Palm Springs is indigenous to the Cahuilla people. Once considered inhospitable land by U.S. federal government, whites flocked to area after learning of its natural hot springs and year-round sun. Photo credit: Alyssa Baches of Unsplash

Hollywood backed a ‘city-engineered holocaust.’ Black, Latino, Indigenous families evicted during Palm Springs’ urban renewal demand reparations

6 mins read

Seventy years after Hollywood elites, real estate magnates and federal government operatives forcibly removed low-income residents from downtown Palm Springs, many call for real corrective action: reparations.

Known for its Hollywood desert opulence, Palm Springs carries an open secret. To build the oasis for entertainment and political luminaries, white-only city planners dislocated Blacks and Mexicans in the 1950s and 1960s from its downtown district called Section 14. Now reparations are owed.

In November, the City of Palm Springs announced it is hiring an economic consultant to help develop a reparations program to enhance the quality of life for those affected by this displacement.

“This was an atrocity,” said attorney Areva Martin in a released statement. Martin represents the hundreds of Section 14 families forced to move when racialized covenants enforced by city planners, forbade the local Agua Native nation from leasing tribal land to Blacks, Latinos and non-Agua Natives.

“Until now it has largely been a shameful secret confined to the city limits of Palm Springs, but ‘Section 14’ should be mentioned alongside Tulsa, Rosewood, and Bruce’s Beach,” stated Martin. She explained further. “Palm Springs literally bulldozed and burned out its Black and Latino residents because it wanted the land where they lived.

Last April, Palm Springs City Council and the city’s Human Rights Commission recommended the decommissioning of the statue of Frank Bogert, the city’s mayor at the time of the evictions. Under the guise of urban renewal, the city deployed a white-controlled conservatorship in the 1920s to build an all-white oasis. Subsequently, they undermined Agua Natives’ sovereignty and decision-making in the planning of Palm Springs in their attempts to dispossess them of tribal lands.

By the 1950s and 1960s, city developers in cahoots with local authority and sanctioned by racist federal housing policies, forced out low-wealth Blacks, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and Natives without any financial compensation. Following the mass eviction, construction workers bulldozed and burned family homes. In place, commercial real estate and tract homes were built to carry out the theme of the manufactured city for the elite; “the good life impeccably lived.” 

“Before healing can begin for families and descendants of those removed from Section 14, the city must acknowledge the hurt in our history of urban renewal and the impact inflicted on Palm Springs’ Black, indigenous and people of color,” stated the Commission.

In the same year, the city formally apologized, but offered no compensation. Some residents pushed back on the statue removal citing that it stained Bogert’s reputation. Others not only agreed with the action, but also back reparations.

“It’s meaningful, they need to acknowledge it, but both the statue being removed and the apology are just symbolic,” opined Deiter Crawford to Desert Sun news. Crawford is the vice president of the Desert Highland Gateway Estates Community Action Association and a clinical community health worker for Savas Health. He emphasized, “we need reparations.”

Crawford said that the cost of homes in the destroyed residential district were worth between $3,000 to $8,000 in the 1950s. Today, the average value is $900,000, thus causing a gross racial wealth gap.

Recently, Martin announced that she is working with Palm Spring City Attorney Jeffrey Ballinger to develop a formal reparations program. The scope of work for the Reparations Services position includes: verifying the historical context of residents displaced from the Section 14 land in downtown Palm Springs and developing a reparations program to enhance the quality of life for those affected by this displacement. 

Martin considers the calling for bids for a reparations consultant a huge win for the families, and encourages multicultural operators to apply. The ending date to apply is January 12, 2023.

“The RFP is a small step in the long-overdue right direction to address the brutal history outlined in claims filed by Section 14 survivors and descendants,” said Martin.

(R) Poolside at the Desert Inn, Palm Springs. (L) Pation of the Desert Inn which was a segregated hotel for affluent and middle-class whites. Photo credit: Herman Shultheis/ Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

To kill a community. How white colonial Hollywood backed a ‘city engineered holocaust’

In the 1920s, Hollywood scouted out Palm Springs as an area to film some of its desert-themed movies. Then it was a tribal reservation for the various peoples of Cahuilla Nation. Granted as sovereign land by the federal government in 1865, it was one of the acreages allotted to Natives because it was believed to be worthless. On May 15, 1876, the Agua Caliente band were given Sections 14 and Sections 22 of the Coachella Valley area tucked between the San Jacinto mountains.

Later, whites would discover the area held a number of natural mineral hot springs and an underground system of wells and waterways. The name Agua Caliente is Spanish for the hot springs that the indigenous clans built their communities. Now the group only goes by Agua.

Once whites began to discover the natural resources, they gradually positioned themselves to take over the lands. At the time Hollywood found Palm Springs, it was estimated to have around 300 to 400 permanent residents. Whites trickled in a few years earlier to set up an inn and a spa resort. Seeing a development gold mine, they established a Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce under the guise of assisting the Agua’s in planning and leasing land.

During that time, Hollywood boomed. The Roaring ’20s Silent Film Era emerged after the government shuttered the Italian and French film industries that set up headquarters in New Jersey and New York. Striking a deal with Hollywood executives, the U.S. government pushed out the European industries distribution networks during the Red Scare to buffer its domestic productions.

Quickly, Hollywood films replaced the dearth in the highly popular European films. Frequently pumping out productions, by the 1930s, Hollywood backers and industry executives grew rich and more influential in social and political capital. Plus, there was the rise of the Hollywood film star—all of whom needed a place to play.

Less than a two-hour drive from Hollywood, a new road linking Palm Springs to the basin city, also connected it to the emerging California car culture promoted heavily by elected officials and auto companies. In turn, driving to Palm Springs offered the perfect local getaway for affluent Angelenos. Consequently, developers identified the desert town as an ideal location to build the ultimate production scene—a retreat for new money Hollywood elites and wealthy businesspersons.

Alongside the gradual growth of a Hollywood presence, the Agua Natives leased modest-sized parcels of land to African Americans and Latinos who were primarily Mexican immigrants. Located in downtown Palm Springs, the area was Section 14. Many of these families lived there to work in service industry jobs nearby. 

While Section 14 quietly housed hundreds of families, Hollywood saw it as a blank canvas to build a luxury playground for hedonism. They began to label the district residents as “undesirables” who did not fit the image of “the good city,” which also promoted whiteness. 

To grow the city, renowned architects flocked to Palm Springs to design a desert-oasis with hotels, spas, casinos and other commercial buildings using modern mid-century techniques. Plus, developers outfitted the sandy-scape with tract homes. 

Ironically, real estate developers hired Blacks, Latinos and Natives to build Palm Springs, but its “negro removal” plan blocked Agua’s attempts to rent to Blacks or construct low-income federal housing for its laborers. To speed up the removal of the diverse community, the Alexander Construction Company conspired with US Steel to construct low-cost abodes in Palm Springs that were only available to white, middle-income families.

While whites were encouraged to relocate to Palm Springs with affordable housing and job opportunities, the Blacks, Latinos and Natives who were already there, and could remain, were forced to move outside of the city to an unincorporated area. The disruption of the removal resulted in those evicted to never recover.

In 1968, the city was forced to discontinue its Palm Springs Conservator and Guardianship program after the federal studies showed the gross segregation and discrimination. Findings from the the reports also resulted in the government describing the manipulative and racist actions by white city officials as carrying out a “city-engineered holocaust.”

Yet, the wheels of white supremacy fueled Palm Springs for decades. Even now as the city attempts to correct some of its past egregious actions, citizens still defend the racism that built it. “The people involved [in the evictions] were not owners of the property,” complained Palm Springs resident Mark Cole in the public comments of the city council on April 19, 2022. “In many cases, they were squatters and were legally evicted from land, many were not even paying rent on.”

Cole also goes on to propose that the Agua Nation should be “paying restitution, rather than taxpayers?”

Regardless, Palm Springs is moving forward to righting a gross historical wrong in the same vein that the state has issued a reparations task force to determine the financial harm it caused for Blacks in its discriminatory policies over the years.

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