For the last 45 years, Gilbert Smith’s life has been intertwined with the city of Carson as it transformed from a barren industrial area into one of the most diverse cities in California.
In 1968, Smith was the city’s first councilman, then its third mayor from 1970-71 and again from 1974-75. He was later councilman until 1980 and city manager in 1998. Smith is also one of the founders of California State University, Dominguez Hills, from which he received an honorary doctorate last May.
“If you compare the Carson of 1968 with the Carson of today, it’s like night and day,” said Smith who, as a child, used to pay fifty cents for horse rides in the undeveloped Carson land.
Back in 1963, he and his first wife, Glenda, were living in a 40-year-old, house in Los Angeles. They wanted a bigger house to raise their three sons.
It was a hard search.
Smith, an African American, said that at almost every housing sales office, the salespeople would say they were closed or sold out. Sometimes they would say they couldn’t sell them a house.
“‘There is a problem with the color of your skin,’ literally those were the words,” Smith said, “It was the general climate at that time in the state of California.”
Once, a salesman told him that he didn’t believe in discrimination but it was company policy, Smith said. With “tears running down his face” the salesman tried to offer him a house that was in a location he wasn’t interested in.
The Smiths were finally able to buy a home in the area that would be Carson. The four-bedroom, two-bathroom, house cost $25,000, it wasn’t even built yet.
The first time they drove up to their new home, it was surrounded by a group of mixed-race picketers calling for a boycott of the racist housing companies.
The family soon realized that the area needed a lot of work. There were 23 dumping sites, more than 100 wrecking yards, no sidewalks, no shopping center, five oil refineries, and three chemical companies around the developing residential area, Smith said.
The community had been pushing for incorporation since the 1950s, the goal was accomplished in 1968, under Smith.
As president of his homeowners association, Smith was elected the first chairman of the citizen’s organization for the incorporation of Dominguez-Carson, later named Carson.
“I didn’t know they were going to elect me, I guess I had the biggest mouth,” Smith said.
The city began with only 63,000 residents, today it has almost 100,000. Smith said they were proud to be a diverse community from the very beginning.
In the first two years after incorporation, they planted more than 5,000 trees in the once barren land. Smith’s first $25,000 home recently sold for almost $600,000.
“It’s truly a blessed city,” Smith said.
Now, 40 years later, Smith is still involved with Carson’s politics,
“It should have been part of this city 40 years ago,” he said about the proposed annexation of the Rancho Dominguez area. It was included in the proposed 1968 boundaries, but political problems prevented it from being annexed. Smith said he thinks, if city can afford it, the proposal should be accepted.
Recently, the group supporting the recall of Mayor Dear asked Smith, who ran against Dear in 2005 to run for mayor again. Smith said, if the recall goes through, he will run again.
“This is my city, I live here,” Smith said.