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"Santa Monica had a lot of the same positives and negatives as other cities, but everything was just smaller." LeVert Martel "Marty" Payne, speaking at the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum, Feb. 8, 2004

By Frank Gruber

When it comes to preserving history in Santa Monica, landmarking buildings gets most of the attention. It's a big political issue, money and development rights are involved, and people get to make rarefied conversation about, as they choose, preserving our heritage or their property rights.

Although it's common for people who are fearful of change to abuse historic preservation and use it against development, it's important to save buildings that have cultural importance. For that reason I am a member of the Santa Monica Conservancy.

But landmarking should not be confused with the study of history. Preserving the shells of buildings, while the uses inside reflect change, does not save much that is historical. A façade may remind us of the past, but the reminder may be fragmentary or even deceptive.

So, while the Landmarks Commission does valuable work and gets lots of attention, and the City spends lots of money on historical consultants, when it comes to preserving Santa Monica's past my favorite organization is the Santa Monica Historical Society.

I attended the recent talk by Marty Payne at the Historical Society Museum about what a trunk full of documents meant to him and to Santa Monica. ("Citizen Payne's Treasure Chest," Feb. 10, 2004)

I arrived a little early and as I waited for Mr. Payne to begin his enlightening stream of associations about African-American life in Santa Monica in the 40s, 50s and 60s, I looked over the Historical Society's current special exhibit, a selection of old Santa Monica postcards from the collection of (Landmarks Commissioner) Roger Genser.

What struck me from perusing Mr. Genser's century-old postcards and listening to Mr. Payne is how the history they explicated was so different from the prevailing sense of what Santa Monica's past was.

For instance, one common complaint is that tourists are overrunning Santa Monica, that we've turned our downtown into Disneyland. But Mr. Genser's postcards illustrate that when Santa Monica was young it was a resort more than anything else. Being a magnet for tourism has always been a crucial part of the city's identity.

We were Disneyland before there was Disneyland.

Along the same lines, a common criticism of any efforts to develop business and jobs in Santa Monica is to say that Santa Monica was historically and should ever remain (i) a sleepy beach town, or (ii) a suburb.

Yet Mr. Payne's main point was that black people came to Santa Monica not to hang out around the beach (which was segregated), or to live in a bungalow and commute to Los Angeles, but to work, and they came because there was work, specifically industrial jobs (40,000 of them) at the Douglas plant during World War II.

What was true for minority blacks was also true for majority whites, as I learned after Mr. Payne's talk, in a conversation with two men who know as much about Santa Monica as anyone -- former Mayor Nat Trives and former City Council Member Bob Gabriel.

I had always assumed that Santa Monica's great period of growth occurred after the freeway. This came up when I was talking to Messrs. Trives and Gabriel, and they emphatically corrected me. Santa Monica's population, they said, had already grown to near its present size by 1950.

I shouldn't have doubted the two sages, but I checked the census data. Santa Monica's population grew over the decades as follows:

1930: 37,146
1940: 53,500
1950: 71,595
1960: 83,249
1970: 88,289
1980: 88,314
1990: 86,905
2000: 84,084

Santa Monica essentially reached its current population, which has been declining for 20 years, in 1960, before the freeway. Not only that, by 1950 the city had reached roughly 85 percent of its peak population.

If "sleepy beach town" equals, say, less than half of today's population (and no Arcadia Hotel, no piers, no P.O.P.), one would have to be about 80 today to have any recollection of when Santa Monica was one.

Alternatively, if you think Santa Monica grew as a bedroom suburb, think again. Santa Monica reached its current population not because of the freeway and commuting, but because of jobs.

Santa Monica's population has been stagnant, more or less, for half a century. While no-growth rhetoric declares Santa Monica "built-out," nearby communities have grown to population densities averaging 30 percent higher than ours. In this context, it's ridiculous -- and a denial of history -- to complain about any City policies that have encouraged growth.

The artifacts the Historical Society collects -- scraps of cardboard or newsprint or even just memories like Marty Payne's -- are more ephemeral than landmarked buildings, but collectively they can provide, if preserved, catalogued, and studied, a more complete picture of history.

The City Council recently indicated its willingness to make a special appropriation to fund preservation and cataloguing of a trove of documents relating to Santa Monica's history recently donated to the Historical Society. This will be money well spent.

The council also agreed to provide a 5,000-square-foot facility for the society in the new library. The society is undertaking a capital campaign to fund a $5 million endowment to furnish and operate the new facility. Everyone should pitch in to help.

* * *

Speaking of history and change, this week the Planning Commission will review an important project that marks Santa Monica's continuing evolution.

A developer has proposed to construct 145 apartments in eighteen buildings on a narrow parcel of land, totaling 76,800 square feet, running south from Colorado Avenue along the east side of Stewart Street.

The site is located in the "Light Manufacturing and Studio District" (LMSD). With the exception of "special needs" housing, such as live/work housing, congregate and transitional housing, and shelters, housing is not currently permitted in the LMSD. The developer is seeking an amendment to the zoning law to allow the construction of "regular" apartments in the LMSD on a discretionary basis.

This amendment is a good idea. Perhaps when Santa Monica's economy was tied to manufacturing, it made sense to separate the banging and the clanging from residential areas. But the noises emanating from the new businesses in the LMSD are the humming of computers, as digital post-production facilities have taken the place of machine shops. That being the case, there is no reason to separate residential uses categorically.

While I am looking forward to watching this project make its way from the Planning Commission through the City Council, I hope that along the way some provision is added to the zoning law amendment requiring inclusion of some neighborhood-serving retail.

If 145 units are being built in a manufacturing area where there is little in the way of corner stores or coffee shops, one way to reduce traffic and to help create a neighborly neighborhood, is to provide locations for shops where residents can buy the proverbial quart of milk and bump into each other.

"On The Go, No Time To Write" Vintage Postcards of Santa Monica Bay from the Roger Genser Collection, Santa Monica Historical Society Museum, 1539 Euclid Street, Santa Monica, February 3, 2004 - March 31, 2004.

For information about the Historical Society and its capital campaign, link to:
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