CAPITOLA — As Capitola’s Public Works department and contractors work to reimagine the park outside Rispin Mansion, the history behind the legacy of its creator — Henry Rispin — is overwhelming project dialogue.
During workshops around the project design in November and December, a resident spoke up and brought the attention to photos of the Wharf Road grounds and land deeds across the area. These deeds, including ones to land sold during the Rispin era of the late 1910s to the early 1930s, included language that openly discriminated against all other races but the white race.
“This property shall never be occupied by any person or persons other than of the Caucasian race,” deed language still reads from a 1929 deed to a Clares Road property. Today, it’s unenforceable.
In a historic context statement prepared for the city in 2004, previous Capitola Museum director and City Historian Carolyn Swift indicated that another major historical figure — F.A. Hihn — restricted residency in his subdivisions created in the early 1880s.
“These restraints were common in resort communities and remained in effect in Capitola through the era of H. Allen Rispin and his Bay Head Land Company of the 1920s,” Swift wrote.
Creating the narrative
For Esabella Bonner, the intensifying conversation should not focus on whether or not Rispin created or allowed the language to stay in the titles but on whether the community should be honoring a history that was far from equitable.
“It’s power celebrating power is how I see it,” the long-time county resident said of the City’s Council voting to pass the conceptual design Feb. 11 and instruct staff to return with more history on Rispin. “That access and privilege, that proximity and even white supremacy is the reason why you can see this as a person worth glorifying in the first place. It’s gross and disappointing to hear too that people in power are spearheading it.”
The design — an ode to the 1920s and the music and culture that went along with it, along with the history of the land, according to slides from architect Mike Arnone — feels like insult to injury for Bonner, who has led efforts to lift Black voices publicly for the last year, especially through her founding of Black Surf Club Santa Cruz.
“I was looking at the (ideas), the caricatures of Black musicians, but Capitola has 0.6% Black residents,” Bonner said. “It probably has something to do with Henry Rispin’s deeds.”
The restrictive language is a form of redlining, Bonner added. Redlining is the systemic denial of services, such as the right to own land from local governments or the option of a loan to purchase that land from banks, to people of color by institutions directly through decision-making or indirectly through raising prices. Being candid about unequal practices such as redlining would be a better approach, she thinks.
“I feel like there’s an opportunity to really honor the true history if they do decide to go forward with it. It’s such a unique community space,” Bonner said.
Jim Weller, a Capitola resident and a land title expert for more than 20 years, said that land deed restrictions surrounding race were a common occurrence at the time Rispin owned many acres of land in the village town. Part of the reason, as Bonner hinted, was the issue that people of color had securing funding from lending institutions.
“I’ve examined tens of thousands of deeds in my professional work, and they differed a little bit but they are basically all the same,” Weller said. “The stance was that (owners) would never be allowed to employ or permit the occupancy of anybody who wasn’t white.”
Weller said that in many cases the restrictions are deleted from the language.
“The only reason that might be an issue is for historical reasons, but I really think regardless of what Mr. Rispin’s prejudices and attitudes were, it didn’t necessarily reflect anything other than that he was just going along with ways at the time,” he said.
Capitola real estate attorney Miles Dolinger said that he has seen or heard of the language in Seacliff Beach and Live Oak subdivisions. Capitola City Manager Jamie Goldstein told the Sentinel that he knows of similar language in La Selva Beach.
To assume that Rispin put the language in the deeds himself would be speculative, Dolinger said.
“Back then, title companies prepared the (language) and a lot of it is boilerplate,” Dolinger said. “He may have been a racist, but I wouldn’t conclude that from the language in a deed. The whole country was racist.”
‘How could I sit idly by?’
Evelynn Brown, the resident who brought her Clares Street deed to the attention of city staff at the first project workshop, said that it wasn’t just the deed language that made her wary of devoting parkland to the memory of Rispin. He was a con man, she said, an idea that was confirmed through a few stories in Swift’s historical context document.
For example, when Rispin sold what was deemed the “Riverview” neighborhood in 1924, he promised luxuries such as modern sewer lines and electricity in all the homes. Most of the promises were later ignored, Swift said.
“Surely we must have somebody better in the community,” Brown said, suggesting a name such as Song Park after Lee Song, one of the few Chinese people in the village who owned and operated a business in the ’20s. As the deeds ensured, Song did not own his own land, census documents including his information show.
“That idea landed like a lead balloon!” Brown said.
Bonner, who recently walked the park grounds with Brown, said that if she hadn’t brought up the deeds this situation would have just been another where injustice was swept under the rug. Brown hopes to hand off the torch to individuals such as Bonner so people of color lead the conversation. This is the way she taught her son, who like Bonner became heavily involved in the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, Brown said.
“How could I sit idly by?” she asked.
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story
Much about Rispin, a man who kept to himself, is still unknown, current museum director and city historian Frank Perry explained. Perry, who wrote a comprehensive document and created a website around the Rispins and their mansion for the upcoming centennial of its construction, said that the rags to riches to rags story is a sad one that ended with Rispin separated from his wife, who he lost as well as his son before he died and was buried in an unmarked grave.
What remains of Rispin’s legacy is his mansion. Whether the introduction of the racist language was part of his legacy will ultimately be revealed by Perry, who could follow up with the council during a presentation as early as this month.
“People are fascinated by the mansion… really the only reason it’s still standing is because it was so well-built, the walls are one-foot thick concrete,” Perry said. “…The thing’s built like a fort so it would cost a fortune to demolish it.”
Two members of the Capitola council said in a statement that they feel that asking for more information about the history of a site or associated persons is standard protocol.
“It would be irresponsible of us as community leaders to ignore the opportunity to learn more about such concerns before considering a name for this new community space,” Councilwoman Kristen Petersen said in a joint statement from herself and Mayor Yvette Brooks. “Racism has long been ignored in our community and it is our responsibility to listen to the concerns of our residents and ask hard questions even when those questions may make some people uncomfortable.”
That’s a distinction worth making, Goldstein said. Though the city has owned the park for a few decades, it has never had a formal name.
“Hopefully this kind of information (from Perry) will help the council make the determination,” the city manager said.