find a new home if they are evicted. Black householders, severely rent-burdened households, and households living below the poverty line are more likely to say that they will go to a shelter following an eviction (Figure 7).[38]  In our ongoing eviction court study, we have yet to survey a tenant who knows where they will live after being evicted from their current home, with some expressing only the possibility that they could move in with a family member and others telling us that they have moved into a motel room. 

Figure 7. Where renters say they are likely to go if evicted, by level of rent burden (i.e. percent of household income claimed by monthly housing expenses).

Beyond the communities that suffer the direct consequences of housing insecurity and evictions, the jurisdiction also pays a price for not doing more to keep families in stable housing. The cost of evicting a family who could not afford rent and certainly cannot afford the added fees accrued through the court eviction process is borne by local governments. Counties must deal with the cost of processing thousands of evictions a year, and both cities and counties must devote more funding to public programs to support a growing homeless population who not only lack shelter but may also have more complicated healthcare needs.[39]

After the Pandemic

When we first began researching and writing on this topic, the COVID-19 virus was not a part of the conversation. But now we are in the middle of a pandemic and what appears to be a massive societal shift as we rapidly adjust our entire way of life to prevent the spread of a highly infectious disease. Social scientists and social advocates fear that this shift will follow the well-worn paths carved out by centuries of systemic oppression and resulting social inequalities. As unemployment surges in the immediate economic fallout of a nation under siege, we have every reason to expect a widening of the chasm between those with wealth and those without. 

In the weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic truly began to hit home in the United States, housing advocates raised the alarm based on what we already knew about the precariousness of being a renter. In the Central Valley, where the majority of renters experience unsustainable levels of rent burden, we knew that the public health safety measures put in place which resulted in cutting wage-labor hours, layoffs, and school closures would leave low-income renters unable to make next month’s rent. Some local jurisdictions in California acted quickly to protect renters, but none in the Central Valley led the way. In Kern County, only the City of Delano[40] instated any renter protections. San Joaquin[41] and Stanislaus[42] counties adopted emergency resolutions with language revoking commercial and residential landlord authority to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. However, both resolutions offer zero guidelines on what tenants can or should do if they are served with a notice. The City of Stockton was the first in the Central Valley to enact emergency measures temporarily halting some evictions, but they are inadequate for providing much-needed protections for the most vulnerable renters.

In the City of Fresno, the reaction was lethargic and the final policy decision, which came only after Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-28-20 authorizing local jurisdictions to take emergency action on evictions[43], fell far short of providing needed protection for renters.[44] Fresno City Council, like other local governments, passed a policy that placed the burden of protection squarely on renters. Renters needed to be aware of the ordinance and then notify their landlord in writing of their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 and provide documentation within 10 days of notifying their landlords. Evictions for reasons other than nonpayment were excluded from the order (e.g. unauthorized occupants to care for a loved one or shelter in place with family). This left many renters still at risk of eviction. 

Ultimately, only around 10 percent of the jurisdictions across California chose to instate any sort of emergency ordinance for renters during peak months of unemployment. Most of the orders adopted a similar approach, helping renters establish a legal defense against eviction for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. Under the emergency ordinances put in place by local jurisdictions and another executive order by Governor Newsom[45], some tenants were given the opportunity to document their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 so that, upon receiving an eviction notice, they could respond to the complaint in court with evidence that their failure to pay rent was due to loss of income or health issues related to the pandemic. This policy is fundamentally different from an eviction moratorium, which legal experts describe as a comprehensive ban on eviction filings.[46] The only example of a moratorium in California was in Oakland where landlords are able to bring a small claims suit for past due rent but cannot file an eviction lawsuit. 

But still, there is reason to hope. While the decisions by local and state policymakers to address eviction still inherently privilege the landlord over the tenant, many policymakers made it clear that they are not ignorant of the calls from housing advocates. In early April 2020, the Judicial Council of California, which is responsible for making rules for courts in the state of California, did what other government entities would not and halted the processing of all eviction filings (with some public safety exceptions) for the duration of the pandemic emergency[47], temporarily, but comprehensively, addressing the gap in protections put in place by the Governor’s executive order and local emergency orders. The ruling was lifted on September 1 but was followed by the passage of AB 3088 in the California legislature, which protects tenants from eviction due to nonpayment of rent through February 2021. Immediately after the passage of AB 3088, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions in the name of public health. 

These are signs of progress. The recognition that many renters are housing insecure and vulnerable to crises positions our society to make long-lasting structural changes. However, the will to shift the balance of power between owners and tenants is still anemic in the Central Valley, with few jurisdictions signaling that they are considering the aftereffects of the pandemic on renters when the emergency ordinances are lifted and the business of evictions can return to full operation. This means that once the emergency orders are lifted, if tenants are served with a notice, they must still go through the court process of responding to an eviction lawsuit and gathering their own evidence to defend their case. Tenants must still be prepared to navigate the legal system to retain their housing, almost always without legal assistance or representation. Therefore, the systemic problems that we identified as contributing to the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley prior to this pandemic, such as the lack of legal representation for tenants, are likely to remain in place and allow this current state of emergency to exacerbate the eviction crisis in the region. Indeed, California scored only a 0.9 out of 5 on the Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard[48], a policy analysis tool designed to evaluate the extent to which state governments are protecting tenants from displacement during and after the pandemic, because statewide orders do little to truly prevent a surge in evictions. They choose only to defer rather than halt evictions.

We can also assume that informal evictions, which operate outside of the law and therefore are unlikely to be affected by policy changes aimed at formal evictions, will carry on. These evictions primarily impact undocumented or mixed-status immigrant households and extremely financially precarious households – the same households that are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection due to a reliance on essential worker jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing, and service industries.[49] To be protected by the COVID-19 emergency policies, one must be privileged by the law in the first place. Based on Desmond’s work[50], the implication is that undocumented families, extremely poor families, and families impacted by mass incarceration are less likely to find protection from displacement during the pandemic, especially if they are renting from slumlords.

We cannot say with certainty what our society will look like when we come out on the other side of this global crisis, but we can formulate some predictions regarding evictions based on the existing evidence. Without taking action to instate long-term protections for renters, we expect to return to a standing-room only eviction court when society is restored to something akin to normal. Tenants are placed at an institutional disadvantage by a society that has always privileged the needs and interests of those who own property over those who do not. This truth is reflected even in the COVID-19 emergency ordinances, which only extend protection from evictions while the state of emergency is ongoing. Once the public health crisis is over and the danger is no longer imminent, there is no obvious plan to protect renters from the full force of eviction proceedings throughout the Central Valley, which means that the emergency ordinances are not about making radical changes to reduce the financial and social vulnerability of renters. 

Conclusion: What Should Be Done?

The skeptic who asks whether the goal should be to reduce evictions may now understand that the consequences of eviction are multilayered and far-reaching, exacerbating deep family poverty, uprooting children from their schools and communities, and destabilizing neighborhoods. Anybody who believes in the importance of a functioning society ought to agree that these issues, especially when they are systemic, are signs of societal dysfunction. In the Central Valley, with high levels of poverty and a worsening housing crisis, we argue that we are witnessing dysfunction. We also argue that stable housing is critical for giving families opportunities and ensuring their health and well-being. Housing may not solve every issue, but it certainly, as Desmond[51] so vividly demonstrated in his work, gives families stable ground to stand on and address other issues. 

Tens of thousands of eviction lawsuits are filed annually throughout the Central Valley and even greater numbers of informal evictions occur outside of the legal realm. The narrative that displacement is a problem in the Bay Area and Southern California and rents are affordable in the Central Valley is false and harmful. Affordability is relative to wages, cost of living, the supply of affordable housing, and strong public policies that protect tenants and landlords. This false narrative must be challenged because it serves to exacerbate the existing housing crisis in the Central Valley as residents from Southern California and the Bay Area are pushed out of their communities and spill over into the Central Valley. The Central Valley has the highest rate of evictions in California and the majority of cases end in a Clerk Default Judgment. This means that tenants automatically lose, by default, before they ever have a chance to share their side of the story. Too many tenants cannot access or navigate the complicated court system within the very narrow window permitted. This leads us to conclude that the court system is designed to operate as a debt collector or legally sanctioned displacement instrument for landlords. The bottom line: the system prioritizes the protection of private property and property-owners over poor families and families of color.   

Our previous analysis of court records in addition to our observations and survey data from eviction court have led us to some possible solutions. In our research, we found that most tenants (83%) owed less than two months’ rent and half of these tenants owed only one month plus late fees, meaning that often tenants are issued a notice almost as soon as their rent is late.[52] We found that the property owners with the largest portfolios only accounted for just over 2 percent of all evictions in Fresno County. This leads us to conclude that the majority of evictors are landlords who own few properties and in many cases may only own one other property which they are financing and renting out, perhaps as a strategy for building personal wealth. We say this with the understanding that slumlords with large portfolios use multiple LLCs to obscure the size of their holdings. But the ‘mom and pop’ landlords, understandably, cannot afford for their tenants to miss rent. Local emergency rent funds could prevent a majority of evictions from occurring, ultimately helping the tenant family stay in their home until a long-term solution is reached and protecting the landlord from sudden financial difficulties. Fully-funded local rental assistance programs are crucial to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. Emergency rent (or relocation) assistance is a proactive measure that will help stabilize housing for tens of thousands of Central Valley renters. Over the span of the COVID-19 pandemic, following pressure from housing advocates, major Central Valley cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton passed emergency rent assistance programs. However, these programs are COVID-19 focused and largely funded with CARES Act funds – the first major COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress – and thus there is no indication that these rental assistance programs will remain in place or stay funded when the state of emergency ends. 

Further, John Pollock, Coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel argues that providing vulnerable tenants access to legal representation in eviction cases is critical to prevent displacement.[53] A growing number of jurisdictions across the nation (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York) agree and findings that assess the impact of these programs on reducing evictions are promising. New York City, the first city to implement a Right to Counsel for eviction, experienced a 14% decrease in eviction filings in the first year and a significant number of families (84%) who were served with an unlawful detainer lawsuit remained in their homes.[54] 

Similarly, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590)[55], which launched housing pilot projects in six California counties (Kern, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Yolo) led to positive outcomes for tenants. Tenants received either full-scope legal representation (i.e. having an attorney file pleadings, and represent the tenant in court, etc.) or access to court services such as legal advice and/or were provided assistance filling out and filing court documents. With greater access to legal representation tenants were able to successfully navigate the court process, negotiate a fair settlement (70%), have their case heard by a judge and secure a favorable outcome. Major findings from the first-year evaluation of San Francisco’s universal right to counsel program found a 10% reduction in eviction lawsuit filings from 2018 to 2019, an increase in housing stability among tenants (67% of those receiving full legal representation were able to remain in their homes), with an even higher rate of success (80%) for African American tenants. Although the program does not restrict access on the basis of household income, 85% of recipients were extremely low or low income.[56] The cards are stacked against tenants who are poor, and among economically vulnerable Black and Latinx tenants in particular. A civil right to counsel is only one tool, but it is proving effective in leveling the playing field for tenants in eviction court. As policymakers search for solutions to address the eviction crisis, especially as a means to combat long-standing racial inequities, a civil right to counsel that includes proactive rent assistance shows promise in addressing economic and racial inequities in housing. In addition, while most housing advocacy groups cannot give legal advice, they have increasingly carried some of the work of legal aid organizations by organizing workshops, creating toolkits, appearing at hearings, and sharing information through social media networks to help tenants prepare for eviction court and defend themselves from illegal landlord activity. These efforts should be more fully supported with public funding and resources. 

Housing advocates have been regularly attending city council and board of supervisor meetings across the Central Valley to give public comment, in addition to holding research meetings with local elected officials and state representatives, to inform elected leaders of the eviction crisis, pressure them to take action, and bring concrete policy solutions to the table. We believe that when elected leaders are presented with evidence of a crisis impacting thousands of people in their community annually with no end in sight, they have a moral, ethical, and legal duty to act and act quickly. Some have risen to their duty under the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis by enacting temporary restrictions on evictions and rent relief programs, but the actions taken fall woefully short of instating long-term stabilizing protections. We have outlined the multitude of problems associated with the eviction crisis, the longstanding inequities that lock poor families and families of color out of safe, decent, and affordable housing opportunities, and demonstrated how the eviction court process disadvantages renters. We provided evidence-based solutions that elected leaders can enact immediately to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. We have demonstrated that the Central Valley must be included in the conversations about housing justice. We are now, in the middle of a pandemic, certainly in an unprecedented time but crises have a way of bringing to the surface longstanding injustices which create the opportunity for systemic change. We can reimagine a new normal where every human lives in a safe and affordable home in a thriving neighborhood.

Notes

[1] California Housing Partnership, “Fresno County’s Housing Emergency and Proposed Solutions,” April 2018, https://1p08d91kd0c03rlxhmhtydpr-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Fresno-HNR-2018.pdf

[2] Jill Cowan and Robert Gebeloff, “As Rents Outrun Pay, California Families Live On a Knife’s Edge,” New York Times, November 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/21/us/california-housing-crisis-rent.html

[3] Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishing, 2016)

[4] Ibid.

[5] California Housing Partnership (2018)

[6] “Eviction Lab”, 2016, http://evictionlab.org

[7] American Community Survey 5-year estimates (2016)

[8] Manuela Tobias, “Clovis is Mostly White and That’s No Accident, Says Group Suing the City Over Housing,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), October 23, 2019,  https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article236544733.html

[9] Ramon D. Chacón, “The Beginning of Racial Segregation: The Chinese in West Fresno and Chinatown’s Role as Red Light District, 1870s-1920s,” Southern California Quarterly 70, no. 4 (1988)

[10] Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, Accessed April 20, 2020, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/

[11] Naomi Cytron, “The Enduring Challenge of Concentrated Poverty in America: Case Study of Fresno, California,” April 2009, https://www.frbsf.org/community-development/files/fresno_case_study.pdf

[12] Douglas Massey, “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass,” American Journal of Sociology 96, no. 2 (1990)

[13] Richard Shearer, John Ng, Alan Berube, and Alec Friedhoff, “Metro Monitor 2016: Tracking Growth, Prosperity, and Inclusion in the 100 Largest U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” January 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/MetroMonitor.pdf

[14] Eviction Lab (2016)

[15] Desmond (2016)

[16] Janine Nkosi, Amber R. Crowell, Patience Milrod, Veronica Garibay, and Ashley Werner, “Evicted in Fresno: Facts for Housing Advocates,” (2019), https://faithinthevalley.org/evicted-fresno/ ; Janine Nkosi, Amber R. Crowell, Veronica Garibay, and Ashley Werner, “Evicted in San Joaquin: Facts for Housing Advocates,” (2020), https://faithinthevalley.org/evicted-san-joaquin/

[17] Eviction Lab (2016)

[18] Manuela Tobias, “30 Tenants Received Eviction Notices in Madera Ahead of New California Law. Here’s Why,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), November 19, 2019, https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article237339549.html

[19] Nkosi et al. (2019)

[20] Aimee Inglis and Dean Preston, “California Evictions are Fast and Frequent,” May 2018, http://boomcalifornia.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/cf71b-ca_evictions_are_fast_and_frequent.pdf 

[21] Tenants Together, “List of Rent Control Ordinances by City,” Accessed April 18, 2020, http://www.tenantstogether.org/resources/list-rent-control-ordinances-city

[22] Rebecca Diamond, Tim McQuade, and Franklin Qian, “The Effects of Rent Control Expansion on Tenants, Landlords, and Inequality: Evidence from San Francisco,” American Economic Review 109, no. 9, (2019)

[23] Western Center on Law and Poverty, “AB 1482 – California Rent Cap & Just Cause For Eviction Resources,” February 20, 2020, https://wclp.org/eviction-resources-in-response-to-ab-1482/

[24] Kyle Nelson, “The Microfoundations of Bureaucratic Outcomes: Causes and Consequences of Interpretive Disjuncture in Eviction Cases,” Social Problems, doi: 10.1093/socpro/spz050, (2019)

[25] The Judicial Branch of California, “Paying the Judgment,” Accessed April 21, 2020, https://www.courts.ca.gov/1327.htm?rdeLocaleAttr=en

[26] Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado, “On the Verge of Homelessness, Fresno Motels Are Last-chance Housing. City Eyes Reform,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), January 15, 2020,  https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article237853109.html

[27] Janet Portman, “California Law on Tenant Application Screening Fees and Credit Reports,” Nolo, Accessed April 27, 2020, https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/california-law-tenant-application-screening-fees-credit-reports.html

[28] Matthew Desmond, Weihua An, Richelle Winkler, and Thomas Ferriss, “Evicting Children,” Social Forces 92, no. 1, (2013)

[29] Fresno County Superior Court (2016)

[30] Heather Sandstrom and Sandra Huerta, “The Negative Effects of Instability on Child Development,” September 2013, https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/32706/412899-The-Negative-Effects-of-Instability-on-Child-Development-A-Research-Synthesis.PDF

[31] Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993)

[32] Jessica Trounstine, Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)

[33] Margery Austin Turner, Rob Santos, Diane K. Levy, Doug Wissoker, Claudia Aranda, and Rob Pitingolo, “Housing Discrimination Against Racial and Ethnic Minorities 2012: Executive Summary,” June 2013, https://www.huduser.gov/portal/Publications/pdf/HUD-514_HDS2012_execsumm.pdf

[34] Vedika Ahuja and Jason Richardson, “State of Gentrification: Home Lending to Communities of Color in California,” December 6, 2017, https://greenlining.org/publications/2017/state-of-gentrification-lending-to-people-of-color-in-california/

[35] Eviction Lab (2016)

[36] Michael C. Lens, Kyle Nelson, Ashley Gromis, and Yiwen Kuai, “The Neighborhood Context of Eviction in Southern California,” City & Community, https://doi.org/10.111.12487 (2020); Nkosi et al. (2019)

[37] Bohnia Lee, “These Housing Inspectors Found 4,200 Violations. They Are Investigating 3,700 More,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), January 25, 2018, https://www.fresnobee.com/news/special-reports/housing-blight/article196721299.html

[38] American Housing Survey national estimates (2017)

[39] Emily Peiffer, “Why We Need to Stop Evictions Before They Happen,” July 25, 2018, https://housingmatters.urban.org/feature/why-we-need-stop-evictions-they-happen

[40] City of Delano, “An Urgency Ordinance Of The City Council Of The City Of Delano Temporarily Prohibiting Evictions Of Residential Tenants Arising From Income Loss Or Substantial Medical Expenses Related To The Covid- 19 Pandemic,” March 26, 2020, https://www.cityofdelano.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/2465

[41] San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, “Adopt a Resolution Exercising the Police Powers of the County of San Joaquin to Impose Substantive Limitation on Residential and Commercial Evictions,” March 24, 2020, http://sanjoaquincountyca.iqm2.com/Citizens/FileOpen.aspx?Type=1&ID=2325&Inline=True

[42] Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, “Exercise Of The County’s Police Power To Impose Substantive Limitations On Residential And Commercial Evictions,” March 31, 2020, http://www.stancounty.com/bos/agenda/2020/20200331/DIS02.pdf

[43] Office of Governor Gavin Newsom,  “Governor Newsom Issues Executive Order to Protect Renters and Homeowners During COVID-19 Pandemic,” March 16, 2020, https://www.gov.ca.gov/2020/03/16/governor-newsom-issues-executive-order-to-protect-renters-and-homeowners-during-covid-19-pandemic/

[44] City of Fresno, “An Emergency Ordinance of the City of Fresno, California Amending Section 2-514 Of The Fresno Municipal Code Regarding The Covid-19 Pandemic Emergency,” April 23, 2020, https://fresno.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=8253540&GUID=A7927080-41BD-4464-AFCC-B3CFB68C3948

[45] Office of Governor Gavin Newsom, “Governor Newsom Takes Executive Action to Establish a Statewide Moratorium on Evictions,” March 27, 2020, https://www.gov.ca.gov/2020/03/27/governor-newsom-takes-executive-action-to-establish-a-statewide-moratorium-on-evictions/

[46] Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, “Press statement: Executive order falls short,” March 27, 2020, https://leadershipcounsel.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Press-statement-Gov-Newsom-Executive-Order_Evictions_Leadership-Counsel-March-27-2020.pdf

[47] Western Center on Law and Poverty, “Summary: California Courts Issue Emergency Rule On Evictions And Foreclosures,” April 13, 2020, https://wclp.org/summary-california-courts-emergency-rule-on-evictions-and-foreclosures/

[48] Eviction Lab, “COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard – California,” Accessed April 20, 2020, https://evictionlab.org/covid-policy-scorecard/ca/

[49] COVID-19 Farmworker Study, “Preliminary Data Brief,” July 27, 2020, http://covid19farmworkerstudy.org/survey/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/EN-COFS-Preliminary-Data-Brief_FINAL.pdf

[50] Desmond (2016)

[51] Ibid.

[52] Nkosi et al. (2019)

[53] Legal Aid Association of California, “A Right to Counsel in Civil Cases: History, Status, and the Latest Happenings,” August 14, 2017, https://www.laaconline.org/training/a-right-to-counsel-in-civil-cases-history-status-and-the-latest-happenings/

[54] Los Angeles Right to Counsel Coalition, “Right to Counsel Initiative: Goals and Framework,” Right to Counsel Working Group and “Stemming the Flow into Homelessness: A Proposal for a Tenants’ Right to Counsel in the City of Los Angeles,” November 1, 2019, http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2018/18-0610_rpt_MAYOR_11-01-2019.pdf

[55] Kelly L. Jarvis, Charlene E. Zil, Timothy Ho, Theresa Herrera Allen, and Lisa M. Lucas, “Evaluation of the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB590) Probate Pilot Project,” July 2017, https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/Shriver-Probate-2017.pdf

[56] Office of San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, “Supervisor Dean Preston Holds Hearing on Implementation for Right to Counsel Law,” February 24, 2020, http://civilrighttocounsel.org/uploaded_files/262/PRESS_RELEASE_-_Supervisor_Dean_Preston_Holds_Hearing_Monday_on_Implementation_for_Right_to_Counsel_Law.pdf

Amber R. Crowell is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on residential segregation, housing, social inequality, and race. She has published research on the spatial demography and driving factors behind racial residential segregation patterns. She is also a community advocate for tenants’ rights in the Central Valley, working to reduce evictions and establish a right to housing for all. She currently serves as Regional Housing Coordinator for the grassroots community organization Faith in the Valley and is an appointed member of the City of Fresno Anti-Displacement Task Force. 

Janine Nkosi is a dedicated and passionate sociologist, activist-educator, and community-based researcher. She is firmly committed to helping folks develop and deepen their sociological imagination through critical community-based research and organizing to address some of the most pressing issues in the community. Dr. Nkosi is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Fresno State and teaches full-time at Merritt College in Oakland, CA. She is the Regional Advisor for Faith in the Valley a grassroots community organization dedicated to working alongside residents to advance racial justice across the Central Valley. One of the campaigns Janine is involved in is the Healthy Housing Campaign, which is rooted in a belief that housing is a fundamental human right, and everyone deserves a safe, healthy, and deeply affordable place to call home. Janine’s teaching, research, and organizing philosophy are rooted in critical race methodologies, critical pedagogy, relational organizing, asset-based perspectives, and lived experience.

Postcards Series

We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community

Ilustracion 1 RGB

Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


Jenise Miller

On a Saturday morning in late October, public workers in downtown Los Angeles block off the stretch of Broadway from Olympic Boulevard to Hill Street. Around 10 am, a crowd gathers, donned in blue and red garments, shirts embroidered with mola, white polleras with bright-colored pom-poms, or Panama flags draped across their backs, to celebrate the Annual Panamanian Independence Day Parade. Distant relatives and former neighbors spot each other and greet with air kisses on each cheek. The crowd travels with the parade down Broadway and ends with a battle of Panamanian bands at Pershing Square. By activating spaces like downtown, a small but significant, interconnected community of Black Panamanians made Los Angeles their home.

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The 2018 Senior Queen of the Parade waves at attendees along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.

While some have lived in Los Angeles since the 1960s, many Black Panamanian families moved to L.A. from Panama and other states such as New York, to live alongside African-Americans with roots in the American South during the 1970s and 1980s. As they sought housing in areas where other Black Panamanians already lived, a constellation of Black Panamanian families and individuals grew in South Los Angeles, North Long Beach, Watts, and Compton. Decades before they migrated to the United States, their grandparents left countries like Barbados, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and other Caribbean islands for Panama. Like them, they relied on family, friendship, and cultural practices.

Settling into their new city, they moved to affordable homes and several apartment complexes in Compton, including an apartment complex my mother, a canteen cashier at an aerospace company, managed. Known as “The Blvd,”because of its location on Long Beach Boulevard, one of Compton’s major thoroughfares, Black Panamanians came to occupy over half of the complex’s units. Its layout—apartments that faced each other with a communal space in the front and a walkway in the back that led to the next building—encouraged neighbors to interact and kids to play together. On Saturday mornings, music poured from every apartment: Anita Baker, Johnnie Taylor, Ruben Blades or Tabou Combo. The aroma of fried, sweet platanos and collard greens drifted between the apartments. During the summer, one neighbor sold duros, juices frozen in plastic cups, with flavors like tamarindo, ginger-infused jamaica, and, my favorite, coco, made with fresh coconut milk and shredded coconut, sweetened with cinnamon and nutmeg. If someone had a party, we all partied and feasted on delicacies such as saus (pickled pig feet with onions, cucumber, and white vinegar), chicheme (a drink made with sweetened milk, corn, and cinnamon), and Panamanian tamales (a spicy, reddish masa filled with green peas, peppers, a bone-in piece of chicken, and a prune, tripled wrapped, first in a banana leaf, then wax paper, then aluminum foil). For Nochebuena, my mother made pineapple glazed ham for everyone and rang in Navidad with the songs of Ismael Rivera, Oscar D’León, and Ruben Blades. Though the apartment’s location placed us in the cross-hairs of both gang violence and pedestrian-involved car accidents, we created spaces of joy by sharing Black Panamanian and African-American culture and resources.

On weekends, the Black Panamanian community throughout Los Angeles came together. The physical and social proximity of Compton, Watts, North Long Beach, and South Los Angeles, made it easy to gather in each others’ homes or in local, public spaces. On Saturday afternoons, a group of women, which included my mother, gallivanted to local or cross-town casinos, Compton’s Ramada Inn or Inglewood’s Hollywood Park and Casino, to play bingo. On Sundays, they headed east, out of Los Angeles County, to San Bernardino’s San Manuel Casino. If they didn’t want to drive, they got together in someone’s home, but kept the stakes high and brought their plata. The men played straight dominos in the dining room or backyard or joined the women in the living room, where you could hit on two or three in a row, before winning with the traditional five in a row. Their children commandeered the kids’ room to play video games or listen to hip-hop and dancehall music, growing hungrier as time passed before the evening’s host finished cooking rice and peas (red beans), guandú (also called gandules or gungo peas), or lentils, fried, sweet platanos, stewed chicken, and salad – potato or coleslaw. At times, food inspired the gathering, and someone prepared and sold dinners or fritura, fried finger foods such as hojaldas (a fried bread, also known as hojaldres/dras), empanadas, fried yucca, patacones (twice-fried green plantains), or carimañolas (mashed yucca filled with ground meat then fried). Whatever the occasion, we all ate and ate together.

Outside Shop hanging victor in hat and others

Victor and friends outside the shop. Photo courtesy of Victor

Some Saturdays I accompanied my father to Victor’s Upholstery Shop (known to everyone simply as Victor’s shop); this meant peeking into the shop to say hello then sitting in the car for what felt like hours while my father hung out. Initially located on Washington Boulevard in L.A.’s Arlington Heights, the upholstery shop occupied the corner unit of a large, white brick building, with peeling paint, no windows, and one front metal gate. Named for its proprietor—a slim, brown Panamanian, with a gold tooth and a Caribbean accent (like many Black Panamanians), who often dressed in a natty fit and cap—Victor opened the shop in 1965 and availed his business to the local Panamanian community. For decades, the shop doubled as a communication hub and hang-out spot. If you wanted to confirm information about an event, you called Victor’s shop. If you needed to purchase pre-sale tickets for the upcoming boat cruise or dance, you could buy them at Victor’s shop. When the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was ousted in 1989, the local news stations came to Victor’s shop to interview the Panamanian community. The layout of the space itself reflected its many functions. Bolts of fabric lined up like wallpaper on one wall, shelves with binders upon binders of swatches stacked on another wall, and a wide wood work table occupied the center; it sat atop a carpet of wood dust. A dim corner room, across from the work table and behind Victor’s desk, housed a large TV and chairs. The walls were plastered with posters of athletes and bikini-clad women selling alcohol. While the sounds of Victor pounding sofa upsides with a mallet echoed through the shop, the TV room rang with the raucous laughter of men who planted themselves to talk politics and bochinche (gossip) in a mix of Spanish, English, and Patois, drink rum and milk or Cerveza Panama, and watch boxing matches, especially ones that featured Panama’s pride, Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran. In exchange, they helped Victor make deliveries. As they aged, they gathered for potlucks and quieter moments.

Across from Victor’s shop was Jucy’s Jamaican restaurant, one of L.A.’s few sit-down Caribbean restaurants, which has operated for over thirty-five years.[1] It serves typical Panamanian cuisine like chicken soup with dumpling, stewed meat dishes, and chicken curry. Sometimes we drove down Crenshaw to indulge in a beef patty from Stone Market. Opened in the 1970s, we first frequented Stone Market because it carried typical food items and brands that local stores did not, such as guandú peas, Malta Hatuey (a sweet, carbonated beverage), and bacalao (salted codfish).[2] Outside, men sat on folding chairs or milk crates, talking and playing dancehall and old school reggae that you could purchase.  Over time, it became a staple in the Black Panamanian community.  Located next to the market is the star of the operation: a take-out, cash only, food kiosk, where dinners, patties, and, the best carrot juice I’ve ever tasted, are prepared and sold. It is a small structure, with just a kitchen and front counter, a floor fan circulating heat and noise, and a dry-erase board that displays the menu of the day. Upon entering, the smell of coconut, butter, and cinnamon from the loaves of Coco bread and bun welcomed you the way the cashier will not. What was written on the board is what they had in stock; if an item was marked out or erased, they ran out of it for the day. If it wasn’t on the board, one shouldn’t ask for it (these were the unspoken rules). When an abuelita or other keepers of the homemade bun recipe went on a cooking hiatus, families settled for purchasing buns for Easter or Christmas from Stone Market.

During summer holidays like the 4th of July, we celebrated at Scherer Park in Long Beach. Nicknamed “Parque Del Amo,” for its location off Del Amo, between Long Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, some families arrived as early as six am to claim one of the limited numbers of picnic tables, while others brought folding tables, lawn chairs, or blankets. Each family prepared meals at home and brought them to the park: cole slaw, potato salad, rice and peas or guandú, baked barbecue chicken, and even hotdogs and hamburgers. Occasionally, my father set up a fryer and sold patacones and codfish cakes. Children would go from table to table to meet-up with friends. Asking for or accepting a plate from a table other than your own was a faux paus; my mother insisted that doing so constituted begging and set the trap for a good piece of bochinche. Folks might say that your mother did not care for you properly. The Scherer Park gatherings grew in size; at one point, someone hired an official DJ and a Panamanian ballet folklórico group performed on a portable dance floor. As Panamanians began to move to cities within San Bernardino County, festivities like an annual end of the summer picnic, were held east of Los Angeles at Frank Bonelli Park in San Dimas.

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Couples dance close at a Father’s Day Dance at the Shatto Banquet Hall. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.

Parties worthy of a formal venue took place at Shatto Banquet Hall, a rental hall on Slauson Avenue, which was popular among L.A.’s Louisiana Creole community.[3] We had our own version of formal wear. For men, it consisted of a button-down blouse, silk slacks, and dress shoes with no socks. Women wore glittered or sequined body-hugging dresses, extra-high heels, and a slather of gold – gold bracelets, anklets, earrings, and necklaces with placas (name plates or plates in the shape of the Panama Isthmus) or an Ojo de Venado (a round ball/amulet wrapped in gold letters). No matter the type of jewelry, it had to be gold, as the women deemed anything else chichipatti (cheap). At Shatto Hall, I witnessed my first and only quinceñera, another second-generation Black Panamanian girl, who body rolled down the two lines of Black damas and chambelanes to Raven-Simone’s rap song “That’s What Little Girls are Made of.”

The predominant narrative about the Afro-Latinx community in L.A. claims that we suffers from isolation and are disconnected. However, it is clear that a network of Black Panamanians nurtured and created a strong sense of identity for the next generation, including myself. As an Black Panamanian in Los Angeles, I was not a anomaly. Instead, I was part of a community that held and named me.

Yet, as the places and spaces known to the community changed, so did the community. Panamanians no longer live on “The Blvd.” Encounters with violence[4] and the lack of opportunity due to divestment and the loss of jobs once provided by large industries,  pushed African-American and Black Panamanian families out of Los Angeles. Many followed the out-migration of African-Americans east, to cities like Rialto, Upland, Fontana, and Rancho Cucamonga. Folks no longer gather at Scherer Park. After decades of running his upholstery business out of Washington Boulevard, Victor had to move. This was likely a result of rising commercial rent costs and gentrification. The original location of Victor’s shop is now an art gallery. He retired soon after his shop relocated. Jucy’s and Stone Market have managed to weather the changes and will perhaps benefit from the planned Crenshaw light rail running next to Stone Market. [5]

Outside Shop today 2

The entire building has experienced a transformation, with new tenants replacing old ones

While many families moved out of L.A. County, some families,[6] including my own, remained. We moved from Compton to Long Beach, and finally, to Watts. My family arrived to these places without the community that once enriched us and made these places home. I long for that community –my mother does too. Now, as a mother, I desire for my children to experience the affirmation that I did growing up in a Black Panamanian Los Angeles. Yet, in the face of change, we remain resourceful and look to the past for guidance. As the child of migrants, I am able to do things that my parents were not able to: I can take my children to Panama. I can take them to the annual parade, the place where we still gather, and introduce them to our neighbors from “The Blvd” and our friends like Victor. Those of us who grew up nurtured by this community of Black Panamanians, and those who are just discovering it, know that in any place we gather, we are our own multitude.

Notes

[1] Linda Burum, “Getting Down Home JAMAICAN,” Los Angeles Times. Sep. 10, 1989. Accessed at  https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-09-10-ca-2664-story.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Steve Lopez, As L.A. riots raged, she was shot before she was even born. Now 25, she embodies survival and resolve” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 29, 2017. Accessed at https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-king-evers-0430-story.html.

[4] “Natraliart, A Meaty Jamaican Spot in Arlington Heights,” Eater Los Angeles, Jul. 11, 2014. Accessed at  https://la.eater.com/2014/7/11/6188189/natraliart-a-meaty-jamaican-spot-in-arlington-heights.

[5] Lynell George, No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels (San Francisco: Verso, 1992) pp. 239-40.

[6] Steve Lopez, As L.A. riots raged, she was shot before she was even born. Now 25, she embodies survival and resolve” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 29, 2017. Accessed at https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-king-evers-0430-story.html.

Jenise Miller is an urban planner and poet. She is the great-granddaughter of Black Panama Canal builders and a native of Compton and Watts. A recent Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) fellow, her poems have been featured in The Acentos Review, Dryland Literary Journal, and Cultural Weekly.  She received her M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA and B.A. in Black Studies and Sociology from UC Santa Barbara. She lives in Compton with her family. You can find her on Twitter @jenisepalante and www.plannerpoet.com.

Copyright: © 2019 Jenise Miller. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Reviews

Inland Shift: Towards a Radical Intercommunalism in the Inland Empire

J.T. Roane

During a speech delivered at Boston College on November 18, 1970 Huey P. Newton extended Marxist-Leninist material dialecticism as a mode of theoretical and practical inquiry through his critical neologism “intercommunalism.” Describing two variants of intercommunalism, one reactionary and the other revolutionary, Newton premised his analytic on an understanding that American empire had eclipsed the nation-colony model of European imperial integration in a similar fashion to the ways that system eclipsed the “primitive empire” Romans built within the world as they conceived it in the Classical period of the West. “North America,” he argued had been “transformed at the hands of the ruling circle from a nation to an empire,” changing “the whole composition of the world.” As a result, the elite of the United States “necessarily control[led] the whole world either directly or indirectly.” Intercommunalism, in its reactionary variant, created a world defined by the dislocation of finance, production, and consumption across increasingly dispersed and mediated geographic system of resource-siphoning in which automation would give way to “cybernation [and] probably to technocracy.” The primary effect of reactionary intercommunalism, according to Newton, was the creation of a permanent class of expendable people the world over with no access to the benefits of technological transformation and who were forced to bear the worst effects of global integration.1

In contrast to reactionary intercommunalism, Newton proposed and adopted “revolutionary intercommunalism.” As a result of “nations hav[ing] been transformed into [the] communities of the world,” revolutionary organizers could also make it a “time when the people seize[d] the means of production and distribute[d] the wealth and the technology in an egalitarian way to the many communities of the world.” Newton’s interpretation of the revolutionary variant of intercommunalism justified the shift of the Black Panther Party toward its Survival Programs. Without the basics of subsistence in food and healthcare and without critical education, there would be no ability to survive, let alone to throw off the technocratic elite, he reasoned. Revolutionary intercommunalists could shut down the draining of collective resources to line the pockets of Empire’s elites. Using the capacity of the new technological age, which had taken a person to the moon but which refused to end hunger and depravation, revolutionary intercommunalists, including the Panthers, could create a global sense of the world based not on exploitation but rather on the power to extend human happiness and wellbeing equitably.2

These key turns in Newton’s thought, his analysis of both the reactionary and revolutionary versions of intercommunalism, as well as the Black Panther’s organizational praxis responding to these novel theorizations, remain important theoretical and practical points in challenging globalization—the hegemonic financial and cultural integration of the earth that has continued since the era of Newton’s theorization. This, our age of the orange autocrat in the U.S. and of multiple neo-fascist regimes around the world, is defined by unprecedented technocratic monopoly and the devastating expansion of the permanently jobless, homeless, and nationless who can make no claim to the advances associated with globalization and who face the brunt of the negative effects of this order. Extending Newton’s concept, we currently face the rise of what I call reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism—a variant in which the façade of integration accompanying multicultural neoliberalism has given way to the explicit embrace of autocracy in and through technological, economic, and political integration. Across disparate human geographies a technocratic elite—ranging from logistics capital to social media tycoons—dictate the lives of ordinary people, deciding if they work, live, or die and under what conditions.

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Basil D, Soufi, “Aerial view of the Inland Empire overlooking San Bernardino and Rialto, California,” Courtesy of Soufi via Creative Commons

Juan D. De Lara’s important new book Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California (UC Press, 2018), garners for readers analytic purchase not only on the dynamics of the technologically integrated commodity chains shaping contemporary reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism, but also on the potential for labor organizing and politics to extend the practice of Newton’s revolutionary intercommunalism. One of the powerful aspects of De Lara’s study is that, like Clyde Woods’ work in the context of the Mississippi Delta, he takes the region as his point of analysis. Foremost, as De Lara argues, the region provides a frame through which to analyze the ways that “[c]reative destruction is…woven into the fabric of capitalist development” and provides “solution to the devaluation of fixed capital by reconfiguring spatial-temporal relationships to create new investment options.” Emerging from a “speculative growth regime” the Inland Empire as a distribution center for global commodities emerged as corporate boosters and politicians beginning in the 1980s justified the expenditure of collective resources to extend Southern California’s port, warehouse, and distribution infrastructures into the region encompassing cities east of Los Angeles like Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ontario. As De Lara demonstrates, these changes were sold to ordinary people as the tide that would lift all boats, as the collective potential for prospering after the devastation of the region’s rapid deindustrialization in competition with emerging production centers around the world. Elites reasoned that the expenditures, as well as the environmental-health threats related to concentrated diesel pollution, would be worth the enhancement of the region’s position in the mounting competition for increased commodity imports. They argued that these developments would improve the lives of the region’s ordinary residents by providing them with stable incomes and concomitantly with access to the housing market as owners. In effect, however, these processes further entrenched vulnerability in communities exposed to global market fluctuations. Indeed, the cost of speculatively-growing Southern California ports and the Inland Empire distribution networks to make them competitive with others around the nation, was the extension of tedious and poorly compensated labor under conditions of often cyborg-like surveillance, as well as environmental degradation, and racial violence.

As it chronicles the rise of a regional elite, De Lara’s work holds onto material dialecticism, introducing points of possibility for the subversion of regional logistics hegemony through the narratives of predominantly Latinx warehouse workers. In particular, he includes, along with his analysis of the dominant social-spatial features of the Inland Empire, the “counter-mappings” of workers, or the “collective stories provid[ing] insight into how people make sense of the world” which are also the “seeds of opposition to dominant systems.” Importantly, De Lara credits ordinary people with the ability to generate theoretical and cartographic insights useful in analyzing and thwarting this reviling and destructive system. In chapter five, for example, De Lara shows the ways that ordinary Latinx warehouse workers, “José,” “Angelica,” and “Marta” make sense of vulnerability within the wider geography of the region. He connects their analysis with their attempts to defy the imposition of a system of technologically enhanced management in which workers are wired to track productivity (or the lack thereof) as part of the wider coordination of production, commodity importation, warehousing, and distribution for corporations like Walmart. De Lara places these everyday forms of analysis and resistance on a continuum with the efforts of organizations to combat vulnerability. For example, these mappings helped to drive the inroads made by unions to end temporary work and also undergirded efforts to halt raids, detentions, and deportations undermining local Latinx communities. The rudimentary coordinates of worker’s alternative vistas on the matters of labor, place, and politics, served as the substrate out of which activist consciousness emerged. Union and community organizers drew together people by highlighting their shared narratives and common geographic analyses.

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De Lara’s book provides an excellent addition to the growing work in critical human geography. It would be particularly effective if paired with important works of regional analysis and Marxist geography including Clyde Woods’ work and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. These works, taken together, help us to gain purchase on the development of the geographies of gendered racial capitalism in state and global capital formations and also to take stock of resistance. These works also remind us of the vital place of what Newton understood as “the left of the proletariat.” In a world, increasingly defined by reactionary global integration, it is only the everyday and organized subversions on the part of ordinary people that can dislodge the tyranny of technocracy, giving expression to a world free of borders wherein the advances in technological capacity can be distributed to address crises such as the environmental catastrophe, in order to insure our collective wellbeing rather than our collective destruction. As De Lara’s work effectively illustrates, we must recover the radical potential of Newton’s analysis, forwarding it into the nascent order. We must also organize shoulder to shoulder with the potentially revolutionary intercommunalists across the world if we are to survive the terrifying juncture of environmental destruction, technocratic monopoly, and global integration. The people of the Inland Empire have led the way in demonstrating the place of ordinary people can incapacitate technocratic power and fighting fascism, the political analog of an economy based in technocratic monopoly.

May the revolutionary intercommunalists of the world unite!

Notes

1 Huey P. Newton, “Speech Delivered at Boston College: November 18, 1970, To Die for the People, ed. Toni Morrison, (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2009): 20-38.

2 ibid.

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of African and African American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript under contract with NYU Press titled, “Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia.” He serves as co-senior editor for Black Perspectives, the digital platform of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).

Copyright: © 2019 J.T. Roane. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Interviews

A Boom Conversation at the Edge of the World

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Denise Sullivan

Editorial Introduction: Something I heard in Kim Shuck’s poems and read in Lynell George’s writings indicated both California women not only understood and shared a passion for our place, but could also deliver a deeper understanding for the rest of us through discussion of what it means to be a committed Californian. While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling. I became convinced they had to meet.

Shuck, San Francisco’s seventh poet laureate, is also an educator, mentored by some of the great women artists and activists of the twentieth century, from sculptor, educator, and Japanese internment survivor Ruth Asawa, to poet and Native American cultural affairs educator, Carol Lee Sanchez. With a heritage that is part Oklahoma Cherokee and part Polish, Shuck has followed in the footsteps of artist/activists, while tutoring children in the arts and math, teaching poetry and Native studies at the collegiate level, and generally pitching in where needed in her community, whether supporting independent bookstores and public libraries or eradicating everyday racism in our town square. A many times published and awarded poet, her most recent project to create fifty-five poems in fifty-five days was inspired by the reactivated thirty-year effort to remove the colonialist/settler statue, Early Days, from San Francisco’s Civic Center. The takedown of the bronze occurred in September and the poems and dialogue surrounding it caught the attention of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture continues concerted efforts to remove racist statues and logos from the public sphere. Shuck’s new poetry book, Exile Hearts, publishes in December with the American Indian/Indigenous press, That Painted Horse, while her reading series and appearances as poet laureate continue unabated, within and outside the Bay Area.

George is beloved in the Southland from her years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. Her family came West from New Orleans, a journey she chronicled in her first book, No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso), and she has spent her share of time reporting from there as well in San Francisco’s North Beach, her homes away from home. George’s latest, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, for LA-based Angel City Press, combines her photography with her writings about the changing cityscape and the people who contribute to making LA the de facto capital of the West Coast. The stories combine the best of what people bring with them, the already considerable gifts of our native, majestic desert-mountain-seascape, and George’s own experiences as a close observer. Earlier this year, she won a Grammy Award for her liner notes about Otis Redding’s historic performances, Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings; she also spent a chunk of time with the Huntington Library-housed archives of original Afro-Futurist, science fiction writer Octavia Butler. George can be found giving talks at cultural institutions from Loyola Marymount and the University of California to Union Station, or about town, writing and photographing her LA, the place she knows and loves best.

While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling.

And so they met, at the fifty-year-old literary landmark, Beyond Baroque, in Venice, where I organized a reading with the expressed purpose of joining the pair to read from Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the San Francisco story anthology I edited, and to discuss matters of north versus south, and specifically the changes we’ve lived through as women still committed to California dreaming and doing. While that conversation between California cultural herstorians, poets and artists, journalists and photographers (accompanied by songwriter Peter Case) was indeed lively, it was our talk prior to the public one, where Boom editor Jason Sexton and Shuck’s partner Doug Salin were also present, where we got down to parsing the rougher business of our state, from its wild nature and riotous flora to the problems of racial and economic inequality that have been with us since the origins of statehood. We join that conservation as Shuck and George recollect their experiences growing up as students in California classrooms.


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Photo of Shuck, George, Sullivan, and Sexton by Doug Salin.

Lynell George: When we moved from our home in the Crenshaw District to Culver City, immediately I was put in a low reading group without testing. I confronted the teacher and said, “You know I actually already read these books.” and I could see that she was not paying attention to me and it wasn’t just that it wasn’t sinking in. Not that she wasn’t absorbing it; she just didn’t believe it.

I went home to talk to my mother about it and she had just come home she was taking her shoes and her hose off and was listening to me talk and all of a sudden, she’s getting dressed again, and we were heading down to the school to talk to the principal and the teacher. Because my mother was an English teacher, she was able to tell them, “You give her this test, this test, and this test.” But what if she wasn’t able to do that? What if she didn’t know? And so the teacher had to correct it and then, of course, was angry with me for the rest of the year because she was embarrassed in such a public way. That was early on. I was eleven, ten, something like that.

Kim Shuck: I went to public school and then to high school at a private school because dad was working in Silicon Valley at that time and suddenly he was making money. Both my parents had been working class and they went, “Oh it’s gonna be good for her if we put her in this private school….” And essentially, I had a lot of trouble, but after the one time my father got called in from work—you did not call Indian men in from work—it was not well received and dad was so angry. He drives up from Mountain View back to San Francisco and he doesn’t understand how frightening people find him—a six foot plus, dark-skinned man with jet black hair—looks like if a darker-skinned Elvis had never gotten fat and had been career military, and  he walks like that. His lips are disappeared and he is talking to the guy in the office about this thing. And after that I really had no problem with anyone because nobody wanted my father coming back to school.

They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like. They threatened me with expulsion and then I said, “Well let’s just call my parents.” I didn’t want to be yelled at by these people anymore. And everybody in the office kind of went hmm… and did the math and thought, “That means that big man will come back: Let’s not have him back.”  When I got named laureate of San Francisco, they called up and asked, “What do you remember about going to our school?” I remember the poetry teacher telling me my work would never go anywhere because it was too self-referential.

They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like.

George: What lit the fire in me as a reporter was, I wanted to tell the stories of the neighborhoods that I knew really well, but didn’t see their stories told with richness and in their voices. There was a negative feeling about the Los Angeles Times when I started there in the ’90s: People felt it didn’t tell the story of their community. So, here I was an African American reporter, and do you trust what I can do with your story? Then over time, people got to know my byline and my reputation, but I had to earn it and I knew I had to earn it. I didn’t walk in expecting, like, some of the other reporters often said, “Your quotes are going to be in the L.A. Times.” I was like, “Please, contribute to the story. I want to hear your side.” That was the important part and I was able to create lifelong relationships with people all over the city because of that. It didn’t so much happen with The Weekly, like if I was going to do interviews in South L.A. or East L.A. Back then, they didn’t distribute the papers in those communities, so a lot of people didn’t know what that was: “And what is that paper?” “Who are you with?” But, by talking to them, connecting with them, finding whatever the common ground was, they trusted me to take back that story.

Shuck: You get them to tell you stories. You have to earn their trust. The poem about the mother and child or the parent and child cycle poem that I do, there is a line in there:

The boy showed me the mark of the scorpion on his leg
and I showed him the mark of the spider on mine

That happened. I work with brand new immigrant kids from Mexico and this student had walked across the border by himself…. It’s a long story. It’s not mine to tell, but boy, is it a good story and as he was telling me that story, he pulls his pant leg up and he goes, “That’s a scar from the scorpion sting.” So I showed him where on my leg, there is a spot where there is just skin over a hole because I got bit by a fiddleback spider. I said, “That’s a spider bite.” He went, “Wow. That’s cool.” And suddenly I had all of this street cred. You find the common ground, you know? Tell me where it hurts. Maybe I can help, maybe I can’t, but I will witness for you.

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George: Once I sat in a classroom at San Francisco State, and had to turn in a story for the class. I was writing about L.A. When the discussion opened up, the first question was “Can she do this?” And I’m like… “Can she do this? Why are they asking about me? I’m sitting right here.” And instead of the professor trying to shift the conversation, she starts saying, “Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure. If she sent this story into XYZ magazine….” And finally I said, “I’m not sure what you are talking about.” And it was clear that they didn’t understand what race the characters were in my piece. The characters were multiracial because it was a story about Los Angeles in a multiracial environment, but they were looking for something that identified the character as African American. Nobody would really come out and say that right away.

This is a different conversation than one that happened in the memoir class; this was a fiction class. Either way, I was screwed. I’m writing true life and I’m writing fiction and whatever I do or say, as in, “I’m reflecting the environment around me,” would prompt, “Can she do that?” I said, “Men write women. White men write all kinds of….”

Shuck: Anybody they feel like.

George: Anybody. So why can’t I? And then the instructor said, “Well, I’m sure, if they saw….” I think she said something about a picture, a photograph of you. “What difference does it make?” And she couldn’t answer. But, it stopped everything cold and at that point, yeah, I kind of shut down. Why would I share my work with this group?

Shuck: Right. Well the thing is you grow out of them and that’s kind of the fun part. You keep going. So when we went into the hearings for the removal of the Early Days statue, I started in the mode, “Okay. I’m listening. What do you have to say?” And it was so unreasonable. They kept speaking as if we weren’t there. It’s complicated for me. I can fact-find in plain sight, if I don’t have a relative with me. The first guess people make isn’t, “That’s a Native woman.” But finally, that behavior is like an icepick over and over at very shallow depths increasing over time. People call this microaggression, but it’s not. One of my good friends broke a tooth clenching her jaw over something like that. I mean, these are not micro at all. Finally I just went “Ahhhh”  and I went off. And the stuff came out and I feel like if you read all fifty-five of the poems back-to-back, you’d see me de-comp-ing over time. The things I don’t deal with right away get really complicated on the page, so it makes for crap poetry—passionate—and I call them rants when I write like that. I mean, at my best, I’m not calling people idiots and racists.

George: Right. Sometimes it’s necessary.

Shuck: Sometimes it’s just so true that you have to. Somebody’s got to say it. In the hearings this guy was saying, “I know art because my family has funded a lot of art museums.” I got up and said, “I know art because I am an artist and I have two degrees in art and I teach it, and on the days when I am not teaching it, I am making it.” My family built the buildings, those museums…. We didn’t own them, but I do feel a certain ownership of them. And if this was just a conversation about art, we could sit down over a coffee or a brandy and have it as a really polite conversation, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We are talking about privilege and that’s going be more painful. People get their scabs torn off in this conversation: “There will be blood.” I kind of ranted at them for a few minutes and then I did that sort of Columbo thing and went, “You do know that you’re on the wrong side of this argument, right? You do know that eventually this statue is coming down and that history will look ill upon the fact that you have made it take longer? You get that right?”

George: It’s funny, when I moved to San Francisco and I would meet people and they would ask me where I was from and very often someone would say some version of, “Oh. How lucky for you to have left L.A. You made a good choice being up here. Because L.A. is such a pit.” And I’m like, “No. It really isn’t. And you should come and spend time down here and I would take you on a tour. I really would.” I would take you on a tour that would blow your mind because it would burst through every misconception and preconceived notion you have. And I actually did do that with a couple of friends and they’ve gone back and told people, “It’s not what you think.”

The idea that all of the sudden sitting in traffic or I’m at the market, trying to get to my car, I look up and I see the mountains and there’s snow on them: And you can actually see them, which in the seventies, you could not always see the mountains. In the eighties, you could not always see the mountains. You can see them now. And there is something for me still, about sitting in my house with all of the windows open and hearing all my neighbors playing their music….

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Shuck: And the slight breeze changes, and it’s a whole different setting.

George: Exactly.

Shuck: I feel like what I see that still happens here that sort of has stopped happening in San Francisco is that you can see people kind of hanging out with one another outside.  When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own. And as time has gone on, there is less and less and less of that. I love it when I come down here and I see, it’s after dark and we’re driving through wherever, and there’s this group of folks outside, sitting there talking and that is a useful thing to remember and something to try to resurrect a bit.

When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own.

George: That’s a good point. I moved up there without a car because I didn’t need a car. It was exciting to learn a city on foot, learn a bus system and be in the BART system or on MUNI and learn how to read a map and get myself around places. That stayed with me as I traveled other places, but when we finally were able to get a rail here, and I’m on it a lot—I know it’s because of San Francisco.

I’m watching this younger generation of Angelenos: It used to be this rite of passage for us to get a set of keys so we could drive everywhere and be independent. I’m noticing there are kids so much younger who know the city in ways that my generation will never know because they went out and they pushed into different neighborhoods. They have friends, they have places they meet, and they’re independent at a younger age and they think about the city’s grid in a different way than we did. It’s very exciting to watch that, and I see it through my San Francisco eyes.

Shuck: Yeah. I don’t know about here, but in San Francisco, everything’s gentrification grey.

George: Yes. Here it’s starting to be that way.

Shuck: With entitlement orange trim.

George: Yes! Yes! Yes!  You get the chartreuse doors too.

Shuck: Yes! I just saw my first one of those on Valencia. And Guerrero had one, as well. I just want to say, there are all these eviction arsons in San Francisco. Houses with small apartments that have a lot of long-term residents. So this one place down in the Mission actually bolted charred boards, which I know is a traditional Japanese aesthetic thing, but it’s so tone deaf: It was built on the site of a house that had burnt down.

George: Oh my god. Oh no.

Shuck: I loved that the first graffiti that went up was “Are you fucking kidding me?” It wasn’t even a tag. It was just exasperated.

George: Do better. Just do better. It pains me to look and see it because part of the richness for me of being here has always felt like the world comes here. And if we are open enough to have conversations, we get closer and closer and closer. And that was the thing, like I could dip into a Haitian community here, a Brazilian community, Salvadorean community. I had friends from so many places—Cuba, Costa Rica—and that also is, I think, one of the things that turned me into a journalist. The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard. I like that riot of color and the difference.

It depends on where you are in the city, but there are certain things that are going away.

The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard.

Shuck: I have a lot of lines about this because it really irritates me and, as I said, [snaps fingers] “Fast switch sarcasm.” Understand this: If we have a good earthquake, half of those guys are going back where they came from. Wherever that is.

George: Oh yeah. That’s very true. That happened here too.

Shuck:  The people who have moved here by volition. Because the acquisitional people who moved in for a paycheck are not committed. There are other kinds of neighbors who move in and make themselves part of a neighborhood and participate in things, and that’s a big difference. It’s a cycle. It was kind of getting better through our generation and it’s getting worse now, but nature will resolve this.

When the building at 22nd and Mission burned down, one of my students lost his father.

It’s been so interesting to watch the pushback. The city got involved, so they haven’t yet rebuilt the forty-story, you know, ice cube tray for techy rats.

George: The ice cube tray. That’s so excellent. I had not heard that before, but that’s so right.

Shuck: But if you notice, the buckeye butterflies are back. There was a night cloak there the other night, as well. We have very few night cloak butterflies in San Francisco and they used to be all over the place. And the buckeyes we haven’t really seen in any numbers for a long time, but the minute you bring their food back, shockingly they come back and start eating it.

George: Oh, that’s beautiful

Shuck: In San Francisco, Native San Franciscans keep being called unicorns, as though we’re mythological and rare. I’ve been trying to make the point lately at readings to ask, “Who was born and raised here?” And there’s always a lot of us. I’m not going anywhere.

We’re still here and I’m not going, you know? And Doug’s not going. And my kids are there. And their father was also born in San Francisco, by the way, so they’re native San Francisco on both sides. We’re here. We’re around, you know?

I want you to think about what oxalis does. if you put a pot with just dirt in it out on your porch in San Francisco within six months, it will have an oxalis plant or a nasturtium in it. One or the other. Seriously. And oxalis reseeds itself like four different ways. It’s got roots under the ground, it’s got seeds, if you chop it up, the little bits of it will grow a new one. They’re pretty resilient and I feel we’re that way too. So, I just don’t think it can keep happening. This direction is not endless. It’ll pop back, you know? It will, but I think we need to stop talking about ourselves as though we’re all going away.

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George: You hear that about L.A. too, that it’s rare. I remember being at some event with a bunch of Brazilians and they were going around the table asking the question and I said, “No I’m a native of Los Angeles,” and a woman kept asking me.

Shuck: No, but where?

George: Yeah, “No, but where?” I said, “No. Los Angeles.” She said, “That’s very rare.” No, it’s not. If you took a poll, there would be more people in this room who are native than you think, and I think there’s this perception because of the way people are grouped.

Shuck: We are five native Californians in one room.

George: In one room. Owning that nativeness and talking about it is so important. That’s why when I did this book, After/Image, I wanted to focus on what was still here and who was still here, and what unifies us. When I’ve been doing the readings, I ask people, “What’s your L.A. story?”  Because I want us to share in a group like what matters still about L.A.

Shuck: Otherwise it’s just like being talked around  in those classes—the way that they make us disappear in San Francisco or in L.A.

George: Yes. Absolutely.

Shuck: It’s exactly the same thing. We’re right here.



Shifting the World one Opinion at a Time
(Kim Shuck)[1]

I have come awake
Homesick in my hometown
Tapped sacred songs onto porch wood
Onto pavement squares
Like a child game
Thrown a place holder
To the next foothold
Jumped
Tapped sacred songs onto library walls
Museum walls
City hall walls
The thing we bring here today is not predicted by your security
Coal hot memories
Generational
And a terrifying patience

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Kim Shuck, adapted from photo by Doug Salin.



Flavor
(Lynell George)[2]

If Los Angeles is ever evolving, being an Angeleno must be something that by consequence is too not-fixed, that it is an identity in flux.

What far more interests me is how Los Angeles exists in our own imagination—influenced by that perception—how a sense of place affects and shapes us: TV beams in weekly, scripted scenarios, movies seduce, but so many of us who grew up around narrow narratives of place work against or away from that; we’re not all chasing the round-the-next-bend dream (film industry, real estate, peace of mind), but often we are the fruit of those who came in search of it.

For us, then, the kids who lived in those off-the-radar places on the map—a dead-end street, “below-the-10,” or over the bridge—finding your path, your way, meant finding your terrain, your tribe, and your heart.

We move through a collection of roads that spin us toward some next chapter of understanding. In certain ways, it’s ongoing coalition building: Whom we connect with gifts us another small brick of clarity and compassion—a sense of deeper self-making. And with all this connecting, mixing, and borrowing, if we are lucky, it can produce something as uncanny as indelible.

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Lynell George, adapted from photo by Al Quattrochi.



Notes

[1] Reprinted by permission of Kim Shuck.

[2] Excerpt from After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame (Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2018), 144.


Denise Sullivan
is a fourth generation San Franciscan who’s lived in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Author of several books of music biography, she’s editor of Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions for independent press Manic D, and co-editor of the 2018 chapbook, The City Is Already Speaking: The Sound of Calle 24. She writes the SF Lives column for The San Francisco Examiner.

Copyright: © 2018 Denise Sullivan. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.