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SUN VILLAGE : Black Enclave Withers Amid Antelope Boom

August 27, 1989|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Times Staff Writer

The pioneers of Sun Village, a small black community founded 40 years ago in the Antelope Valley, tell of struggle, hope and change.

Their stories in some ways evoke the shifting ethnic and racial landscapes of urban America. It has unfolded, however, in a corner of barren desert where Joshua trees claw at the sky.

Sun Village's founders bought unfinished homes and completed them by hand, drove over mud roads to blue-collar jobs and lobbied Los Angeles County officials for services that would build an idea in the desert into a decent place to live.

The eastern Antelope Valley has become the bustling frontier of a housing and population surge that has turned Palmdale and Lancaster into 1980s' boom towns.

Fading Amid Growth

But the pioneers have watched Sun Village fade amid the growth, the black population shrinking from its peak of 2,000 in the 1960s to 500 today. The shops and bars that once formed a small center of town at 90th Street East and Palmdale Boulevard are boarded up.

Longtime residents discuss the influx of newcomers with emotions ranging from resentment to acceptance. They see signs of hope, and they cherish the institutions that endure--the Chamber of Commerce, a women's club, churches clustered on the prairie, a park named after another pioneer--baseball star Jackie Robinson.

As far as the U. S. Postal Service and many others are concerned, Sun Village does not exist. The area is considered a neighborhood in the northern part of unincorporated Littlerock, a longtime agricultural community.

Narcissa Homes has built 500 homes in Sun Village since 1984 and is building about 200 more. But Richard Deebs, a manager at the firm, said he had never heard of Sun Village.

"I think it's a dying name," he said.

Ethnically Mixed Area

He called the community Littlerock and described it as an attractive, ethnically mixed area where ranch-style homes on one-acre lots sell for between $120,000 and $160,000, double the price of three years ago.

Nelloice Gatson is director of the still-active Sun Village Chamber of Commerce, which administers youth employment, food distribution and home rehabilitation programs through a contract with the county. She said the Sun Village she knew is a dying community.

"A lot of the older people who helped build this place are dead and gone," she said. "The younger people have decided there was nothing here for them."

But Gatson and others said the name of Sun Village and all that it symbolizes should be preserved.

Bernice Sims, who came to the area in 1962 and works as a supervisor at Jackie Robinson Park, said some of the early residents believe that their efforts to make the area livable are taken for granted.

"People are proud of Sun Village," she said. "Some of them feel one day it will be taken away from them."

Principal Founder

Melvin Ray Grubbs, a black lawyer-turned-real estate agent from Chicago's South Side, was the community's principal founder. He came to California in the 1940s and joined forces with a white family named Marble, who owned Sun Village Land Corp. The company owned 1,000 acres occupied mainly by Joshua trees, jack rabbits and snakes.

Grubbs' widow, Cleo Ward, was reluctant to give up her job as an insurance agent in South Los Angeles, but she moved anyway.

"I cried for two years" after the move, said Ward, 81, who lives in Palmdale. "He was a man of great perspective. He would say, 'You'll get used to it.' He loved it. He said one day the desert would bloom like a rose."

With Grubbs in charge of sales, the Marbles became perhaps the first landowners in the Antelope Valley to sell to blacks.

"Blacks couldn't live in Palmdale," recalled William Shaw, president of the Sun Village Chamber of Commerce and former superintendent of the nearby Wilsona School District, who came to Sun Village in 1957. Palmdale residents "would tell you that directly to your face."

Some pioneers were drawn by advertisements broadcast in Los Angeles on Hunter Hancock's popular rhythm-and-blues radio show. Others came for health reasons. Daisy Lee Mothershed Gibson came because her daughter suffered from asthma.

Gibson, a former comedian and actress who worked on radio and had bit parts in "Gone With the Wind" and "Jezebel," became one of the neighborhood's best-known leaders. At 77, Gibson exudes energy, charm and a calculated flamboyance. A new Sun Village school was recently named for Gibson to honor her community work.

Gibson's husband, Oscar, was the first black man to work at the Shopping Bag grocery market in Lancaster, commuting from Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. He drove two hours in each direction for several years. In 1959, the Gibsons moved into a new house on a dirt road named Avenue S.

"Watts was getting tough, sugar," she said. "You couldn't hang your laundry out to dry; it would disappear."

Residents generally agree that Sun Village is bounded by Avenue Q on the north, 132nd Street on the east, Avenue T (some say Avenue S) on the south and 81st East and 75th streets on the west.

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