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Council Disbands Bruce's Beach History Panel; Will Review Plaque Language

Nov 03, 2021 10:34AM ● By Jeanne Fratello
The Manhattan Beach City Council on Tuesday night agreed, 5-0, to disband the Bruce's Beach History Advisory Board without accepting the board's proposed plaque language.

Instead, the council will form a subcommittee of two of its members to review and edit the language. Those two members will be selected by Manhattan Beach Mayor Hildy Stern, who said that she wanted to take time to consider which two councilmembers would be on the panel.

The History Advisory Board had proposed language for two plaques (which can be seen here in the City Council Agenda under Agenda Item 17). One plaque would be on the Strand in front of the L.A. County Lifeguard Headquarters, which is the original site of the Bruce family property; and one would replace the existing plaque at Bruce's Beach Park facing Highland Ave. 

However, the proposed language, with approximately 2,000 total words, came under criticism from some council members for being too wordy and exceeding its intended scope.

Councilmember Suzanne Hadley contrasted the proposed plaques with the new Mira Costa High School monument honoring the Uyematsu family, with a plaque containing just 184 words.

"I want our plaque to look like the Uyematsu plaque," she said. "It’s about Francis Uyematsu, it’s one line of facts about World War II. There are no quotes, there are no pictures, there's no extraneous stuff - it’s beautiful, it’s literally beautiful. And we had a lovely time [at the dedication], and we felt good about what the [school] district was doing for the Uyematsus. It just bums me out that none of that good will is coming out with Bruce's Beach."

Exhaustive Work, Followed By Claims of Bias

The Bruce's Beach History Advisory Board has held 18 public Zoom meetings to discuss the issue since March (April 1, 12, 19; May 3, 10, 17, 26; June 2, 7, 16, 28; July 12; September 14, 29; and October 6, 20, and 27).

Panel member Lindsey Fox estimated that each member had spent 20-25 hours per week on the effort, amounting to thousands of hours of work since the project began. "I spent more time on this [committee work] than on my masters' thesis in education," she said.

Despite its copious amount of work and public meetings, the History Advisory Board's work had not drawn much public participation until this City Council meeting. The council received a spate of emails calling the panel biased and demanding that an "independent," "professional" panel of historians review the language.

At Tuesday night's meeting, City Council members thanked the History Advisory Board for its exhaustive work, and rejected the idea that such an "independent" panel of historians could be found. 

"Their job was thankless - yet they have done more than anyone before them, and certainly more than anyone who criticized them, to uncover the facts," said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Napolitano. "I’ve heard calls that we should hire a professional bipartisan firm, whatever that means. I’ve never heard of a bipartisan historian firm. Everyone writes it from some point of view."

Napolitano added: "We don’t need to hire a bunch of non-residents to do over what the panel has already done. The only reason would be to make today's unhappy people happier, and today’s happy people unhappier."

Hadley, in her remarks, said, "I don’t believe there is bipartisan professional historian firm. Academics has been completely taken over by politics. I just can’t sign up for paying this mythical unicorn of an 'unbiased historian.'"

Plaque Language Has Had Convoluted Journey

The Bruce's Beach Task Force was formed in October 2020. There were 13 total members (all Manhattan Beach residents), plus two alternates. All members of the task force were were chosen through a round-robin selection process agreed to by all members of the City Council - from among more than 80 applicants.
The Bruce's Beach Task Force was disbanded in March, but one of its subcommittees, the History Advisory Board, needed more time to conclude its work.

The work of the history panel had been delayed because the Los Angeles County Hall of Records had been closed to the public for historic research because of the pandemic. A flood and resulting water damage in the building had caused additional delays in accessing materials.

To create the first draft of proposed plaque language, the History Advisory Board had used language directly from the Bruce's Beach history report accepted by City Council on June 15.

However, the City Council on July 20 voted to send the first version of the proposed plaque language back to the history panel for further review.

Following that action, Isla Garraway, a member of the Bruce's Beach History Advisory Board resigned from the panel in protest. 

"The Council must lead the Manhattan Beach community in accepting the facts meticulously documented in the report and reflected in the proposed plaque language," said Garraway, a resident of Manhattan Beach for more than 25 years, in a statement to DigMB on July 21. "I resigned because when the City Council began refuting the facts derived from the report that it had previously accepted, it was clear that I could no longer play an effective role."

During Tuesday night's meeting, it was clear that the City Council was still not in agreement on the plaque wording despite its being taken from the history report.

The History Advisory Board had proposed including QR codes on the plaque that would lead to the history report online. That history report would be considered a "living document" that would be updated as warranted if more information was uncovered. 

Nevertheless, City Council members expressed skepticism about putting "in stone" something that continued to be the subject of debate.

"If we’re talking about inscribing something in stone, less is more," Hadley said.

Bruce's Beach Background

The story of Bruce's Beach dates back to the early 1900s, when Charles and Willa Bruce built a popular Black beach resort in Manhattan Beach. The property was one of the very few beaches where Black residents could go, because most other Southern California beaches were off-limits to people of color. 

By the end of the 1920s, with pressure from community members who did not want Black beachgoers in town, Manhattan Beach's Board of Trustees (a precursor to the modern city council) claimed the land under eminent domain and displaced the Bruce family as well as other families who had settled in the area. That land was acquired by the state of California in 1948, and was transferred to L.A. County in 1995.

It was not until 2006 that the city of Manhattan Beach publicly acknowledged this chapter of its history by naming the area east of the beachfront property Bruce's Beach Park and establishing a plaque in that location. In the summer of 2020, a movement began growing for the city to take further action to recognize the Bruces.

In April 2021, the City Council approved, by a 4-1 vote, a resolution "acknowledging, empathizing and condemning" the city's past "racially motivated condemnation of properties" in the area, although stopping short of a formal apology. 

There have been two separate paths of attempted action; one, at the county and state level with legislation to return the land to the Bruces; and two, at the city level, where the city of Manhattan Beach is continuing to discuss how best to recognize its history.

SB 796, legislation giving state authorization to return county-owned beachfront property to the Bruce family, was signed into law in Manhattan Beach by California Governor Gavin Newsom on September 29. That process continues to unfold.

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