Bruce’s Beach, Part I

by Lisa McDivitt
Published July 13, 2006

On a Saturday afternoon in 1974, Bob Brigham and Gail Runk, two Manhattan Beach locals, attended a municipal ceremony at the patch of land between 26th and 27th Streets, just west of Highland. The city was renaming the steeply-sloping park Parque Culiacan, in honor of their Sister City in Mexico. The two locals attended in the hopes that then-city councilmember Stephen Blumberg would mention the park’s history, which many preferred to keep buried. And while Brigham and Runk remember the exact details differently, one thing remains burned in both of their minds to this day: nobody ever mentioned what happened in the days when the place was called Bruce’s Beach.
More than 30 years later, at a Manhattan Beach city council meeting on a Wednesday night, the themes that had been present in 1974 reemerged, but this time, Bruce’s Beach was on everyone’s mind.
Ever since 2003, when that year’s Leadership Manhattan Beach class took on the renaming of Parque Culiacan as their project, the racially-charged history of the park has shot to the forefront of discussions, as has Manhattan Beach’s relationship with former Sister City, Culiacan, Sinaloa in Mexico. Although a plaque was put in place in May of 2003, referencing the events of the past, at issue last Wednesday night was whether or not the city would officially change the parks’ name to also reflect some of the original history of Manhattan Beach.
“This is one of the more difficult issues that we’ve faced,” said councilmember Joyce Fahey. At stake was the renaming of the park for a part of Manhattan Beach history that included segregation and racism in the early 1900’s, or keeping the name that honors the city’s relationship and history with former Sister City, Culiacan.
The public hearing gave residents the chance to speak, and three sides took on a voice.
One man, in favor of keeping the name Parque Culiacan, thought that by renaming the park Bruce’s Beach people would ask the question, “Who’s Bruce?” He saw this as a problem, and said there was no need to bring up questions of almost a century ago. But for those wearing cut-out hearts with “BB” written on them, the questions the name might raise were precisely the point.
“When people enter town, we shouldn’t hand out pamphlets,” said resident Michelle Murphy. But, she added, “The truth is that this stuff happened, and we need to know about it and build from that.” Murphy is in favor of renaming the beach and having its history better publicized.
While both sides, those in favor of Parque Culiacan and those in favor of Bruce’s Beach, argued passionately about the merits of their respective perceptions, another point of view emerged as well. Larry Grik, who lives in the 2700 block near the park, came to the meeting with a petition that had been signed by 55 of his neighbors. All of them, said Grik, were against renaming the park Bruce’s Beach, and many suggested returning it to the name Bayview Terrace Park, its name before the 1974 ceremony. It is an innocuous name that reflects the topography of the park, and not its history.
After hearing each of the public appeals, the city council, one by one, voted in favor of keeping the name Parque Culiacan. Their reasons varied from having already decided on the plaque in 2003, to not wanting to name a park or building after an individual, according to a standing city policy. Jim Aldinger said no. Richard Montgomery said no. Mayor Pro Tem Nick Tell said no. And Joyce Fahey said no.
“I’m a minority up here in more ways than one,” Mayor Ward said when it was his turn to speak. He then talked about his personal feelings of owning land, and having a place to call his own. He said that when he moved to Manhattan Beach 17 years ago, and he got a place to call his own, it felt really good. “I feel bad this council does not have the foresight of Charles Peck Ward continued.

Peck, a city founder, set aside the two square blocks of land that is now Parque Culiacan for purchase by black landowners.
Ward’s comments sparked a change in the direction of the council discussion, which earlier had led to the informal vote to retain the name Parque Culiacan. Soon, council members were debating not only the virtue of educating people about the park’s history, but also reopened discussion about renaming the park. Other ways could be found to recognize the Sister City program, but to recognize the history of Bruce’s Beach, resident Bob Perkins said, “This is the place.”

This is the place
The place known as “Bruce’s Beach” during the 1920s was one of the few vacation spots in Los Angeles for black Americans during a time of racial segregation. In 1912, Willa A. Bruce bought one of Peck lots. According to her grandson Bernard Bruce, who currently lives in Los Angeles, his grandparents were from New Mexico and worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad, saving their salaries to buy the property. Wilma and her husband Charles soon added accommodations for dancing and dining, and cottages for over-night stays. It came to be known as Bruce’s Beach. Half a dozen other black families soon built homes around the Bruces’.
For several years, Bruce’s Beach was one of the only places for African Americans to stay overnight by the ocean.
“What has been known as Parque Culiacan is not ideally suited for a park,” said Brigham who moved to Manhattan Beach in 1939, when he was 12, and grew up wondering about the empty beachfront property between 26th and 27th streets that was strewn with empty Coke bottles and cigarette butts. “They picked the worst place to put a park, but that’s the subterfuge they used,” said Brigham of the city’s actions.
Brigham wrote his master’s thesis about Bruce’s Beach’s forgotten history as his master’s thesis while at Fresno State in the 1950s. He interviewed scores of residents who’d witnessed, and even participated in the harassment of the black families.
The Bruce family drew the particular ire of many residents, not only because they owned beachfront property, but because they were attracting other African-Americans to the area. Hugh MacBeth, a renowned black Angelino attorney of the time, told Brigham that Bruce’s Beach residents were continually harassed by the police and arrested on “trumped up charges.” Visitors to the black beach often returned to their cars to find the air let out of their tires. In one instance, a mattress was lit on fire underneath Bruce’s Lodge. the black landowners for the purpose of building a park on the land. The effort was held up in court until 1929, but was ultimately successful.
In the early 1960s John Campbell, chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, learned that if eminent domain was enacted to seize land for a specific purpose, and that plan was not carried out, the landowners could reclaim their property.
Campbell’s discovery promp
It’s uncertain what, if any, role the KKK may have played in the harassment of the Bruce family. But it seems likely the organization was involved, Brigham wrote.
“The new Klan was gaining strength in many places in the United States during the 1920s and there was a local organization whose primary objective was to keep Manhattan white,” Brigham wrote.
In 1924, Manhattan Beach residents petitioned to have Bruce’s Beach condemned. The city backed the effort and that year moved to use eminent domain with the stated intention of evicting ted the city to finally turn the property into a park.
“We didn’t even bother to beautify it from 1924 to 1960,” said Brigham. “It was pretty bogus what those city fathers did back in those days.”