Eminent Domain

California Returns Beach Property Wrongly Taken From Black Family via Eminent Domain

The government confiscated Bruce's Beach at racists' behest.

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law last week that would return beachfront property to the heirs of an African-American couple who had owned it in the early 1900s. While the move is rightly being hailed as a step forward in undoing a racial injustice, it should also be recognized as undoing a stark example of eminent domain abuse.

Charles and Willa Bruce moved to California from New Mexico in the early 1900s, at a time when many African Americans were moving west. Starting in 1912, they bought up several plots of beachfront land in Manhattan Beach. On this property, Mrs. Bruce built a resort, which she named Bruce Beach Front; this was later shortened to Bruce's Beach. The property featured a café, a dance hall, rooms for rent, bathing showers, and dressing tents.

Many white residents bristled at the black-owned and -patronized business. The Los Angeles Daily Times reported that nearby white landowners "deplore the state of affairs." They responded first by putting up "No Trespassing" signs all along the edges of the property, forcing patrons to walk an extra half mile to get to the resort. Over time, racists started making profane phone calls and letting the air out of beachgoers' tires. The Ku Klux Klan started holding rallies on the beach, burning crosses on hills overlooking the resort, and in one case burning a mattress on the property. Yet the resort thrived for more than a decade, with Mrs. Bruce buying up nearby plots of land to expand the business; during the same period, many black families moved to the area, buying and building houses nearby.

Finding direct violence and intimidation ineffective, the racist landowners tried a different tool: the local government.

A real estate developer petitioned the Manhattan Beach City Council, which voted unanimously to condemn and seize the Bruces' property under eminent domain, ostensibly for the purpose of building a public park. Protests were ignored, lawsuits were dismissed, and ultimately the Bruces had no choice but to acquiesce to the order. In compensation, they asked for a total of $120,000 for the property and for damages incurred; the city ultimately gave them just $14,500. The land then sat undeveloped for more than three decades before the city built the park, which now includes Los Angeles County's lifeguard training facility. Modern estimates put the value of the requisitioned land around $20 million.

As the land is restored to private ownership, the story should serve as a stark reminder that more often than not, and no matter who is in charge, eminent domain is a power easily abused. The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment allows for "private property [to] be taken for public use" as long as "just compensation" is provided in return. But in practice, the terms "public use" and "just compensation" have both proven remarkably elastic.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. New London that virtually any potential benefit to the public qualified as "public use." That decision allowed a city to bulldoze several families' homes to make way for the expansion of a Pfizer Pharmaceuticals plant. Pfizer eventually pulled out of the plan, and the development was never built; the site remains empty today.

Neither Kelo nor what happened to the Bruce family are outliers. California deserves credit for finally attempting to make amends to the Bruces, but if state officials want to stop such injustices from happening again, they should move to roll back their own powers of eminent domain.

NEXT: New York's Straw Law Will Fine Business for Giving Out Unsolicited Straws, and Also for Not Having Enough Straws

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  2. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law last week that would return beachfront property to the heirs of an African-American couple who had owned it in the early 1900s. While the move is rightly being hailed as a step forward in undoing a racial injustice, it should also be recognized as undoing a stark example of eminent domain abuse.

    Now won’t the family have to pay income tax on that?

    1. They’ll have to shell out some clams for the property taxes.

      1. The tax bills will come in waves.

    2. One does not pay income tax on land. One pays income tax on income derived from the land. Property tax is a different matter, and they will indeed be paying property tax. But I presume they will provide some income producing use for the property. Like a resort.

      1. Something will have to shore up their finances.

      2. Unless the progressives pass that unrealized capital gains tax they’ve been wanting

      3. I wouldn’t put it past CA to claim that recieving title to the land amounts to $20Mil in “income” to the people who they gave it to, which would mean a 13.3% tax on $19Mil of that. Plus the property tax assessment, which will most likely not be rated down to what they’d owe on that land if it had been theirs since Prop13 took effect, so another 1% there,

        The State will likely have that land back on a tax lien by the end of 2023 unless that family is either extremely wealthy or just hit the powerball jackpot.

  3. The Ku Klux Klan started holding rallies on the beach, burning crosses on hills overlooking the resort, and in one case burning a mattress on the property. Yet the resort thrived for more than a decade, with Mrs. Bruce buying up nearby plots of land to expand the business; during the same period, many black families moved to the area, buying and building houses nearby.

    By the way, this is a very interesting passage that is positively layered with takeaways and meaning.

    1. it’s almost as if the Klan’s presence did more to create a ‘fuck you’ to the Klan than to bother the owners.

  4. I wonder what is different about this family than someone like Susette Kelo that would make the state give back their property?

    This article is the height of stupidity pretending that this is anything but pandering. This isn’t about righting wrongs or addressing an injustice because if it was the state would be going through their records to address every instance where the government abused eminent domain.

    Maybe don’t let the intern write articles.

    1. You must be joking. Articles about the Raaaacism! are how the interns make their bones. You might as well be asking him to give up his skeleton.

    2. No difference at all, Susette Kelo’s descendants will get the land back in 100 years

    3. In other news the Coastal Commission refuses to grant any permits for the property.

    4. Just because it’s pandering doesn’t mean they aren’t also correcting an instance of injustice in the process.

      If the state got too agressive about returning wrongfully taken land, the tribal leaders might take notice and put the panderers into an extremely difficult position.

    5. “what is different about this family than someone like Susette Kelo that would make the state give back their property?”

      Kelo was paid the “fair market value” for her property – that doesn’t pay for the disruption in her life when they forced her out of and destroyed the home she planned to live the rest of her life in, but handing back a bare lot in a demolished neighborhood wouldn’t compensate for that. (IIRC, the houses were bulldozed _before_ the case went to the Supreme Court!)

      In contrast, this black family were screwed out of nearly 90% of the value of the property. It’s much cheaper to give the land back than to pay 100 years of interest on the difference…

  5. now do Chavez Ravine.

    1. What’s the story behind Chavez Ravine? I moved away from California about a month ago but I am very vaguely familiar with Chavez Ravine.

      1. Trail of Tears for the Mexican-American residents under eminent domain, then L.A. scrapped the public housing plans and invited the Brooklyn Trolley-Dodgers to move in. Vamos Dodgers.

        1. I am not a baseball fan. I know the dodgers play at a stadium in LA. I guess that stadium is in Chavez Ravine and LA got it via ED.

          Hmmm, learn something every day.

        2. Do you mean that L.A. just sold the land to the Dodgers, rather than taking the usual route of collecting land with eminent domain, then spending much more taxpayers’ money to build the stadium for the team?

  6. The land then sat undeveloped for more than three decades before the city built the park, which now includes Los Angeles County’s lifeguard training facility. Modern estimates put the value of the requisitioned land around $20 million.

    Nothing more satisfying to watch than this family hiring a demolition crew to flatten the whole fucking thing in the dark of night. Unfortunately, this is California, and this family will probably discover real quick how impossible it’ll be to develop anything on it. Which is totally not racist.

    1. I think you’ll be surprised how few people want to stand in the way of this particular family developing whatever they feel like on this property.

      Principals not principles.

      1. The California Coastal Commission, established in the 1970s, makes it pretty near impossible to develop land on the ocean. Also, the commission has established the public right to traverse the land to access the beach.
        So they can’t build on it, people can cross over it anytime, and no one except the city will be willing to buy the land. I don’t expect the city to offer much for it.

      2. CEQA brings the general public into the equation.

        Every activist group in the county will show up making demands during the public comment period. The local Native American tribes, the historical society, etc. They’ll need to justify the impact of any project on global warming. They’ll need to do an acoustical survey. Does the property ever attract harbor seals? I’ve jogged past seals near that beach–they come way inland if there’s a shark attack. They’d do well to sell it to a developer or the to the city as a dog park.

    2. “Modern estimates put the value of the requisitioned land around $20 million.”

      Tiny bungalows–off the beach–that were built in the 1930s go for millions in Manhattan Beach.

      Here’s a 3bd, 2 bath ranch house–on the wrong side of PCH–going for $2 million. It might as well be a tear down. It’s all about the land.

      https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/1317-Gates-Ave-Manhattan-Beach-CA-90266/20415730_zpid/

      That land on the beach is worth a lot more than $20 million.

      1. Those were built before the commission took over. Try getting a permit for new construction now.

        1. Wait ’til they get a load of CEQA!

  7. While the move is rightly being hailed as a step forward in undoing a racial injustice

    This take is just stupid. The fourth generation descendants of one family get back land some family land and this is a “step forward”? I mean…an ant step forward…maybe. But it’s so overwhelmingly symbolic why lacking in any real substance in terms of moving things “forward”.

  8. A lot of this happened around Manhattan Beach, and the other Beach Cities, at the end of segregation. It used to be that parts of the city were zoned for race. Black people were allowed to live in certain properties that were zoned for it. As typically happened back then, when they started integrating the schools, especially, local government would use eminent domain to claim the area–and turn it into a public park. The real motivation, however, was to force all the blacks in the area to move out of town. And “out of town”, in this sense, meant a few miles down Manhattan Beach Blvd. in places like Hawthorne.

    West of PCH was like it’s in a different country with a different standard of living. And it’s like that practically all the way south through San Pedro and into Long Beach. There was this little sliver of lily white communities set right next to some of the scariest neighborhoods in southern California, with little but police brutality and price separating them. When I worked in Hawthorne, it was like the people who lived there didn’t even know what was over the hill. The knew about the Redondo Beach pier, but it was like the rest of it didn’t even exist for them.

    1. Sounds like you’re talking about the 1980s more than the 20s or 30s.

      Once FHA made redlining essentially Federal law, most of L.A. other than the South Central District and Watts were almost exclusively white. Since that same language got carried over into the boilerplate of the GI-mortgages after WW2, the areas of post-war tract housing (most of Hawthorne, at least around my neighborhood along with Inglewood and even Compton) were pretty much exclusively white/protestant through the 50s and 60s. Most of the people on my block would have been prevented from buying their homes if the re-sale restrictions written into the titles hadn’t been struck down in the 70s.

      The PV peninsula and Rolling hills is definitely still a different world. Even into the mid 90s, a friend of mine (white, blond, blue-eyed probably nordic heritage) used to go down there once in a while just to see how long it took to pick up a police tail because he was driving a domestic car from the previous decade in an area where anything other than a “status” car (luxury brand less than 3 years old or some kind of classic/collector car) or a landscaper’s work truck was considered “suspicious” just for being on the road.

  9. Oh, so this wasn’t about how wrong it is for the government to steal things from people for bogus reasons, it’s about racism and winning the culture war.

    Framing turns what should be libertarian issues into culture war issues and divides people. I don’t know what the solution because the media is terrified of using libertarian framing. They much prefer to fan the flames of the culture and keep people angry at each other.

  10. This is Newsom doing ‘something’ to make for a positive news cycle after the recall. Pure and simple.

    Notice this is the only thing they’re doing. There is no widespread reparations for anything going on, just one instance that is guaranteed to get coverage given the value of the land and the racial angle.

    And journalists are falling all over themselves to do exactly what this was designed to accomplish by the political class.

  11. It’s not stealing that’s wrong, it’s white people stealing from black people.

    And even then only in certain circumstances.

    Taxing and regulating black people, limiting their land use, all acceptable forms of stealing.

    In fact, in most situations they steal from all races.

    Then from time pick out one case of injustice and make reparation, then jizz themselves in their ecstasy at the thought of their own enlightenment.

  12. Now that we have the precedent, let’s see the state provide compensation for all the people who were driven out of their neighborhoods because of forced busing, gangbanging and now homeless encampments.

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