This episode of Welcome to LA takes look at redlining in Southern California. It’s a story about how Black families are being priced-out of LA and moving to the High Desert. Also some rock and roll — the story of how Chris Chambers learned to play the drums in just a single night to join The Chambers Brothers on-stage at the Cow Palace.
Read the full transcript below:
DAVID: In 1968, the Chambers Brothers had a hit single called “Time Has Come Today.” It was an 11 minute song that blended soul, gospel, blues, and psychedelic rock. It’s an incredible song.
[SONG PLAYS: “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers]
DAVID: Anyway, fast forward to November 26, 1989. The Chambers Brothers were scheduled to play a concert in San Francisco at a venue called the Cow Palace.
Quick side note — funding for the venue, which was originally built for livestock expositions, was approved in the 1930s during the Great Depression, and a newspaper posed this question: Why, when people are starving, should money be spent on a palace for cows?
OK, back to the story. It's November 1989, and there's a huge concert going down at the Cow Palace. It's a benefit show for the victims of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that had just hit Northern California the previous month, killing 67 and causing seven billion in damage.The concert was 12 hours long. It was broadcasted live on television and it featured a ton of bands: Taj Mahal, Carlos Santana, Neil Young, Eddie Money, Bonnie Raitt, Crosby, Stills and Nash. The emcee was Bob Hope and also on the bill was the Chambers Brothers. But there was a problem: their drummer couldn't make the show.
CHRIS: They were getting ready to go on a tour of up north to San Jose and stuff like that, and they needed a drummer.
DAVID: This is Chris Chambers. His dad and uncles were the Chambers Brothers. He was 24 at the time and a musician. He played the bass and the guitar, but he'd never played the drums before.
CHRIS: Never played drums in my life, but I told him, let me spend a night in a studio — when you come back, you'll have a drummer.
DAVID: And so that night, Chris went into the studio alone and taught himself the drums.
CHRIS: I stayed up all night, man.
DAVID: One night?!
CHRIS: One night square business! I stayed up all night — got my rudiments together, got my coordination, everything together. I wasn’t able to do nothing fancy, but I was able to keep the beat. So they let me go on the trip with them.
DAVID: A few nights later, Chris took the stage at the Cow Palace and sat down behind the drums behind his dad and uncles. He played his first big venue gig to thousands of screaming fans.
[SONG PLAYS: “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers]
DAVID: There's footage of the show on YouTube. The stage is lit in purplish light, the singer stands at the center in a sort of tie-dye suit jacket with a red shirt and a silver tie. You can barely see him, but there's Chris sitting at the drums behind the band, wearing these big Coke bottle glasses, nodding his head and keeping the beat.
CHRIS: After I came back from the trip, I got fired — they got a better drummer. But it just encouraged me to go ahead and really dig deep, start practicing and get everything, learn everything. I needed to learn about playing drums.
DAVID: Not long after that, Chris went on tour with a gospel group, and while they were traveling through West Texas, their bus broke down in a small town.
STEPHANIE: Small town Midland-Odessa, great home of President Bush's.
DAVID: This is Stephanie.
STEPHANIE: My father, what he did for a living is he worked for the school district, and he was a mechanic so he worked on their bus. That's how I met Chris.
DAVID: How long have you guys been married?
STEPHANIE: 27 years. 27 years, that's a long time.
DAVID: So after the tour, Chris went back home to Los Angeles and he convinced Stephanie to come along.
STEPHANIE: I had seen the love that my husband had for music and I wanted that same love for me, and there was nothing I would not do to make that happen. And if that meant moving to California — I packed up and moved.
DAVID: Stephanie was 27 when she moved to Los Angeles.
STEPHANIE: That was a big transition because I'd never been anywhere, just home. So when I moved to California, it was like I moved to a whole new world. I had never eaten Chinese, I had never eaten Greek food, I had never had the opportunity to interact with such a diversity of people and nationalities. So to me, it was like a sponge, just taking in everything — and it was scary.
DAVID: Stephanie arrived in L.A. in October of 1992. The city was still recovering from the L.A. riots a few months back, and Chris and Stephanie lived with Chris's mom just a couple miles from Florence and Normandy — one of the epicenters of the riots. The year they moved to L.A. also happened to be the year that violent crime peaked in Los Angeles. In 1992, homicides in L.A. County reached an all time high: 2,589 people were murdered. This was the world that Stephanie found herself in as she started her new life with Chris, and together they had one big dream: to someday own a home and raise a family in a safe neighborhood with good schools.
From KCRW this is Welcome to LA Episode 12: What’s Ours
DAVID: On August 26th, 1954, Arthur Kitt Murray climbed into the cockpit of an experimental rocket at Edwards Air Force Base, about a hundred miles north of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley. Murray was about to fly as close to the stars as humans had ever been. At 90,000 feet above the desert, Murray looked out the window of his cockpit and became the first human to see the curvature of the earth.
As he descended from his record breaking flight, the valley floor came into sharper focus. He could see the outlines of Palmdale and Lancaster, small towns back then, but growing fast as the aerospace industry boomed. Murray glided over Rogers Dry Lake where he would have been able to spot another small community just east of Palmdale — a neighborhood called Sun Village. From up in the sky it looked like scratches in the dirt, and if Murray had taken that historic flight at night, Sun Village would have been all but invisible. Because well into the 1960’s there were no streetlights in Sun Village, no paved roads, no sewage system, and no gas lines. Families heated their homes and cooked with propane that was delivered by truck.
FRED: I remember one day the guy came to our house to deliver propane and he said to my mother, “how do you guys manage to survive here? They're doing everything to squeeze you out,” and my mother said, “well if there's a will, there's a way.” And let it go at that.
DAVID: This is Fred Thompson. He was a teenager when he moved from Los Angeles to Sun Village in 1962. It wasn’t an easy transition going from a big bustling city to a neighborhood with no infrastructure on the edge of a vast empty desert.
FRED: I was aware that everyone was struggling but I wasn't really looking at discrimination — lack of opportunity, racism — that sort of thing. Even though I wasn't naive to think that it didn't exist, I didn't see it as a powerful force in my life. But apparently it was.
DAVID: Fred wasn’t a complete stranger to Sun Village when he moved there. His grandparents were among the first African Americans to leave Los Angeles and move to the Antelope Valley in the 1940s. Like other African American families, they ended up in Sun Village not by choice, but because of redlining. Banks refused to lend money to Black families who wanted a mortgage.
FRED: When they couldn't get financing — even when they qualified for financing — they would haul their lumber here from L.A. or the San Fernando Valley. They would build their houses and pay for it piece by piece, not necessarily to code, but they did the best that they could do under the circumstances.
DAVID: For Fred’s mom, building her own home wasn’t an option. She worked full time as a nursing assistant in a hospital, and when she wasn’t working she was raising two boys. But she desperately wanted her sons to get a good education, so she saved up enough money to buy an acre of land in Sun Village. But without a bank to lend her a mortgage, her acre of land sat empty for years.
And then one day, Fred and his mom took a trip up to Sun Village to visit family, and they met a 90 year old white man named Mr. Jenkins. He was a contractor who built houses in Sun Village for the few families who had enough cash to pay for a new house without financing. Fred’s mother didn’t have that kind of money but Jenkins met with her anyway, and at one point, Jenkins turned to Fred and said, “you are going to do great things for your people.”
FRED: Those were his exact words. I guess he saw in me something that made him say: “you can make a difference, and you should make a difference. And don't you worry, I'm going to build your mother's house, even if I have to finance it myself.”
DAVID: And that’s what Jenkins did. He put up his own money to get around the redlining laws. He got Fred’s mother a mortgage, and he built her a house. Nothing fancy — 800 sq ft, two bedrooms. The view from the front door was undeveloped desert as far as the eye could see. Jenkins put up his own money for several other families, and slowly the All-Black community of Sun Village grew to its peak of 2,000 residents.
FRED: It was a really nice experience growing up in that neighborhood. You've heard the old adage “it takes a village to raise a child?” ell that was a village because it was small, everyone knew everyone — the church, the barbershop, the local store — you would meet the same people over and over again. If you are in Palmdale and you get stranded, all you had to do was walk out on the road side, and eventually someone who knew you or knew your family would stop and pick you up and take you home. So there were some upsides to it. As they say, “when you get lemons make lemonade.”
DAVID: Best of all, Fred started classes at Palmdale High School. Before moving to Sun Village he went to Thomas Jefferson High in South Central Los Angeles.
FRED: The school I was attending was predominantly African American, it’s safe to say almost 100 percent, as well as the teaching staff. So moving to Palmdale, there were not that many Black students here. In fact, I recall in my history class there were only two Black students in the entire class.
DAVID: Because Fred had been visiting his grandparents in Sun Village since he was a kid, the transition to life in a rural village with little infrastructure wasn’t nearly as jarring as the differences he encountered at school.
FRED: The curriculum was much more demanding and the teachers showed a lot more interest in the students. I thought it was great. In fact, after about six months of attending Palmdale High School I became kind of angry because I realized how much of an education I was missing.
DAVID: One of the classes that made the biggest impact on Fred was English.
FRED: That was just amazing, when the teacher stood up at the podium and began to read one of Robert Frost’s classic poems “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” — I think that was the title of it. I do remember the words: “Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; he will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” — and on it went, I can't recall all of it.
DAVID: The more Fred learned, the more he realized he had missed out on at his previous school. And so he started spending all his free time in the library reading voraciously, trying to catch up to his classmates.
FRED: I read “Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “MacBeth,” I dove into Shakespeare. I gained a lot of ground, and every time I would get kind of angry, and that was a motivating factor. Why wasn't I exposed to this? Because here I was in the eleventh grade and had never heard of these people.
DAVID: That transition from Thomas Jefferson to Palmdale was one of the most profound experiences in Fred’s life.
FRED: Yes, I think it was. I became really motivated about education.
DAVID: After high school, Fred went to Antelope Valley Community College, then transferred to Cal State Northridge where he studied educational psychology. He completed a master’s degree, and then worked his way up to become the Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Antelope Valley College. Along the way, the words of Mr. Jenkins were always in the back of his mind.
FRED: Every once in a while someone comes into your life and it changes your entire outlook, so that you can see a lot more clearly than you thought you were able. It had a tremendous effect on me — probably more than he knew.
DAVID: Fred doesn’t know what it was that made him stand out to Mr Jenkins, but when Jenkins told him that he had the potential to help his people, and that he would go on to do great things, he was right. Fred became the first African American on the Palmdale School Board, and after retiring, the mayor appointed Fred to the Palmdale City Planning Commision. And then in 2010, Fred made an unsuccessful bid for City Council.
FRED: When I look back at it, I really didn't put my best effort. I knew and I critiqued myself — my wife even said “that was terrible.”
DAVID: Your wife said that?!
FRED: She said I was terrible! She said: “you are just awful.” I said: “you're right, and I apologize for that.” I said that the next time, you're going to see the real Fred Thompson come out.
DAVID: So the following City Council election, Fred decided to run again.
FRED: During that campaign I think I really overdid it because I was determined to show her, and prove to myself I could win.
DAVID: Fred learned a lot from his first campaign, and this time around he felt really good about his chances.
FRED: I had every confidence that I was going to win if I came up with a message that resonated with the voters. I got out and knocked on doors, and campaigned — essentially doing the same thing I did when I ran for a seat on the Palmdale School District. So election time comes around, people go out and vote: I win.
DAVID: Fred’s win meant that he would be the first Black City Council member ever elected in Palmdale, the same city that wouldn’t allow him to live there when he was a teenager. Or at least, Fred would have become the first Black City Council member, if a judge hadn’t prevented Fred from taking the seat on the council.
FRED: The next day I find out I can't take my seat, so I go: “wow.” Then it hit me: let me go do some reading. So I read extensively on this thing — on the lawsuit so I could understand exactly what's going on. And then I realized that I could not take the seat even though I had won the election.
DAVID: The reason Fred couldn’t take his seat was because of a lawsuit against the City of Palmdale filed by three minority voters in Palmdale. The great irony of all of this was that the plaintiffs in the suit argued successfully that Palmdale’s election system was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. Palmdale used an at-large election system. That meant that everyone in Palmdale voted on all the City Council members, as opposed to district voting, where a city is divided into districts and each district votes only for its own representative.
By 2013 when Fred won the election, Palmdale was a minority majority city. 57 percent of the city was Hispanic, 15 percent was African American, and 25 percent was white, and yet the City Council was all white. Throughout Palmdale’s history, only a single person of color had ever been elected to the City Council.
When the Los Angeles Superior Court Judge issued his ruling, he said, “the Latino and African American citizens of Palmdale deserve to have their voices heard in the operation of their city. This can only be accomplished if all members of the City Council are lawfully elected. To permit some members of the council to remain who obtained their office through an unlawful election will not remedy the clear violation.”
So as a result of the ruling, Fred found himself in an incredibly difficult position. And he did what he had done all his adult life: he started reading, and he tried to make sense of it all by studying voting rights and elections protocol. Ultimately he came to side with the City of Palmdale. He even wrote an op-ed in the local paper defending at-large voting, the very system that the courts had ruled as racist.
FRED: But at the same time I realized the importance of the Voting Rights Act, and I am fully aware of the people who sacrificed — even gave their lives — to make that a realization.
DAVID: Did you struggle in your heart feeling like the system was OK, and
defending it a time when people were saying that it was not a fair system?
FRED: I struggled with that because I was trying to see where it was not fair. I wasn’t dismissing what they said — well it's not a fair system because no African American can get elected — I was saying, how is that possible? If no African American can get elected, why did I get elected? I couldn't get a satisfactory answer to that question, so it was kind of hard for me to accept.
DAVID: Meanwhile the City of Palmdale appealed the judges ruling and the City Council member who held the seat that Fred won resigned, which meant the mayor could appoint someone to fill the vacancy. The mayor appointed Fred, and in the end he took the seat that he’d been elected to, though Fred says he never felt like he was making history.
FRED: No I didn't see myself as a Jackie Robinson. I just thought — well, here I am.
DAVID: Today, Palmdale looks very different than when Fred was a teenager. When the 1968 Civil Rights Act — specifically Title 8, the Fair Housing Act — became law, it made it harder for whites to keep people of color out of Palmdale. Now the city looks a lot more like the rest of California. More than half of the city is Hispanic, whites make up less than a quarter of the population, Blacks just under 13 percent and Asians 4 percent.
Palmdale is much much bigger now. As L.A.’s violent crime rate was climbing towards its peak in the 90’s, Palmdale became the second fastest growing city in America. Between 1980 and 1990 the population increased by 460 percent. Throughout this period Black families continued to leave Los Angeles.
Stephanie and Chris Chambers were a part of that migration out of L.A. and into the Antelope Valley. They were the couple you heard at the beginning of the story.
CHRIS: We came up here — me and my wife drove around — we figured it would be good for the kids up here, away from all that down there in L.A. and Long Beach. Figure to be good for them, raise them up here and go to better school
DAVID: Chris and Stephanie did not face the same obstacles as Fred and his mother when they moved to the Antelope Valley, but the Chambers path to home ownership was not easy.
Ever since they got married, the Chambers dreamt of owning a home together. They first lived together at Chris’ mom’s house in South Central, then they moved to a rental in Long Beach. They had three kids and Chris, a professional musician, had a day job working in security. Stephanie worked for a non-profit. But even with their two incomes, home ownership in a good school district in L.A. was out of reach. So they looked north to Palmdale where they found a three bedroom house on a cul-de-sac for $135,000.
STEPHANIE: We closed on it, I'll never forget July 7th, 2005.
DAVID: What was that day like? The day you reached that goal and bought your home for the first time?
STEPHANIE: Oh my god it was just a collage of happiness and emotions. I don't know if there are enough words in the dictionary that express happiness and appreciation that would cover everything that we were feeling.
DAVID: Homeownership is the single biggest source of wealth for most Americans. That is especially true for Americans of color. For African Americans, homeownership makes up 92 percent of their net worth. For Latinos it’s 67 percent, and for whites it’s 58 percent.
As happy as the Chambers family was to finally become homeowners, it came with a very high unexpected cost.
CHRIS: I couldn't find a job up here so I had to keep going down to L.A.
DAVID: Chris and Stephanie both worked down below — that's the term people in the Antelope Valley use for L.A. and the neighboring cities to the south. Stephanie had the longer of their commutes. She worked in San Pedro.
STEPHANIE: From my driveway to where I parked was 81 miles one way. So I was driving 160 miles plus every day.
DAVID: How much time would you spend in your car each day?
STEPHANIE: Four hours at a minimum on a good day.
DAVID: What was a bad day?
STEPHANIE: Bad day — it could easily be six hours.
DAVID: Stephanie endured her commute because she really loved her job. She had good benefits, a retirement account, and she believed in the mission of the non-profit she worked at: The Los Angeles Maritime Institute.
STEPHANIE: Which is a youth program that uses traditional sailing vessels to work with at-risk kids.
DAVID: Chris often stayed overnight in L.A. so he could keep his music career going.
CHRIS: Sometimes I wouldn’t even come home, because the group I was in was rehearsing right around the corner from where I was working at. So sometimes I get off at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and hang around, and start rehearsing at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. with them. Get out of rehearsal at 12 a.m. — I just go back to my job and sleep at my job instead of coming home. Because if I leave there at 12 a.m., I’d get up here at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. So it really didn’t make any sense, I’d have to turn around and go right back.
Davis: One of the main reasons they moved to the Antelope Valley was for the schools, but they also couldn’t leave their kids alone in Palmdale, and they couldn’t afford child care. So they kept their kids in school down below and the whole family commuted to L.A. every day.
STEPHANIE: It was a rough time for us. The first three years that we lived up here, our kids went to school below with us.
DAVID: So five people in the car?
STEPHANIE: Every day, every day.
DAVID: Did everyone get along?
STEPHANIE: Oh sure, we’re family. We got along like family. We have a love, hate, mother, daughter, father, son, relationship [laughs].
DAVID: This is April, the Chamber’s oldest daughter. She does not remember the commute fondly.
APRIL: That was my biggest thing — we all still wanted to go to school down there. Mom still worked down there, my dad still worked down there and I was like — who was the executive decision maker on this and why did we not veto this bill?
DAVID: During those long drives, the car was often quiet. Stephanie and Chris would look in the rear view mirror and see their kids slumped over in the back seat sleeping, and they would question whether owning a home was worth all of this.
CHRIS: Lots of times we would be like — man, we got to do something else.
STEPHANIE: There were times Chris and I would talk and I was like — do we really want to continue this? At times it weighed heavy.
DAVID: When their oldest daughter April turned 16, they decided to put their kids in school in Palmdale.
STEPHANIE: When we made the decision to let them go to school out here knowing that we would be gone — that was a really hard decision. We talked about it, and we contemplated it, and we threw out all the scenarios: what could happen and how will we get to them? So before we actually did it, we set up an action plan. We got to know our neighbors, we got a support system down here. We literally talked to them and said — we’re working below, our kids are home, here’s their doctor information, here’s the insurance information, here's our phone number, this is their schedule — go by and check on them. That’s the only way we could even begin to feel comfortable with doing that.
DAVID: Stephanie says in terms of their education, it was definitely the best thing to do. But it also meant that she and Chris would see very little of their family during the week.
DAVID: Were there ever moments where you were stuck in traffic and you were like — I can’t believe this is what it takes to buy a house in this society?
STEPHANIE: Oh yes! I would say probably once or twice a month. But for us, we adapted this philosophy that we don't always have to work, but we always have to have a place to live, so eventually one day we won't have to make this commute. So that’s the thing we were living for: owning our own home and knowing that one day we won't have to do this, and we can come home to what’s ours.
DAVID: That idea, of coming home to what’s yours, it came under assault shortly after the Chambers moved into their house. Lots of people started showing up at their front door with offers that seemed too good to be true.
STEPHANIE: We had flyers on the door, people knocking on the door, people canvassing the neighborhood looking for people who want to refinance.
DAVID: Less than two years after they bought their home for $135,000, these people were telling them that it was worth over $350,000. And that if they refinanced, they could pull lots of cash out of the value of their home — cash that the family needed.
STEPHANIE: It was hard because we had a daughter going off to college and money got tight.
DAVID: Ultimately they decided not to refinance which turned out to be a very good decision. Those refinancing offers were the early signs of what would become one of the greatest economic crashes in American history. Chris and Stephanie’s neighborhood was hit especially hard.
STEPHANIE: There were about 10 houses in the cul-de-sac — five on each side and only one person and ourselves were still there when the market fell.
DAVID: In the aftermath of the crash, nearly five million families lost their homes to foreclosure. Many of them had been steered into subprime mortgages by banks like Wells Fargo which eventually had to pay a settlement of 175 million dollars for predatory lending practices that included charging Black and Latino families higher rates than whites, and pushing them into subprime mortgages. As a result of those practices, Between 2005 and 2009, Latinos lost 66 percent of their household wealth. African Americans lost 52 percent. For whites it was just 16 percent.
That wealth did not disappear. It has been transferred to big banks, and corporations. Since 2008 the number of homes owned by corporations in America has doubled to 11 percent.
And Black homeownership has continued to decline, reaching an all-time low last year. There is currently a 30 percent gap between Black and white homeownership in this country and that gap is now larger than it was in 1968 when housing discrimination was legal.
But the Chambers family survived the crash and now they come home to what’s theirs. Their kids are out of school. Both Chris and Stephanie no longer commute to L.A. for work. A while back Stephanie got a new job closer to home, and for a while things were great until the company announced that they were downsizing. So Stephanie chose to leave so that a woman she worked with could keep her job.
STEPHANIE: She was a single parent and it was more financially devastating for her to be without employment, so that's how I ended up getting laid off.
DAVID: Stephanie now teaches a few days a week at a college in Encino. Her new commute is only fifty miles each way. Although these days no one is really commuting anywhere and it’s unclear when colleges will reopen again.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, there were about 100,000 people in the Antelope Valley who got in their cars everyday and made the long commute to LA.
Chris still plays in a band and though he lost his security job down below he did find work closer to home.
CHRIS: I do in-home care work for my mom and other people and that helps out a lot, so we’re good. Just keeping the faith in god, and we're going to be good.
[SONG PLAYS: “People Get Ready” by The Chambers Brothers]
This story was produced by me David Weinberg
It was edited by Nick White and Sonya Geis, and based on material used in my previous series Below The Ten and my other podcast Random Tape.
Special thanks to Krissy Barker