African-American exodus fuels a fight over historic bungalows

Siblings sort out their own issues while adult family members join a protest to keep the Tabor bungalows at 607 Westminster Ave. intact. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Story by Gary Walker
Photos by Ted Soqui

It’s been more than 70 years, but Jataun Valentine still fondly recalls childhood visits to her grandmother’s home at 607 Westminster Ave. in Venice.

Jennie Tabor — sister of Irving Tabor, the chauffer and confidante of Venice founder Abbot Kinney — migrated there from Louisiana with aunts, uncles and daughter Hazel Henry (Valentine’s mother) in the 1920s. Valentine remembers hearing about her mother’s first summer ocean breeze.

“The reason she wanted to stay here was there were no mosquitoes like there were in Louisiana,” Valentine said with a smile. “You can’t beat Venice weather compared to Morgan City.”

Valentine’s grandmother’s home is one of eight bungalows once owned by the Tabor family in the historically African-American enclave of Oakwood, which 100 years ago was the only residential neighborhood in Venice where black people could live.

When Kinney died in 1920, he willed his own home not to his family but to Tabor. Racial covenants that prohibited black property ownership outside Oakwood forced Tabor to disassemble the home and move it to 1320 Sixth Ave., where it stands today as a Los Angeles Historical-Cultural Monument.

The Tabor bungalows, no longer in the family’s control and without historic designation protections, tell a different story of African-American displacement.

Starting in the mid-1990s and reaching a fever pitch over the past five years, skyrocketing property valuations in Venice have been a force multiplier for home prices in Oakwood. Over the past 25 years, Oakwood has become a lot more affluent and a lot less black, with many newcomers demolishing modest homes in favor of large contemporary ones.

Above: The tops of two Tabor bungalows are visible behind a fence
Below: Tabor descendant Jataun Valentine’s grand-
mother lived at 607 Westminster Ave. in the 1920s

The transformation of Oakwood has attracted international attention. A December 2016 article in British newspaper The Guardian cited a sharp decline in Venice’s black population concurrent with the real estate boom. In 1980, 9.6% of Venice residents identified as black or African-American. By the 2000 U.S. Census, only 6.7% of Venice residents identified as black (2,087 people). As of the 2010 Census, African-Americans accounted for just 5.3% of Venice residents, or 1,491 people.

While Valentine, 80, and her remaining family members say they have nothing against their new neighbors, they are saddened to see the neighborhood they grew up in slowing disappearing.

Amid new fears that the Tabor bungalow cluster will be permanently altered by new renovations, a patchwork group of Venice affordable housing and social justice advocates joined the Tabor heirs there in March for a protest calling on the city to expedite historic preservation status.

“The history of Venice as told through its structures is important. It explains Venice’s African-American history from a cultural perspective. And I think that those relationships are important,” said Sue Kaplan, the de facto leader of the historical preservation effort.

Sweeping demographic change in Oakwood is about more than the loss of physical structures, said longtime Venice activist Naomi Nightingale, who lives just a few blocks from the bungalows. Newcomers often build homes with tall fences and gates, seemingly walling themselves off from their neighbors.

“It’s not just the purchase of the home. It’s what happens afterward,” Nightingale said. “When families move out, the historical and culture aspects and experiences of the community are lost.”

Venice Historical Society President Jill Prestup is dismayed by the loss of so many original Venice homes in an era where newcomers are demolishing existing structures in order to build larger homes.

“We definitely would advocate that more people should renovate instead of raze and rebuild,” she said. “These homes have
so much integrity and history.”

The Tabor bungalow cluster is now owned by a trust controlled by Lisa Henson, daughter of legendary “Muppets” puppeteer Jim Henson and current CEO of the Jim Henson Company.

The Lisa Henson Trust purchased the property in December from Private Ocean Properties LLC for $5.4 million, according to real estate records. (Irving Tabor’s stepdaughter sold the bungalows in the late 1970s, Valentine said.)

In an interview last week, Henson said she feels that there is a misunderstanding among some members of the Venice com-
munity about her plans for her new home.

“The former owners, who are real estate developers, had already done extensive renovations on the majority of the property. The four cottages that we’re working on were in pretty bad shape and needed a lot of work just to bring them up to code,” Henson said. “But we’re not making any changes in the footprint of the property, and that’s where I think there’s been some confusion.”

Henson said she knew some of the property’s history when she purchased it.

“[The former owners] marketed it with a lot of attention to its history. It is a very interesting property,” she said.

Valentine wonders what her grandparents would think of changes to  their home.

“They would probably be very sad, because once they got here to Venice they considered this to be their first home,” she lamented.

Kaplan has submitted an application for historical consideration to the city’s Office of Historic Resources, which will review the application and forward it to the Cultural Heritage Commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor.

“The commission then determines if [the structure] is worthy of further consideration,” explained Ken Berstein, the principal city planner for the Office of Historic Resources. “In this case, the property owner is notified and a stay against any construction or substantial alteration of the structure goes into effect. There would be an inspection for several weeks before a final staff recommendation is made.”

If the commission finds that the structure has historical merit, it forwards the application to the City Council, which then votes for approval or denial. Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes Venice, prefers to wait until the property goes “through the proper process of being considered for historic designation and preservation before weighing in,” a spokesperson said.

It was not historic preservation concerns but building permit issues that prompted the city Planning Department to issue a stop order on construction at 607 Westminster Ave. on March 23.

“Building and Safety stopped work on two of the bungalow-style apartments located at 607 Westminster for exceeding the scope of the originally issued permits,” Building and Safety Chief Inspector Jeff Napier told The Argonaut. “The builder was then instructed to return to Building and Safety Plan Check to submit plans for the new work. The builder has applied for the new permits and is in the process of obtaining the required clearances from city agencies.”

Because the bungalows are located in a state-designated coastal zone, Henson must obtain a coastal development permit before any restoration work can be done.

“It’s our understanding that the city has determined the entire project needs coastal clearance,” said California Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz. “The project would need a coastal exemption or a local coastal development permit from the city, both of which can be appealed to the commission.”

Henson declined to comment on whether she feels the bungalows should get a historical preservation designation, noting that the original architecture has already been altered.

Berstein said a structure’s cultural and historical ties to a particular neighborhood or era are elements that the commission typically considers when granting historic preservation.

“Since 1962 there has always been recognition that [historic status] is not only about architectural significance but also the social and cultural history of the city,” he said.

Standing with cousin Alvin Christman outside her grandmother’s former home during the protest, Valentine said she wants a historical designation and enumerated other reasons to maintain the home’s original structure.

“The younger generations in Venice need to know the neighborhood’s history, and also people of color who grew up in Venice but are no longer here because they can’t afford to live here anymore,” she said. “They would be proud to know that there’s still some history here.”

During and after the protest, many Venice newcomers approached Valentine to inquire what they could do to help. Seeing “new” Oakwood — young, affluent and mostly white — meeting and strategizing with older African-Americans who have deep local roots gave encouragement to Kaplan.

“We see the result of the interactions between the two cultures. This is why it’s important to keep these structures the way they are to preserve this wonderful history,” said Kaplan.

“What I saw today was people coming together,” said Valentine. “People really care about this community, and I think we can get things done.”

What troubles Henson is that no one associated with the protest has reached out to her to voice their concerns.

“I really don’t know what the protesters want because no one has contacted me. Not a single letter or phone call,” she said. “I’ve never spoken to them, and I find that very strange.”

Henson is having second thoughts about living in the home, which she and her husband planned to do at some point.

“We have very good intentions for the property. But now, after the protest, I don’t know how our neighbors might see us,” she said.

Nightingale says Oakwood residents are friendly and welcoming, “but we are hesitant and skeptical about how some people who move into the community will be involved in our community,” she said. “Even though they might have read about the history, they haven’t lived it.”

But Kaplan saw something at last month’s demonstration that distinguishes it from most other Venice disputes and protests.

“People came together to celebrate something, not just to protest,” she said.

Prestup encourages homeowners and advocates of historic preservation to act quickly when they want to keep a building or home intact.

“Don’t wait until it’s sold,” she cautioned.