Palm Springs' carefree reputation as a glamorous desert resort destination belies a more complex past. Beneath the sheen of Hollywood stars and Midcentury architecture lies a troubling history marked by injustice, corruption, and loss.
To truly understand this city, we must confront the darker episodes of its past.
From the displacement of native peoples to the destruction of architectural treasures, the history of Palm Springs' development came at great cost.
By facing its mistakes and contradictions directly, the city has the opportunity to learn from the shadows of history.
There are always multiple sides to a story.
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians had inhabited the palm oasis near Mount San Jacinto for centuries, considering it their ancestral and spiritual home.
This Native American tribe had long relied on the hot springs, mesquite groves, and palm trees of the area for sustenance and ceremonial purposes.
Tragically, in the late 1800s, American settlers increasingly encroached upon the Agua Caliente's lands.
Lured by the promise of California's "Desert Paradise," newcomers like the Welwood Murrays established homesteads on the tribe's territory.
Despite Agua Caliente leader Cabezon's efforts to stem the tide of settlers, by 1884, his people were forcibly removed from their palm grove villages.
Bereft of their productive lands and heartbroken over the loss of their home, many Agua Caliente were left struggling to survive, facing violence at the hands of racist settlers as well as starvation and disease in marginalized reservations.
It was a dark and disturbing period in Palm Springs history, as Native peoples who had called this oasis home for generations were stripped of their way of life virtually overnight.
Unfortunately, Palm Springs has a troubled history of racial discrimination that persisted well into the mid-20th century.
Though marketed as an upscale resort destination, non-white residents and visitors faced prejudice and exclusion in their own hometown.
Many restaurants, hotels, and popular attractions denied service or imposed restrictions on people of color. Gas stations forced Black travelers to prepay for fuel before pumping.
Real estate agents steered minority homebuyers away from desirable areas.
The Village Green neighborhood was informally designated as the only area where Asian residents could own property.
Schools were also segregated, with parents fighting to integrate Palm Springs schools as late as 1961.
Though some citizens opposed these racist practices, they remained entrenched in policies and norms.
It was not until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s that activism and legal action finally began dismantling decades of segregation in Palm Springs.
Palm Springs' rapid growth in the 20th century came at a steep cost to the local environment.
As more homes, businesses, and farms sprang up in the desert community, demand for water intensified.
Seeking to bolster supply, civic leaders approved aqueducts to siphon water from natural oases and streams. Tahquitz Creek and the palm tree springs of Andreas Canyon—where Cahuilla tribes had gathered for centuries—were dangerously depleted.
The diversion of water drained these riparian habitats, leaving creek beds dusty and dry.
Tahquitz Canyon lost over 75% of its streamflow, severely reducing this desert refuge.
With the loss of these vital water sources, native wildlife populations declined sharply.
Species like the federally endangered southwestern willow flycatcher could no longer nest in the vanished streamside habitats they depended on.
Though development brought prosperity for Palm Springs, it came at a real ecological cost.
The 1950s represented a dark period in Palm Springs' history in regards to the treatment of the LGBTQ community.
Responding to McCarthyist pressures to crack down on "moral corruption," the city council officially banned homosexual individuals in 1959.
Law enforcement carried out a reactionary crusade aimed at purging gay residents and tourists from public life.
Bars and clubs known to cater to LGBTQ patrons faced ruthless raiding by police, with patrons publicly arrested and shamed, their names printed in the local press.
An atmosphere of fear took hold, as even suspected or closeted LGBTQ citizens risked being outed and facing backlash.
The blanket criminalization of gay life enabled broader discrimination, as queer residents were denied housing, employment, and basic dignity.
Though the ban was lifted in 1964, stigma and prejudice continued, with some establishments still refusing service to LGBTQ citizens even after legal discrimination ended.
Healing the psychic wounds of officially sanctioned homophobia would be a years-long process.
In the post-war period, Palm Springs gained an unfortunate reputation as a haven for organized crime and corruption.
The city's rapid growth and lax regulations created an environment where graft and illegal enterprises thrived.
Numerous city officials and power brokers nurtured ties with notorious mafia figures from Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Under this network of shadowy influences, illicit activities proliferated in the desert paradise.
Backroom gambling dens and houses of prostitution operated with impunity, often shielded by bribes or cut deals with law enforcement.
Drug trafficking also became more common, from marijuana smuggling to notorious LSD laboratories hidden in the desert.
While Palm Springs promoted its image as a glamorous resort destination publicly, the influx of mafia cash and loose morals told a different story behind the scenes.
With civic leaders compromised, the law seemed powerless to counter the escalating criminality. For nearly a decade, this wild, corrupt element defined the underbelly of Palm Springs.
The eventual house-cleaning of mob connections remained controversial and difficult.
In the early 20th century, Palm Springs gained notoriety as a destination for tuberculosis patients seeking a cure in the arid climate.
At the time, the dry heat and minimal precipitation of the desert were thought to be palliative for respiratory ailments.
As one of the driest places in the nation, Palm Springs attracted many afflicted with advanced TB as a final hope. Doctors would send their most desperate cases there when all other treatments had been exhausted.
Soon, the town was inundated with these tuberculosis "refugees"––gaunt figures bundled in blankets even in the warmth of summer.
Makeshift health resorts and sanitariums sprouted up, offering regimens of rest, fresh air, and basic care. Though some patients did improve in the short-term, many journeyed to Palm Springs only to live out their last days there.
Still considered an incurable scourge, tuberculosis claimed many lives in the remote town. This pervasive presence of disease and suffering gave Palm Springs a melancholy atmosphere in spite of the sunny weather.
It also solidified the desert oasis’ status as a healing destination for those with nowhere else to turn. For better or worse, this “last resort” reputation would endure for many decades, defining an era of Palm Springs history.
In Palm Springs' rush to redefine itself in the post-war period, much of the city's historic architectural fabric fell victim to the wrecking ball.
The building boom of the 1950s and 60s ushered in a period of aggressive "redevelopment" where old structures were demolished with impunity to make way for the new.
Unique early homes in the Desert Spanish Revival and Mid-Century Modern styles were destroyed by the dozens.
Historic hotels, speakeasies and other landmarks dating back to Palm Springs' founding decades met the same fate.
While development is often positioned as progress, in this case it lamentably erased much of the distinctive character and heritage of this storied desert community.
Lost forever were one-of-a-kind adobes, bungalows and sites which told the story of Palm Springs' spirited origins as a resort town.
Though growth was needed, preservationists would rightly decry the destruction. The irreplaceable texture of the city's past had been stripped away in service of speculative visions of the future.
Looking back, more could have been done to balance renewal with preserving historic treasures that defined Palm Springs. Though gone, remembering what was lost remains vital in shaping a civic identity rooted in respect for the past.