The final designs of the Belmar History + Art Project have been revealed by the City of Santa Monica, and artist April Banks said she is excited to begin work on a life-sized sculpture that will offer residents a glimpse into Santa Monica’s Black history.
In an effort to recognize and honor the historic Santa Monica neighborhood known as Belmar, city leaders agreed to partner on a historical research and public engagement process that aims to shine a light on the underrepresented stories of the forgotten community.
Following approval from the Santa Monica Arts Commission in June, the project is set to feature a sculpture of a shotgun house, a form of architecture that was common in Santa Monica’s Belmar neighborhood, an area of early African American settlement and a place where residents and Black businesses thrived between 1900 and 1950.
The historic neighborhood lay where the Civic Center currently stands, but the city and Banks are hoping to bring a piece of the old block to the modern world when an 8-foot-tall sculpture is unveiled as part of the opening of the city’s newest open space, the Civic Center Multipurpose Sports Field, which is expected to open when public health guidance allows.
Banks said in a recent interview that her piece seeks to honor the neighborhood and the residents who lived at the site of the “historical injustice.”
By the mid-fifties under the flag of “urban renewal,” the City of Santa Monica took possession of the neighborhood through eminent domain actions and burned the remaining housing to make way for the new Civic Auditorium and Civic Center campus, Banks said, as she detailed how the planned sculpture site will also include a permanent public history exhibition with interpretive panels showing the history of the Belmar neighborhood and its businesses, places of worship and community members.
“It is a sculpture that you walk through so it’s at full scale,” Banks said. “This is the type of house that was in the neighborhood and the idea came from an image that was in the media… It was depicting the burning of a similar house and it was part of this redevelopment promotion. That image always stood out to me because there’s so little documentation of this community — and the one rare piece we have is documenting the destruction of it.”
While constructing the sculpture, Banks said she hopes to use the full dimensions of the small “shotgun” houses that were prominent in the Belmar neighborhood.
“I’m not trying to build the entire house, just an abstraction of it. And the idea of movement is a very important concept in the piece,” she said.
As she described how the architectural style of shotgun houses may have originated in West Africa before becoming prominent in the South and Santa Monica, Banks said locals will wander throughout the different structures while the shadows cast by the sun display different texts on the ground and images on the sides of the house — all of which have been gathered from historical archives and families who once lived in the neighborhood.
“I just imagine people walking through and having fun, remembering and learning. This is definitely about bringing awareness of this neighborhood because there are so few people who know that this history exists, so I thought it was important to do something monumental,” Banks said. “I think mostly it’s about creating this sense of pride for the community. I talked to maybe four or five classes at Santa Monica High School, which is just across the street from where the neighborhood was, and none of them knew the history behind (Belmar).”
This is why the city and Banks have reached out to historian Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson, who is currently developing a curriculum that schools can use to teach students about the historic neighborhood that was displaced by the 10 freeway.
“I am gratified to see the historical interpretive panels and art exhibition on the way to installation,” Jefferson said. “This reclamation of the pre-1950s erased African American legacy in the Civic Center area is an important social justice and equity action.”
Banks agreed, sharing, “It’s super exciting. And I’m happy that the project is going forward. I think it’s super timely right now with all the other social and racial justice projects that are going on. And when you consider the fact that monuments to racist histories are being taken down across the country, I think this is a great addition and time to amplify the wonderful history of Belmar, a neighborhood that was full of hidden gems.”