Bruce’s Beach

Years after an unsettling period in Manhattan Beach history, an unassuming park overlooking the ocean becomes a place of respite, reflection and forgiveness.

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  • Written by
    Kelly Dawson

It’s your typical blue sky Sunday afternoon at Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach. Surfers slowly climb the steep slope of 27th Street, walking barefoot from a competition still going on behind them. Parents watch their children play as they unload groceries onto a picnic blanket, and a man tightens his grip on a leash that saves their dinner from becoming spontaneous dog food. But as the breeze off the ocean grows stronger and the sun sinks closer to the horizon, the small crowd begins to pull on sweaters to stay warm. It is winter after all, but everyone appears to need a reminder.

The same can be said about Bruce’s Beach as a whole, which was once the property of an African American couple who were forced to leave their home in 1924 on account of citywide racism. A first impression of the park’s history could conjure an entirely different understanding of what the land means today. “I think Manhattan Beach has come a long way. It really has,” says Jan Dennis, a six-time author of Manhattan Beach history and a resident of the city for half a century. When Charles A. and Willa Bruce purchased a stretch of oceanfront land between 26th Street and 27th Street in 1912, they decided to turn their home into an inn. Bruce’s Lodge—which featured a cafe, dance hall and bathhouse—was one of the only places in the area where African American families were allowed to enjoy the surf. Thousands of people from Los Angeles came by Red Car and automobile to relax in a fledgling Manhattan.

By the 1920s, a national uprising of the Ku Klux Klan had gained a local following, and this community was no longer welcome in town. Air was let out of parked car tires, and ropes segregated the sand. Harassment and arrests escalated. In 1924, city leaders evicted the Bruces from their home under an ordinance that said the land needed to be used as a public park. “It was a period, I think, that the whole country was going through,” says Jan. “It wasn’t just Manhattan Beach.” Bruce’s Lodge was torn down, and the land remained vacant for 30 years. In 2006, the city council rededicated the park as Bruce’s Beach, after it had been given a series of names. Its most recent title, Parque Culiacan, referred to Manhattan Beach’s first sister city.

Now its history is written on a plaque facing Highland Avenue, and the property is home to scattered trees, viewpoint benches and a sun-stained basketball court. Sitting in her cool living room just a few minutes drive from Bruce’s Beach, Jan fans her books open until she is surrounded by the pages of her career. She speaks of long-departed residents with the same familiarity as she does old friends, and she is careful to draw the distinction between the past and the present. “Theoretically, they say that people can’t learn from history, but I believe they do,” she says. The majority of the 35,000 residents of the city are white—the 2010 census reports 84% to the black population’s 0.8%. Dennis says that the community is continuing to change and that people of every background are welcome in the city. Bob Wyler, a fellow half-century resident of Manhattan, agrees. He has lived with his partner, Susie Moon, in a home down the street from Bruce’s Beach for about 20 years. They have jogged and walked by the park, and Moon has met there for casual celebrations with friends. “It’s a reminder of bad days passed, but mostly, people just see it as a park,” says Wyler.

That’s how Rayshawn Taylor and Jason Griffin think of Bruce’s Beach on this uncharacteristically warm day in December. It’s common for these friends to drive from Los Angeles just to spend some time at the park. This day, they sit on a bench close to the top of the hill, seeing all of Bruce’s Beach and the ocean before them. “This is how I dream of living. I like to be where my dreams are,” says Taylor, staring out at the view. “When I come down here to run, I get to see my house on the beach, I get to look down and see Malibu, where I’ll have another house. I like to be around this.” As the sun continues to set and the shadows of the branches on the trees stretch over the grass, Taylor leaves the bench to read the plaque for the first time. When he returns, he says that it doesn’t change the way he feels about Bruce’s Beach. “People hate and don’t truly embrace certain things, because they haven’t embraced themselves,” says Taylor. “I’m upset about racism, but not because I’m black. I’m upset about racism because people aren’t loving each other.” Griffin nods and says that even though he’ll never understand the reasons behind the way the Bruces were treated, he thinks that society has grown to be more accepting. “We’re all on the same page. We’re all in the same boat. Even though we may not see it, we’re all one race; we’re all one people,” says Griffin. “We can’t think about the past in regard to what happened. You have to have forgiveness.” He smiles, puts his hands in his pockets, and shakes his head. “I just love the atmosphere,” he says. “I’m just amazed that you never know the story of where you’re at.”