The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.
Despite all the talk about America being a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl” of inclusion, many American cities, including Fullerton, are still, in 2011, characterized by shockingly rigid social and ethnic divisions.
I learned this when I took a train trip around the United States a few years ago. I wanted to see the country for myself. I took off from the Fullerton train station with a one-month rail pass that would allow me to go wherever the Amtrak went. And I went all over, across the Rocky mountains through Colorado, to Chicago, down through the south, through Memphis and New Orleans and Birmingham, up the east coast through Philadelphia and New York and Boston, through my home state of Wisconsin, and back home. I had a backpack, a notebook, and a camera.
The thing that struck me the most was how segregated by color many U.S. cities still are. I remember being in Chicago, and taking the train to Oak Park, the suburb where Hemingway was born. To get there, you pass through a very low-income area populated almost exclusively by African Americans. Oak Park was more like north Fullerton—mainly affluent white people living in large, well-manicured homes.
When I visited Graceland, outside Memphis, I again passed through a low-income African American community. And then when I got to Graceland, it was mostly white people on vacation. Interestingly, most of the employees of Graceland were African American.
Fullerton is also shockingly segregated. The “south side” of Fullerton, literally across the railroad tracks, in the Valencia and Truslow neighborhoods, is the “Mexican Area.” The “north side” of Fullerton, up around Sunny Crest, and Skyline, and St. Jude Hospital is the “white area.” Moving west, out toward Gilbert, in Amerige Heights, you have the “Korean area.” And what is to east? Fullerton College? Cal State Fullerton? Those are actually pretty diverse. Education brings diversity. The exception, I suppose, is downtown Fullerton. But, even there, in the restaurants, it is mostly Mexicans making and serving food to white people.
Why is it this way? The answers are varied and complex. I know that, in Los Angeles, South Central became the “African American” area because of racist housing policies back in the 20s and 30s that excluded African Americans from living in other neighborhoods. I think the same is probably true of Fullerton.
There is also the common explanation that “people like to be around people like them.” There may be some truth to that, but even this statement turns out to be not so simple. Why do people like to be around their own kind? One reason is that, when they are new immigrants, they speak the same language and will look out for one another and hopefully not take advantage of one another. The root problem of this is the fact that minorities are often exploited by non-minorities.
Describing housing conditions on Truslow in 1975, Jennie Reyes of Fullerton said that the landlords charged a high rent and did not keep their properties maintained or even up to code.
“They rent them for a high price, and they do not do anything to them,” she said. How could the landlords do this? Because recent immigrants perhaps do not yet know the language and can be easily dismissed and taken advantage of.
Reyes, herself a long time resident of Fullerton, was screwed over not by landlords, but by the City of Fullerton itself.
Her family restaurant, La Perla, and her home were taken over by the city and demolished to make way for an underpass. The city paid her a price for the land, but she “didn’t think it was a fair price for all this work.” The work she was referring to was 30 years of owning and operating a restaurant that was an important part of the community.
In an article from the Fulleton News-Tribune (back when the Fullerton News Tribune actually printed news) titled “Progress Uproots a Family,” Reyes’ daughter Mardie De La Torre said, “People don’t realize what it is like being forced to leave the home where you have lived all your life...the city talks about ‘comparable market value’ but the laws are unrealistic.”
The city attorney at the time, Kerry Fox, defended the city’s position with this statement: “We follow the law, we don’t set the law. Whether the laws are fair—that’s not my business.” That may be technically true, but it should have been the business of City Council, who approved the decision to destroy Reyes’ business and home.
Reyes’s family wasn’t the only ones who were affected. Other businesses and homes around Truslow and Lemon were also demolished, including the Negrete Market.
Reflecting on the consequences of this, Reyes said, “What I think makes it so bad is that some of the people from that area are very poor. Some of them have a car, you know, but some of them don’t and it makes it hard for them to go to the shopping centers...what are they going to do now?”
I don’t claim to have the answer to segregation in America, but a good start would be for people to recognize that it still exists and is a pervasive part of American cities. Another good idea would be for businesses, cities, and individuals to have compassion on people who look or act differently from them.
Cross the lines. See how the other half lives.