Officials release plan to return Bruce’s Beach property

In a plan first released, Los Angeles County officials detailed how they would complete the unprecedented transfer of Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of a black couple who were evicted from Manhattan Beach nearly a century ago.

The beachfront property, valued at $20 million following a complicated valuation, would be transferred to the Bruce family under escrow under the proposed plan published late Wednesday. The county would then lease the property from the Bruces for $413,000 per year and maintain a county lifeguard facility at the site.

“This land should never have been taken from the Bruce family over 90 years ago. Now we stand on the precipice of long overdue redemption and justice,” said Holly Mitchell, Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “While we cannot change the past, we have a responsibility to learn from it and do the right thing today. … I look forward to being on the right side of history with my colleagues.”

County officials and a team of attorneys representing the Bruce family pro bono have spent months fleshing out the details and considering every possible outcome. They’ve garnered support from state lawmakers and reparations advocates — as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom, who approved the transfer last September and legislated that the property was wrongfully taken.

State and city leaders across the country watched closely as the historic transmission would take place. Many say Bruce’s Beach could pave a way for those who want to reckon with past injustices that forcibly dispossessed Indigenous peoples and prevented Blacks, Latinos, Japanese Americans and many others from owning property and building wealth in this country.

“This was not an easy process … there was no precedent for it,” said LA District Superintendent Janice Hahn, who said a team of attorneys combed through the books and found no comparable case study. “We wanted this to be foolproof. We wanted to transfer ownership to the Bruce family as securely as possible so that they would not inherit legal challenges or any type of encumbrance.”

The proposed agreement will go to the LA County Board of Supervisors for a vote next Tuesday. If the broadcast were approved, the broadcast would fulfill a call to action that began more than two years ago — when the grassroots Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement sparked national debate and forced a reckoning in Manhattan Beach.

The history of Bruce’s Beach begins with the Tongva people, who tended this stretch of coast before real estate developers claimed their claim and built what is now known as Manhattan Beach in the early 20th century.

By 1912, Charles and Willa Bruce had made their way to California. Willa paid $1,225 for the first of two beachfront properties between 26th and 27th Streets and operated a popular lodge, cafe and dance hall that gave a rare welcome to Black families looking for a weekend by the sea .

Many called the area Bruce’s Beach. A few other black families attracted to this new community bought and built their own cottages next door.

But the Bruces and their guests faced increasing threats from white neighbors. The Ku Klux Klan and local real estate agents were allegedly plotting ways to harass her.

When racism failed to drive this Black Beach community out of town, in 1924 city officials condemned the neighborhood and confiscated more than two dozen properties through Eminent Domain. The reason, they said, was an urgent need for a public park.

But for decades the plots stood empty. The two oceanfront properties owned by the Bruces were transferred to the state in 1948 and to the county in 1995. As for the other lots, city officials ended up turning them into a pretty park overlooking the ocean.

Aerial view of Bruce's Beach

Nearly a century ago, the City of Manhattan Beach confiscated the land that makes up the park now known as Bruce’s Beach. In 1995, the two parcels closest to the ocean were moved to Los Angeles County.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

When Hahn discovered that the two lots that once housed the Bruce resort were now owned by the county, Hahn jumped into action. She called Charles and Willa Bruce’s great-great-grandson, Anthony Bruce, who burst into the spotlight in 2020 after the Bruce’s Beach story became a national story.

“I just want justice for my family,” he told Hahn, explaining how this painful story had torn his family apart. Bruce, a safety officer in Florida, said his father rarely spoke about the beach that bears the family’s name. “I’m only looking for hope and mercy.”

Hahn joined with Mitchell and State Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) who brought together state legislatures and the governor to authorize the reconversion of public property to private property.

Every step of this process was unknown – and ripe for challenges. A resident of Palos Verdes Estates took it to court almost immediately after the district attempted to move forward, stating, among other things, that the transfer of ownership was an unconstitutional “gift.”

When Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff reviewed the case in April, he dismissed it, saying the transfer of ownership was not only legal but vital to maintaining the integrity of the government.

“The Court finds that the government’s appropriation of public funds and/or property to combat and/or eliminate racial discrimination serves a public purpose,” Beckloff wrote in his ruling. “Correcting a government error committed in violation of our core and fundamental constitutional principles strengthens the integrity of government, represents accountability in government and works to eliminate structural racism and prejudice.”

George Fatheree, a real estate attorney who volunteers for the Bruce family, helped the Bruces and the county figure out the most complex details. They conducted separate genealogical studies and confirmed four direct descendants: Anthony Bruce and his father, brother and uncle. (112 people went through the county statutory heir determination process to verify that they were related to Charles and Willa Bruce.)

They also went through a complicated appraisal process and economic analysis to determine the value of the property. Eventually, they set out a plan: Once the county transfers the property, it will enter into a two-year deal to lease the property for $413,000 per year and assume responsibility for all operating and maintenance costs.

The lease also includes a right for the county to purchase the land for $20 million. Both parties agreed that two years gives them a reasonable amount of time to consider this option as a possible long-term agreement.

“In the end, no one has ever done it. There is no card or playbook,’ Fatheree said. “My focus from the start has been to get this just right – both so that it stands up to any legal process or challenge, and so that other governments, if they are inspired and follow county steps, have what I hope will mean something helpful too.” follow.”

Hahn admitted the process was stressful at times — and even more complicated than she imagined. It felt like the world was watching her every move, she said. The county received calls from members of Congress, the state’s reparations task force and city leaders from across the country.

As difficult as this process was to fix, what happened at Bruce’s Beach could end up being far clearer than other injustices that have taken place in this country. But just because something is difficult, and just because something happened 100 years ago, doesn’t mean it’s too late to try, Hahn said.

This is just the beginning, she said. “I hope we spend the next 100 years righting more wrongs.” Officials release plan to return Bruce’s Beach property

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