By Jon Wolff
The following is from conversations with Venice Activist Laddie Williams, Venice Elder Jataun Valentine, and Dr. Naomi Nightingale about the recent staff report from the Office of Historical Resources regarding the application for historical designation for the First Baptist Church of Venice.
Jon Wolff: What can you tell us about the outcome of the OHR [Office of Historical Resources] report?
Laddie Williams: Well, I will say that that report looks like it was written by the Penskes’ lawyer, Elisa Paster, because of the fact that the other three African-American churches that are left here in Venice were mentioned. And we turned in a plethora of information showing historical status; the Penskes turned in one page from their historian and none of it was true.
JW: They were saying that there wasn’t any historical value of the First Baptist Church of Venice?
LW: Exactly. And whenever you say that about anyone’s history, you’re “whitewashing”. The fact that W.E.B. Du Bois spoke there… that man alone should have brought historical relevance. Mr. [Irving] Tabor and Mr. [Arthur] Reese went there. The other two properties are historical; what’s the reason for not making this historical? This is 108 years of history from both sides of the street. African-Americans had come here from the South, made a way to buy property, and were able to buy the property and keep the property until the charlatan, Horace Allen came in. There’s something wrong with the whole report that they did.
JW: The OHR has granted historical designation to other buildings in Venice with far less historical value.
LW: Far less historical value than the church. And they know it. This is why they didn’t send us the report until Thursday at 5:00. Their intention was to discourage us to the point where we would say that we’re done. But they’ve just revved us up. The indiscretion was there. We were supposed to have ten days to respond and we were given six.
JW: They’re purposely trying to slow us down in our efforts.
LW: It is purposeful. If you read that report, it’s written in a very negative manner from the beginning of the start of this process. OHR gave us paperwork that was outdated. We had to start all over again. If they changed the rules in April, why didn’t they let us know? Why did they give us an old application? Something was wrong from the beginning.
JW: It would seem that the game was rigged.
LW: Exactly. And I believe that the Penskes have rubbed their money in everybody’s faces, including our City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti. But the struggle continues.
JW: Yeah. We’re still meeting there every Sunday. Nothing has changed.
LW: Nothing is going to change. If they think they’re going to hinder us… no. Our ancestors worked hard. Then a charlatan, who they possibly brought in to do this type of dirty work… He stole $13 million of equity out of that property there. The City Attorney should have been on top of it. It was shown to them that it was done in a negative way. They gave predatory loans to a man, Horace Allen, who they knew couldn’t pay it back. It was a set up from the beginning. No bank loaned it to him. These were personal loans that came from out of nowhere. Why would anybody give him a loan if they knew he couldn’t pay it back? He didn’t have the people at his church who could pay it. The people he got to lie were unhoused people. This was thought up from the beginning to get the property. And all of this has been brought to the city’s attention and to Mike Bonin’s attention. They want to sit there and act like they don’t know what’s going on but they know exactly what’s going on.
JW: There’s a concentrated effort to erase the Black History of Venice.
LW: The erasure is there. I’ve seen no other city where they allow someone to come in and just take over the churches. No matter what the situation is, somebody somewhere with a heart has gotten up and assisted people with their churches. This is a place people go to worship. This church was flat out paid for. There was no reason for loans to be taken out on this church. Absolutely none. We’re going to find out who the escrow company is, because that’s in question. Whatever went through, it didn’t go through legally.
JW: Then we’re going to keep on fighting every Sunday afternoon in front of the church.
LW: The fight continues and we will not give up. We’ve been very good at what we’re doing as lay people. We’ve had to work harder than the city, who’s paid by our tax dollars, to do a job they should be doing. This is ridiculous and they know it. But when they want a Community, and they want what they want, and they want their oasis by the sea, this is what they allow to happen. This is how they don’t let people worship every Sunday. And the Penskes… They’re in it knee deep. Their holding company is in it and we will bring that proof too. He was involved way before the church was even sold. And that proof is coming.
Jon Wolff: I wanted to get your thoughts on the staff report for the OHR.
Jataun Valentine: The First Baptist Church of Venice is one of the oldest Black churches and should be historical. I think the report is wrong and I’m hoping that they will rethink it. The First Baptist Church was the main root of the Black Community and that should be taken into consideration.
JW: It has 108 years of solid Community History.
JV: If any church is historical it’s the First Baptist Church, because there are still families here who know the history of it. And I think that should count.
JW: We’re still going to meet in front of the church every Sunday.
JV: It’s very important. We’re not just going to crawl away. We will continue. Every Sunday we’ll be out there. One, two, or a hundred; it doesn’t matter. As long as someone is out there.
Jon Wolff: What do you think about the recent staff report by the OHR?
Dr. Naomi Nightingale: I think it’s another tactic on their part to not only discourage us from continuing with this process but to actually give an upper hand to the Penskes for the approval of their project.
JW: The language sounded exactly like the Penskes’ lobbyists.
NN: It sounded like it was a report written for their benefit and on their behalf. It’s ludicrous for OHR or [Ken] Bernstein [Principal City Planner] to tell us that we should call the Penskes’ lawyer to ask for an extension when the burden of mitigating or resolving this issue is really on them [OHR] and not us. It’s their mistake, and their oversight, and their failure to comply with their own policies and procedures.
JW: They’re trying to make the rules so that we can’t win.
NN: Absolutely. And that’s been the situation every step of the way. This position that we’re out of time unless we can come Thursday without being given the same opportunity and timeliness for preparation that obviously was given to the Penskes… They turned in a report dated November 6. Now how did that happen and we not know that it was a timeline that had been determined for getting in information prior to the staff report? Nobody told us. Even with Bernstein saying that we could have called and asked for an inquiry. Well, we did. And that’s the only time we got the response about the staff report, which was too late.
JW: The city offices want the Penskes to have this church in spite of the history that’s gone on in this church.
NN: From the very beginning, that has been their position. And we have been the fly in the ointment for them. It seems like they’re tired of this pestering group of savevenice.me putting all of the obstacles in the way of them being able to get their project done. So they’ll just see if they can take this big leap and say that we don’t qualify unless we can come and make a presentation on Thursday. And there’s this other rule of the commission having to make a decision within 60 days. We’re at the brink of that time frame. They can’t, by the rules, give us an extension on that basis. So they have all these barriers up in front of us. They’re the ones who can make an exception to the rule because the fault is theirs. But saying that they asked the Penskes and they said “No” to an extension, but that we can ask them… as if it’s a favor to us. We’re not asking for a favor; we’re asking for fairness. And due process and rule of law. And that’s not what’s happening here. Just the opposite. The only benefit that’s being extended is to the Penskes and not to the Community.
JW: This church has been at the center of the Community for over a hundred years. How is it that the Office of Historical Resources can casually ignore all that?
NN: It’s more than casual. It’s blatant. It’s offensive. It’s criminal. When you have 33,600 signatures from Community individuals, from members of the congregation of First Baptist Church of Venice, from supporters, from residents, from others who have benefited from the significance of this church, that alone should have been sufficient for them to give consideration and acceptance to this church as a historical and cultural monument in this Community. How can they tell us that it’s insignificant. How can a church of this standing, of this number of years of service to the Community with the
History and the generations of the congregation of people from this Community that have continually supported this church from the 1900s until now, be dismissed as insignificant?
JW: Our efforts are going to continue, and their efforts to slow us down are pointless.
NN: The statement that I made in my email to Mr. Bernstein, that him telling us that we have to find a remedy, when the remedy is not one that really supports our position, is tantamount to giving us a poison pill to ingest ourselves… to giving us enough rope to put the noose around our own necks and choke out the History of the Black Community in Venice. And that’s not going to happen.
Go to www.savevenice.me to learn about the First Baptist Church of Venice and to sign the petition to save it.