The film “90404 Changing” argues some of Santa Monica’s essential culture is slipping away, but it hasn’t all been lost

By Michael Aushenker

Filmmaker Michael Barnard discusses a scene with  Barry Henley and The Broadway Barbershop proprietor Vernon Williamson Photo by Dan Smith

Filmmaker Michael Barnard discusses a scene with
Barry Henley and The Broadway Barbershop proprietor Vernon Williamson
Photo by Dan Smith

Just as Earth’s resources evaporate before our eyes — water, lumber, fossil fuels — so can our culture and history if we don’t preserve it.

So says “90404 Changing,” a quasi-documentary film screening tonight at the Santa Monica Main Library.

Eight years in the making, producer and director Michael Barnard’s film captures the once “historically diverse and culturally rich neighborhood in the 90404 zip code that has been vanishing over time,” he says, following as a local Latina teacher and an African-American poet go on a quest to piece together the area’s story.

“There’s some magical realism in it,” said Barnard, referring to the giant puppets of pre-human Native American deities that make a cameo in his film.

He will introduce the film and lead a Q&A panel afterward with cast member and co-producer Paulina Sahagun. The screening is sponsored by the Santa Monica Conservancy.

Blending narrative and documentary storytelling, “90404 Changing” includes the personal stories of current and former Pico neighborhood residents and merchants.

“It is important that we all know the history of central Santa Monica and its inhabitants,” said former Santa Monica Mayor Nat Trives, who appears in “90404 Changing.”

Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District board member Oscar de la Torre also makes an appearance.

The 90404 community examined in Barnard’s film stretches east-west between 14th and 26th streets and north-south from Santa Monica to Pico boulevards.

Barnard knows Santa Monica’s Pico neighborhood intimately, having lived on Harvard Street, north of Colorado Boulevard, in 1972 while working for an international nonprofit. At that time he used to take his two kids to the “big, huge empty field” that is now the Water Garden to fire off model rockets.

A job making movies for the Mahareshi Yogi later took Barnard all over the world for years. After returning to the area, he raised his family in Pacific Palisades until a divorce saw him and his youngest son returning to the Pico neighborhood in 1990, when he took up residence inside a studio at the18th Street Arts Center.

Barnard remarried and relocated to Culver City — until a year and a half ago, when he divorced again and came back to 18th Street Arts Center.

With each revisit to the Pico area, “I couldn’t help but notice how much it was changing,” Barnard said, with the Water Garden and slick shops replacing “this vibrant mom-and-pop cultural neighborhood.”

In 1999, “I started to document the disappearance of this neighborhood. But I didn’t want to do a film about gentrification and how bad it is,” he said.

Michelle Burne of Celebration Arts pointed him in the direction of Sahagun, whose family used to live on Frank Street. It’s understandable if you’ve never heard of Frank Street — it no longer exists, erased to make way for the Santa Monica (10) Freeway.

Barnard said he had originally “cast” poet Keith Mason — a font of knowledge on some 30,000 African-Americans who at one time lived in the 90404 — but Mason ultimately didn’t feel comfortable being in the movie, so Sahagun’s husband, actor Barry Shabaka Henley, assumed Mason’s role.

In the film, “he leads her [character] into the knowledge of all this black history,” Barnard said.

Sahagun and Henley have since become moviemaking collaborators.

“What’s changing Santa Monica is development by international corporations that have nothing to do with Santa Monica,” Barnard said.

These changes include the extinction of Castle Signs on Broadway Avenue and 19th Street and the demise of Gallegos, a Mexican family restaurant just south of the 10 that Barnard said was “adored by everyone in the community.”

There was also the closure of Castilla’s, a Mexican grocery store and restaurant at Olympic Boulevard and 20th Street that served as a “community hub for all of the Mexicans who worked in that area,” he said. “Most of the Mexicans had to move because of gentrification so they sold the property.”

Barnard emphasizes that “90404 Changing” is not a stridently political film.

“I’m not against development. It’s not anti-development; it’s against development that doesn’t enhance community.”

He said his movie asks: “Who gets to decide the form of a community? Is it the citizens who live there or the multinational corporations?”

In the end, however, Barnard still believes in Santa Monica.

“It’s still got some of the qualities that make it a wonderful place — that small town feeling,” he said. “Santa Monica has a high percentage of active people, much more than other communities. They have the power to have a say in the form their community takes.”