Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. -Booker T. Washington
No one ever said saving San Diego's past would be easy-no, not in a town so obsessively focused on its shaky future, so compulsively insecure about its standing among other major cities. But when it comes to preserving San Diego's vibrant Black history, the obstacles-both real and political-seem insurmountable.
That said, you won't find an ounce of quit in Karen L. Huff, the irrepressible president and CEO of the Black Historical Society of San Diego who has made it her mission in life to save this city from its destructive, unthinking self.
"This particular project down here where we're going, I mean, this has been quite a fight," Huff said one crisp recent morning while walking in East Village from the site of her group's greatest victory to the scene of its latest struggle.
A roller-coaster ride-there's no other way to describe the travails of the historic preservationist. For Huff, she started the Black Historical Society in 1992 after the heart-wrenching loss of the famed Douglas Hotel and Creole Palace, a downtown touchstone of Black civic pride that, in its heyday, welcomed the likes of Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and a host of other famous artists to a section of downtown once referred to as "Darktown."
The demolition of the Douglas in the mid-'80s-to make way for an apartment complex-riled Huff so deeply that she vowed never to allow another landmark of the Black experience to go without a passionate fight.
Her determination eventually led to the Black Historical Society's greatest moment: the historic designation in 2001 of the formerly segregated Clermont Hotel (now the Coast Hotel) at Seventh Avenue and Island Street downtown in the heart of what once was a bustling Black business and residential district that came to be touted as the Harlem of the West.
But while the Coast Hotel's future seems secure, not so for a cluster of ramshackle buildings seven blocks to the east and only a stone's throw from Padres owner John Moores' sparkling new realm in the ballpark district.
Along the south side of J Street between 14th and 15th streets, the jacaranda trees have unfurled their green canopies, obscuring the view of a boarded-up, two-story wood structure marred by graffiti, faded promotional posters and years of neglect. To the east, a snarling pit bull pulls on its tether in a cluttered dirt yard separating the old Grant Lodge from the Grant Court, a series of low-lying, cement-block bungalows, which abut the main residence, a rundown Victorian-style one-story painted Pepto-Bismol pink.
Collectively, this half-block strip of land once belonged to Lillian and Ocie Grant-an elegant madam and her war-hero husband-and represented the largest contiguous land holding by Black owners in all of California, Huff has discovered through extensive research on the property.
Despite the disrepair, this is Huff's current battlefront, one that she will not cede easily. As in all wars, emotions run sky high.
"About 80 percent of the historic structures associated with African-Americans downtown have been destroyed," Huff said with disdain as she discussed San Diego's lust for redevelopment. City leaders, swayed by developer dollars, are mesmerized into an attitude of "Let's tear it down, and we'll put up a plaque or we'll have an exhibit or whatever," she explained.
"This is what they're trying to do here," Huff continued. "That's what they did to the Douglas. We're not going to let them do that anymore."
And Huff evidently means business. In recent months, the Black Historical Society has filed suit against Mayor Dick Murphy and three City Council members it claims orchestrated the death sentence for the Grant buildings, as well as a land-use consulting firm charged with documenting African-American history downtown. It's likely that the group will soon add the city's downtown redevelopment arm, Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), to its legal targets.
Helen Holmes-Peak, corporate counsel for CCDC, couldn't comment specifically on the flurry of lawsuits, but she sympathized with the plight of historic preservationists like Huff.
"I can see Karen's perspective in that every battle lost means a diminishing supply of historical resources that are left," Holmes-Peak said. She praised Huff for "developing a very large body of information and knowledge" about local Black history but lamented the need for litigation.
"It's a large town, but still in many respects it's a small community where emotions sometimes run hot," she said.
Huff said her organization has no other recourse-the Grant granddaughter has sold the property to Wakeland Housing and Development Corp., which intends to demolish the structures to make way for what is being called Lillian Place, a contemporary complex of 70-plus affordable apartment units that will be anchored to the past by one refurbished historic building at the corner of 14th and J-a former Black-only boarding house-that will become a community center and a revolving exhibit space for Black history.
For Huff, such a proposal is an insult, a slap at a history that, while perhaps controversial, nevertheless represents a truly unique time in San Diego's past that is rapidly vanishing under shiny new residential buildings, tourist meccas and glitzy sports venues.
She noted that the San Diego Board of Port Commissioners last year rejected two proposals to redevelop Seaport Village and the nearby historic police headquarters, instead reopening the process to a competition that more strongly emphasizes the Embarcadero's historic past. Why not the same consideration for San Diego's Black history?
Huff contends that it all comes down to money.
Money, she claims, led a key member of the city's Historical Resources Board, which voted to save the buildings, to change his opinion of the Grant structures' value. That member, Larry Malone, is a political supporter of City Councilmember Charles Lewis III, who in April took the reigns of a most obscure City Council hearing on the fate of the Grant properties.
"It was a pretty appalling hearing as I recall," said City Councilmember Donna Frye, who cast the only vote to uphold the December 2002 decision of the Historical Resources Board to preserve the Grant buildings.
Typically, hearings open with a staff report, followed by testimony from members of the public and then comment from the council members before a vote. This time, Mayor Murphy immediately turned to Lewis, even though the property falls within the district boundaries of colleague Michael Zucchet.
Prior to any public testimony, Lewis made a motion-which Zucchet quickly seconded-to limit the historic designation to the land only, if Wakeland agreed to honor Black history on site. "I believe it has significant historical resources there, but I'm not ready to go with the buildings," Lewis told his colleagues.
"I was just sitting there, saying how can you do this!" Frye recently told CityBeat of the unusual proceedings. "I said, you haven't even made the findings. We haven't even heard any testimony!"
To overturn a designation by the historical board, an appeal must be filed that clearly indicates that an error was made by the board. But the appeal on the Grant decision, filed by Grant granddaughter Rainey Tharpe of San Marcos, stated only that errors were made, not specifically what those errors were.
During the meeting, Frye recalled that Tharpe and her children testified only to the desire to sell the property so that the children could go to college. "That was not the issue," Frye said. "And they never did identify any findings of error."
Nonetheless, the rest of the City Council went along with Lewis. Councilmember Ralph Inzunza-who along with Lewis and Zucchet faces federal charges in the City Hall-strip club scandal-had this to say: "My decisions here are emotional, and my findings are emotional, and I think when you're up here it's not just by the book, but it's sometimes getting out of the box and thinking a little bit differently."
Lewis did insist that whatever tribute to Black history is proposed, it better not be feeble. "Don't bring back a plaque," he said. "Don't say, "I'm gonna put up a picture up there.' Don't say, "I'm gonna put a plant.' I want something that has history in that room. I'm not talking about just a little bitty bathroom. I want something significant there. Now, if you think I'm playing, bring something back. I'll change-I'll change my vote in a minute."
So how did the Grant properties go from a designated important part of San Diego history to a mere mention in some proposed exhibit? Huff blames a flurry of backroom deals.
In one of its lawsuits, the Black Historical Society alleges that high-powered lobbyist Lynne Heidel, who served most of the '90s on CCDC's board and several years as its chairwoman, "ventured into the 4th council district, sought and obtained the support of Councilman Lewis' personal friends, close associates and campaign supporters," including Malone, by "offering one or more of them financial opportunities by way of lucrative consulting-type agreements and other considerations in exchange for their testimony against preserving the buildings."
In an e-mail to CityBeat, Heidel declined comment on Huff's "bitter and self-serving allegations," only saying that, "by incorporating and preserving the adjacent historic former hotel into the project, the proposed redevelopment of the site will honor African-American contributions to downtown San Diego and provide much needed affordable family housing."
A month after the City Council vote, CCDC announced that it had hired local land-use firm Mooney & Associates to produce a study of Black history and culture in downtown San Diego. Huff called it "ironic" that such a proposal would suddenly appear on the redevelopment agency's radar, considering that she had frequently proposed such a study over many years.
She said Richard Carrico from Mooney called her in hopes she would help put together a "winning team," a phrase that drips with venom when repeated by Huff. "I hate to admit that I recommended Larry Malone for that team," Huff told CityBeat.
Carrico, in an interview with CityBeat, confirmed that Malone had been brought on the study team after the December historic board vote. "I paid him for public outreach and helping me find sources and setting up oral interviews," Carrico said, adding that he and the developer also intend to use Malone's services to develop the exhibit space for the Wakeland project.
But Carrico insisted that he had no knowledge of any connection between Malone and the Grant properties. A May 2003 press release from CCDC announcing the selection of Mooney & Associates to conduct the study, however, notes that "this project seeks to work in conjunction with the Historic Resources Board to identify and acknowledge other significant African-American historical landmarks downtown."
Malone's term on the city's Historic Resources Board runs through March 2005. The study is due to be presented to CCDC staffers in less than a month, Carrico said.
In an interview this week, Malone denied ever changing his mind about the historical significance of the Grant buildings, but he did confirm that he has been hired by Mooney and Wakeland to aid in developing an exhibit for the project.
"We have a collaboration," Malone explained, adding that he was paid about $25,000 for his work with Mooney. He said he has yet to bill Wakeland for the exhibit project, which he said is only in the early stages of development.
Malone, the only African-American on the Historical Resources Board, also discounted Huff's allegations, saying she approached Wakeland with an offer to drop the lawsuit if the Black Historical Society was brought on as the consultant, a charge that Huff did not deny.
"She keeps saying that I sold out, but that's something she needs to prove," Malone said. "To me, it just sounds like sour grapes."
Efforts by CityBeat to reach Lewis and other Historical Resources Board members for comment were unsuccessful. Zucchet said Huff's lawsuit is meritless.
Carrico raised an interesting point when asked about the Grant properties. He freely admits to working on the tightrope that oftentimes pits preservationists against developers, and in this case he said he was "adamant" about saving 1401 J Street, the corner building where the exhibit is proposed, but was not so swayed by the other buildings.
"The Grants, in my research, stuck out as people of some status in the Black community but frankly not important people in the larger community," Carrico said. "And I'm also taking my lead, admittedly, from some probably conservative people in the Black community who would just as soon see that the first group of buildings that are saved to commemorate the Black experience was not that of a prostitute or a madam."
And therein lies the rub: The Douglas Hotel was as famous as a magnet for well-known Black performers as it was as a brothel under the firm hand of Mabel Rowe. Certainly Ida Bailey, the renowned madam of the Gaslamp District at the turn of the 20th century, has her place in the lore of that part of downtown. Chinatown was dotted with opium dens in its early days, and while city leaders might blanch at tributes to that practice, there are preservationists in that portion of downtown who still regret not saving one of those.
"Listen, being in the historic Black community in downtown was not a pretty sight, any more than Harlem was in New York," Huff said. "But Lord knows, by the 1970s the Gaslamp Quarter was nothing but a prostitution den. But did they say, "Oh, we don't want to preserve Gaslamp because it was associated with nothing but prostitutes in the '70s'? Not even close.
"The Lillian and Ocie Grant properties were not saved based on Miss Grant being a madam. It was saved based on its association with the Black community and the era of segregation. That's history."
Carrico said he is hopeful that the report, once approved, will lead to the preservation of several downtown buildings considered important to local Black history. He points to the former headquarters of the Pacific Parachute Co. on Market Street, run by Black stunt pilot Skippy Smith and financially backed by Jack Benny sidekick Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Also, a building on 16th Street near J Street once housed a bevy of hairdressers and served as an important entrepreneurial site for the Black community.
Eventually, three separate Black history districts could be established, Carrico suggested, portions of which might overlap with the Gaslamp and Asian thematic district already established.
"Part of what we're finding out is from about 1890 till roughly 1930, San Diego was a much more open town in terms of race," Carrico said. "San Diego was pretty much a polyglot, a diverse bunch of people. There was a very mixed neighborhood down in downtown San Diego. It's only with the Depression do you see pressure to move Black people out of downtown. Depressions, unlike wars, tend to feed racism."
Huff, meanwhile, continues to research the history of the Grants. Her interest might come from a personal connection. Like Huff's parents, Lillian Grant was a tough-minded Creole woman from Louisiana while Ocie was born in Arkansas.
Lillian, said to always carry a gun, was not averse to pistol-whipping unruly clients. Ocie was a Pearl Harbor survivor described as low-key who would later take a job as a drugstore custodian.
Carrico said he spoke to several old-timers who remembered the Grants, but not flatteringly. An ex-cop and a retired fireman recalled that they "hated to go down into that area back in the '30s and '40s because there were all kinds of drunken sailors and fights and girls hanging out the windows. They knew when they went out there, there would be trouble."
All of which makes the history that much more compelling, Huff insisted.
"We feel we'll prevail in the end," she said.
Huff once considered Malone a friend, but no longer. "I confronted Larry on this, and, basically, he said if the developer wants to pay him money, he was going to take it. That's exactly what he said. You can quote me."
Malone denied that Huff ever faced off with her. "If she was the consultant on the [Grant] project, we wouldn't be having this conversation. This is real close to slander."
Huff remains undaunted. Regarding Malone's position on the Historical Resources Board, she snapped, "He should be history."