Minnie Duncan McCauley was a toddler when her folks brought her to a sleepy little country town called Santa Monica.
The year was 1925. Santa Monica was mostly bean fields, lemon groves, and dirt roads, which turned into mudholes when it rained.
The Duncans came to California from Arkansas for the same reason as most: a better life. The difference was their skin color. And, as it turned out, that hardly mattered, they say, as they and their brood of 10 settled down as one of the community’s early African American families. They found a town that, although not exactly colorblind, abided by a live-and-let-live philosophy that was unusual in that era.
Tony Juarez arrived a year or so later from Texas, by way of Montebello, to work at a local brickyard that lured many Latinos. He raised a family of five and still lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Beulah.
By that time, Rosemary Romero Miano’s family had been there for generations. She is a descendant of the Marquez and Reyes families that settled Santa Monica Canyon in the mid-1800s, living on a 6,000-acre Mexican government land grant called Rancho Boca de Santa Monica. Over the next few decades, more minorities filtered into town and prospered, becoming tradesmen, merchants, teachers, secretaries, lawyers.
Belying the image of the Westside as an all-white enclave, African American and Latino families lived side by side with whites and Asian Americans, mostly in the city’s southeast corner: the Pico Neighborhood, an area roughly bounded by Pico Boulevard, Centinela Avenue, Santa Monica Boulevard and Lincoln Boulevard. That’s where the land was most affordable.
There were horse-driven hayrides to Malibu by moonlight and Mexican Independence Day festivals on Olympic Boulevard. Minority children went to school, rode the streetcar and attended Saturday matinees side by side with everyone else, practicing multiculturalism decades before the buzzword was coined. Pico residents didn’t call it that, though. To them it was simply the good life.
“I’ve never sat in the back of nothing,” McCauley, 73, said emphatically. “I didn’t know prejudice, growing up.”
But like many good things, the spirit of the Pico Neighborhood that McCauley and others recall so fondly didn’t last. Though still a polyglot neighborhood with neatly kept bungalows, it has taken a battering since she romped through the fields.
The construction of the Santa Monica Freeway in the late ‘50s to the mid-60s drove a stake through the heart of the neighborhood. Today, the sound of children’s laughter has given way to gunshots as drug-dealing youth loiter in alleys. Many younger African Americans and Latinos now distrust each other, unaware of past alliances.
On streets where they once learned each other’s language and customs, they now eye each other suspiciously and keep to themselves.
Yet a growing movement is afoot to rejuvenate the only area in town where minorities outnumber whites 2 to 1, according to census figures. The idea, as exemplified in a city-sponsored cultural festival that will run over the next week, is to solidify the future by honoring the past.
THE EARLY YEARS: “No one cared what color you had living next to you.”
Though they grew up at opposite ends of town, the 1930s were wonderful, carefree years for Miano and McCauley, and they both remember them as filled with love, respect and food, but not much money.
Why did they come to Santa Monica?
The Depression was in full swing, but land was cheap. California offered a new start and, best of all, a more relaxed racial climate.
Its cool ocean air appealed to those used to the humidity of the South and Midwest. And as early migrants settled in, they told their friends and relatives about it. Some of them came West too.
Miano, now 71, grew up on part of the family land on Entrada Drive, where she still lives on one of the two remaining lots from the land grant. Her mother, a young widow, taught her English before she started school at Canyon Elementary. There were family picnics on the beach and in the shade of the sycamore groves.
“My mother made the biggest tortillas,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of food.”
McCauley walked through fields to junior high and to the library at night, picking guava off trees along the way. She helped her Mexican playmates with their English; her brothers learned Spanish in the street.
Both women said they played with children of all ethnic backgrounds. They credit their parents for teaching them respect for others and the Santa Monica public schools for downplaying different economic backgrounds by requiring uniforms.
“Our teachers treated us all the same,” Miano said. “We respected each other.”
In contrast to segregated school systems elsewhere, Santa Monica had one high school for everyone, a key factor in promoting tolerance, people agree.
So in the mid-1930s, when Beulah Juarez married her husband, Tony, a bricklayer, and came to town, they found comfort and acceptance.
“It was a nice little town where you could raise a family,” said Beulah Juarez, now 83. “You could go to the beach at night and not lock your doors.”
Indeed, one hot summer, the whole town did just that. During the heat wave of ’39, everyone in town slept on the beach, McCauley said.
“No one cared what color you had living next to you,” she said.
Vabel Reed, 78, a longtime civil rights activist, was a young married woman when she came to Santa Monica from Texas around 1940 in search of a job. The daughter of a Howard University graduate, Reed hoped to get away from the stifling segregation at home, where blacks couldn’t even use the same drinking fountain as whites.
During World War II, Reed joined thousands of women who worked in factories. She worked the assembly line at Douglas Aircraft as a riveter and bought a bungalow that she still owns on Virginia Avenue.
“We faced some prejudice,” the longtime civil rights activist said, recalling a department store that would not hire black clerks, “but not to the depths of Texas.”
Indeed, despite the relatively benign past described by longtime members of Santa Monica’s ethnic community, people of color did face barriers, in accordance with the laws of the day.
For instance, minorities could not buy property north of Montana Avenue, retired Santa Monica High School teacher Forrest Freed said.
Freed, a descendant of the Marquez and Reyes families, remembers his extended family attending a groundbreaking ceremony for a subdivision called Marquez Knolls. But a year later, when a cousin wanted to buy a lot, he was dissuaded from doing so by those marketing the tract.
Another Freed cousin couldn’t get a job at Douglas Aircraft before World War II--despite having a letter of introduction from the governor. And yet a third cousin who lost his job during the Depression and needed government assistance was asked by a government worker, “How would you like to go to Mexico?”
“I’d love to go,” the man replied. “I’ve never been.”
Ballroom dances, with their aura of romance, also fell prey to segregation.
Tony Juarez said it was understood that Latinos were only allowed at the beginning of dances at local ballrooms. “By 9 p.m., they would put you outside,” he said.
Dave Weston, who leads a group of gospel singers, came to Santa Monica from Texas in the ‘40s to attend UCLA. He remembers a brouhaha when the Aragon Ballroom, on the eve of a performance by Count Basie, told blacks they couldn’t dance at the club. The rule was lifted when Basie threatened to cancel the show, Weston said.
In the Pico Neighborhood, however, “there was no separatism,” Reed said.
"(Latinos) had their culture; We had ours. We could always come together in the happy medium.”
THE POSTWAR DECADES: “All of a sudden it became a black area and a Mexican area.”
After World War II, things began to change. Soldiers from all over the country who had been stationed here during the war decided to settle in town. The land became more valuable. Tolerance, several longtime residents suggested, seemed to come easier when there was plenty of room for everyone.
“People came in and brought their prejudices,” said Harriette McCauley, Minnie Duncan’s daughter, who surmises that people who came here earlier, when it was a bold move, were more driven to put old ways behind them.
Though the ‘50s would bring a mortal blow to the thriving multiethnic Pico Neighborhood, life was still sweet on the streets for the kids.
Newton Ricard, who had helped build St. John’s Hospital in the ‘40s, in the ‘50s used his carpentry skills to build the Little League field where his five sons played on integrated teams, his widow said.
One of the Ricard boys, Tarik, now 50, who has returned to live in the neighborhood with his mother, recalls street dances. The one Spanish radio station turned up full blast provided the music.
“That’s how I learned to cha-cha when I was 12 years old,” he said.
But when the state and county governments were looking for a place to put the Santa Monica Freeway in the mid-'50s, it was the Pico Neighborhood they deemed expendable. Though officials denied it, people in the neighborhood believed that, as minorities, they lacked the clout to block the road.
The freeway, which opened in 1966, literally cut the neighborhood in half and displaced some 600 families, mostly black and Latino.
People lost their dream homes to eminent domain, and many middle-class African Americans moved to communities such as Baldwin Hills, while their counterparts in the Latino community headed for places such as San Fernando.
Each group used to make up about 20% to 25% of Santa Monica’s population. According to the most recent census, African Americans constitute 4.1% of the city’s population; Latinos, 13%.
“We tried to stop (the freeway),” said Vabel Reed. “Some of us stood in front of the bulldozer to stop it. We walked. We fought. We picketed. They overwhelmed us. After the freeway came, things started to go downhill.”
Cheap apartment houses were slapped up on vacant lots, right next to single-family homes. As the units filled up, the neighborhood quickly Balkanized, with the majority of blacks living south of the freeway, while Latinos were concentrated to the north. No one seems to understand why.
“All of a sudden it became a black area and a Mexican area,” said Lois Ricard, Tarik’s mother.
TODAY: “Everybody is fighting for crumbs”
In the ‘90s, the Pico Neighborhood is fighting for its life. The enemies are gangs, drugs, the breakup of the family and something that flabbergasts the old-timers: a breach between blacks and Latinos.
“Where does it come from?” said Vabel Reed. “This never was. We was always kind of kin.”
The area is still dotted with cozy, well-kept bungalows, but the sound of gunshots is an all-too-regular occurrence, as Latino gangs from the area fight black gangs from Venice.
“Drugs, drugs, drugs,” said Lois Ricard. “It’s so different now. Everybody’s afraid.”
Despite the problems, there are signs of gentrification as first-time homeowners seek affordable housing on the Westside.
In the last few years, the residents of the area, organized by church leaders and the Pico Neighborhood Assn., have been putting the pressure on City Hall for more police protection, youth programs and other services in their area. Residents feel neglected, saying resources are being siphoned off by other parts of town that have more political clout.
Tarik Ricard and Harriette McCauley, both officers of the Pico Neighborhood Assn., are trying to infuse others with community pride. “People here need to recognize they have the power to change the neighborhood,” McCauley said.
They seek to defuse racial tensions by reminding both groups about their shared struggle to attain parity and their shared past in Santa Monica.
Ricard said the breach between African Americans and Latinos has been fostered by a system in which both groups are competing for ever-dwindling resources. “Everybody is fighting for crumbs,” he said.
Meanwhile, the women from his mother’s generation, who raised families in Santa Monica, lament the lack of direction and respect for others they see in today’s youth.
“Poor kids,” said Beulah Juarez. “I’d hate to be a kid right now. They don’t get enough attention at home. When they took out the dining room and put in the den, it ruined everything.”