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'Racist Trees' Film Explores History of Housing Exclusion in Palm Springs

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An aerial view of trees and a residential neighborhood.
A stunning view of the San Jacinto Mountains in Palm Springs, California that was obscured by a wall of Tamarisk trees affecting residents in the Crossley Tract neighborhood. (Sara Newens)

Palm Springs has a deep history as a celebrity getaway, a retirement spot, and a place that’s pretty LGBTQ-friendly. With stunning mountain views and numerous golf courses, it’s also a place where owning your home is pretty lucrative — unless your view of the neighboring golf course and those distant mountains is blocked by a wall of trees. Then, you might feel like the residents of a historically Black neighborhood called Crossley Tract. They’ve been fighting with the city for decades to remove these so-called “racist trees.”

The controversy around the trees has made international headlines. Now, there’s a full-length documentary called “Racist Trees,” which explores the hidden history of excluding Black people from housing in Palm Springs. The documentary also reveals how the conflict over the Crossley Tract trees is resolved; however, this article and audio story are both spoiler-free.

The California Report Magazine’s host, Sasha Khokha, sat down with filmmakers Sara Newens and Mina T. Son to talk about Racist Trees, which is available on PBS’s Independent Lens.

Below are excerpts of the conversation. For the full interview on The California Report Magazine, listen to the audio at the top of this story.

On why they made this film

SARA NEWENS: We were on the lookout for stories that were somewhat local. We have both spent a lot of time in Palm Springs as a respite to get away, to enjoy the sun. We were there, and we saw the cover of the Desert Sun: it was a picture of this wall of trees and a headline that basically said many residents believe they were planted with racist intent.


My first thought was, “There’s a Black community in Palm Springs that I don’t know about? Where is this neighborhood?!” We figured if it was a blind spot for us that this neighborhood even existed, then it might be for a lot of other people.

A folded newspaper from The Desert Sun that says "Divided by Trees" on a doormat.
One of several articles featured on the cover of The Desert Sun that sparked international media attention and backlash against the so-called ‘racist trees’ that were planted in Palm Springs in the late 1950s. (Jerry Henry)

On the history of Crossley Tract

MINA T. SON: Crossley Tract is named after Lawrence Crossley, who founded the neighborhood. Crossley bought this tract of land for Black families to be able to live in the city. It wasn’t incorporated as part of Palm Springs at the time, so it was just on the outskirts, which is why he was able to buy the land and allow families to live there.

SARA NEWENS: But many of the Black families had to live in Crossley Tract because they were pushed out of an area that is now downtown Palm Springs, called Section 14. Section 14 is originally tribal land and part of the reservation of the Agua Caliente Band of Indians, who welcomed Black families onto their land. Actually, all communities of color were welcome to live there because they weren’t allowed to live in Palm Springs proper. At some point, city leaders realized that the commercial value of this land was very valuable, and they forcibly removed these families.

On the trees themselves

MINA T. SON: Imagine a wall 60 feet tall and five to maybe 10 feet deep. It was such a striking visual metaphor about exclusion and segregation. Not only is this community sort of excluded from the rest of the city of Palm Springs, but these trees — because they’re so big, and they’re so tall — they’re actually blocking that million-dollar view of the mountains that so many people in Palm Springs come for. Real estate has skyrocketed, but [Crossley Tract] has not seen that appreciation. Many speculate it’s because of these trees and the lack of that view.

When [Crossley Tract residents] started complaining and trying to raise their voices to the city about having the trees removed, and having that be unanswered for decades, I think it compounded the idea of being unseen and unheard.

A Black man sits in a chair outside with trees in the background.
Crossley Tract resident Charles Metcalf, Jr. finds himself surrounded by detritus from the imposing Tamarisk trees bordering his property. (Jerry Henry)

On the tension between white gay leadership and Black residents

SARA NEWENS: From the beginning, Mina and I really wanted to investigate this “turning a blind eye” to racism in a liberal town. I think it’s more common that people can talk about overt racial issues in other areas of the country. It was just very mystifying to us why [in Palm Springs] there wasn’t more acknowledgment of this being a potential issue, especially given the history with Section 14. So we really wanted to showcase the lengths to which it can be uncomfortable for white people to acknowledge [racism], especially if they have their own identity of their progressive politics.

In some ways — and we’ve heard this from many people of color who have watched the film — it’s more insidious that this is happening in liberal communities. There is no acknowledgment, despite a community literally sitting there saying, “This feels like an act of racism! Our property values are being depressed, and we deserve what everyone else in this city deserves.”

“There’s no tamarisk trees anywhere else along this golf course. Anywhere. Now, I’m not blaming the current city officials for planting these trees here, but I’m kind of borderline blaming them for being the reason why they’re still here.” — Charles Metcalf, Jr.

SARA NEWENS: I think what Charles says [in our documentary] sums up nicely the fact that it doesn’t matter if there was racist intent when the trees were planted. It’s the fact that they remained there, and there were many efforts by the Black community to try to get the city’s attention. Unfortunately, it took this white guy named Trae Daniel to come in and really start using a megaphone to get the city’s attention.

A white man wearing a blue dress shirt sits in a chair outside in a backyard in front of a pool.
Trae Daniel, a newer resident of Crossley Tract, took up the mantle to advocate for the removal of the Tamarisk trees after the city of Palm Springs ignored Black residents for decades. (Jerry Henry)

MINA T. SON: One of the things that Sara and I found particularly interesting about the story was Trae’s role. Why was he so invested in these trees? Particularly because he’s not Black and didn’t have that investment in the neighborhood. People can speculate, but I think he sticks with saying that he believed something was wrong, and he thought if he could be a part of correcting that wrong, he wanted to be able to use his voice. And I think the residents [of Crossley Tract] understood that. They welcomed it, and they acknowledged the power that he had.

On takeaways for viewers

MINA T. SON: This story seems local, because obviously it’s in Palm Springs and it’s talking about this one row of trees. But it’s representative of so many other issues in the country. In this city, it happens to be trees. In Santa Monica, it’s highways. In other areas, it’s railroads. There’s so many other barriers and so many other stories like this across the country.

If we want real progress in this country, I think people need to have very open and probably uncomfortable conversations around race. And that includes what happened in the past. I think it’s hard for people when they think, well, I didn’t do that, so why do I have to talk about it? Or why do I have to feel bad about it? Or why do I have to do something about it? It’s not personal in that sense, but it’s very systemic. It’s people outside of the Black community and people outside of these marginalized communities that have to do the work and find ways to make amends in order to truly move forward.

That was really our hope. We hope that people outside of these communities, including ourselves, look at our blind spots and then see how we can make amends and progress.

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