Liam Dillon, Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2021
Nichelle Monroe’s ties to Santa Monica run deep.
Her great-uncle is said to have been the first Black baby born there more than a century ago. Apartments and other buildings in the beachfront city were designed by her architect grandfather, Vernon Brunson.
Monroe remembers when her grandparents would drive her by the intersection of 20th Street and Michigan Avenue and point up an alleyway to where their duplex used to be.
In that spot today looms the 10 Freeway, which cut through Santa Monica’s Pico neighborhood as it was built to stretch to the Pacific. Monroe’s grandparents, along with about 600 other predominately Black families, lost their homes.
More than half a century later, Santa Monica is offering a chance for some of them to come back. Starting in January, the city will offer affordable housing to those forced out by freeway construction and those removed in the late 1950s when the city bulldozed another Black area, Belmar Triangle, to build the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Children and grandchildren of those who lost their homes also are eligible.
Santa Monica’s act of civic penance is an attempt to recognize the harm done to largely Black communities during the post-World War II era of freeway building and urban renewal.
The program is part of a nationwide movement to compensate residents for racist harms related to housing and property. The efforts gained momentum after the murder of George Floyd in spring 2020.
In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that authorized the return of shorefront land known as Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of a Black couple who were run out of Manhattan Beach nearly a century ago.
Earlier this year, Evanston, Ill., became the nation’s first city to create an explicit reparations program, providing Black residents who faced housing discrimination through much of the 20th century or their descendants money for down payments or home repairs.
For Monroe, the building of the freeway left a family wound that has never fully healed.
“If you had something and you lost it due to eminent domain, due to racism, you’re thinking about it and it affects your every move thereafter,” said Monroe, who lives in a one-bedroom duplex in Alhambra. “It’s almost like PTSD. It affects how you think of yourself in society, what you believe is possible in that society.”
Nationwide, more than 1 million people lost their homes in just the first two decades of interstate construction alone. Early on, highway planners targeted many Black neighborhoods for destruction, and displaced families often received little compensation.
The city program initially will be open to 100 displaced families or their descendants who earn limited incomes, giving them priority access to apartments with below-market rents. But city leaders hope their efforts will grow into a national model to address past racist policies.
“We will be able to right a historic wrong,” said Santa Monica City Councilwoman Kristin McCowan. “Eventually, we’re going to do that for more and more people. And if other communities start to do their share, you can see a real tidal wave potentially across the country.”