Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Dream is in the Desert

For black Americans, at LAT, "‘We’re here to stay.’ Despite isolation and racism, Black Americans feel at home in California’s desert":

PALM SPRINGS — La’Ronjanae Curtis has grown used to the disbelief of college classmates and friends when she tells them she was born in Palm Springs, a city of 48,000 where people of color are relatively few. “There are Black people out there?” they always say. Curtis proudly tells them that she’s living proof.

Tourists flock to the Coachella Valley and Mojave Desert to take in the psychedelic hues of their sunsets, lose themselves among otherworldly rock formations, and sip drinks poolside at Modernist hideaways in Palm Springs the way Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack did in an earlier era.

For the few Black Americans who live in the California desert, it takes willpower to feel at ease in these playgrounds, and imagination to make them feel like home.

In the first half of the last century, hundreds of Black people from the South, and from Los Angeles and the Bay Area, settled in desert communities like Palm Springs. They came for some of the same reasons that drew many white people: plentiful jobs, ample land to put down stakes, and the live-and-let-live openness of what still felt like America’s frontier.

But the picture-postcard settings and air of possibility masked an uglier reality for Black newcomers.

Many towns historically restricted Black families to segregated neighborhoods through housing covenants and lending practices. That legacy lives on.

Today, the presence of an established Black community isn’t obvious when driving through Curtis’ hometown, where low-lying houses hide behind Moorish-style screens, meticulously kept cactus gardens look as untouchable as jewelry displays, and locals ride around their condo complexes in golf carts designed to resemble Mercedes and Rolls Royces.

Most Black residents live far from the carefully constructed fantasy visitors see.

Curtis, who attends San Diego State University, says relatives on both sides of her family migrated from San Francisco in the middle of the last century. They mainly settled in Desert Highland Gateway Estates, a neighborhood of about 400 homes that sits on the wind-whipped northern outskirts — three miles from the Midcentury Modern furniture stores and spray-misted restaurant patios of downtown.

The other historically Black neighborhood, Lawrence Crossley, is at the opposite end of the city near the airport — a single U-shaped street lined with several dozen two- and three-bedroom houses shaded by palms. The lush green of a municipal golf course borders the neighborhood on one side. At the far end, a strip of barren desert.

Dominique Brenagh, 38, takes shelter from the 100-degree heat in the shade of his carport at the small ranch-style house where he grew up and his family still lives.

Brenagh says his father’s relatives moved to Palm Springs in the 1950s from Louisiana in part to escape the segregation and violence of the Jim Crow era.

“Back in those times, you had the KKK out there that was oppressing people,” he says of the South.

Brenagh looks back on his own life as a happy one by comparison. He smiles when reminiscing about sneaking from his backyard onto the golf course to play with friends.

“I love it here,” he says...

Keep reading.