Dual Exhibitions Show Past is Not Dead; It’s Not Even Pastcsudhbulletin April 29, 2021 0 COMMENTS
Tract 11556 was an “A” rated area in the 1930’s in what is known today as Cheviot Hills in West Los Angeles. Photo by BP Miller on Unsplash.
By Brenda Fernanda Verano, News Editor
Editor’s note: To view the second exhibit story click here
While viewing the current university archive exhibit that focuses on discriminatory housing practices in a Los Angeles neighborhood in the late 1930s, I was struck by the idea that today’s fires are the scattered ashes from the past.
Because while the exhibit, Perpetual and binding forever: Race and the Creation of a Los Angeles Subdivision, uses historical documents that reveal the blatant anti-Black housing practices that were rampant during the era, it also sheds light on contemporary housing issues such as homeless and evictions.
Racist zoning policies by cities were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme in 1917. However, the decision did not preclude private housing companies from writing into the deeds of houses that no Blacks could ever live, rent or occupy the property. Unlike most of the restrictions enumerated in the deeds that homeowners had to sign to purchase a home, such as the width of gates and how far the home had to be from the sidewalk, which expired at a certain date in the future, the restriction on homeownership explicitly stated that it would never expire, or that it was perpetual and binding forever:
“Tract No. 11556, or any lot or portion thereof shall not … be used or be occupied by any person or persons whose blood is not entirely that of the caucasian (sic) race…shall be perpetual and binding forever.”
Along with a restriction on the sale of liquor in the tract, that was the only restriction that would never expire. Thomas Philo, a CSUDH archivist and cataloguer who compiled the exhibit, writes in the exhibit that developers clearly acknowledged that in half a century, most of the clauses may and would change but, “they cannot, however, imagine a time when liquor can be manufactured or sold on the Tract, and they certainly cannot imagine a time when non-Caucasians can be allowed to own or occupy a home there.”
The exhibit’s main focus is on a tract of 120 homes in the Cheviot Knolls neighborhood, now known as Cheviot Hills. It was located in West Los Angeles, one of many areas in the city where the housing industry actively tried to prevent Black people from owning homes.
The nine-page exhibit, which Philo began compiling last fall, is based on some of the oldest material in the archives, the Rancho San Pedro Collection and Dominguez Family Collections. It includes primary sources such as photographs, newspaper articles, city records, and formal letters. The property in question was owned by the Francis Land Company, which administered properties owned by the Dominguez family, descendants of the original recipient of a Spanish land grant in the 18th century.
It was one of the many subdivisions in the city where federal organizations like the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), weaved policies into the homeownership process intended to keep Los Angeles as segregated as possible. In other words: keep certain areas white-only.
The FHA, founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 and the HOLC, founded a year before that, were put into place to establish loaning policies that would incentivize and increase homeownership, but there was a small catch. The FHA ranked neighborhoods on an A to D scale. A neighborhood with an A rating was deemed the best or most desirable, while a D rating was deemed “hazardous.” Those with D ratings also had what was termed by the HOLC “racial infiltration.” Research further and you will discover that many of the neighborhoods graded D are today low-income communities of color and low investment.
This shows that even though the discriminatory homeownership language, also known as racially restrictive covenants, was ruled illegal in California decades ago, their legacy lives on as scars that factor into the perception of certain neighborhoods today still being “‘undesirable.” And that perception manifests in the reality that people living in those neighborhoods deal with far higher rates of homelessness, obesity and evictions.
It is important to realize that this was the time of the Great Migration, the period between 1916and 1970 when approximately 6 million Black people fled segregation rampant in the American South. Between 1940 to 1970 the Black population in L. A increased from 63,700 to 763,000, according to a 2012 article on kcet.org.
In reaction to the increased numbers of Black people, private housing developers began creating racial covenants, or deeds that prohibited non-whites from buying homes. Though legal at the time, according to Gregory Williams, director of the Gerth Archives and Special Collections, the “language on a lease, or [housing] restrictions, turned out to be entirely racist.”
While the Dominguez family owned the housing company that managed the property, they were merely one of the many investors at the time engaging, consciously in these racist practices.
“This was unfortunately not an unusual thing in L.A. during those times,” Williams said. “. The Dominguez families had money to invest, in real estate and in other businesses around our campus. But it wasn’t just the DH families, it was all sort of investors who had these racist covenants.”
While the exhibit doesn’t put the Dominguez family in the best light, Williams says he believes it is important to continue to inform the community of all its history, even the unpleasant facets.
“Even though the Dominguez Hills family has an important role in this community, there is more and more stuff that’s coming out about the past that we sometimes want to ignore, but it’s reflective about the time and the people. You just can’t sugar coat all of history.”
Philo, who visited Cheviot Hills while working on the exhibit, said this is not the end of his journey with it. He hopes to expand it into an article form because, “if there’s a bigger lesson that I got, it’s that you have to constantly examine your life, and examine what you’re part of.”
It’s without a doubt that some communities in LA have fallen under a deep hole of never changing dynamics, for many neighborhoods like Cheviot Hills, this is not necessarily bad but for others, it is a different story.
“The ongoing effect of the laws the FHA made … they play out in areas that didn’t get investment and are still suffering today,” said Philo. “Generations are suffering from what happened 80-90 years ago.”
He is right. Many areas have not received the critical investment needed to remove the roots of racism that still lie beneath their neighborhoods. Those areas that once were given D ratings have some of the highest rates of obesity and lack of access to nutritional food, otherwise known as food deserts.
And ironically, while in 1938 there were prohibitions against ever selling in tract 11556, neighboring areas in South Los Angeles, have four times as many liquor stores per square mile as West LA. In Skid Row, 57 percent of the homeless population is Black, compared to 13 percent being white.
These are just two examples of how the ashes that have accumulated over the years in these neighborhoods are not fully extinguished, and who knows what spark may ignite them into a fire once again.