Los Angeles: Coming to Terms

Reading and learning about Los Angeles has been a privilege, but I heard once that the more you know, the more you owe.

In the third chapter of City of Quartz, Davis introduces readers to a more ‘modern’ kind of power-player in The City’s shape and politics: the Homeowner’s Associations.

“The first Homeowner’s Associations in Los Angeles, beginning with the Los Felix Improvement Association in 1916, were the children of deed restrictions in a new kind of planned subdivision. As Marc Weiss has pointed out in The Rise of Community Builders, early twentieth-century Los Angeles established the national legal precedent for zoning districts exclusively for upscale, single-family residences…”

At first, it’s no major news to find out The City was the first to institutionalize certain restrictions to develop particular types of neighborhoods. After all, how else could places like Beverly Hills, Silver Lake, or Los Feliz come to form if not by some kind of ordinance?!

On closer look, however, it turns out that the zoning restrictions weren’t just aesthetic regulations, as the Homeowner’s Associations weren’t just a band of fellas looking for a book club.

“Although deed restrictions also specified details of lot and home design, their overriding purpose was to ensure social and racial homogeneity.”

Here, I think it’s useful to point out how with any law or restriction, while there might be a totally fair or logical effect for it on paper, there’s a way in which these things are applied that makes for a much different story. To see how, one just has to ask why certain laws or restrictions or –in this case– associations are formed.

“Homeowners’ associations first appeared on the political scene in the 1920s as instruments of white mobilization against attempts by Blacks to buy homes outside the ghetto.”

At the time, many Black workers and families presumably made it to Los Angeles in hopes of better lives from those of the Jim Crow South. But as Davis points out, while Los Angeles in the 1920s didn’t have official segregation laws like the former confederate states, it didn’t account for them either.

This left room for many Homeowners Associations to take matters into their own hands.

“Where tracts were not already legally bound by subdivision deeds, white homeowners banded together as ‘protective associations’ to create racially specified ‘block restrictions’. In this fashion 95 per cent of the city’s housing stock in the 1920s was effectively put off limits to Blacks and Asians.”

At this point in the author’s analysis, history feels so close by, like a ghost from only yesterday. It’s strange; even for those of us who hail from the losing side of history, which any immigrant family finds itself in at some point, there’s a way in which the experience of history tends to be inconceivable.

Moreover, in an age where history is made every time another photo or video from just the other day is streamed, the stories of our predecessors from nearly 100 years ago have never seemed more far away; it’s like they’re from completely different contexts.

In fact, they’re very much the same contexts we’re still (trying) work our way out of.

This is how the city of Los Angeles today came to form, not far removed from the segregation and exploitation throughout so much of the rest of America. Of course, things had to change eventually. Otherwise, how else could we have gotten here?

“Until the US Supreme Court finally ruled against restrictive covenants in 1948, white homeowner groups in Los Angeles had ample sanction in the law. The California Supreme Court first established the doctrine in the Gary case of 1919, and continued to reaffirm it as late as 1947. Thus Harry Burker, the erstwhile president of the White Home Owners Protective Association (covering a vast residential area bounded by Santa Barbara, Main, Manchester and Vermont) ran for various municipal offices on a platform of Black and Mexican exclusion.”

Lest I digress from this post and join in on the circus surrounding another certain candidate running for office on xenophobic terms, I’ll just leave it to the readers to draw parallels between Burker and our current political contests.

But even beyond Burker and the Associations, there are still so many more parallels to discover between our time and the past. While City of Quartz is an extraordinary vision with a masterful analysis, it’s still only one part of the picture, i.e. there’s still so much more reading (and writing) to do.

For now, however, the book is far more than a great start to understanding Los Angeles beyond the sunshine and palm trees. 165 pages in, it’s clear that calling attention to power-players is a battle-cry, but that author Mike Davis knows where he stands, like a great fighter who respects the great battles and their warriors before him.

“Veteran Black newspaper publisher Charlotta Bass recalled some of these now forgotten battles in her memoirs. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, for example, whites in the West Jefferson area sued to evict five Black homeowners, while the local Klan burnt ‘Keep Slauson White!’ crosses a few blocks away. The gradually increasing Black presence in the old railroad town of Watts was contested by the virulent South Los Angeles Home Owners Association, whose spores later became the core of white resistance in Willowbrook and Compton further south. A Black home was blown up (presumably by the Klan) on 30th Street, crosses were burnt in Crenshaw and on the USC campus, and white homeowners rioted against sales to Blacks on East 71st Street…”

With more soon,

J.T.

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