How Palm Springs Ran Out Black and Latino Families to Build a Fantasy for Rich, White People
Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2023
At first, Joe Abner would come home from school and find a single house on fire. A vacant house, toppled by a bulldozer and set ablaze by Palm Springs city firemen.
Then two houses would be burning.
”Then it got to the point when you saw smoke, you were pretty well freaked out because you didn’t know if it was your house or one of your neighbors’ houses,” Abner said. “They were tearing houses down right in front of your face.”
Now 72, Abner was 13 when his family fled Section 14 in Palm Springs, leaving the home his father had largely built by hand to be razed and turned to soot. In the name of “slum clearance,” officials in the 1950s and 1960s ran Black families like Abner’s as well as Latinos out of prime downtown land, without proper notice or relocation aid, and burned down their homes to clear a path for hotels and shops.
Palm Springs was being sold as a fantasy playground for the rich and famous, but as former Section 14 resident Pearl Devers points out, “We were not part of the vision.”
A 1968 state investigation concluded that the clearance was a “city-engineered holocaust.”
The razing of a multiethnic community may strike some as a relic of a time when Black, Latino and Asian people throughout California and the nation faced systematic housing discrimination. But the displaced Palm Springs families say the racism that drove the burnouts lingers, and they are fighting for reparations from the city.
When the lease limits were extended, Congress declared that Agua Caliente landowners were incompetent to handle their own business affairs. So, working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Superior Court in Indio dipped into the good ol’ boy network to name conservators and guardians, ostensibly to prevent tribal members from being fleeced. The appointees included the chief of police, real estate agents, a moonlighting judge and Mayor Frank Bogert.
Conservators double-billed tribal members, charged exorbitant fees of 25% and sold off land without their knowledge to cover their bills.
Dieter Crawford, a descendant of Section 14 residents on both sides of his family, said conservators “colluded” with the city, sending people to knock on doors when they knew everyone was at school or work. If no one answered, they called in the bulldozers and Fire Department.
Those who didn’t flee Section 14 went through more than a decade of watching their neighborhood being torn apart bit by bit, Michael Hammond, former executive director of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, told the Desert Sun.
“We have oral histories … people got up, went to work, and when they came home, there was no home,” Hammond said in a video on the museum’s 2014 exhibition on Section 14, which later traveled to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The show included a 1961 entry from a Fire Department anniversary book, reflective of the city’s dismissive mentality at the time:
“Several old buildings on Section 14 seemed to suffer from ‘spontaneous’ ignition at different times throughout the year. … These were no-loss fires, the only losses being in the form of firemen’s sleep and part of the city’s water supply.”
Mayor Bogert would later tell the media he had worried that Section 14 could tarnish the city’s allure.
“I was scared to death that someone from Life magazine was going to come out,” he said, according to a Times story in 2001, “and see the poverty, cardboard houses, and do a story about the poor people and horrible conditions in Palm Springs just half a mile from the Desert Inn, our high-class property.”
After congressional hearings, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall declared the conservatorship program “intolerably costly to the Indians in both human and economic terms,” and in 1969 the program was dismantled.
After that, the burnouts bubbled under Palm Springs’ glossy image for the next 50 years. Then they burst out in the racial reckoning following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in 2020.
Late last year, a group of former Section 14 residents and their descendants, including those interviewed in this story, filed a reparations claim seeking upwards of $2 billion from the city.
Among other things, the money could go toward cash payments, college funds, infrastructure improvements, a Section 14 memorial park and even a Section 14 Day, attorney Areva Martin said at a community meeting Sunday; the last suggestion was widely applauded. Martin distributed a survey to gauge what form survivors want reparations to take.
The claimants, Palm Springs Section 14 Survivors, say the burnouts drove as many as 2,000 families out of the city, robbing them of political power and generational wealth.
The City Council has apologized for its role in the banishment and is seeking a reparations consultant. Martin, the plaintiffs’ attorney, plans to negotiate a settlement.
The city’s human rights commission called a bronze statue of Bogert on horseback in front of City Hall a painful reminder of the Section 14 removals, and in July the City Council had it removed.