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Community Is Credited With Integration of Valley Housing

June 23, 1985|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

It was April, 1963, and Grace and Ray Foster, young, full of hope, with two boys in elementary school and money in their pockets, were house hunting.

In Granada Hills, on an unpaved street that ran off newly rerouted Balboa Boulevard, they fell in love with a house in Balboa Highlands, a development being built by Eichler Homes Inc. of Palo Alto.

The house was unlike any they had seen before outside a magazine--a dramatically modern structure of glass and wood in which the open interior and the landscape outside seemed to merge into a single bright and verdant living space. It had four bedrooms, a "retreat," an atrium, a fireplace, a stunning view of the mountains and a price--$37,500--they could afford on Ray's salary as a pilot for Flying Tiger Airlines.

Then the salesman spoke up. "I'm obligated to tell you this is open housing," he said. "What does that mean--open housing?" Foster asked her husband. "I don't understand the phrase."

Understood Meaning

She suddenly realized what the salesman was trying to say. He meant blacks could buy houses here as well as whites like the Fosters. But as Foster, 54, noted recently, she was a veteran of one of the most thoroughly integrated institutions of the period, the New York subway in rush hour: "You don't get to pick and choose who stands next to you, and you don't even care as long as they don't stand on your foot."

"I was so taken aback," she recalled recently, in the house they bought 22 years ago. "Anybody who knows me will tell you it's unusual, but I was speechless. And then I was a little appalled. I said, 'This is California, not the South.' I look back and wonder at my naivete."

In 1963, Eichler's Granada Hills subdivision was the only one in the Valley, outside Pacoima, with a developer-backed policy of non-discrimination.

Changed Lives

Almost universally, white developers, operating on the premise that blacks would ruin the neighborhood, found ways to avoid selling to them. But in 1954 the firm run by Joseph Eichler sold a suburban house to the first black family that asked. It quietly continued to sell its ultramodern houses to minorities who could afford them. Without rhetoric or incident, Eichler's coming to the Valley changed the lives of a hundred families.

It was, after all, a different world in 1963.

According to the 1960 census, 90% of the Valley's 9,833 blacks lived in Pacoima, which had been attracting blacks with suburban longings since a tract pointedly named Joe Louis Homes was built there in the late 1940s. Burbank, North Hollywood and Van Nuys each had black populations of 200 or 300, but fewer than 125 blacks lived elsewhere in the Valley.

That spring, the federal Civil Rights Act was still a year away. California would enact a fair-housing law in 1963 that would outlaw such practices as writing discriminatory covenants into deeds in order to exclude Jews or blacks or Catholics. Enforcement, however, would be another matter, in spite of such groups as the Fair Housing Council of the San Fernando Valley, organized in 1960.

Race Not an Issue

But on four steep streets on the northern edge of the Valley--streets perfumed in season by the vast orange grove below--race, religion and ethnic origin were not issues, said Foster and others who lived there. Parental friendships tended to spring up on the basis of whose children played with each other, or which kids had a pool.

As the neighborhood began to coalesce, Foster remembers talking with some of the other women, looking for the common thread that made Balboa Highlands quickly feel so special, so "vital."

It wasn't political unanimity, certainly, because there were Goldwater Conservatives living there as well as Kennedy Democrats. The key, they decided, were the houses themselves, which people either loved or hated on sight.

As Fay Law, 55, who lives on Lisette Street, said recently of fellow Eichler owners: "We're kind of a different breed."

Perhaps it was nothing more than a shared enthusiasm for wall-to-ceiling windows and Danish modern furniture, but as Grace Foster remembered: "Some of us developed a theory that only people with open minds could be drawn to this kind of architecture."

George Moreland, then a young, black physician in Pacoima, had unsuccessfully combed the Valley for a non-segregated neighborhood where he and wife Claudia could raise their two young daughters. Singer Billy Eckstine had been able to buy an expensive home in the white Valley, but such freedom was rare--a perk of stardom.

"Then there was no subterfuge," Moreland, 59, said recently. "People had no qualms about telling you, 'I'm not going to sell to you because you're a Negro.' There was no veneer then. There was no facade."

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