City of Santa Monica to unveil park and art installation honoring African American legacy
By Elizabeth M. Johnson
The city of Santa Monica will host a virtual grand opening for Historic Belmar Park, Santa Monica’s newest open space, on Feb. 28 at 3 p.m. The online celebration and site dedication will pay tribute to the historical significance of the park at 4th and Pico Boulevard, an area where the city’s earliest African American residents lived during the first half of the 20th century.
The dedication of the 3.5-acre multipurpose sports field complex next to the Civic Auditorium will feature the unveiling of a public art installation, “A Resurrection in Four Stanzas,” created by artist April Banks, and 16 historical panels created through the research of historian Alison Rose Jefferson.
Jefferson and Banks will offer remarks during the virtual grand opening, which will also include the burial of a time capsule filled with letters, historical documents and student world-building projects created as part of the Belmar History + Art project.
For more than two years, the city of Santa Monica has been working collaboratively with the community to create the Belmar History + Art (BH+A) Project, reclaiming and celebrating the legacy of African Americans who made Santa Monica a vibrant and unique place from the early 1900s to the 1950s.
The project acknowledges the injustices that erased the Black community from its physical place in the Belmar neighborhood and its place in Santa Monica’s history. Once a thriving community, the area was razed through eminent domain in the 1950s to make way for the Civic Auditorium and Civic Center campus.
“It is encouraging to be a part of this project dedicated to sharing the history and memories of our community that were overlooked for many years,” said Robbie Jones, local historian, activist, and Belmar History + Art community advisory committee member. “This park and the dedicated artwork represent the displaced Santa Monica families and offer a starting point for the healing process of our Black community.”
Reinserting the African American experience in Santa Monica’s history
Jefferson has spent decades researching the history of African American communities in Southern California. Her book, “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era”, includes a chapter on the contributions of African Americans to Santa Monica’s history and culture that provided much of the historical background for Belmar History + Art.
She proposed the idea to create a community awareness project in March 2019, when the California Coastal Commission invited her to a meeting in Los Angeles where the commission’s landmark environmental justice policy was approved.
“We were able to get the project going due in large part to my weighing in and leaning in during that 2019 meeting,” Jefferson said. “There were two permits coming up for approval, the multipurpose field and the bike path, and they were controversial. I saw an opportunity to interject and suggested that if the field were allowed to be built, it should acknowledge the African American history of the area.”
The suggestion would help the project fulfill the California Coast Commission’s mandate to “integrate the principles of environmental justice, equality and social equity.”
Jefferson explained that the three to four-block area of the Belmar neighborhood was “prime real estate near the beach” where African Americans built successful beach businesses like the La Bonita Bath House & Café, which operated in different forms from 1914 to the 1950s.
“As the land become more valuable and more white people moved in, African Americans got pushed out of being able to live there, operate businesses and enjoy the beach,” Jefferson said. “They got pushed further and further south along the beach, which put a crimp in African American business development.”
Finally, in the 1950s, the African American community of Belmar was destroyed to make way for the expansion of the Civic Center.
Researched and written by Jefferson, the 16 historical panels displayed along Historic Belmar Park’s walking path are one way to raise the awareness of Santa Monica’s current citizens about the African American people, places and events of the past.
“We are reinserting African Americans into the identity of Santa Monica,” Jefferson said.
“We want people to know that their community is much broader than they thought, with a more complex history than they realized. Displacing the people who would have lived there affected the diversity of the community, the types of businesses that could have been here. The actions of the past have impact in our lives today.”
Jefferson has also worked with educators at UCLA to develop lesson plans that local teachers can use to teach students in elementary through high school about this forgotten segment of Santa Monica history.
Reclaiming history through art
“A Resurrection in Four Stanzas” is the title of the public art installation created for Historic Belmar Park. The red metal sculpture created by Banks features a door, window, porch and roof that together reimagine a shotgun house, an architectural style that migrated from the South with the African Americans who came to California.
Banks’ artwork was inspired by her collaboration with Jefferson and drew upon themes gathered from community engagement activities over a period of six to eight months.
“I was asked to create a process for community engagement, and the art emerged from that process,” Banks said. “We invited community members to share their stories and experiences through meals, poetry workshops, dance workshops and oral history sessions, facilitating conversations between youth and older community members.”
The conversations delved into subjects like legacy, visibility and erasure, gentrification and affordable housing. People talked about ways in which they and their communities are still at risk today. The question arose, “What is our staying power?” Banks recalled.
The artist asked herself, “How do I make a piece of art from what I’ve learned?” Because eminent domain erased people’s homes, she decided she wanted her art “to rebuild, to resurrect, and to celebrate the staying power of the home.” The shotgun house was a powerful symbol of the people who came to Santa Monica.
The four pieces of the house are built to true architectural scale. Banks said that the porch is particularly important because it is “the space between public and private, a place for leisure, for reflection, for meeting with neighbors and building community.”
Banks uses light and shadow to create change and movement as people view the sculpture. She has also incorporated text into the artwork, with two quotes carved into the porch roof and the house roof. They can be read by looking up at them or by reading them in the shadows they cast on the ground.
The first inscription, by Maya Angelou, says, “I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and the dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.”
The second is by Banks, recalling her childhood memories: “In my daydreams I long for my grandparents’ front yard, the stage for a story waiting to be told. With a glass of sweet tea and a giggle of gossip, we sit in the cool evening breeze, whispered from the nearby sea waves.”
Another piece of the Belmar History + Art project will be hidden from view for the next 50 years. A time capsule will be buried during the grand opening and site dedication. The cover stone of the time capsule also serves as the welcome mat in front of the sculpture.
“We invited community elders to write letters to the future to put into the time capsule,” Banks said. “Also, students at Santa Monica High School participated in a world building project, Belmar 2070, where they imagined what the area could have been if it weren’t destroyed. Their projects are also included.”
The time capsule is intended to be opened on Juneteenth of 2070. Banks hopes the “bright red house” at the park will pique people’s curiosity.
“I hope that it will spark conversations, get people to ask questions, and provide a call to action to become involved in community government, to find a voice, and to learn from history,” she added. “Art doesn’t fix what happened, but it can call attention to it. We don’t ever want to gloss over the erasure, the loss that happened here. But even though the community was erased and physically dispersed, it still exists. Home is beyond house.”
Shining a light on forgotten history
Shannon Daut, Santa Monica’s manager of cultural affairs, said the Belmar History + Art project will have a long-term impact on the way her department conducts its work in cultural affairs. It is significant as the first applied history and art project undertaken by the city of Santa Monica, as well as one of the first to move forward in fulfilling the California Coastal Commission’s mandate to incorporate environmental justice, equality, and social equity into its programs and operations for the benefit of all Californians.
“This was an amazing opportunity to lead a project that would not simply put up a few signs but engage the community and shine a light on this forgotten history, acknowledging the wrongs that have been committed,” Daut said. “To me, what’s most powerful is the way the arts can shine a light on issues and engage people around challenging community concerns. We want people to acknowledge the loss of what used to be and what might have been, so that we can be more equitable in the future. We want to build a sense of pride for the role the Black community played in building up Santa Monica.”