If you’ve cruised First Street lately, you might have noticed a new piece of public art sprawling across the side of the Benicia Home Improvement Center at First and H. The new work is still in progress, but you’ll recognize the subject immediately: it’s the very same view you have of the shops and the water as you drive down First Street today… or is it?
Look closer and you’ll notice a Safeway on the corner. A 76 station. The old Pastime Garage. In front of the shops, a ’57 Chevy. And in the distance – is that a horse and buggy?
The title of the work is “Yesteryears,” and as the name might suggest, the project depicts Benicia’s First Street from the city’s founding in 1847 to the 1970s. It is a privately funded project, gifted to the city by multiple generations of Benicia natives, namely David and Annette Batchelor, David and Kristine Passalacqua, Aaron and Sabrina Boone, and The Pastime Group. The mural’s canvas was donated by the Leary/Clyne family, who have been part of the Benicia community since its founding.
According to David Batchelor, the idea for “Yesteryears” has been in the making for over 20 years. Born out of a desire to express an appreciation for the period in which he and his cohort of friends grew up, the first block of Firstt Street, as it’s depicted in the mural, pays tribute to the late ‘50s – ‘70s. From there, each block represents another period in Benicia’s history, with the second block representing the early ‘50s – ‘20s and the third block, at the waterfront, representing the ‘20s – late 1800s, with the Solano barge anchored just offshore.
Batchelor and his crew have worked hard to remain true to historical fact in their drafting of the mural (over 55 renderings in the making), painstakingly fact-checking which buildings occupied which block, during which years, and whose storefronts occupied them at that time. For those less familiar with Benicia’s storefront history, there will be other historical clues such as period appropriate vehicles depicted with each block, and period fashion on passersby to help orient the viewer. There are also plans in place for an informational plaque to appear alongside the mural once it is complete.
For history buffs, or perhaps for those who enjoy a good scavenger hunt, be on the lookout for “Easter eggs” of historically significant events, figures, and dates hidden throughout the mural. As a nod to the contributors to the project, there are other “hidden gems” that may not be readily apparent (here’s a freebee: the ’57 Chevy depicted on the first block was David Batchelor’s first car in high school. Now, see if you can spot the real thing in town sometime).
Though the mural is still in progress, the enterprising Batchelor is already dreaming up the next big thing to go with it, and the rest of Benicia. He imagines an augmented reality game app which would challenge the player to find historically significant places and famous landmarks throughout Benicia. The game would allow the player to enjoy the beauty of our city while learning about it and, perhaps, allow the player to earn rewards to use at various businesses in town as they go.
For now, however, we have the mural’s completion to look forward to. According to collaborator and city liaison, Terry Scott, as Benicia continues “building a reputation as an ‘arts haven,’” the mural is about “communicating history in a way that fits into the art eco-sphere we are trying to create.” It’s about passing down the story of a place to the next generations; it’s also about the nostalgia of childhood homes, high school friends, and small-town camaraderie. It’s about the values that helped shape this city and that are still alive in its residents today.
A list of those responsible for the mural, with thanks from David Batchelor: David and Annette Batchelor, David and Kristine Passalacqua, Aaron and Sabrina Boone, and The Pastime Group for funding. Leary/Clyne family for the building. Terry Scott creative insights and effort to help ensure the project works within the city’s requirements. Jerry Hayes and Kerry Carney for historical insight. Paul Simonson and David Passalacqua for fact checking assistance. Jeff and Lauren Laugen for their cooperation in the painting process. Benicia Historical Society and the City of Benicia, including Suzanne Thorsen and Evan Gorman for expediting the permitting process and allowing this original Public Art Project. Special thanks to painter Vincent Concepcion for his amazing talent and flexibility as an artist.