In 1962, my parents adopted an infant girl. They named her Rebecca. When Rebecca was seven weeks old, our family pediatrician told my parents he suspected Rebecca was bi-racial. Their adoption attorney investigated and discovered what the biological mom had failed to report: Rebecca’s biological father was black. My mother and father reacted differently to the news. My father wanted Rebecca be placed up for re-adoption. My mother insisted on keeping Rebecca, with whom she’d bonded.
My father’s argument had little to do with prejudice. Both my parents were liberal civil rights activists. His stance was based on practical experience. In 1959, Deerfield, Illinois, had condemned a housing development in the process of being built when it was discovered the developers intended to sell the homes to anyone who could qualify, including blacks. Town leaders didn’t openly admit to opposing integrated housing. Rather, they objected on the basis that Deerfield suddenly needed more parks. A debate ensued with a majority of Deerfield residents opposing integrated housing. They feared declining property values, overcrowding in the schools, traffic density, and that integration would alter the “character” of their community. With the luxury of hindsight it’s easy to see how these concerns were thinly veiled racism.
Bankrolled by Eleanor Roosevelt, the housing developer sued the town and the developer’s case slowly made its way through the courts only to be rejected by the Illinois Supreme Court.
Those were turbulent years in a fractured Deerfield. There were protests and marches, many of which my mother attended (as did Bernie Sanders, who headed University of Chicago’s CORE chapter at the time). A cross was burned on the front lawn of a resident who supported integration. The story was covered by national media, including the New York Times, Time and the CBS Evening News, who referred to Deerfield as “the Little Rock of the North” – in reference to Little Rock, Arkansas’ stubborn resistance to school desegregation laws.
Another incident surely factored into my dad’s unwillingness to keep Rebecca. In 1961, Paul Berggren, the pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, publicly announced his intention to adopt a black son. The announcement triggered anonymous death threats against the family, and Berggren’s two daughters were ostracized by classmates at school. At the insistence of his wife, Berggren dropped his adoption plan.
Fast-forward over a half-century. Deerfield’s population is still almost entirely white, despite most neighboring communities more accurately reflecting the diversity of the region as a whole. Over the years Deerfield has skirted state fair housing laws, declining to supply affordable housing within its borders.
Nevertheless, in 2015, a 48-unit affordable housing project was proposed by a partnership that included the very same Zion Lutheran Church where Paul Berggren was once pastor. The project, which would have satisfied fair housing laws, reached an impasse when Deerfield residents again raised objections due to concerns over property values, traffic, school crowding, and community character. Deerfield is divided along the same lines today as it was in 1959, and along the same lines Encinitas is divided on the issue of affordable housing.
Locally, opponents of affordable housing offer many of the same arguments as are made in Deerfield. Residents here are concerned about their property values, the impact affordable housing would have on our schools, traffic, and the character of the community. Meanwhile, local supporters of affordable housing welcome it as a reflection of their personal values. They believe there is no reason why the people who serve them in their restaurants, or make their lattes or do their nails – not to mention their own children and parents – shouldn’t live in the same community. They believe diversity is desirable and affordable housing is a critical means by which to achieve a diverse community.
Affordable housing is a touchy subject to which I don’t know all the answers or, admittedly, many of the details. But what I do know from personal experience is that history will judge Encinitas unkindly if in 50 years our community remains a predominantly white enclave for a privileged few who generation after generation staved off affordable housing in order to preserve an outdated notion of “character.”
My father’s argument, that he did not want his young family to go through what supporters of integrated housing and the Berggren family had endured? It prevailed. My mother’s heart? It was broken. Rebecca’s fate? She was placed with a black family in segregated South Chicago, and as an adult, became addicted to crack cocaine and lived homeless for many years. My fate? I was adopted a few months after my parents relinquished Rebecca, was raised in segregated Deerfield playing in the parks that replaced the 1959 integrated housing development.