The Long Commute

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On Aug. 26, 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 man 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.

Well into the 1960s, there were no streetlights in Sun Village, no paved roads, no sewage system, and no gas lines.

As he descended from his record-breaking flight, the valley floor came into sharper focus. He could see the outlines of Palmdale and Lancaster, still small towns back then. Both were all-white communities growing fast as the aerospace industry boomed. As Murray was gliding over Rogers Dry Lake, he would have been able to spot another small community of houses just east of Palmdale, a neighborhood called Sun Village. This was where African Americans were forced to live because of housing segregation. If Murray had flown over Sun Village at night, it would have been all but invisible. Well into the 1960s, 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 Thompson, 71, and his mother moved from public housing in Los Angeles to Sun Village in 1962, during his junior year of high school.

“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,’” recalls Fred Thompson. Now 71, Thompson first moved to the Antelope Valley from Los Angeles in 1962.

Six years later, when the 1968 Civil Rights Act became law, specifically Title VIII, the Fair Housing Act, it became harder for whites to keep people of color out of Palmdale. Today, Palmdale looks a lot more like the rest of California. More than half of the city is Hispanic. Whites make up only a quarter of the population, blacks thirteen percent, and Asians five percent. In April of 2014, Thompson became the first black City Council member of Palmdale.

As South L.A.’s violent crime rate was climbing towards its peak in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Palmdale became the second fastest growing city in America, the population increased by 460 percent. And throughout this period of growth, black families continued to leave Los Angeles.

In 1970, African Americans made up 80 percent of South Los Angeles. By the ‘90s it was down to half, and across all of L.A., the black population was declining. In 1990, blacks constituted about 11 percent of the population of the city. By 2010, that figure was below 9 percent.

Chris Chambers, 55, and his wife Stephanie, 50, bought their first home in Palmdale in 2005.

Stephanie and Chris Chambers were a part of that migration out of L.A. and into the Antelope Valley. And while they did not face obstacles in the same way Thompson did, their transition hasn’t been easy.

Ever since they got married 27 years ago, the Chambers dreamt of owning a home together. They first lived together at Chris’ mom’s house in South Central, then they moved to Long Beach. They have three children. Stephanie, now 50, worked for a nonprofit and Chris, now 55, worked in security. They couldn’t afford anything in Los Angeles but there were houses in their price range in Palmdale. In 2005, the Chambers closed on a three bedroom house on a cul-de-sac for $135,000.

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.

Randy Mellencon commutes from Los Angeles to Palmdale three days a week to play keyboard for the True Vine Full Gospel Church.

The Chambers became homeowners in Palmdale, but achieving their goal came with an unexpected cost. “The hardest thing for me when I first moved up here, was trying to find a job. Couldn’t find a job up here, so I had to keep going down to L.A.,” Chris said.

Chris and Stephanie both worked “down below,” that’s the term people in the Antelope Valley use for the cities to the south. Working in San Pedro, Stephanie had the longer of their commutes.

“If it was a bad day, it could easily be six hours.”

“From my driveway to where I parked was 81 miles one way. So I was driving 160 miles plus every day,” Stephanie said. She would spend at least four hours a day in her car. “If it was a bad day, it could easily be six hours,” she said.

Stephanie endured her commute because she really loved her job. She had benefits and she believed in the mission of the nonprofit she worked for, the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, a youth program that uses traditional sailing vessels to work with at-risk kids.

Being down below all day, the Chambers didn’t want to leave their children alone in Palmdale. They couldn’t afford childcare so they brought their three kids with them on their daily commute.

“It was a rough time for us. The first three years that we lived up here our kids went to school below with us,” Stephanie said. The five of them piled into a single car for several hours, a daily family road trip.

“There were times Chris and I would talk and I was like, ‘do we really want to continue this?’” Stephanie said.

“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.”

When April, their oldest daughter, turned 16, they put their kids in school in Palmdale. Stephanie says that in terms of their education, it was the best thing to do. But it also meant that she and Chris would see very little of their family during the week and that was really tough. But they still felt they were making the best long-term decision for their family. “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,” Stephanie said.

This idea of coming home to what’s yours came under assault shortly after the Chambers moved into their house. Lots of people started showing up at their house with offers that seemed too good to be true.

“Emails, we had flyers, people knocking on the door, people canvassing the neighborhood — ‘we are looking for people who want to refinance,’” Stephanie said.

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 all those offers to refinance were very tempting.

“It was hard because we had a daughter going off to college and money got tight but I knew with my research that if we get caught up in that we may never recover,” Stephanie said.

The Chambers chose not to refinance which was a good decision. Those refinancing offers were the early signs of what would become one of the greatest real estate crashes in American history. Chris and Stephanie’s neighborhood was hit especially hard.

“There was 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,” Stephanie said.

Since 2008, nearly 5 million families have lost their homes to foreclosure. Between 2005 and 2009, Latinos lost 66 percent of their household wealth. African Americans lost 52 percent. For whites, it was 16 percent.

Chris and Stephanie Chambers, Randy Mellencon and the rest of the performers say a prayer before choir practice at Palmdale’s True Vine Full Gospel Church.

The Chambers avoided foreclosure and they can now come home to what is theirs. Their kids are out of school, they are active in the community, but even still, there are still moments, every now and then, when Chris doesn’t feel entirely welcome in Palmdale.

“For instance, it was cold one night, I got my leather jacket on, I’ve got my hood on. I get out at the gas station to pump gas and the police come up in the gas station harassing me, talking about I look suspicious pumping my gas,” Chris recalled.

These days Chris and Stephanie are no longer driving to L.A. for work every day. They both lost their jobs down below. Stephanie recently got a job teaching a few days a week at UEI College in Encino. Her new commute is only 50 miles each way. Chris now cares for his elderly mother and provides in-home care for other area seniors.

Today, there are about 100,000 people in the Antelope Valley who get in their cars every day and make the long commute.

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