Verna and Sidney at the beach used by African Americans at Bay Street in Santa Monica’s Ocean Park neighborhood, sometimes derogatorily called the Inkwell. Credit: The Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Santa Monica’s Bay Street beach area served as a seaside recreation and leisure site for African American Angelenos throughout the Jim Crow era. Map of the Bay Street Beach Historic District. Courtesy of Sea of Clouds.
Volunteer instructors from the Surf Bus Foundation teach South L.A. youth how to catch their first wave. Credit: Heal the Bay.
18 December 18
Sea of Clouds, today, announced its intention to nominate Santa Monica’s Bay Street beach area (Los Angeles County, California), a public property, to the National Register of Historic Places for its significant association as a site of African American use and beach culture heritage during the Jim Crow era. The proposed 55–acre Bay Street Beach Historic District will consider the significance of the area between 1908 and 1965 as a seaside site of recreation, struggle, leisure, and contestation for African American Angelenos. Sometimes derogatorily referred to as “the Inkwell" - noting the skin color of its patrons – the Bay Street beach area was proximate to an important African American civic institution and historical local neighborhood.
It emerged in practice as a primary seaside public resource where its visitors, including prominent African Americans from Santa Monica and the wider Los Angeles area, felt comparatively safe from harassment. The district is both a rare example of an African American seaside recreation and leisure site as well as a community cultural focusing point.
Sea of Clouds will partner with public historian Alison Rose Jefferson, MHP, PhD, who has coordinated or produced interpretive and community outreach events at the Bay Street beach area since 2012, and is a leading scholar of the area’s history. Dr. Jefferson’s forthcoming book, Leisure’s Race, Power and Place in Los Angeles and the California Dream, 1900-1960s, documents this neighborhood beach area among other regional landscapes important to Los Angeles’ African American identity and community development.
Founded in 2017, Sea of Clouds is a nonprofit organization whose practice spans the fields of heritage conservation/historic preservation and environmental conservation. With a focus on coastal places, the work of Sea of Clouds illuminates the human dimensions of natural ecosystems -- connections between nature and culture -- to address how public properties can be contextualized and elevated within coastal governance.
Said Michael Blum, Executive Director, Sea of Clouds: “As much as beach recreation and sport are indelible parts of California’s identity, so too must be its history of exclusion in these public spaces. Ten years since a plaque was installed at the end of Bay Street, we look forward to working with Dr. Jefferson and others as we build public recognition of this area’s significant history. A National Register listing will work in service of the personal stories, remembrances, and connections to the Bay Street beach area, as it sits within a changing city, coastline, and climate.”
Said Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson, Public Historian and Heritage Conservation Consultant: “I am very appreciative that Michael Blum and the Sea Clouds organization see the importance of the work we do to educate people about the history of the African American experience in the Los Angeles environs and California, and about the importance of proactive heritage and environmental conservation activities. I am glad to have the organization as a partner in the effort to get this Santa Monica beach, culturally significant site in the Ocean Park neighborhood, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”
Said Graham Hamilton, Los Angeles Chapter Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation: “We are thrilled to support Sea of Clouds in their bid to establish the Bay Street Beach Historic District, a site of deep cultural significance for beach-loving African Americans during Jim Crow. We look forward to honoring and celebrating African American surf heritage and hope this designation will inspire a deeper understanding of our coastal commons and all who enjoy it.”
Said Meredith McCarthy, Operations Director for Santa Monica-based environmental group Heal the Bay: “Bay Street holds tremendous natural, cultural and historical value that needs to be recognized. It symbolizes an important concept that drives all our work – the beach belongs to all of us.”
For the past five years Heal the Bay, together with other groups, have organized Nick Gabaldon Day each June at Bay Street, bringing together a tapestry of community members to celebrate California’s first documented surfer of African- and Mexican-American descent.
Mr. Gabaldon visited this beach and learned to surf in the nearby area. He later moved to the better-formed, high-performance waves of Malibu, where he became a regular among some of California's elite surfers.
Each September since 2012, Heal the Bay and partner groups have also been site organizers of the Bay Street beach area for California Coastal Cleanup Day. Together, these public programs push to engage more ethnically diverse and broader audiences in learning about local history, proactive stewardship, and access issues intersecting with recreation along the Los Angeles shoreline.
The National Register of Historic Places was created through the National Historic Preservation Act more than fifty years ago and is the nation’s official list of properties worthy of preservation. More than 93,000 properties are listed in the National Register and represent 1.4 million individual resources. As only an estimated eight percent of listings represent women and communities of color, this project will contribute to the National Register better reflecting the breadth of the American story. The National Register is a program of the National Park Service, United States Department of Interior.
In addition to protections secured through a National Register listing, the Bay Street Beach Historic District will maintain existing visitor access, public amenities and safety services, nearby private property rights, public property ownership, and the area's current uses.
Prior to final review by the Keeper of the National Register, the Bay Street Beach Historic District will be reviewed by: the City of Santa Monica; California Department of Parks and Recreation; California State Lands Commission, and the California State Historic Preservation Officer. The nomination will also be considered in a public meeting before the California State Historical Resources Commission.
Information on the Bay Street Beach Historic District and an updated schedule of the nomination’s status is online at SEA OF CLOUDS