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Beneath The Santa Monica Freeway Lies The Erasure Of Sugar Hill

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. We're going to go back in time now and visit a neighborhood in Los Angeles that no longer exists. The story of Sugar Hill brings to life many of these ideas we just talked about - segregation, racist covenants and who has the right to live where. Here's producer Jonaki Mehta.

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JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: This is what Ra (ph) and Van Nickerson's (ph) childhood home sounds like today.

RA NICKERSON: Where the freeway is now.

MEHTA: Right here, this overpass?

R NICKERSON: Yeah, that's where Berkeley Square was.

VAN NICKERSON: What she's pointing to, right there where that sign says this quarter next 3 exit, lift it up, our house is right about there.

MEHTA: Their house is now where the Santa Monica Freeway is. Van was just 3 years old, his sister Ra was 4 when their family moved here almost 70 years ago. They lived in a charming little pocket of central Los Angeles called Berkeley Square.

R NICKERSON: The street was very wide. We had the old-style lanterns. There were all kinds of, like, craftsman houses - five, six, seven bedrooms.

MEHTA: So these were big houses.

R NICKERSON: Very big. And we sell lemonade at the east end of Berkeley Square.

V NICKERSON: And we got our wagon. And we'd go up and down the streets selling lemonades.

CHANG: Berkeley Square was part of a larger neighborhood called Sugar Hill, which was named after a wealthy Black section in Harlem. By the 1940s, Sugar Hill was home to some of the most prominent figures of Black Los Angeles - doctors, entrepreneurs, oil barons, even Hollywood stars like "Gone With the Wind's" Hattie McDaniel. On screen, she may have played a housekeeper or an enslaved person, but here in Sugar Hill, she hosted extravagant soirees in her sprawling mansion where people like Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters would perform.

MEHTA: This thriving community in Sugar Hill existed despite a powerful tool that white residents were using to keep neighborhoods white - the racially restrictive covenant. Ra Nickerson remembers her dad explaining this to her when she was really young.

R NICKERSON: When my father would talk about covenants - as a child, I worked with him in his real estate business - and covenants were alive and thriving, you know. He would show me documents. And he would show how the covenants were worded - no Blacks, no Jews, just blatant hate. And it was everywhere.

CHANG: Everywhere in the U.S., including in Sugar Hill. These covenants were basically agreements written into property deeds that made homeowners promise never to sell to African Americans or other minority groups. In 1940, 80% of the properties in Los Angeles had these restrictions attached to them.

MEHTA: And courts helped enforce these rules. But some white homeowners willingly violated these covenants to sell to Black buyers, in part because those buyers were willing to pay more since there was less property available to them.

CHANG: The first known black person to buy a home in Sugar Hill was Norman O. Houston. He knew very well at the time that he was defying a covenant attached to the house he bought in 1938. Here's Ivan Houston, his grandson.

IVAN HOUSTON: He recognized things that were unfair. And he felt he was as equal as anybody, and nothing should hold him back. So he kept pushing as far as he could push - but legally.

MEHTA: But as more African Americans, moved into Sugar Hill, one white homeowners association didn't like what was happening. So they sued their Black neighbors for violating these racially restrictive covenants. Hattie McDaniel, Norman Houston and dozens of other Black families fought back with their own Black homeowners association.

HOUSTON: They created the organization called the West Adams Heights Protective Association. You know, before it was called Sugar Hill, it was the West Adams Heights District.

CHANG: Ivan Houston still has this old notebook that belonged to the association.

HOUSTON: OK. Let's see. The meeting of the West Adams...

CHANG: The pages are all brown with age. The handwriting is in this tidy cursive.

HOUSTON: That's the book of the minutes that, you know, granddad was the president of the group. It has all the minutes of the restrictive covenants, the redlining, and the meeting to start changing the restrictions.

CHANG: Those meetings to change these restrictions, they went on for years. But then, on December 5, 1945, the parties entered a courtroom. Legal historian Amina Hassan says, that day, you could see wealthy Black Angelenos dressed to the nines.

AMINA HASSAN: Hattie McDaniel and hundreds of sympathizers appeared in court in all their finery. This is what a reporter said. The stylish atmosphere in the court was such as to make one wonder if the judge would pour tea during the afternoon recess.

CHANG: This crowd had shown up not only to see the Hollywood stars, but also to take in the legendary NAACP lawyer Loren Miller, who argued their case.

HASSAN: His presentation was electrifying. And the people were waiting for a good show, and I believe they got a good show.

MEHTA: Miller argued that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional because they violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which mandates equal protection under the law. And remarkably, that argument worked. Hassan says this victory was about more than simply winning the right to stay in Sugar Hill. It was about giving Black people in Los Angeles access to a better life.

HASSAN: Housing was the crux of it all. It opened those avenues for them to move beyond the one part of Los Angeles designated for Black people. They could have their children in better schools. And they could find jobs in the area. Housing opened the door.

CHANG: Eventually, the Sugar Hill case in California paved the way for a 1948 Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, which would ultimately deem racially restrictive covenants unenforceable nationwide. At the time, that victory felt momentous. To Ra Nickerson, it meant maybe the system could be used to help Black people live where they chose.

R NICKERSON: You don't make waves, but you quietly use the legal system. You quietly talk with your brethren. And you systematically, step by step - but you kept your focus. You knew that it was necessary for Black people to live where they wanted to live.

MEHTA: But it didn't take long for Ra and her brother Van to learn the two of them wouldn't actually be able to live where they wanted to live. A few years after Shelley v. Kraemer, rumors began to spread that the government intended to demolish Sugar Hill to make room for a freeway as part of a federal push in the 1950s to modernize America's roadways.

CHANG: Black residents in Sugar Hill banded together again. They headed to the state capitol and lobbied against the freeway project. But this time around, they lost their fight to stay in Sugar Hill. The California Highway Commission unanimously approved a new freeway that would split Sugar Hill in two and plow right through Ra and Van Nickerson's childhood home.

V NICKERSON: I watched the tractor bulldoze these homes down. And I was still young. We used to go and play in the lot where the freeway was being built. I remember the sand. I remember standing in the sand. I remember when it rained, there were puddles. And we played in the sand puddles across the street where they were building the freeway.

MEHTA: The government seized the Nickersons' home through eminent domain. Now, while the U.S. Constitution requires, quote, "just compensation" for any property acquired through eminent domain, Ra Nickerson says her family was cheated.

R NICKERSON: I remember my father telling me about eminent domain and how there was no option to stop this. The valuation for the - our home was quite low. It was not market value that we were compensated for. And so it was quite an upheaval.

CHANG: An upheaval that Ra's father said would never have happened if Sugar Hill were a white neighborhood.

R NICKERSON: He was very, very angry. He felt the city government resented Black people living there, and this is their way of demolishing a very viable community to support racism.

CHANG: At the time, highway planners used the language of science to justify building freeways through communities of color. That's what Eric Avila says. He's a professor of urban planning at UCLA.

ERIC AVILA: They presented a kind of dizzying array of charts and graphs to insist that this was the most economically efficient route for this particular freeway. They denied any questions of race. They denied any questions of bias.

CHANG: What they did instead, Avila says, was say that they were targeting so-called blighted communities.

AVILA: I don't think we know the extent to which Sugar Hill was designated a blighted area because, you know, it was affluent. But in the discourse of urban planning in the mid-20th century in the United States, blight was often synonymous with people of color and with African Americans in particular.

CHANG: Around the same time the freeway construction through Sugar Hill began, the California Division of Highways proposed another freeway that would cut through Beverly Hills. But when that wealthy white community protested, officials cancelled construction.

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MEHTA: Almost 70 years later, the Nickersons still feel the loss of their childhood home.

R NICKERSON: It was just sad. I didn't know what to expect because that's all I knew was Berkeley Square. And I really felt very secure in the community. That's all I knew, you know. So it was - I was quite rattled by it all.

MEHTA: She and her brother say, after the freeway forced them to leave their childhood home, they never quite experienced the same safety and comfort that Sugar Hill provided.

V NICKERSON: And we moved over onto Bronson Avenue. And I immediately got into some problems. Most of that neighborhood was white. And a white boy called me a [expletive] in front of my house. And pardon my vernacular, but I kicked his ass. You know, that was the beginning of the real world for us.

CHANG: Much of Sugar Hill vanished when the Santa Monica Freeway came through, erasing a Black community to connect newly built white suburbs to the city. When freeways carve through communities, property values their decline, which means less money for schools in the area. And for many residents who live along freeways today, toxic pollutants and constant noise are part of everyday life. These consequences have played out in cities all across America, especially in Black and brown communities.

MEHTA: Before we parted ways that day, Van and Ra Nickerson closed their eyes and listened to Berkeley Square one more time.

V NICKERSON: I hear the rumbling of the automobile. You can almost feel it sitting here, shaking the ground. That was nonexistent when we were kids. It was quiet.

R NICKERSON: Very quiet. You can't hear the birds anymore.

CHANG: As we walked away from the freeway overpass, Ra Nickerson headed to the corner to catch the next bus to Inglewood, where she lives now. And Van got into his car to begin his journey back home to a town more than an hour away. His drive would begin on the Santa Monica Freeway and take him right through the middle of what was once known as Sugar Hill.

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CHANG: Tomorrow on the show, the story of how Compton, Calif., went from nearly all white to majority Black after predatory real estate practices lured in Black families searching for the suburban dream. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.