On a rainy weekend in February, several dozen people traveled from all over the world to a park with no signage and no street address. Hidden by massive wild oak trees and lined with chain-link fencing, the park is tucked next to a muddy riverbed and a row of two-story homes with three-car garages. Reaching it requires a drive down a hilly 2-mile stretch of dirt road from California State Route 126: acres of strawberry fields in one direction toward Ventura and mazes of strip malls and tract homes in another, toward Santa Clarita.
The occasion was the first-ever Playwork Campference, a camping-based conference on an emerging field of study called playwork, which involves self-directed play for kids and occasionally adults. Val Verde, an unincorporated enclave of Los Angeles County so remote that there’s very little cell service, few paved roads, and just one convenience store, is not the kind of place that typically hosts conferences. It is seldom a destination for international travel, and it is rarely the site of academic inquiry. The last time it made national headlines, in May, was when the LA County Sheriff’s Department rescued some 7,000 roosters from a private property during what they called the largest cockfighting seizure in U.S. history. But there’s another story about Val Verde that some residents say has been ignored by the county for too long.
Founded by Spanish settlers as a mining town in the 1800s, the area has served as a haven for marginalized communities seeking a space of their own. In the 1920s, as a resort town for African Americans barred from housing and recreation elsewhere, it became known as the Black Palm Springs. But as opportunities improved over the years, the population diversified, with few incentives to preserve its history. Today, Val Verde does not have any designations, plaques, or exhibits indicating its historical significance. The white organizers of the Campference, Erica and Jeremiah Dockray, are looking to change that in one small way: They’ve named their new park Eureka Villa, after the short-lived African-American resort community that thrived there nearly a century earlier.
“The Eureka part fits in with the whole sort of energy that we want,” says Erica Larsen Dockray. “Those eureka moments where kids are sort of like, ‘Oh, I can do this,’ or, ‘Oh, I wonder how I can do this.’”
The Dockrays say the name has a double meaning: It’s a tribute to the former African-American resort town, but it requires an existing awareness of Eureka Villa in order to comprehend it. “We didn’t feel like everybody had to get it, but those that do, great. It was just a perfect name,” says Jeremiah Dockray. “We were like, ‘You don’t have to know the history. And if you know the history, hey, you made a little discovery.’”
The choice of name is problematic, says Neal Lester, the director of Arizona State University’s Project Humanities and an expert in African-American literature and cultural appropriation, because it is detached from its context. “There’s no historical context that acknowledges this history, which was actually a very unpleasant history, in that this place served as a refuge in this historical moment,” Lester says. “The fact that this was the 1920s, and the 1920s were horrible with lynching, with towns being burned down, with Jim Crow segregation, and you’re going to just choose the name as if it’s disconnected from that? Out of all the names you can come up with, why that one?”
But residents today appear to be more concerned with Val Verde’s future than its past. In April, the LA County Board of Supervisors approved the expansion of a massive landfill, despite fierce opposition from residents like the Dockrays, who say the neighborhood is under threat once again. “The theme of Val Verde has been oppressed individuals trying to find refuge,” says Erica Larsen Dockray. “Exploitation is such a theme here.”
Shelby Jacobs was 10 years old when his family moved to Val Verde from Santa Monica in 1945. His father, who he describes as “a Holy Roller pastor,” had taken a job at a church and was eager to relocate to the countryside, where his kids would have more freedom and space to play. Their previous accommodations in Santa Monica weren’t exactly spacious: The family lived in a converted garage that belonged to a Japanese family sent to an internment camp during World War II, according to Jacobs. “They moved a lot of the Japanese out so we were allowed to rent a place,” he says. “There were probably no homes available for blacks in Santa Monica except for that.”
If housing was cramped and competitive for African Americans in Los Angeles, it was anything but in Val Verde. Jacobs remembers spending afternoons hiking and biking through green hills, playing checkers in the park, and learning to swim in the Olympic-sized pool, which had been commissioned by LA County and built by federal WPA workers in 1939. The grand opening ceremony, attended by more than 3,500 people, according to a report at the time by the black-owned California Eagle newspaper, was a lavish affair hosted by Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel. “We were the envy of the county,” says Jacobs. “We had the only Olympic-size pool other than the Coliseum.”
Jacobs’ childhood friend Skip Simmons remembers spending summers in Val Verde from the time he was 6 years old up until he was a teenager in the 1950s. His parents paid another couple who lived there to house him and feed him during those summer months, and he’d pass the days swimming in the pool and the nights square dancing in the barn. On holidays and special occasions, he’d head to the clubhouse to watch parades, beauty pageants, and weightlifting competitions. “It was one of those things you will never forget; it’s invaluable. There was a lot going on there, especially on the weekends,” he says. “People would come up from Los Angeles, and during those days there were a lot of places that black people just couldn’t go.”
In its early days in the 1920s, Val Verde was hailed as a kind of paradise by the wealthy African Americans who helped found it, many of them having grown disillusioned with the so-called “California dream” from which they had been seemingly excluded. Founding members of the community included real estate agent Sidney P. Dones, California Eagle publisher Charlotta Boss, insurance entrepreneur Norman O. Houston, and community activist Hattie S. Baldwin, according to an article in the LA Times. They called the place Eureka Villa—signifying their blissful discovery of the land—and an editorial in the California Eagle promoted it as a place for “outdoor sports and social life in the most beautiful surroundings without discrimination,” according to the Times.
But up until an interview with Santa Clarita historian Leon Worden about a decade ago, Jacobs had never heard of Eureka Villa. The name was changed back to Val Verde when the county donated its park and its swimming pool several years before Jacobs’s family arrived there. To him, it may as well have never existed at all. “If you talked to all of the blacks when I lived there or later, Eureka would not mean anything to them. They’ve never heard of it, and much of our history, going back historically, is the same way,” he says. “Our contributions have generally been marginalized and omitted and overlooked, for the purpose of what you want to call white supremacy or whatever, white privilege, all of that.”
Jacobs, who is now retired and living in San Diego, left Val Verde after getting accepted into UCLA’s mechanical engineering program in 1953. He later worked at NASA—he was one of its very few black engineers—and spent most of his career at the Apollo program, where in the 1960s he worked on installing cameras in the Apollo 6 spacecraft. Many of his peers also fled Val Verde following a 1948 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited governments from enforcing property deeds based on race. As a result, African Americans moved into more metropolitan areas of Los Angeles and white residents fled to the suburbs. View Park, another unincorporated enclave of Los Angeles County, courted so many wealthy black homeowners that it earned the nickname “the black Beverly Hills.” Last year, it was included on the National Register of Historic Places, the result of a nomination from a group of homeowners. Val Verde, however, has earned no such distinction.
To Jacobs, the reason why is fairly obvious: Many of those who moved away from Val Verde were so busy trying to get ahead that they didn’t have time to go back and revisit their childhood neighborhood—nor were they particularly motivated to lobby for the preservation of a place that in many ways served as a dark reminder of a time before desegregation. “Those of us who went through it, we were so happy to get out of it, we didn’t document the history,” Jacobs says. “I think most of us were so busy trying to make our lives and improve our lives that going back and improving the visibility or understanding from whence we came was kind of like a moot point.”
Farm work brought Jaime “Jimmy” Briano’s family to Val Verde in 1959. His father, whose family was from Mexico, took a job picking radishes, onions, and parsley in the fields for Boskovich Farms, back when much of the Santa Clarita Valley was rural farmland. “Opportunity came up in Val Verde, and I imagine a lot of the logic or rationale around moving to Val Verde 40 years ago is the same reason that applies now,” says Briano: It was cheaper in Val Verde than many other places nearby. Briano, who still lives in the area and works at the Val Verde Community Regional Park, watched as its population changed in waves, with more white residents moving in after CalArts—then known as Chouinard Art Institute—was built in 1961. The amusement park Magic Mountain (now owned and operated by Six Flags) opened a decade later. The population in Val Verde today is one of the more diverse in the county, with whites a minority compared to Latinos, according to the most recent census data.
As the city that would eventually become Santa Clarita began to expand nearby, Val Verde was still viewed as something of a dump—literally. The Chiquita Canyon Landfill was built on 154 acres there in 1972 and has been a source of contention ever since. In February 1997, the LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to approve the landfill’s proposal to more than double its size, to 337 acres. The decision came after years of opposition from local activist and environmental groups, who cited foul odors, garbage truck noise and traffic, and the potential environmental and health risks of living within several hundred feet of L.A. County’s second-largest landfill. A 1995 op-ed in the LA Times, published while the proposal was still being floated, accused the City of Santa Clarita and LA County of valuing business deals over the well-being of the predominantly Latino community. “It’s time to ask whether their collective shoulder shrug about Chiquita Canyon simply reinforces the sense that poor, working-class, minority communities are on their own when it comes to dump sites,” the Times wrote.
But there was a catch: Under its agreement with the Val Verde Civic Association, the then owners and operators of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill agreed to contribute at least $250,000 annually toward community development in exchange for continuing its operations over the next two decades, making the dump’s relationship to the community more than a little complicated. As if that weren’t bittersweet enough, the agreement specified that as the trash increased each year, so too would the payment rate. (The local nonprofit media outlet SCVHistory.com referred to it as the cash-for-trash agreement.) The money could be used for everything from community education (bilingual tutoring, computer training, and literacy skills) and health and welfare services (teen pregnancy programs, youth sports, care programs for uninsured people) to building maintenance and neighborhood administration (building and maintaining community centers, libraries, parks, and landscaping).
Shortly after the agreement was drafted, it was amended with a caveat: Only residents who were registered to vote as U.S. citizens would be allowed to join the committee responsible for deciding how that money was spent, the Times reported in May of 1997. Several Latino advocacy groups who said the amendment was made without their knowledge accused the Val Verde Civic Association of intentionally silencing and excluding Latino immigrants from their own community. Less than a year later, an LA County judge ordered the Board of Supervisors to reconsider its approval of the landfill expansion, saying they failed to account for the environmental impact of sedimentation basins, according to the Times. But the court order proved to be only a minor setback for the landfill, which is still in operation.
In April of this year, roughly 20 years after it first gained permission to increase its capacity, the Chiquita Canyon Landfill was approved for expansion once again. The LA County Department of Regional Planning gave the landfill a 30-year extension, even though it had already exceeded the 23 million-ton maximum capacity mandated in 1997. Under the new agreement, the landfill is allowed to operate for three more decades, or until it reaches 60 million tons. It is also permitted to laterally expand its “existing waste footprint from 267 acres to 400 acres,” in addition to boosting its maximum elevation from 1,430 feet to 1,573 feet and doubling its disposal limits from 6,000 tons of waste per day to 12,000 tons per day.
The LA County Department of Regional Planning acknowledged that the most serious concerns about the project were its potential health impacts, including possible increased risks of cancer and respiratory diseases. But ultimately it found that the landfill didn’t produce significant impacts to public health, nor did it adversely affect the welfare of its residents. The department also found that the landfill contributes significantly to helping LA county meet its waste-disposal needs: According to a 2015 county report, 55 percent of the total waste at Chiquita Canyon Landfill comes from the city of Los Angeles; 19 percent comes from other cities in LA county, and 13 percent comes from the city of Santa Clarita. The LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the permit during a public hearing attended by anti-landfill activists in June.
“There’s not a lot of attention brought to Val Verde, and I think a lot of it has to do with how its relationship with the landfill is,” says Erica Larsen Dockray, alluding to the fact that the company that operates the landfill also contributes a significant amount of money to the community every year. Santa Clarita Valley International Charter School has recognized Chiquita Canyon Landfill as a donor for the last six years, and over that same period of time, the landfill offered CalArts students annual scholarships based on a judged gallery show in which all of the art must be constructed from trash from the landfill.
Briano says the dump’s expansion has ignited fierce tensions among his neighbors. Many of them feel ignored by the county and swindled by the owners of the landfill, who agreed two decades ago to shut down the landfill when it reached its current volume. “They were scheduled to close and they reached capacity,” he says. “You could say there’s some pissed-off people up here.”
To the Dockrays, the expansion of the landfill is yet another example of the community being taken advantage of generation after generation, from LA County capitalizing on the former Eureka Villa as a form of segregation to the county now dumping its waste on top of it. They say it’s no coincidence that the landfill was built in a rural community where residents didn’t always have the agency to fend for themselves. “It’s one of those places where housing was cheap to buy there, it was cheap to rent there, so you had that mixed population of artists and low-income communities, a lot of marginalized communities,” says Erica Larsen Dockray. “It’s the perfect community to set up a huge landfill next to because they either don’t have the means to argue much or they want to fly under the radar.”
Val Verde is not an outlier. Studies show that municipal landfills and hazardous-waste sites are disproportionately situated in low-income and minority neighborhoods across the country. A landmark 1987 study published by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice found that race was the most significant factor in determining the location of commercial hazardous-waste facilities nationwide. Communities with a commercial hazardous-waste facility, for example, had twice the average minority percentage of the population compared to communities without a hazardous-waste facility, researchers found. Three out of every five black and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic-waste sites, and Los Angeles had more Hispanics living near an uncontrolled toxic-waste site than in any other city in the United States.
Two decades later, a follow-up study conducted by the same organization found not only that racial disparities in relation to hazardous-waste sites hadn’t improved, but that they were greater than previously reported. People of color, the report found, comprised more than half of all Americans who lived within roughly 2 miles of a hazardous-waste facility.
A more recent pair of studies, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters in 2015, offered one possible explanation as to why hazardous-waste sites are more likely to be located in low-income, minority neighborhoods. “NIMBYism in more affluent, white communities… resulted in industry taking the ‘path of least resistance’ and targeting communities with fewer resources and political clout,” the University of Michigan researchers wrote. “These communities are where the poor and people of color live.”
The Dockrays began visiting Val Verde when they moved to Santa Clarita in 2010 so Erica Larsen Dockray could attend grad school at California Institute of the Arts, where she later got hired to teach in the animation department. While they were still dating, she and her now-husband Jeremiah attended parties at the Val Verde home where they live today. When their friends moved out in 2013, they moved in, charmed by the area’s affordability and abundance of rolling hills and open farmland. “Before we lived there, Val Verde was really just where my classmates from CalArts lived, and you know, where some people would have like theater shows where they would redo a house and have a whole theater performance in the house,” says Erica. “It was this place where you could have this free-range artistic experience.”
Artists have sought shelter and inspiration in the quiet hills of Val Verde ever since CalArts opened nearby in 1961. The independent filmmaker James Benning moved there in 1988 after getting a teaching job at CalArts, and the landscape of Val Verde has since factored into many of his films. There’s the 1991 road trip movie North on Evers, which documents a motorcycle ride from Val Verde to New York and back, for example, and the meditative 2004 film Ten Skies, which captures a series of cloud formations above Val Verde. With no official city government, no homeowners’ association, and only loose oversight from LA County, Val Verde tends to attract young creatives and families like the Dockrays, who value privacy and autonomy over having to keep up with the Joneses. “We just thought, ‘This is a place where our kid can grow up and not be jammed into the city too much, have a little bit more breathing room,’” says Jeremiah Dockray. “The suburban side of Santa Clarita has its charms, but it’s not quite for me on a day-to-day basis.”
A year after they moved to the neighborhood, Jeremiah Dockray discovered the concept of adventure playgrounds in a book about leftist politics. The simple yet radical concept—play areas consisting not of swings or slides but of everyday household junk—was pioneered by a workers’ collective in 1940s Denmark. They saw it as a form of resistance to the Nazi occupation: a makeshift space for children to play and create using found materials in spite of the daily atrocities of wartime. The idea behind it, developed a decade earlier by the Danish architect Carl Theodor Sørenson, had less to do with politics and more to do with human nature: He observed that children often gravitated toward playing in construction sites and bomb testing zones, areas that were rugged and unsupervised.
Adventure playgrounds have experienced a revival in the United States over the last decade—some parents see them as an old-fashioned antidote to social media, television, and video games—and have also recently become a field for academic study in the U.K. When the Dockrays decided to purchase a two-acre plot of land down the street from their home, they saw it as the perfect place to start an adventure playground of their own. “I had driven by the property a few times because we had recently moved here and I said, ‘You know, I’m just going to check out this abandoned spot,’” says Jeremiah. “It was a little more overgrown at the time so you couldn’t really see how big or awesome it was until you stepped inside of it.”
That he and Erica had the money to purchase it at the time, he says, was serendipitous. They named the park Eureka Villa and formed a small business, Santa Clarita Adventure Play, where they plan to host “playwork” parties and events for children year-round.
The title on the land they purchased, which is zoned for agriculture, dates back to the 1920s, according to the Dockrays, but much of its use over the last century remains obscured or entirely absent from public records. And because there are no buildings or structures on the property, the county has refused to give it a street address, making research more difficult, the Dockrays say. In the absence of documentation, neighbors passed down stories about the property: Some say it housed a bull named Baloney who starred in TV commercials in the 1970s. Others say participants in a program for juvenile delinquents built the brick fireplaces on the site in the 1950s. The lack of information about the property is not uncommon in Val Verde, where the not-always-pleasant history seems to fade a little more with each passing generation.
In spite of the landfill and the mountain of problems that have manifested within the community as a result, Val Verde continues to court a younger, more upwardly mobile crowd, much to the amusement of longtime residents like Briano. “Who would’ve thought that Val Verde would be the goldmine? Now everybody wants to come to Val Verde,” he says. “It’s affordable, it’s a beautiful place, it’s rural. You can still hear the coyotes at night.”