Hundreds of historical documents released this week show Palm Springs officials were acting in collaboration with a federal agency when members of the fire department burned homes in Section 14. However, they do not cover the entire period of history in question as a citizens’ group seeks compensation for forced evictions they say occurred on the land.
More than 500 pages of documents were pulled from a city storage area following several public records requests and uploaded to the city’s website Monday. Within the records is evidence of efforts by city staff to fully detail controlled burns between 1965 and 1967 on a one-square-mile section of land in the center of the city owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
The documents also show that issues on the land were being discussed as far back as the 1930s.
According to the city records, many residents who leased land from the tribe in the 1930s and ’40s built what inspectors described as “cheap houses, shacks, crude business establishments and trailer camps,” as well as “a deplorable slum area.” Only a few homes were connected to the city’s sewer system.
“The City is very conscious of these conditions and the pressing need for their correction,” an inspector wrote in 1948. “Nevertheless, important questions of jurisdiction over these lands must first be settled.”
In the ensuing decades, modest homes were common on the land. Still, they became the target of removal as the tribe gained the right to enter into long-term leases with those interested in developing the land for commercial use. Documents show efforts to remove hundreds of those structures in the 1960s were done in meticulous fashion and in coordination with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
“I am anxious to avoid any suggestion that the City did not give adequate notice or that tenants were dispossessed by the City,” wrote then-City Manager Frank Aleshire in one 1967 memo. “For all abatements keep separate records on each structure with photos, affidavits of notice and affidavits of at least three people that the structure was vacant of occupants or personal belongings.
“As part of our procedure, check the Assessor’s records to determine if anyone other than the (tribal member) is paying taxes on the property. If so, be sure to notice that person.”
That type of due diligence is the opposite of what some who lived on the land remember. One group of former residents, organized as The Section 14 Survivors, has filed a claim with the city seeking what they say could amount to billions in damages. Members of the group are on record detailing memories of being forcibly removed from their homes with little or no notice and then watching the homes burn.
“I can clearly remember to this day the smell of smoke, the lights, and the heat of the fire,” one member of the organization recalled. “The horrible loud sound of bulldozers when our family, neighbors, and friends’ homes were being burned and demolished.”
On Wednesday, a lawyer for the survivor’s group who had filed requests for the records applauded the city’s efforts at transparency. Still, she said, former residents of Section 14 have been trying to get the city to produce documentation around activities there for decades.
“For 60 years they have not been fully transparent with these families,” attorney Areva Martin said of the city. “If this is their effort to reveal all the documents, then I’m in favor of that. …I don’t know anyone worth their salt who could say the families are not entitled to those documents.”
Current city leaders have voiced support for providing more than just documents to the families. In 2021, both the City Council and the Human Rights Commission acknowledged the role city employees played in clearing homes off the land. They went on to issue a formal apology, approve removal of a statue of the mayor for much of the time in question from in front of City Hall, and ask staff to explore reparations for former Section 14 residents and their descendants.
However, the question of whether the city was solely responsible for the harm lingered. The documents show the city did not act alone.
Records show a total of 235 buildings were torn down by the city between September 1965 and June 1967 — and that 68 burning permits were issued. They also show that officials here were doing so at the request of the local head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) who was acting out the wishes of tribal members through their representatives.
Dozens of meetings, memos, and other communications with then-BIA Director Paul Hand are recorded in the documents. It was Hand, records show, who was responsible for delivering signed permits from representatives of tribal owners for burning homes and debris on the land.
Once city firefighters and others were finished at each site, extensive documentation was filed on what transpired. That documentation included inventories of materials found at each location, before and after pictures, and maps of each lot where equipment was used.
In at least one case, evidence of a short notice to vacate a structure scheduled for demolition was evident. In October 1965, Hand asked the city to give 72 hours’ notice of a planned burn to one home occupant.
“Field investigation reveals that there is a family living in one of these shacks,” Hand wrote. “He has been informed by this office that he will be notified to vacate not less than three days prior to the time the burning of the debris is to take place in order that he may be afforded an opportunity to move. … Please be advised that this office of the Bureau endorses completely the program contemplated.”
Martin said documentation showing the city and BIA were collaborating to clear the land will have no impact on the Section 14 group’s claim against the city. She also noted that documents provided by the city are just one side of a complicated story.
“You don’t get to have it both ways when the city has been intimately involved in creating the environment in which the Black and minority population in the city was relegated to that one square mile to begin with,” Martin said by phone. “…The fact that there are other players potentially involved doesn’t relieve the city in any way for their involvement in what happened to the people in Section 14.
“These were residents of the city of Palm Springs. They lived in Palm Springs, they voted in Palm Springs, and they elected officials to serve them. Why have a governing body if the governing body acts at the pleasure of an outside agency and doesn’t protect the citizens it’s supposed to protect?”