Like me, I bet you all have fond memories of hanging out at 26th Street in Manhattan Beach when we were in high school. That was pretty much Leuzinger’s beach.
But, I bet few of you know its history. I didn’t until classmate, Janet McClelland, emailed this article.
Why it took nearly a century for Bruce’s Beach to get its name back
Bruce’s Beach. (May 2016 Daily Breeze photo)
Bruce’s Beach, the terraced 270-by-200-foot hillside park at 26th Street and Highland Avenue in Manhattan Beach, has a stunning view of the ocean.
It also has a tragic history.
The story of Bruce’s Beach begins with South Bay pioneer landowner George Peck, who owned large swaths of property in San Pedro as well as the northern half of Manhattan Beach.
When Manhattan incorporated in 1912, the progressive Peck set aside two blocks of beachfront area between 26th and 27th streets to be available to minorities, who otherwise were denied access to local beaches.
Charles and Willa Bruce, undated wedding photo.
Charles and Willa (sometimes known as Willie) Bruce were the first African-Americans to buy land at the beach, moving from New Mexico to purchase two adjacent seaside lots in 1912.
“Colored people’s resort met with opposition,” read the headline of a June 27, 1912, Los Angeles Times article, describing the resistance faced by the Bruces before they even started building their planned resort.
“Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort we have been refused, but I own this land and I am going to keep it,” Willa Bruce was quoted as saying in the story.
Despite community opposition, the Bruces set about establishing a resort at the site for all to use, beginning construction of a beach lodge in December 1915.
Willa Bruce at Bruce’s Beach. Undated 1920s file photo.
Work proceeded slowly. Building materials would disappear and various “accidents” would occur at the site. Eventually, even with the setbacks, Bruce’s Lodge was completed.
Peck also helped the couple build a fishing pier on the property.
In 1920, the Bruces bought another adjacent lot with a two-story building on it that they refurbished for dining and dancing purposes, and their resort was complete.
The area began to attract other African-American families; several others had moved in to the neighborhood by 1920.
Their fellow Manhattan Beach residents viewed the situation with growing alarm. The Bruce’s Beach area was cordoned off, and its users were harassed if they ventured outside of the beach’s boundaries.
The Ku Klux Klan, at its powerful peak in the 1920s, was rumored to be behind some of the harassment.
Mrs. Willa Bruce, right, and son Harvey Bruce with his wife Meda, at Bruce’s Beach. Undated 1920s file photo.
An attempt was made to plant liquor was planted on the premises so that the owners could be charged as being in violation of prohibition. Mysterious fires occurred, and the fire department always seemed slow to respond.
When these various underhanded attempts to dislodge the Bruce’s Beach residents failed, the city turned to a plan offered by a North Manhattan real estate agent. He told officials that the property could be condemned by the city through the eminent domain process, on the pretext that the city wanted the land for a public park.
On January 7, 1924, the Manhattan Beach City Council passed just such an ordinance, even though Live Oak Park, a much larger and less hilly park had been built nearby just recently.
Four African-American families, including the Bruces, sued the city, alleging that the ordinance was aimed at forcing them out.
The legal battle came to a head in the summer of 1927. Even though the resort officially was closed because of the condemnation, African-American families continued to flock to the beach.
Police began making arrests, taking 25 beachgoers into custody on Memorial Day. On July 4, 1927, 19-year-old UCLA student Elizabeth Cately was arrested. She later sued, saying she had been held for five hours in jail in just her wet bathing suit with no charges being filed.
Four more men were arrested on July 17 for using the beach.They challenged the arrest in court and were convicted of trespassing.The city later dropped the case after the men appealed.
Finally, the whole resort was torn down in 1927, and the only beach in the county at the time allowing blacks was no more.
The lawsuit finally was settled in 1929 for far less than what the plaintiffs in the case had asked for. Some of the families bought other non-beachfront property in the city, a condition set down by the judge as part of the settlement, but the embittered Bruces left town.
The land remained undeveloped for the next three decades. In the 1950s, fearing that the Bruces’ heirs might sue to get their land back if it wasn’t being used for a park, city planners decided to go ahead with building one.
In 1962, a contest held for the public to rename the park, which had been known informally first as City Park, then Beach Front Park, since the 1929 takeover by the city.
Residents chose the name Bayview Terrace Park, which remained its name until 1974, when the City Council decided to rename the park for its then-sister city, Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico.
Parque Culiacan, before the name change. (March 2003 Daily Breeze file photo)
On March 16, 1974, dedication ceremonies were held to introduce the park’s new name, Parque Culiacan. Mayor Mariano Carlon of Culiacan was on hand, along with the usual passelful of local dignitaries.
Over time, disenchantment with name began to grow.
During the 1980s, Culiacan became known as the headquarters city for the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world. It was an association Manhattan Beach didn’t anticipate when it formed the sister city bond in March 1963.
Manhattan Beach selected another sister city in 1989, Santa Rosalia in Baja California.
Another factor for the renaming was the growing realization of what had happened to the original Bruce’s Beach in the 1920s.
In 1956, Manhattan Beach resident Robert Brigham wrote his Master’s thesis, “Land Ownership and Occupancy by Negroes in Manhattan Beach, California, which told the story of Bruce’s Beach in depth, and local historians began to reference it. Jan Dennis retold the saga eloquently in her 1987 book, “A Walk Beside the Sea: A History of Manhattan Beach.”
The civic group Leadership Manhattan held another public contest to try and pick a new name for the park in 2003.
From the submissions, the group came up with Freedom Park, Harmony Park and Friendship Park as possibilities, but the city council turned all of them down in April 2003. It decided to keep the Parque Culiacan name, but to install a plaque acknowledging its history as Bruce’s Beach.
The renamed Bruce’s Beach was dedicated in 2007. (May 2016 Daily Breeze photo)
As knowledge of the park’s past began to spread, an even stronger movement to change the park’s name gathered steam in 2006. After a period of public debate, the City Council voted 3-2 on July 5, 2006, to change the name to Bruce’s Beach.
On Saturday, March 31, 2007, the dedication ceremony renaming the park was held with Bernard Bruce, Charles and Willa Bruce’s grandson, in attendance.
“Growing up, Bruce’s Beach was part of my dreams. When I told folks that my family once owned the beach here, they would laugh at me. They didn’t believe African-Americans owned beaches. Now everyone knows about Bruce’s Beach,” Bruce told the audience at the dedication.
A movement to get George Peck’s original Manhattan Beach summer cottage on Alma Avenue and 27th Street preserved and moved to Bruce’s Beach failed in April 2015, and the house was torn down to make way for condominiums