A nasty five-year legal battle in the historic Delta town of Locke seems to have reached an end, allowing the village established by Chinese immigrants a century ago to move forward with its plan to attract more tourists and preserve its heritage as the only Chinese-built rural settlement in the nation.
Late last month, Sacramento Superior Court Judge David I. Brown found in favor of the Locke Management Association, which governs the National Historic Landmark, in its efforts to reclaim a two-story wooden structure from artist Martha Esch, who purchased it in 2011 from the estate of the former owner.
The management association sued Esch, claiming she bought the building in violation of the town’s bylaws. Those bylaws give the board, and hundreds of former Chinese American residents and their family members, the first right to purchase any buildings in the blocklong town for the sake of preserving its history and culture. The judge ruled for the board on summary judgment, meaning he found no triable issues of fact.
Never miss a local story.
Esch countersued, claiming she bought the building legally and was being discriminated against because she is not Chinese. The same judge rejected her civil rights claim in late 2014, as did the federal Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in 2011.
Gregory Wayland, the attorney who represented the board, said the matter came down to whether the buyer and seller of the property had violated the town’s regulations.
“This was always a very simple contractual issue,” Wayland said. “Since the board members exercised their right of first refusal, they have been dragged through claim after claim by Martha Esch. Overall, there’s a feeling of relief among the Locke Management Association members that they can now continue preserving the history of the town.”
The protracted litigation emptied the town’s coffers of about $100,000 – money that could otherwise have been used for historic preservation, he said.
Despite losing in court, Esch remains adamant that the situation is illegal and unjust.
She said that in 2011 she paid $21,000 for a lopsided and dilapidated wooden structure on the south end of town and made about $80,000 in improvements in keeping with the building’s historic character, including wooden doors and windows that are hard to distinguish from older portions of the building.
The former gambling hall now serves as her art gallery called “The Shack.”
Today, Esch faces the prospect of a court-ordered sale in which she would be forced to hand over her property to the board for the price she paid for it five years ago.
“I’m sick, Esch said. “I’m beside myself about this.”
“It appears that the U.S. Constitution is no longer enforceable in Locke, California,” she added.
She said she’s hoping to find a lawyer to help her appeal the case for free, and she also expects to have to fight a board effort to recover its legal fees from her.
Locke is such a small place – with between 60 to 80 residents, depending on whom you ask – that the fight between Esch and the board has cast a pall over the community and caused bitter divisions among its inhabitants.
Some residents and business owners say they’d like to get past all the fighting and focus on drawing tourists to the community, which is off the beaten path even for many Delta visitors.
“It’s caused a lot of negativism. That’s what we don’t need,” said Thomas Herzog, owner of Strange Cargo, a used bookstore on Main Street.
Locke sits about 20 miles south of the state capital along the Sacramento River. It was founded in 1915 by Chinese immigrants who had been displaced by a fire in the neighboring town of Walnut Grove. They persuaded rancher George Locke to lease them land to build their town. California law at the time prohibited Chinese immigrants from owning land.
For several decades the town prospered as an enclave of Chinese culture. Hundreds of workers lived in and around the community during harvest seasons for pears and asparagus. They also helped build the extensive levee system that protects thousands of acres of farmland in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
After World War II, the town gradually fell into decline, becoming a picturesque, run-down relic with a fraction of its former population.
Clarence Chu, who owns a handful of businesses and museums in Locke, once owned the entire town along with hundreds of acres of surrounding pear orchards. In 2004, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency bought 10 acres of Locke from Chu, subdivided it, and sold the land to homeowners and business operators.
Then, the redevelopment agency, the California State Parks and the nonprofit Locke Foundation collaborated on saving and restoring the Locke Boarding House at the north end of town, turning it into a museum and visitors center.
Despite the town’s history, only about 10 percent of Locke’s current inhabitants have Chinese ancestry, residents said. And since the Locke Management Association was formed last decade, none of the handful of buildings offered for sale have been purchased by Chinese Americans, said Deborah Mendel, the association’s secretary.
“Since I’ve been here, all the buildings have been bought by Caucasians,” Mendel said.
Homeowner dues help finance the association’s activities, including the purchase of buildings. The association is still keen on buying Esch’s building – for the low price of $21,000 that it sold for in 2011.
Along Main Street, some buildings have been upgraded; others remain wrecks. In town, there are art galleries and Al’s Place Restaurant – known as Al the Wop’s – which is popular with weekend motorcyclists.
Residents live above the shops or in wooden homes along Key Street and Levee Road, which is the only entrance to the town off River Road. Many motorists drive by without knowing Locke exists.
Business owners and history buffs want to change that. Already a smattering of tourists from places such as Belgium, Holland and Austria wonder through, and many local visitors arrive during the Asian Pacific Spring Festival each May. School groups take docent-led tours, and buses roll in from San Francisco’s Chinatown with senior citizens aboard.
Dustin Marr is a third-generation Chinese American resident whose family ran the Yeun Chong Market on Main Street for decades before it closed in 2008. It was once the largest market in the Delta.
Marr said when he was a school kid, he was taught about California’s Spanish missions, which were alien to him. He learned little about the Chinese immigrants who helped settle California and build its railroads, farms and levees.
Retired, Marr leads school groups on tours and works as a docent at the visitors center.
“This is real. Kids love it here. So that’s a good thing,” he said. “There’s a lot of history – the unwritten kind. These levees didn’t just get built overnight.”
With the legal fight over, at least for now, he hopes the residents can start to get along and focus on the future. Before all the ruckus, he said, “It was a small quiet town. I kinda liked it that way.”