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.
George B. Sánchez-Tello
The long white buses are unmarked. The paint job on the bus panels looks thin and cheap. If I stare long enough, I could probably make out the name of the school district or church or factory under that white layer of cover. The buses idle in an empty parking lot which is pockmarked with potholes partially filled with drainage. The gravel is crumbling. The people boarding the buses stand in single file. Their informal uniform consists of jeans and sweatshirts, baseball hats, bandanas and other shards of cloth fashioned into face masks.
In the distance, mist hovers over the fields. The buses will carry them to those fields. Soon the workers will be silhouettes in the distance, bent over and picking, working themselves up and down the rows of lettuce, strawberry and spinach.
Every one of them has a name. A home they come from. A language they were born into and another adopted for work. Most of those people have children. I always wondered who they were and what was their story. None of this is new. There was no “news peg to hang it on,” as an editor would say. So I wrote a song.
In the pre-dawn dust of the parking lot the workers form a line They board the long white transport bus and hope the kids are fine Left home alone with the little ones The cousins will take care Mom wraps a t-shirt around her face to filter out the filthy air No food to wake the little ones Pop tarts will do just fine Gonna’ make do with what we got Gotta’ stretch every single last dime Why? Cause that’s where we’re at.
A few miles away, on a given Friday night, the children of those workers sing along. In a small café or the back room of a Mexican restaurant, bodies pack together, in their own uniform of jeans, faded black t-shirts with band logos, jackets or vests quilted with small square patches. Everyone joins in to sing:
Another song about the Salad Bowl About the place that we live This valley can be a prison Just ask the kids!
“Where We’re At” is a song I wrote for Rum & Rebellion, a punk rock band from Salinas, a farm town in Monterey County on California’s Central Coast. We were one of many: from Salas, Chole, Prunetucky, Watson and King City. We played in cafes, backyards, apartments, community centers, storage sheds, bars, restaurants, parking lots and clubs.
Rum & Rebellion songs were a refuge for stories. A place to safely express my voice – literal and literary. During the day, I worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the Salinas Californian and later the Monterey County Herald. I often wrote newspaper articles about crime, education and local politics. I wrote songs about what I witnessed: The tired paletero. The teenager walking to school. The father of a lifer. The campesino. Portraits of the people, stories and moments between me and the farm fields that surrounded a town known for labor, e. coli and, of course, Mr. Steinbeck. What was otherwise setting in an article became a story in a song.
For being a small, farm town, Salinas has a population of about 150,000, making it the largest city in Monterey County. Someone once said the population doubled during the harvest season. Of course, it was exaggeration, but the harvest – or more like the people harvesting – was inherent in all aspects of life in Salas. Education officials coordinate with districts in Washington and Arizona as families migrate to work the harvest elsewhere. The school districts start later in the winter to account for families returning from Mexico. For many years the town was segregated: Whites to the west, Mexicans to the east, or the Alisal, as it was called. The annual César Chávez march is not a relic from a Chicano Studies class, but a testament to community, organizing and the continuing ability to mobilize in support of one another.
Not all Rum & Rebellion songs were high-minded: I wrote about crushes on an older woman and colleagues. And drinking.
I wrote angry responses: as in the song “No Charity”
Don’t need no charity Got my own pair of lungs There are no voiceless there’s only repression
And songs – “Hey Armando!”, “No Folk Song (New DA Blues),” “Not Down”, “Four Years” – about prisoners. All of whom I’d met and spoken with.
If there was a news peg, I filed an article. But the daily, almost taken for granted, became song. I think one of my favorite compliments of Rum & Rebellion lyrics was the disappointment from one person after she learned I was from Los Angeles and not Salas.
Rum & Rebellion came together after a freelance assignment for Punk Planet, one of the national punk ‘zines at the time. Scott MacDonald, a photographer for the SalinasCalifornian, and I spent a weekend with Against Me! and Lucero. Scott also played drums. I could play guitar. I could write. And yell.
As a reporter, there were stories I carried with me, stories I’d witnessed, that would never get past my editors. Like the quiet dignity of campesinos lining up for work in the early morning: a sight so familiar in East Salinas it had become a regular backdrop. Or the ritual of family members waiting in line outside county jail on visiting day. Stories that required more nuance than I could fit into a 12-inch print article. Or stories that required a different worldview than most of the papers’ readers and editors.
There were subtle reminders, like the “news from home” section that carried articles from the Midwest. Maybe it was because I was from Los Angeles and I had plenty of co-workers from other parts of California, or simply knowing home for many in Salinas was Mexico. Sometimes they were blatant: like a red faced, irate white editor telling me “everybody knows Latinos are the most macho people.”
I can’t pin it on a single editor, though there were certainly a few that reminded me. Because I think I learned lessons about what to share and what to withhold long before I became a writer. Lessons about the sense of security in silence. Lessons learned by parents who, in turn, transmitted them to me. Lessons of “Americanization” taught by the Sisters of Loretto across the southwest two generations before my birth. Lessons of silence wrought by the onset of the Guatemalan Civil War. Lessons of hiding in plain sight after my family arrived in Los Angeles after the mass deportation of Mexican and Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression. Lessons of obedience when my father began working for the Los Angeles Police Department. And the lesson that no matter how I spoke, what I wore or where I lived, I’d never fit comfortably into an affluent white suburb.
When I wrote my entrance application essay for Saint Francis High School, I took seriously the invitation to write about someone I admired. I wrote about Steve Clark, Def Leppard’s founding guitarist. I still go back and forth about whether that was one time when I should have kept a story to myself. By the time I wrote my entrance essay for Loyola High, I had “learned” better.
As a reporter, I had my own uniform: I wore a collared shirt and necktie. With my black and white Doc Marten brogues, I had a distinct, pachuco-inspired style. But it was still a shirt and tie. A shirt and tie I wore purposefully to access what Nolan Cabrera calls “white immunity,” or the protection from disparate treatment. Day in and day out, sitting on the press bench in a courtroom, I couldn’t help but notice that the people who looked like me also wore uniforms: either orange jumpsuits for inmates or green and khaki of the sheriff’s deputies. Those with ties were attorneys, the judge and, on the rare occasion, a defendant. And me.
I learned to wear a tie at Loyola, an all-boys high school. By that point, I had learned to be careful of what I said in front of who. To be aware of authority. Eventually writing became the place where I could express myself freely.
When my editor caught a Rum & Rebellion acoustic set at the Cherry Bean and he asked me to write more articles like my songs, I appreciated the compliment, but I couldn’t simply shrug off the decades and generations of learned and practiced silence. Thankfully there were those who wouldn’t remain silent.
Touring punk bands typically bypass Salinas, heading north to Santa Cruz or San Jose. The exception were those that were connected through the Razacore network of punks who could put up bands and shows in farm towns outside the bigger cities. Thanks to Eduardo of the band Outraged in Watson, Limp Wrist came through. Argentina’s Boom Boom Kid did a show in Salas. But there were two bands – La Plebe and Los Dryheavers – with roots in Salas who always returned from San Pancho and San Jo to play periodically. Those shows were the best.
Salas punk shows meant 50-100 young, sweaty bodies squeezed up against the walls, counters and the band itself. Shows with booze were at the Penny, an English Pub, and all-ages shows were up the street at the Cherry Bean, a local café.
When the Dryheavers played, the guitarists, bassist and singer encircled the drummer. They usually had to play with their backs to the crowd to ensure the space to strum and, in the singer’s case, make sure the crush of the crowd didn’t lead to teeth getting knocked out.
There is a story about the Dryheavers. It is too good to ruin by finding out if it’s true. The Dryheavers “played” the Warped Tour. Except Warped’s Kevin Lyman didn’t invite Los Dryheavers. They simply packed up their van and drove along with the Warped caravan. At each stop, the Dryheavers set up outside the festival and played. With the exception of Kory, all the Dryheavers were big, heavy Chicanos. Not even Warped security wanted to bother them, or so the story goes.
One Salas show, in between songs, the Dryheavers’ singer, Hector, took a moment to speak. First, he needed to catch his breath. Not uncommon.
“My family works hard. They work the fields, like your families,” said Hector, slightly gasping from screaming and trying to breathe through the humid air thick with sweat and body odor.
Hector turned to Felix, one of the Dryheavers’ guitarists, and asked what his parents did.
“Big pimpin,” he responded.
The sudden pivot from vulnerable self-admission and statement of solidarity to crude humor: I laughed. That was Salas punk – irreverent, political by imposition and impatient for the next song. It was Chicano Punk Rock. It was Immigrant Punk. It was Los Dryheavers, La Plebe, Outraged, Uzi Suicide, The Gunslinger, The Kings Kids, Dear Avarice, The Achievement, Cali Nation, Bound to Break, Madtown Mulligan, Darktown Rounders, Chainsaw Death Squad, Toxic U.S. and so many others.
George B. Sánchez-Tello lives, writes and teaches in Los Angeles.
For Mark Cantu: El mejor recuerdo es una simple canción para alguien que ya no está.QEPD.
Thank you: Scott MacDonald, Claudia Meléndez-Salinas and Clarissa Aljentera, colleagues from the Salinas Californian and Monterey County Herald who added valuable suggestions and edits.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
 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.
 Rosas, Abigail. South Central is Home: Race and the Power of Community Investment in Los Angeles. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.
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. 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.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, 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. 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. More alarmingly, Central Valley counties, where approximately 45 percent of households are renters, experience far higher rates of evictions than anywhere else in California. 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:
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;
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;
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). 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. 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.
These boundaries are in part historical, tracing back to the days of racial covenants, and later redlining, which prompted further public and private disinvestment in neighborhoods where families of color resided 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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, 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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, 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 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 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.
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, and the repeated fees attached to each rental application (up to $35 per application). 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. 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). 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. 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.
The spatial dynamics of these trends again must be considered. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in their influential work American Apartheid, 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. 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, through housing loan discrimination, 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). 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.
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, 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, 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). 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.
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.
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 instated any renter protections. San Joaquin and Stanislaus 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, fell far short of providing needed protection for renters. 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, 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. 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, 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, 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. 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, 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 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. 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. 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.
Similarly, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590), 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. 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.
 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)
 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)
 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
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.
It has been 13 years since I first traveled to El Salvador. My father, Ramon, left his homeland of El Salvador for the U.S. in the late 1970s. Ramon was always in and out of my life. The last time I saw my father was in 2004. By the time I took this trip, I had completely lost contact with him. This trip to El Salvador was my way to connect with Ramon’s home country without having a relationship with him. It was my way of searching for an opaque past.
While in El Salvador, I learned the significance of “memoria histórica” (historical memory). To know history, is to know oneself. As Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, once said: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.” My yearning to trace my history would not bring me closer to Ramon, but it would help me understand him and myself. It permanently informed my political consciousness and commitments, and the love I have for El Salvador.
In Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins, 2020), scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador. While mainstream media, law enforcement, and U.S. presidents point toward gangs such as MS13 as the culprit of Central America’s social problems, Lovato complicates this claim. Unforgetting is an urgent demand to sit with the beauty and messiness in our lives, our traumas, and the historical moments that shape our present and possibly our futures.
This morning, my neighbor was gardening. His tool of choice? The machete he brought back from visiting his family in El Salvador. As I heard him hacking away at the branches of a tree, I was reminded of the first words in Lovato’s memoir: “The machete of memory can cut swiftly or slowly.” The machete, a cultural reference to El Salvador for many of us, is the tool of choice Lovato uses to conjure the memories that have shaped him, his family and all Salvadorans. With this machete, Lovato cuts and slices through over 80 years of Salvadoran history. Rather than a simple, linear narrative beginning in the past and ending in the present, Lovato travels through distinct instances of his father’s life, his own life, and the historical events that connect towns and cities in El Salvador to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Karnes County, Texas. The machete of memory, Lovato reminds us, is versatile. It can summon pain, love, and nostalgia. The memories shared by Lovato in his memoir invite us to feel a collage of emotions while grounding us in their material conditions.
“My story is apocalyptic in the original sense of the term in Greek: apokaluptō…to uncover, lay open what has been veiled or covered up.” Like a finely made braid, Lovato interlaces his family’s history with the history of El Salvador. Through the Matanza of 1932, the migrations of Salvadorans to Mexico and to the U.S., the revolutionary struggles of the 1980s, the criminalization of youth, and the caging of Salvadoran refugees during the Obama and Trump administrations, Lovato and his family are always present. Rather than bystanders, Lovato shows how he, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his aunts, and cousins, were all active agents in the making of El Salvador and the Mission District of San Francisco. Through memoria histórica, Lovato shares his journey of uncovering his father’s intimate connection to the 1932 massacre of over 30,000 indigenous people and communists. The moment his father shares his testimonio is one of the most powerful images in the memoir: “At that moment, my eight-eight-year-old father became the nine-year-old boy who’d witnessed one of the worst massacres in the history of the Americas.”
If you have followed Lovato’s journalism and activism throughout the years, you know he does not shy away from showing us his rage. “Rage is my vocation,” he states. By way of Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez’s lyrics in “Días y Flores,” we learn the origins of Lovato’s rage and how it shifted from his family, El Salvador, and himself to U.S. empire. Through Lovato’s intimate and comradely relationship with a Salvadoran revolutionary named G, we are taken through scenes of U.S. imperialism in El Salvador, its support of death squads, and the revolutionary struggles for Salvadoran dignity during the 1980s civil war. Revolution is a major theme in Lovato’s memoir. Although the word revolution might be outdated for some, Lovato reminds us its ideals and necessity live on.
Instead of reifying gang violence in El Salvador, Lovato urges us to think deeply and try to understand what turns kids into violent, even murderous gang members while also holding space for the child victims of this violence, what he calls a “double helix of death,” that condemns many in El Salvador. In many scenes of the memoir, Lovato forces us to reckon with a whirlwind of emotions that does not explain away the violence, but rather helps us understand it. Through his own investigations, Lovato argues the violence we often hear about through the corporate media “is no small part, an expression of forgotten American violence.” He reminds us that the most destructive agents in El Salvador are not the youth gangs, but the gangsters in suits who are “protected by even more violent gangsters in military uniforms.”
According to Central American Studies scholar Ester E. Hernández, “the process of transmitting cultural memory brings to light the history of diaspora.” Through her use of the concept “working memory,” Hernández shows how U.S.-based Central Americans use film, murals, and performances to revisit complex and contradictory narratives of war, migration, and resistance. Adding to this working memory and history of the Salvadoran diaspora, Lovato’s Unforgetting contributes to U.S.-based Central American cultural production, activism, and the growing field of Central American Studies. It is part and parcel of a growing tradition of U.S.-based Central Americans writing their own radical histories of U.S. empire. This memoir is an ideal text for undergraduate courses and people interested in Salvadoran history.
Unforgetting is an invitation, or more like a demand, to remember the violence of settler colonialism, anti-communism, and imperialist interventions in El Salvador. Simultaneously, it is a refusal to forget the love, hope, agency, and struggles of Salvadorans and Central Americans. It is a timely memoir that should be studied on your own or with a study group. As we continue to hear, see, and organize against the caging, raiding, and deporting of our people, let us remember Lovato’s call to action. We must never forget the roots causes of the trauma, forced displacement, and criminalization. We must never forget the dignity of our people. Salvadorans have a rich history. Lovato urges others to read, listen, and learn from them.
 Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 2nd ed. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffret Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1999, 324.
 Lovato, Roberto. Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. New York: Harper Collins, 2020, xvii
 Hernández, Ester E. “Remembering Through Cultural Interventions: Mapping Central Americans in L.A. Public Space,” in U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance. Edited by Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017, 144.
Wellness. In 2018, it’s at once omnipresent and misunderstood—a buzzword from campus health centers to high-end real estate to pet food to preschool marketing. In a culture otherwise riven by stark divides of ideology and sensibility, wellness enjoys weirdly wide appeal. Who doesn’t aspire to “more than the absence of sickness,” as it’s commonly described, even if particular wellness totems, from organic kale to healing crystals, can seem annoyingly bourgeois or suspiciously woo-woo? Notably, the otherwise polar opposite online worlds of the upscale “curated” lifestyle (e.g., Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop) or right-wing conspiracy theory (e.g., Alex Jones’s Infowars) peddle surprisingly similar wellness products.
The few holdouts that most strenuously resist wellness are disproportionately concentrated among social critics and my fellow academics. In growing chorus, they smartly if at times snarkily point out limits of a vision that emphasizes individual wellbeing over collective action and they snub science. They also illuminate inequality, noting that processed food is cheaper than the greenmarket, making time to hit the gym is harder when you work an unpredictable shift job, and a sage-scented home is indulgent if not outright luxurious.
However valid these critiques may appear to be, they have mostly forestalled an exploration of the specific spaces in which wellness culture originated. Postwar California, ever the American frontier, was hugely important. There emerged a wellness culture defined by the at-times contradictory liberation, celebration, and beautification of the body: At countercultural retreats in places like Big Sur’s Esalen, the feminist self-care clinics increasingly dotting university campuses and ethnic neighborhoods, and Southern California’s multiplying gyms. From countercultural yogis to Bay Area love-your-body feminists and San Diego Jazzercisers, wellness has become so ubiquitous by uniting an unlikely range of players in the embrace of once-marginal mind-body holism and self-care as the basis of the good life. The wellness culture they forged has spread far beyond California the place but remains bound up with California the idea. Reflecting broader social and economic inequalities, wellness culture is not necessarily an engine of such malaise, contra many of its critics, but a potentially powerful counterweight to them. History uncovers these counter-narratives easily obscured in 2017.
What is Wellness?
“Wellness, there’s a word you don’t hear every day,” ran as the opening sentence of a 1979 60 Minutes feature on Marin County’s Wellness Resource Center (WRC). Host Dan Rather offered a glimpse as to how “wellness” became the household term it is today. Hardly so accepted in Rather’s day, “wellness” was a fledgling movement that earned skepticism as a “middle-class cult.” The thirty or so mostly white enthusiasts who appeared on national television imparted a common experience that had led them to wellness—suffering caused by ailment that had stumped western doctors. Often desperate by the time they arrived to WRC, they found there a refreshing new set of assumptions: that mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing were interconnected; and that regardless of their expertise, they were uniquely qualified to lead their own healing processes, often through preventative measures. To skeptics, these premises conjured the vacuousness of what Christopher Lasch lambasted that same year as a creeping “culture of narcissism.”
Expansive economic, political, and cultural changes keenly felt in postwar California gave rise to this phenomenon. Increased, if unevenly enjoyed, affluence inspired an appreciation of therapeutic interventions that elevated “emotional balance,” and later “healthy narcissism” and “self-esteem” as social goals, a distinct break from a public health discourse that had emphasized staving from polio, depression-era privation, and wartime venereal disease. Cold War warriors like John F. Kennedy celebrated a corporeally and intellectually agile citizen as the paragon of civic virtue. California public school curricula—from quaint 1950s filmstrips about proper “attitudes and health” to the famed 1960s La Sierra High School physical education curriculum now the subject of a nostalgic 2017 documentary and the 1980s self-esteem commission that appeared on Oprah and are chronicled in the 2017 book Selfie—revealed this sustained new focus on holistic wellness, and anxiety about achieving it, gaining national attention then and now.
The privileges of increased affluence enjoyed mostly by whites were hardly the only impulse galvanizing the pursuit of wellness. Women, racial, and sexual minorities incorporated the cultivation of their own holistic health as a form of political resistance. Historian Alondra Nelson has charted how the Black Panthers established community-run East Bay medical facilities to foster wellbeing, “body and soul.” Unwittingly, in this endeavor, this radical African-American group subscribed to an emergent worldview resonant with that in physically near, but culturally and socioeconomically distant, Marin, as well as growing communities statewide. This essay will consider three of these.
Established in Big Sur in 1962 by two Stanford graduates whose studies of Eastern religion and culture had left them disenchanted with American attitudes toward religion and mental health, the expansive Esalen Institute cultivated countercultural approaches to wellbeing ranging from the spiritual to the psychedelic. As it became a national attraction, Esalen’s pedagogy exceeded the religious abstractions to focus on the body as a vehicle for transcendence. Nude “encounter sessions,” cultivation and consumption of organic foods, and yoga all juxtaposed the “natural” body and earth with the materialistic, technocratic, corrupt realm beyond its gates. Unabashed nudity and non-procreative sex, sustenance unspoiled by laboratory intervention, and “being in your body” were sufficiently subversive to be explored in secluded enclaves. Yet these sensibilities were going mainstream. Esalen’s founding yoga instructor, Pamela Rainbear Portugal, tellingly recounted one purpose of this elevated self-awareness: Enduring bourgeois domesticity. “Punch a punching bag instead of secretly—even to you—sniping at your mate,” she advised. “Otherwise you might someday ‘accidentally’ run the family Buick over him.”
Integral to the Esalen mission was the pursuit of “self-actualization, creativity, and human potentiality,” and one way this mind-body ethos found expression was through yoga. In keeping with the institute’s philosophy, development of a strong sense of self was the goal of embodied asana: “As long as you use your senses, you can do whatever YOU WANT,” Portugal wrote. This actualized self was unapologetically corporeal but liberated from conventional beauty standards in a way that feels astonishing given the airbrushed aesthetic of today’s commercial yoga imagery. Line drawings depicted a woman whose ample figure, unkempt hair, and bulbous nose figured almost as conspicuously as the poses she modeled. Portugal also openly extolled the “release” of regularly vacating one’s bowels.
Similarly, historian Sam Binkley relates the establishment in 1973 of Esalen’s sports center in which the customary goal of vanquishing an opponent was supplanted with “non-competitive organized play and deeper experiences of self-exploration, spiritual community, and transcendence.” A staff member remarked that this program was especially effective in implementing Esalen’s core principle “that the body and mind are so closely related.” A reporter agreed, musing that the “the clout generated by Esalen” might effect “a change in sports” as dramatic as “the storming of the Bastille.”
Such innovations both reflected and shaped broader politics. In 1972, MAD magazine featured a grid portraying defining characteristics of “Liberals”: taking up yoga, feeding one’s pets organic foods, “walking around nude in front of the children,” and “making it a habit to call Negroes ‘blacks’” all made the list. Holistic wellness, this mockery illuminates, was perceived as a liberal fascination. Meanwhile, in suburbs like San Mateo, Anaheim, and the Sacramento environs, burgeoning right-wingers simultaneously articulated an opposing sensibility that invested the body with reactionary political significance: Massive resistance to sex education, pornography, and the sexual revolutions ensued. Lasch reflected in the New York Review of Books on these twin movements born in seemingly distant universes of the suburban subdivision and the spiritual retreat: “A growing despair of changing society has generated on the one hand a revival of old-time religion, on the other a cult of expanded consciousness, health, and personal ‘growth.’”
If this historical moment spawned these divergent sensibilities, the ubiquity of twenty-first-century wellness culture relies on their peculiar convergence: The National Wellness Institute (1977) enjoys the support of both Mike Huckabee and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. A Republican lawmaker cheered the defeat of a bill regulating yoga studios by taking crow pose atop his desk; and wellness luminaries are at the same time progressives, like recent congressional aspirant the Los Angeles-based spiritual leader Marianne Williamson, or libertarians, like Lululemon Athletica founder Chip Wilson. This broad appeal at times signifies co-optation—which movements like Decolonizing Yoga have emerged to combat—but it also highlights how the previously marginalized, from the elderly to disabled, to fat, to queer, to Christian communities, now make claims to wellness culture and its benefits.
The Feminist Health Clinic
Reluctantly, Dan Rather’s interviewees skeptically embraced wellness as a last resort for mundane ailments like strained wrists and chronic back pain. Esalen’s patrons were drawn to its potential for spiritual emancipation, though as Betty Friedan commented after visiting, the retreat didn’t always challenge entrenched attitudes and hierarchies that lionized “macho mountain men.” Still, Esalen maintained a strong commitment to the thorny task of defining personal growth and political liberation as inextricably intertwined, welcoming Black Panthers, dissident intellectuals, and political figures alike to Big Sur.
Echoing this blend of politics and practicality, feminist health advocates also celebrated self-care and mind-body holism. Interweaving structural analysis with self-help, they blamed a male-dominated medical industry for limiting access to contraception and for dehumanizing women. In 1971, Belita Cowan of the Los Angeles Feminist Women’s Health Center taught herself how to use a plastic speculum, flashlight, and mirror to perform an examination on her cervix—which she then turned into a public teach-in inside of a feminist bookstore. In promoting unembarrassed physical self-knowledge and connecting female nudity to empowerment rather than objectification, Cowan inspired similar demonstrations all over the country. Such political spectacle could inspire sustained activism: In 1975 Cowan co-founded the National Women’s Health Network that laid bare the complicity of the medical industry and the Food and Drug Administration in concealing the harmful impact of many drugs on women’s health.
These clinics cultivated a coherent notion of wellness, even as they provided different services based on community need. Facilities sponsored by the Office of Economic Opportunity (1965) offered otherwise financially prohibitive services such as basic exams and safe abortions in rural and inner-city communities. Like clinics run by the Young Lords and Black Panthers, these sites also offered an environment that challenged the “white coat” of the (often white, male) doctor to welcome communities long marginalized by mainstream medicine. Inspired by women’s liberation on campus, colleges often operated clinics or recommended community centers. In 1972, the Stanford Women’s Center’s “A Guide for Stanford Women” listed female-staffed clinics that “provide good, low-cost care… to women and minorities.” The pamphlet’s emphasis on birth control and “menstrual extraction,” a measure that terminates pregnancy before detectable, suggested its focus on the needs of sexually active college women.
Such particular interventions were undergirded in a philosophy considered so new that a separate section called “MIND AND BODY” spelled out: Women are fundamentally different from men in their physical and psychological health needs; mental and physical health are inextricably intertwined; and “self-help,” inspired by the pioneering Los Angeles Feminist Women’s Health Center, seeks to “change women’s consciousness about their own bodies,” and “provide them with skills to maintain and improve their own health.” The communities such clinics cultivated cast a wide net in promoting preventative health: One San Francisco outfit advertised consciousness-raising, another in Palo Alto was “a place to just go read a book.” By the 1980s, historian Jennifer Nelson describes an Atlanta clinic’s “Healthy Love” celebrations that framed women’s health as worthy of a party rather than pathologizing.
Perhaps the strongest evidence of how effectively feminist health advocates promoted wellness as key to female self-determination was in its ready commodification. In one case, an Orange County used-car salesman-cum-abortion-provider, opened “Women Helping Women” in 1974. Devoted to helping “women [with their] special needs, special problems,” the clinic engaged in questionable practices such as compensating employees with breast enlargement surgeries, prompting denunciations by both anti-abortion picketers and the director of Santa Ana’s Feminist Women’s Health Center. The clinic was “jammed” with prospective clients, reported the Los Angeles Times, intimating that a considerable segment of women were more interested in how “affordable care for women” translated into cut-rate plastic surgery than with the incongruity of such marketing with the feminist politics that birthed such clinics. As “wellness” became more broadly defined in the 1970s, it was marketed in ways that obscure its radical, communitarian origins.
It was in the gym where notions of bodily transcendence and self-determination converged with beauty culture in an earnest embrace that remains passionate today. With little of the political or spiritual purpose of the retreat or health clinic, gyms also promoted mind-body holism and self-care, often wrapped in an unapologetic pursuit of beauty.
Working out was considered a bizarre, even suspicious, undertaking until the 1960s and ’70s. In 1936, when exercise enthusiast Jack LaLanne opened his first gym in Oakland, the resistance he encountered foreshadowed the attitudes that would so irk feminist health advocates: “People thought I was a charlatan and a nut,” he remembered. “The doctors were against me—they said that working out with weights would give people everything from heart attacks to hemorrhoids; that women would look like men.” On his television show, which ran for over three decades until 1985, LaLanne reassured the homemakers who comprised most of his viewers that physical training would not “ruin their figures with exercise” but would improve every aspect of their lives, from the emotional to the aesthetic.
Brick-and-mortar fitness clubs built by LaLanne and other Venice Beach entrepreneurs established arenas where exercise became about more than physical culture. By the 1980s, such health clubs were multiplying, and were not necessarily temples of transcendence. A 1983 Rolling Stone cover story and the feature film it inspired, Perfect (1985), likened these gleaming successors of “sweaty dungeons” to “the wailing wall of West Coast fitness religion,” but they also resembled a somewhat seedy, spandex-swathed annex of the “sex-charged” L.A. dating scene. A former patron agreed, remembering that the multi-level Sports Connection—where Perfect was filmed—was better known as “the Sports Erection.” Training one’s body had not only somatic, but increasingly social payoffs.
But it was California’s peculiar postwar context that blended experimentation, political self-determination, and body-consciousness into a distinct culture and ideology.
Women like dancer Judi Sheppard Missett and Hollywood star Jane Fonda, however, launched fitness studios in the 1970s and ’80s out of frustration with the assumptions about women’s abilities that shaped the emergent fitness scene. In the late 1960s, Missett had been confused by the results of a physical fitness test administered at her local YMCA; she was matter-of-factly explained that the exam was geared to male physiology. Disturbed by this exchange, by low participation in her technically sophisticated dance classes, and by her sense that “mothers believed they should sit on the side watching their daughters rather than dance,” in 1969 Missett founded the inclusive dance-exercise format that evolved into Jazzercise.
A recent transplant to San Diego, Missett papered supermarket bulletin boards with flyers advertising her classes, in which women of all ages gathered to exercise free of the usual intimidation of the mirror, which she pointedly removed. When the devoted military wives who attended Missett’s classes inevitably faced relocation, these students became instructors themselves rather than abandon the exercise rituals some described as “life-affirming.” Missett and her acolytes actively linked physical exercise to fulfillment (and a global franchise), if not to overtly feminist politics, which had little currency in conservative San Diego County.
Meanwhile, in Hollywood Jane Fonda built a fitness business that reflected the city’s more progressive sensibility. Early profits of her Robertson Boulevard studio (opened in 1979) funded her activist husband Tom Hayden’s antipoverty nonprofit, California’s Campaign for Economic Democracy. Yet in 1969, the same year Missett launched Jazzercise, Fonda was flummoxed by a feminist who pointed out how the erotic film Barbarella objectified her: “I did not even know I had been. The burgeoning new women’s consciousness had not yet found its way into my mind and heart.” Exercise was ultimately an important avenue for the development of Fonda’s feminist consciousness. The dance-aerobics she popularized in her three freestanding California studios and wildly popular VHS tapes and books inspired her to “create more realistic, less anxiety-ridden standards” for women—from “women judges to women janitors,” as her second book declared—also struggling with body image and sexual exploitation.
Were Missett and Fonda deliberately endorsing wellness? In 2015, Missett told me, “the main focus here is continuing to help women understand that they can take possession of their lives by being healthy and fit” and “cultivating joy through music.” She targeted suburban women likely “intimidated” by swanky, “big-city” clubs like Sports Connection. Thousands of notes from students revealed that Jazzercisers gained more than physical benefits, relaying personal accounts of achieving the confidence to “get married or divorced or go on a safari or climb a mountain.” Fonda also recalled that women socialized to eschew exercise flouted conventions to do her videotapes; as far away as in “mud huts in Guatemala” working out galvanized female self-actualization. Indeed, in the United States countless women recalled that Fonda’s prominence made it acceptable “to sweat in public.” And increasingly, to find community therein: Gloria Steinem wrote in Ms. in 1982 that the “Family of Woman” engendered by the intimacy of the locker room at her women’s gym made “great beauties seem less distant and even mastectomies seem less terrifying.”
The same year that Steinem published that elegiac essay, titled “In Praise of Women’s Bodies,” Missett taught a Jazzercise class at the University of California’s San Diego campus as part of the fitness program for Wellness Week, so declared by Governor Jerry Brown. Not until the early 1990s, however, did Missett remember using the word wellness to market her own classes; she described herself as “tuned in” and influenced by the mind-body practices such as yoga and Pilates since the 1960s, but “it wasn’t marketable” until three decades later. In the 1982 follow-up to her 1981 bestseller, Fonda was more open about her grand ambitions for exercise. This close-range regional history of contemporary wellness illuminates a far more variegated landscape than most critiques permit. If wellness culture has created new arenas for the twin forces of narcissism and neoliberalism to flourish, so too have its arenas—yoga studios, gyms, farmers’ markets—cultivated resistance to the individualizing, stratifying dynamics that have come to structure our political economy, culture, and identities.
California of course had no monopoly on the varied spaces that birthed American wellness culture. In the era this essay spans, we might consider the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York (1977), the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1969), the Lotte Berk Brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (1970), or the tens of New Jersey rec rooms where Jacki Sorensen launched Aerobic Dancing (1969). But it was California’s peculiar postwar context that blended experimentation, political self-determination, and body-consciousness into a distinct culture and ideology of wellness so regionally specific but nationally resonant that when I told a curious patron in a Long Island coffee shop that I was writing about the history of wellness, he quipped: “Shouldn’t you be out in California?”
 Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979).
 Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain Since 1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Eva Moskowitz, In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession with Self-Fulfillment (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); Elizabeth Lunbeck, The Americanization of Narcissism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Coronet Instructional Films, “Emotional Balance: Snap Out of It,” 1951, accessed via Archives.org: https://archive.org/details/SnapOuto1951.
 Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
 Jeffrey Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
 Pamela Rainbear Portugal, A Place for Human Beings, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Homegrown Books, 1978), 95.
 Sam Binkley, Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 230-31.
 Frank Jacobs and George Woodbridge, “The Mad Guide to Political Types,” MAD, October 1972.
 Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Clayton Howard, The Closet and the Cul de Sac (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming); Neil J. Young, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Rise of Interfaith Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
 Christopher Lasch, “The Narcissist Society,” New York Review of Books, 30 September 1976.
 Sandra Morgen, Into Our Own Hands: The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 15; Marlene Cimons, “Women’s Group to Sue Maker of Contraceptive,” Los Angeles Times, 11 January 1983.
 Stanford Women’s Center, “A Guide for Stanford Women, 1972,” Marjorie L. Shuer Papers, Box 1, Folder 11, Stanford University Special Collections.
 Jennifer Nelson, More Than Medicine: A History of the Women’s Health Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2015).
 Shearlean Duke, “Clinic for Women Only Surrounded by Controversy,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 1974.
 Daniel Kunitz, Lift (New York: Harper Collins, 2016).
 Bill Morem, “Fitness Guru Jack Lalanne, 96, dies at Morro Bay home,” San Luis Obispo Tribune, 23 January 2011.
 Shelly McKenzie, Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013); Jonathan Black, Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women whose Feuds, Feats, and Passions Shaped Fitness History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013).
 Aaron Latham, “Looking for Mister Goodbody,” Rolling Stone, June 1983; Neil Karlam, “Jamie Lee Curtis Gets Serious,” Rolling Stone, 18 July 1985.
 Oral history interview with Leslie Kaminoff, 2016.
 Oral history interview with Judith Sheppard Missett, 2015; Michael Schroeder, “Looking for a Bigger Slice,” The Detroit News, 20 September 1985.
 Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 18.
 James Spada, Fonda: Her Life in Pictures (New York: Doubleday, 1985); Alan Citron, “No Sweat: Jane Fonda Closes Her Beverly Hills Aerobics Studio,” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1991; Femmy DeLyser, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book for Pregnancy, Birth, and Recovery (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 19, 164; Spada, Fonda, 194.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an associate professor of history at The New School. She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015) and working on a book about fitness culture. She is a co-host of the Past Present podcast. Follow her on twitter @nataliapetrzela or through her website www.nataliapetrzela.com.
In the thirty-fifth chapter of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible, the writer lays out a remedy for a social and legal problem. In ancient Israel, the penalty for murder was death, “a life for a life.” Family members of the slain person normally carry out the sentence. However, the writers of Numbers recognized that it would not be fair for accidental killers to receive the same punishment as those who kill intentionally. Raging family members could not be expected to stop midstream and investigate; the community is instructed to create cities of refuge where the accused can be kept safe until they can receive a fair hearing. The cities of refuge are the solution for people who committed a crime and received an unfair penalty.
This ancient remedy is the root of the sanctuary church tradition. Since the fourth century in England, churches have offered protection and shelter to those accused of a crime but who would be likely to be punished unfairly if left unprotected. Christians and churches along the Underground Railroad followed this example, as did Christians in Nazi Germany who protected Jews and churches in the 1960s who protected draft-dodgers avoiding service in Vietnam. The most prominent movement using the term “sanctuary” in the twentieth century was the Central American sanctuary movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
In Tucson, Arizona, Reverend John Fife of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and Quaker leader Jim Corbett encountered Central Americans running for their lives from death squads who were targeting not only revolutionaries but also Christian leaders of justice movements. These asylum-seekers were facing different criteria than individuals escaping Communist countries; the United States was an ally and funder of the governments supporting the death squads. When Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were documenting government-sponsored massacres, a very small percentage of Central Americans were winning asylum cases. The sanctuary movement began at Southside Presbyterian Church in 1982, under Reverend Fife’s leadership, and ended up involving around 500 congregations across the United States. By risking legal penalties themselves, these congregations brought public attention and added credibility to the Central Americans’ testimonies. The sanctuary movement changed hearts and minds, contributing significantly to major policy changes in the asylum system (such as the awarding of temporary protected status to Central Americans in 1990) and in stopping the funding which sustained the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. While the sanctuary movement was infiltrated and the leaders faced a grand jury trial in 1986, only two leaders received prison sentences for illegal transportation and six others were convicted of alien smuggling with suspended sentences; none were convicted for the actual provision of shelter.
While a young seminary student in Berkeley during the Central American sanctuary movement, I belonged to University Lutheran Chapel, one of the first sanctuary churches. During this time, my husband and I also welcomed a refugee from Central America into our home, which was a formative experience, displaying the potential power of the church as a force for social justice.
Years later in 2006, I became one of the leaders of a new sanctuary movement. The Sensenbrenner Bill had passed the House of Representatives in December of 2005; if it had also passed the Senate, it would have made it a felony to be undocumented or to help or serve an undocumented person. Shock waves went through immigrant communities and congregations alike. For many years, the U.S. immigration system had already proven to be ineffective, illogical, and inhumane. For example, since 1995, the number of visas available for unskilled labor has been a flat limit of 5,000 per year; since the 1800s, the U.S. has imported 70 to 80 percent of our farm labor. The numbers do not match and therefore as a result, the majority of those whose labor feeds the country cannot enjoy the benefits of legal residency.
Faith communities felt compelled to respond to their plight, both from compassion and because our traditions are clear about the call to do so.
This broken system has created a situation over the past thirty years in which undocumented immigrants are woven into the fabric of communities in many regions of our country. When they suddenly saw themselves as potential felons, the anguish, anger, and terror became overwhelming. Faith communities felt compelled to respond to their plight, both from compassion and because our traditions are clear about the call to do so. There are ninety-two texts from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures calling us to welcome the stranger. The Sensenbrenner Bill also put church leaders directly in danger; it was written so loosely that churches could have been liable for the provision of both humanitarian and religious services to the strangers in our midst. Faith leaders throughout the country struggled to figure out the best response to the crisis.
Then, in his Ash Wednesday sermon of 2006, as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles at the time, Cardinal Roger Mahony called on Roman Catholics across the nation to continue to minister to everyone regardless of their immigration status… even if they were to go to prison for it. Religious leaders from different faith traditions in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles decided that it was time for a new sanctuary movement. We wanted to replicate the impact of the late twentieth century movement—to call attention to the brokenness of our immigration system and the need for reform rather than unjust punishment. We believed that the willingness of immigrants and non-immigrants to engage in a potentially sacrificial partnership could have the capacity to again change hearts and minds, and to ultimately affect legislation. However, we also realized that the situation was very different than the ’80s. We realized that we did not have the capacity to shelter millions of people indefinitely. Nor did most of the undocumented immigrant population want to live in churches; unlike the Central American refugees they were established in the U.S.—complete with jobs, homes, and children in school. The strategy we developed focused on inviting families whose stories would communicate the brokenness of our system to enter publicly into sanctuary, taking risks and making sacrifices for the sake of a greater goal. At its height in 2007, coalitions of congregations in thirty-seven cities were participating in some form. While Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago kicked off the movement, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice of California became the national lead agency for the new sanctuary movement, and the New York City New Sanctuary Coalition served as a national model. This was a movement that also went beyond Christian congregations—there were too many individual leaders and congregations to name: Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Unitarian, Jewish, and Muslim.
The new sanctuary movement received massive publicity, and an equivalent bill to Sensenbrenner’s did not pass the Senate. By June 2007, a comprehensive immigration bill with strong bipartisan support was polling at 75 percent in support. We thought that we would win and our families could go home. Unfortunately, the calls to legislators were 50 to 1 against the bill. The majority of Americans usually do not call their representative unless the proposed legislation directly affects them. Most of those whose answers to the surveys were positively in favor of the bipartisan immigration reform bill did not call their legislators and those who thought immigration negatively affected their lives called repeatedly. There was not enough political will to pass immigration reform.
The new sanctuary movement changed direction and worked on a temporary alternative to reform, seeking a regulatory safety net that could soften the impact of the jagged edges of the broken system while the immigrant rights movement continued to strive for legislation over the long haul. Immigration field office directors have prosecutorial discretion to delay deportation for specific cases; they can even grant work permits and temporary authorization to reside in the U.S. Over the next ten years, the sanctuary movement (in collaboration with other immigrant rights advocates) pushed for national criteria for the granting of deferred deportation and temporary permissions. In August 2010, the “Morton Memo,” named such after then-director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John Morton, established a new policy that prioritized immigrants who represented threats to public safety for detention and deportation, and authorized deferred deportation for immigrants who met certain qualifications. This gave annual protection from deportation to tens of thousands of people who met the criteria, which amounted to having ties to residential U.S. citizens, making contributions to U.S. society, and/or having dangerous conditions in their countries of origin. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was the extension of this logic by President Obama’s 2012 Executive Order, prioritizing this for a group instead of requiring a case-by-case process. DACA, which gave 800,000 “Dreamers” temporary authorization to reside and work in the U.S., built on the foundation laid by the Morton Memo.
The sanctuary movement also successfully advocated for the creation of sensitive zones where ICE would not enter without a judicial warrant, including congregations, schools, and hospitals. In 2014, Church World Service took on a coordination role and the new sanctuary movement experienced a resurgence of families living in churches publicly. Over the years, the new movement developed a high level of expertise in using the new regulations to enable these families to have their deportation orders suspended or removed.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, somewhere between 800 and 1,000 congregations have declared sanctuary across the country—double the size of any sanctuary movement to date. New coalitions continue to spring up weekly. However, the vast majority of these congregations do not have families taking shelter inside them. Any standard for prioritization of enforcement is gone; the new administration’s Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvement Executive Order treats immigration offenses as crimes equal in importance to other serious criminal offenses. Living inside a church is, in effect, an indeterminate sentence of house arrest and a potential financial disaster for a family. Publicly living inside a church can invite bullying for the children and death threats for the adults. While a few immigrant families make this choice, the more common form of sanctuary is private. Individuals or families move into a church building or a private home to escape an address that ICE knows, ideally in a community where they can start over again and hide in the shadows. Their stay in sanctuary is temporary; as soon as possible they move into their own lodging and a new life in greater obscurity. These private cases, however, do not serve to change hearts and minds of legislative officials or those in the wider U.S. culture, nor do they offer any real solution to the broader problem. Member coalitions of the interfaith PICO organizing network have been particularly involved in developing private sanctuary options as well as engaging their congregations in other aspects of sanctuary work.
Beyond Sanctuary: Advocacy and Accompaniment
Although a movement had been renewed, or reborn, the failures to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 and the Dream Act (multiple attempts in 2001, 2005, and 2007) could be seen as evidence that the coalition supporting immigrant rights lacked the breadth and depth necessary to create the political will for reform. There are too few American citizens who feel that the lack of humane immigration law affects them personally. At this point, evangelical leaders in various places in the country, including Willow Creek leadership in Chicago and several megachurch leaders in Orange County began to ask, “What role might the church play today in broadening and deepening this coalition because of our mandate to care passionately about people who are not ‘us’?” This group reasoned that if the church does not care passionately about the well being of all people, including immigrants, then the church is not faithful to Jesus. We realized that the evangelical churches were uniquely positioned to make a difference in the stalemate. Evangelical churches are passionate in their discipleship; and evangelicals are known for being willing to make great sacrifices for obedience to God and for mission. The international Hispanic community is one of the fastest growing evangelical constituencies in the world. The 2014 study by the Pew Research Center “Religion in Latin America” states that the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are is now estimated to be over 50 percent evangelical. In the U.S., immigrants from Latin America and Asia are the fastest growing population within evangelical churches. Evangelical churches are also often associated with the Republican Party because of their stance on abortion. As a result, they are uniquely equipped to work on organizing conservatives to work with liberals to pass immigration reform.
In 2011, I was one of the co-founders of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), along with Jenny Yang from World Relief, with significant leadership provided by a diverse set of national evangelical organizations and denominations, including Sojourners, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, Esperanza USA, and the Christian Community Development Association. (The National Immigration Forum served as a resource for the EIT.) The EIT became the broadest coalition of evangelical leaders for justice since the slavery abolition movement of the mid-nineteenth century. At its height, the coalition engaged immigrant and non-immigrant evangelicals in peer partnership; the signatories to its principles included famous megachurch pastors, denominational leaders, seminary presidents, and traditional evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. When the Table was formed, polls showed that 83 percent of white evangelicals were against immigration reform. Just three years later, however, polls in 2014 showed 72 percent of white evangelicals were for immigration reform. The EIT has also given birth to G92, a movement based in Christian colleges and universities, and Bibles, Business, and Badges, a coalition of law enforcement, business leaders, and church leaders supporting immigration reform. While there is still strong conservative support for immigration reform, the advent of the Trump movement has certainly weakened that movement—both through the stimulation of strong nativist impulses and the fear created in moderate Republicans.
When the new Executive Orders appeared in January, many of us who had been involved with the EIT knew that evangelicals who had voted for Trump might still be interested in standing with immigrants in the face of the unjust policies and practices which separate families and destroy dreams. The leadership of the Christian Community Development Association and Sojourners, along with the National Evangelical Latino Coalition, leading African-American organizations like the National African-American Clergy Network, the Progressive Baptists denomination, and the Christian-Muslim dialogue organization Shoulder2Shoulder came together around what we called the Matthew 25 Pledge. In Matthew chapter 25 of the Christian New Testament, Jesus says that our welcome, or lack of welcome, for strangers is the same as welcoming, or not welcoming, him. Signatories to the Matthew 25 Pledge agree to protect and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus. Immigrants are not the only vulnerable people potentially covered under the pledge; the Matthew 25 website has resources for standing with immigrants, young people of color experiencing discrimination in the criminal justice system, and Muslims experiencing discrimination as immigrants, refugees, or citizens. Matthew 25 has a signal committee of leaders for the purpose of sounding a national call to action if needed.
In Southern California, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 has become a vital coalition of evangelical and moderate mainline Protestant congregations in which immigrant churches, Millennial Latino leaders, multicultural churches, and primarily Anglo congregations have engaged in a broad range of advocacy and accompaniment activities. Matthew 25/Mateo 25 SoCal has actively educated congregations, trained leaders, and joined the broader movement in advocating for policies which protect and support immigrants, such as the Dream Act and public sanctuary legislation. It has also met with ICE leadership for dialogue, advocating for individual cases of egregious injustice, partnering immigrant and non-immigrant churches to provide legal resources and spiritual/psychological support to families facing deportation, and helping with family plans to care for citizen children whose parents are deported.
Our church partnerships with individual family cases are fueling the exchange of hope and passion in ways that grow participation in the movement. Two to three churches can handle the needs of a family, with one providing emotional and spiritual support and the others providing financial and professional support—allowing for many more families to be served than the typical model of getting everyone in a network to work on every case. The two to three congregations that accompany that family can then call on the resources of the broader network as needed.
Recently, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 SoCal created a national campaign to support Pastor Noe Carias, a Guatemalan immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 13 after escaping kidnapping. After being deported multiple times before he turned 21 years old, he eventually married a U.S. citizen and had two children, managed a construction business and became an Assemblies of God pastor, founding a thriving church in Echo Park. In his attempt to have his deportation orders removed so that his qualifying cases could be considered, he was detained for two months in Adelanto—a detention center in the Mojave Desert known for its various inhumane conditions,. Brave New Films produced a documentary on Pastor Carias’s situation, which has gone out widely through social media. The Anglo General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God (the fastest growing Pentecostal denomination in the world, with 3.5 adherents in the U.S.) went to the White House to advocate for Pastor Carias, who was released 22 September 2017, even while his case continues.
Matthew 25 and the interfaith sanctuary movement collaborate closely without adherence to the partisan lines that currently divide the country. In doing so, they stand on common ground in the defense of those who suffer unjustly.
In Southern California, leaders from the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. developed another accompaniment and advocacy mechanism, which is particularly focused on a group targeted by the current administration. The unaccompanied migrant children and youth who have arrived seeking asylum from Central America are a particular target of the Executive Orders. The situation in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is especially difficult currently, with the Marasalvatrucha functioning an international mafia that survives from the proceeds of gun, drug, and human trafficking, as well as the extortion of small businesses (over $600 million USD a year). They tell young men that they have three choices—join, run, or die. If they join, they have to show that they are serious by killing a family member (per the reports we have been recently hearing from specific youth). Girls are expected to become “girlfriends of the gang.” Younger children are targeted for kidnapping and selling to get small business owners to pay the daily “renta” (literally, rent payment). In the increasing geographic area targeted by the Mara, the police are corrupt, and controlled. One woman recently shared that she was raped repeatedly by a group of Mara and police when she complained to the police about the threats and extortion. Unaccompanied children and youth who pass a credible fear test at the border (about 60 percent) have historically been allowed to be investigated by a special asylum office which determines whether they meet the criteria for asylum (which is the same as the criteria for refugee status—valid fear of violent persecution in one’s home country as a result of race, gender, political opinion, religious belief, etc.).
In November of 2017, the State Department made an announcement ending the potential for that designation for Central American children and stopping the option of processing them through a refugee center in Costa Rica. The current administration has also targeted sponsors of undocumented children, often targeting extended family members who agree to care for children without compensation while the undocumented children are processed through the court procedures, which permits them to be free from incarceration. Beyond this, the administration has detained and deported children who turn 18 years old even if their court cases are in process; they have cut off all federal funding for legal assistance and have charged non-profit legal services providers with malpractice if they coach families on representing themselves; and they have charged family members in the U.S. with human trafficking if they helped with the cost of a smuggler to bring the child safely. (A young girl on the road heading north without any protection is very likely to be raped by Mexican police and criminals.) We recently had scheduled a youth to speak at an event; he was detained, deported and shot on arrival. His mother came to speak instead; she could not speak; she could only cry.
The current administration’s enforcement policies trash the twenty-year development of rational and humane regulatory policies, creating instead various levels of individual and family destruction, which is difficult to bear.
In 2014, when the numbers of these children and youth began to climb, we started the Guardian Angels Project, engaging church volunteers in accompanying these children and their families in court. We wear brightly colored t-shirts with an image of a guardian angel and we refer these families to legal assistance and social services while monitoring the courts to ensure that their rights are respected. When we began, the courts were regularly practicing “rocket docket,” rushing the cases through whether or not legal representation was available. Our presence stopped that practice within months. We also protect families from the unscrupulous lawyers and notary publics who take their money without providing effective representation (on the principle that a deported person cannot take them to court for fraud). We urge the families instead to use reputable resources, even if they have to wait in line. The Guardian Angels Project began in Southern California but has since spread to Chicago and is in the process of development in Atlanta and Houston.
Other faith leaders and networks also minister to these children, youth, and their families. The United Methodist Church organizes “welcome centers” in some of their churches, and provides a summer camp experience specifically focused on them and their needs, whereas the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches provide the backbone of the Guardian Angels Project. The Episcopal Church supports and advocates for these families as well. All of us participate in the Southern California-based coalition UCARE (Unaccompanied Central American Refugee Empowerment), an association of faith leaders, community organizations, and legal services providers who are concerned about this situation, which is coordinated by CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.)
Where from here?
The faith-based movement for immigrant rights and immigration reform is the one of the best-kept secrets in the country. In spite of ongoing press, most Americans still do not know that a diverse and significant group of faith leaders in this country, regardless of their political party affiliation, care passionately about justice for immigrants targeted unfairly by the current administration. At times, belonging to this group can feel like Moses, so close to the promised land of immigration reform and fair policies, and yet regularly sent back into the desert. The current administration’s enforcement policies trash the twenty-year development of rational and humane regulatory policies, creating instead various levels of individual and family destruction, which is difficult to bear. The recent abandonment of the DACA youth (children and youth who have had special regulatory status because they were brought here as children and have already demonstrated their actual and potential contribution to this society) is just one instance of this kind of senseless viciousness.
However, every aggressive step by this administration creates a stronger reaction. Recently, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 organized a press conference to support the Dreamers at Fuller Theological Seminary, led by the Latino Pastors’ networks of Southern California and attended by sixty Latino Christian leaders and evangelical Dreamers. Many of these people had never come out publicly before to stand for a justice issue. The sleeping giant of the immigrant evangelical churches is waking up and awakening other evangelical churches in the process. When all fourteen of the Hispanic Superintendents of Assemblies of God districts went to Dr. Wood, General Superintendent, asking for help in advocating for Pastor Carias, they obtained a positive response, which has historic significance.
Those who have labored in the vineyard of faith-rooted social justice for many years are encouraged by the growing breadth and depth of the movement—even if it is still in its early stages. And so in our advocacy and labors for the undocumented among us, including undocumented Californians, we resonate with the eloquent words of St. Paul in 2 Corinthians in the Christian New Testament: We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
 Southern California signatories included the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the largest evangelical seminary west of the Rockies, and megachurch pastors Kenton Beshore of the 18,000 member Mariners Church in Irvine, Dave Gibbons of the 11,000 member New Song Church, Jerry Dirmann of The Rock in Anaheim, Tim Celek of the Crossing in Costa Mesa, Jim Tolle of Church on the Way in Los Angeles, and Greg Waybright of Pasadena’s Lake Avenue Community Church.
Reverend Alexia Salvatierra is an ordained Lutheran Pastor, the co-author of Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World, affiliate Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and adjunct for five other Christian academic institutions as well as an international trainer and consultant. She has been organizing churches to engage in social justice for thirty-five years, and has been a co-founder of multiple immigration initiatives.
This is not the life I expected to lead. But gradually you take some responsibility, then a little more, until finally you are not in control anymore. You have to give yourself entirely. Then once you make up your mind that you are giving yourself, then you are prepared to do anything that serves the Cause and the Movement. I have reached that point. I have no option anymore about what I will do. I have given myself fully.
The bomb scare that night was the least of his worries. As far as death threats were concerned, Dr. King had experienced his fair share of close calls. His home had been bombed—he’d been stabbed with a letter opener, hit with rocks, eggs, fists, and arrested over fifteen times. And, yes, there had been plenty of bomb scares similar to what occurred inside the University of Southern California’s Bovard Auditorium on the night of 16 October 1967.
Dr. King visited the University of Southern California campus to deliver a speech titled “The Negro in America.” He flew United Airlines and arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport at 6:35 p.m., appearing calm yet tired. At this stage of his life, King had become more controversial than ever to the American public. He’d publicly denounced the Vietnam War in a fiery April 1967 speech in New York, angering not only pro-war advocates but also his own supporters who believed he was moving himself away from his core cause of civil rights. He’d gained weight over the years, and grew numb to the fear of losing his life.
Dr. King’s Los Angeles visit was preceded by a similar speech delivered on Sacramento State College’s football field, speaking out on Vietnam to an audience of several thousand: “Our nation is trying to fight two wars at the same time, the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty, and is losing both.” As soon as he finished, King headed for the local airport. According to the late journalist David Halberstam, this was Dr. King’s routine: “Most of King’s life is spent going to airports, and it is the only time to talk to him.”
In Los Angeles, he was greeted by a USC committee and guided to a car. As had become his standard outfit, King wore a black suit, rumpled from the flight, with a white collared shirt and gray tie. Some, such as then Daily Trojan editor Hal Lancaster, were able to see King up close, and what affected the reporter the most was the fatigue in the reverend’s eyes:. “Any man who averages three hotel rooms a week is bound to be tired.”
After dropping off his luggage at a Hyatt, Dr. King got back into the car and headed for the USC campus. He’d started to wake up and looked out the window of the car, the city of Los Angeles passing by. Dr. King spoke to those in the car about how California and the Catholic Church had “gone backwards” in helping to enact a fair housing plan. One example of ‘fairness,’ would be an attempt to eliminate discrimination while a potential tenant’s application is being processed. As King recalled, California at one time “had an open housing act here and went back and abolished it.” To the reverend, it was simply another case of the church not taking enough social responsibility in the communities where they still held sway. “It has been a great tragedy of the church that this has been considered secondary. The church must be concerned with the total man, his physical as well as spiritual being.”
At 7:45 p.m., Dr. King entered a room inside USC’s Bovard Auditorium. He wanted some time to himself before he went out. As he collected his thoughts, around eighteen hundred people filled the auditorium, eager to see the reverend in the flesh.
He spoke with an urgent vitality—the kind that can perhaps come only after hearing a knock on death’s door—and the crowd was sent to a higher plane of thought.
Just after eight, Dr. King, after an introduction, walked up to the podium. At 5’7” he was not an imposing presence on stage, but this setting had become his second home. Unassuming and mellow off stage, King had a knack for bringing himself to life as he spoke to a crowd. On this night, he started slowly, deliberately, his slow southern drawl allowing everyone to follow his every word. The longer he spoke, the quicker his words came—emotions bubbling to the surface….
But around 8:30 p.m. as Dr. King retold the history and plight of the black American, the L.A. Fire Department received an anonymous phone call from someone who said there was a bomb inside the Bovard Auditorium, and that it would detonate “in fifteen minutes.” With the fear planted, the crowd evacuated Bovard, and Dr. King was taken by campus police to a conference room. Just before leaving the stage, Dr. King wanted to reassure his listeners to “please return because there are some very important things I still have to say.”
They returned, and when Dr. King once again stepped behind the podium, he’d grown somewhat. He spoke with an urgent vitality—the kind that can perhaps come only after hearing a knock on death’s door—and the crowd was sent to a higher plane of thought. Dr. King told the now active audience (many of them students) to deny the ‘myths’ halting the progress of African-Americans.
One of the myths involved time. Just give the cause enough time, and everything will work itself out. But King had no interest in being patient. To him, “time is neutral, and can be used either constructively or destructively.”
Another myth rested in the notion that legislation was unnecessary, and all that was needed was for the general public to have a change of heart.
With his voice booming off the auditorium walls, Dr. King disagreed:
I’m a Baptist preacher, and I’m in the heart-changing business… but while morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated, and while the law can’t make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me.
The biggest round of applause came from his comments on the war in Vietnam. Dr. King surely knew there were hundreds of students anxious of being drafted, and furious over the fact that American soldiers, some family and friends, were being killed every day. Dr. King demanded that America “stand up and say to the world we made a mistake in Vietnam… justice is indivisible, but injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The bomb scare had sadly caused Dr. King to leave without what had been a pre-planned question and answer session. He had another plane to catch. A rally in Houston was next, along with two smoke bombs. Immediately after that, King, his brother A.D., Wyatt Walker, and Ralph Abernathy were to report directly to a Birmingham, Alabama prison, obeying a Supreme Court order regarding a long-appealed ‘contempt’ offense that occurred in 1963. Such had been his life ever since giving himself “entirely” to the movement. On the college campuses in Sacramento and Los Angeles, he’d found support among the younger anti-war generation, but these events were few and far between. The appeal of ‘black power’ had taken hold, and King’s message of nonviolence had started to lose its authority over his own supporters.
Fifty years later, the general American public now annually remembers the triumphs of Martin Luther King Jr.—the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize—and we have chosen to idolize him with memorials and statues, and given dozens of schools and highways his name. But these honors are empty if we choose to ignore the sacrifice and message of a man who, according to Christine Farris, King’s sister, was an “ordinary and average man.” Perhaps sociologist Charles Vert Willie, one of King’s friends and college classmates, said it best: “By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.”
Photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inside Bovard Auditorium around 8 p.m., 16 October 1967. Courtesy of University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC Libraries Special Collections.
Header image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inside Bovard Auditorium around 8 p.m., 16 October 1967. Courtesy of University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC Libraries Special Collections.
 Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 163.
 Stan Metzler, The Daily Trojan, 16 October 1967.
Long Beach Independent, 17 October 1967, A2 and San Bernardino County Sun AP Report, 17 October 1967, where it appears King delivered similar speeches in Sacramento and Los Angeles on that same day.
 David Halberstam, “The Second Coming of Martin Luther King,” Harper’s Magazine, August 1967.
 Hal Lancaster, “The Calm Martin Luther King,” The Daily Trojan, 17 October 1967.
Editor’s Note: In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, the California Historical Society’s “On the Road to the Summer of Love” tells the story of this countercultural movement through an ambitious photographic exhibition. The selection of images and text included with this article are reproduced from the larger exhibition and highlight a portion of the cultural and contextual features that led up to the 1967 Summer of Love. The full exhibition will be on display through 24 September 2017 at 678 Mission Street, San Francisco.
The Summer of Love
The community that grew up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood from 1965 to 1967 was part of a vital tradition celebrating personal freedom and the right of peaceful protest that has traveled through American history since Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1954). The thread is intrinsic to San Francisco, which as Thoreau began his masterpiece was emerging during California’s Gold Rush. The forty-niners were not dutiful servants of the Protestant work ethic but rogues gambling their lives for gold, scamps who cherished an eccentricity uniquely American.
Today, fifty years from the Summer of Love, its impact—social, cultural, economic, political, psychosexual—continues its ripples through American culture. Its unabashed pursuit of liberation triggered all manner of questioning of gender identity. LSD challenged social hierarchies, which had a particular impact on engineers around Palo Alto; without the West Coast psychedelic ethos, Silicon Valley and the development of the personal computer may have happened in Boston. It also created sensitivity to what one put in one’s body that led to natural foods and the organic food industry. The music and graphic art of the subculture swept the globe and seized young imaginations everywhere.
All this and more remains with us: the origins of the revolutionary maelstrom begin with the tribal elders known as the Beat Generation, succeeding important political events and the mind-changing effects of a powerful avant-garde art scene. Combined with psychedelics and rock and roll, the result was the creation of a new consciousness, which we call the Summer of Love.
Helen Haight and Don Graham at Grant and Green, 1958, Jerry Stoll (1923-2004); courtesy of Jerry Stoll Photography.
The roots of the Haight-Ashbury scene arose in a small cluster of disaffected writers repulsed by the monstrous death and destruction birthed from World War II. In 1944, a seaman and Columbia University dropout named Jack Kerouac fell in with Columbia students Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr and another man, William S. Burroughs. They created a “new vision,” a mix of transcendentalism and bohemianism that evolved into “Beat,” a rejection of mainstream bourgeois American beliefs and an advocacy of art and spirituality pursued through intense experience.
Their friend Neal Cassady settled in San Francisco, and then Kerouac and Ginsberg followed. Here Ginsberg blossomed as a poet, producing Howl in 1955. He first read it at the Six Gallery along with sympathetic companions and fellow readers Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and others, with the elder of the city’s poetry scene, Kenneth Rexroth, as master of ceremonies. Howl was published the next year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press. Along with Kerouac’s 1957, On the Road, the poem inspired young artists to align with the idea of Beat, especially in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.
A succession of youth-dominated political events prepared the ground for the consciousness labeled the Summer of Love. In 1960, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came to San Francisco’s City Hall to hold hearings, and the students of UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University demanded the right to attend. They were not only denied entrance, but forced down the hall’s grand staircase by firehoses. Outside, students and left-wing unionists mocked HUAC with Nazi salutes; the once-terrifying power of the committee would soon disintegrate.
In 1964, students from the two schools came together again, this time to challenge white-only hiring among the auto dealers along San Francisco’s Van Ness Avenue and at the Sheraton Palace Hotel. After nonviolent picketing and hundreds of arrests, they achieved victory when the car dealers and hotel owners agreed to integrate.
Barbara Dane, Vietnam Protest, 1964, by Erik Weber.
Auto Row Protest, “We Want Jobs,” by Joe Rosenthal, San Francisco Chronicle; courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle
Later that year, students at UC Berkeley created the Free Speech Movement, as they named it, and challenged the limits on political free speech in the university’s Sproul Plaza in what developed into a countercultural critique of a technocratic university treating education as a product. The mass arrests and frequent violence surrounding the FSM presaged many more such incidents to come across the nation, as well as the ensuing reaction that helped elect Ronald Reagan as California governor and later US president, jumpstarting a nascent conservative movement still ascendant in 2017.
Coupled with an awakening sexual liberation stimulated by birth control and ongoing Vietnam War protests, many young people in the Bay Area evolved a very new perspective by the mid-1960s. The experiences, experiments, and beliefs of those “hipsters” or “hippies” would soon rock the world.
Mario Savio on top of Police Car, University of California, Berkeley, 1964, photo by Ronald L. Enfield (b. 1945).
Crowd led by FSM Banner through Sather Gate, Regents’ Meeting, University of California, Berkeley, 1964, photo by Ronald L. Enfield (b. 1945).
An underappreciated element of the cultural and intellectual flowering of the Haight-Ashbury scene is the role played by various avant-garde arts group and individuals over the previous decade. The Actor’s Workshop, the Tape Music Center, the Committee and Lenny Bruce, the Open Theater, Canyon Cinema—each had a heavy impact on young people whose minds had been opened by Beat poetry and political events. Two groups emerged as particularly significant.
The Actor’s Workshop would have a far-reaching impact, bringing serious theater to San Francisco with plays by Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet. They sought, wrote co-director Herb Blau, to “shock, disturb, remind, tease and infuriate our audiences.” They succeeded. Among the veterans of AW was former assistant director Ronnie Davis, founder of the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe.
The Tape Music Center, founded by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick with Pauline Oliveros, Bill Maginnis, and Tony Martin, would challenge the notion of what music was. It was central to the development of modern avant-garde music, and its propensity for interacting with other groups—for instance composing for the Actor’s Workshop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin—made it an aesthetic nexus in the scene.
Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, 1962, by Jerry Melrose (b. 1939); courtesy of the artist.
San Francisco Mime Troupe, c. 1966. Photo by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.
Poetry, politics, and avant-garde art were the elements in the alembic chamber (wherein alchemists tried to change base metals into gold). LSD and rock and roll were the final agents that catalyzed a remarkable transmutation in the minds of the Haight’s new citizens. The need for spiritual transcendence is a fundamental aspect of humanity, and LSD was a revolutionary agent of change, making the psychedelic experience exponentially more accessible—inexpensive, powerful, and easily obtained in San Francisco. It found a perfect partner in high-volume, visceral rock and roll.
In the summer of 1965, the San Francisco band the Charlatans took over the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, and became the first band to routinely combine LSD, a light show, and rock and roll. Later that year, author Ken Kesey and his friends the Merry Pranksters began a series of parties where LSD was available, dubbing them Acid Tests. They grew very quickly, and reached their apogee in January 1966 at the Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall, with thousands in attendance. Many of the avant-garde arts groups—the Tape Music Center, Anna Halprin, the Open Theater—took part, but it was Tony Martin’s light show and the rock and roll bands (the Grateful Dead, Big Brother, and the Holding Company) that people embraced.
Ken Kesey and Carolyn Adams at Courthouse, 1966, San Francisco Chronicle; courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Hit of Blotter Acid, 1981; courtesy of Mark McCloud.
Avalon Ballroom, 1967, by Ben Van Meter (b. 1941); courtesy of the artist.
Jefferson Airplane at the Monterey Jazz Festival, 1966, by Stephen Rees (b. 1948); courtesy of the artist.
Grateful Dead on steps of 710 Ashbury Street headquarters, c. 1966, photo by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.
The Real Summer of Love
The true Summer of Love was not the public affair of 1967, but the private social experiments that took place largely in the Haight-Ashbury in 1966. Among the most fondly remembered of these was a pair of parties at Olompali, a large home in Marin County where the Grateful Dead had taken up residence for the summer. Inviting their friends—members of Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans, Big Brother and the Holding Company, among others—they played, danced, and got quite high in the private, natural setting of the ranch.
Back in the city, a psychedelic neighborhood sprang up along Haight Street. Hip businesses like Mnasidika, the Psychedelic Shop, and In Gear opened. The Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium presented music, poster artists advertised the shows with extraordinary creativity, and a community grew. By fall, the Haight had generated its own iconic social-theatrical-political visionary troupe, the Diggers, who would subvert the dominant paradigm with art and humor.
When LSD was made illegal on 6 October 1966, the Diggers and their friend Allen Cohen of the Haight’s newspaper the Oracle responded with the Love Pageant Rally, a celebration rather than a protest. At their request, the Grateful Dead played for free, and free music in the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park became a fixture of the Haight experience.
Fantasy Fair, Mill Valley, 1967, by Elaine Mayes (b. 1936); courtesy of the artist.
Cop Strings Orchids on Antennae, 1967, by Elaine Mayes (b. 1936); courtesy of the artist.
Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop, 1967, by Suki Hill (1941-2014); courtesy of the artist.
The Gathering of the Tribes
As 1966 drew to a close, there was a palpable sense of accomplishment in the Haight. Peace, joy, and love were actually working. A few hundred people had created something remarkably beautiful. It called for a celebration, and Allen Cohen and his artist friend Michael Bowen of the Haight’s Oracle newspaper conceived of a Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In, to be held in Golden Gate Park on 14 January 1967.
Among those who came together, there were elder and mentor poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Lew Welch; spiritual leaders like Timothy Leary and the apostle of Zen Buddhism in America, Shunryu Suzuki; various rock bands; and even the Berkeley radicals. They were celebrating, as someone remarked, nothing in particular. It was a truly wonderful day.
But it had enormous, unanticipated consequences. Up to that point, the Haight-Ashbury scene, whose members referred to themselves as “freaks,” had flown largely under mainstream society’s notice, not least because the group was actually quite small. But the Be-In attracted tens of thousands to the park, and the spell of invisibility vanished. The media descended, the phrase “hippie” became immortalized, and suddenly the trivial accoutrements of life in the Haight—long hair, flowers, extravagant clothing—were broadcast around the world.
Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Alan Ginsberg at the Be-In, 1967, by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.
Dizzy Gillespie at the Be-In, Polo Grounds, Golden Gate Park, 1967, by Erik Weber (b. 1940); from the collection of the California Historical Society.
Couple on Ground After Be-In, by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.
 For a discussion of Kerouac’s understanding of “beat” as tramping along with a rucksack, and as beatitude, beatific, see Conversations with Jack Kerouac, ed. Kevin J. Hayes (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2005), 31. With thanks to David L. Ulin for this reference.
Dennis McNally is author, historian, and music publicist. He was the publicist for the Grateful Dead, is the band’s authorized biographer, and wrote the bestselling history of the band, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, as well as the recently published On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom and Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, and America. He lives in San Francisco.