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Venice, CA: A City State of Mind

The gentrification of Venice is hardly a new story. It was after all founded as a beach resort for the early 20th century gentry, and their kin have been striving for the perfect makeover ever since. Many have expected the city to become at least Santa Monica since the early '60s, when its movers and shakers began dozing the architectural gems that founder Abbot Kinney modeled from the Italian source.

Perfection may be just beyond the horizon, according to Matt Stevens in a recent L.A. Times piece. The focus is the Rose Avenue neighborhood, just above Main Street. This once beaten stretch of seedy likely won't soon become the next Abbot Kinney Boulevard, dubbed "The Coolest Block in America" by GQ Magazine a while back, but could spur other neighborhoods to spruce up and shed their shabby "countercultural" identities. Citing Ruth Galanter, the former L.A. councilperson for the area, the tipping point has been tipped. The city's "bohemian days" are numbered. Could this special place actually become another streamlined variation on the coastal improvement model, a seamless upgraded shopping mall where those who can no longer pay the piper have been quietly relocated to a model slum? The smart and sanitized final fumigation does seem closer than ever.

It's basic economics: the gentry go after good business deals and cheap property, or surely the flippable variety, wherever they may be. Since we still lag behind Santa Monica, capital will stream in until the fallow and unproductive pockets are revived; the dead zones are resurrected. And we still have many pockets and zones awaiting attention. We know it won't regress to its "slum by the sea" status because it's, well, too cool to fail by now, and therefore relatively recession-proof. In these times of such economic deprivation and high unemployment, the value of property and the rental prices have ironically remained quite high. This is lure enough for investors to keep the escrows coming.

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We lag behind the more perfected coastal areas because of conditions that made the city a slum. The Depression, which set development back for virtually everyone along the coast, was made worse here by the discovery of oil in 1930, leaving the beach scored with nodding donkeys until 1974. This tarnished the city's resort image and repelled many investors.

Yet ironically these conditions, especially the lower rents that come with the slum, attracted and spawned the disaffiliated, those who wanted it to remain tarnished, indigenous members but also those who migrated here and established a significant presence: Beat writers and artists, along with a wealth of beaten residents spiritually apprenticed to them, sundry bohemians, and lifestylists who surfed the creative waves. These "old" Venice types, those Ruth Galanter and others understandably reduce to diminishing numbers, were self-tarnishers and pesky refusers who mushroomed into a force that softened, and even interrupted full-throttled development for a while. They believed in living differently; unplugging from the mainstream. They were certainly not merely colorful under-consuming "eyesores" vibrating some extinct religion, though the city still has its share of multi-tinted throwbacks.

These refusers have always needed low rents to survive and sought cheap, pre-gentrified hoods to subsidize their art-making and lifestyles. They dedicated themselves to poverty in rejection of the material world, but also as a way to manage their time and resources better so they could live a more spiritually-rewarding and communal existence. They learned the art of slumming, the conversion of the slum's bummers and downers into euphoric moments and advanced states of awareness. Their lease has been nearly up for years, and high rents have made this dedication difficult. But the upgrade of this aesthetic craft can still be found in varying degrees of withdrawal from the mainstream's "rat race" whose real and mental traps threaten this dedication, and above all their intense devotion to the quality life.

This craft's continued survival over the years has helped prevent the perfect makeover. As the history of affordable bohemian communities shows, it's only a matter of time before developers gentrify them and residents must migrate to another affordable space. But the Venetian slummers have stood their ground, becoming ghosts in the improvement machine.

These slummers have colored and shaped the city's identity. Their interactions with the traditional slum victims, those experiencing real poverty, have endowed it with special qualities. Venice has indeed been a special kind of slum, one where the enlightened practitioners of this craft have identified with the lowly and their lifestyles, and where high consumption has coexisted with survival economies.

Abbot Kinney, the city's founder, constructed an upscale resort in 1905, but showed sympathy for the lowly in building Tent City soon after. It was for those who came to buy plats but were written out of the plots. This attitude has gone to seed over the years. Some say that Abbot's sympathies toward the lowly are also evident from the pigeons he brought here in the early days of the city, leaving his first family flock on Paloma Avenue to breed like some frenzied kin network, and where they conspicuously remain today!

These slummers are kin to Kinney when we consider the cultural legacy he wrought. His upscale resort was filled with cultural attractions. He wasn't happy with the arrival of the Coney Island carnival mind soon after its founding, since his culture was upscale too, but he believed in culture. These attractions inspired a climate that welcomed creators of many stripes, and encouraged a marriage of culture with the circus. The resulting mass entertainments have been distractions for many, but they mushroomed into special pop forms that became part of the identity of the refusers, their ways of expressing themselves: performance art, rock music, surfing, horse operas, mural art, street theater...

These forms were vital alternatives to the operas and orchestras, and they remain so today. Abbot would surely have at least appreciated Jim Morrison's free verse poetry, and the "doors of perception" metaphor his band borrowed from Aldous Huxley's book on the expansion of consciousness, as well as the Beats who inherited much of their vision from the Surrealists, his contemporaries. And subterranean lifestyles fueled the Beats' mojo, that of the beatens who mirrored them, and the Surrealists whose names and creations found a secure existence here. They were all fascinated by the Zen principle of how bewitched bodies could find spiritual meaning and transcendence in the contrasts of ordinary objects, structures and events in the everyday world, and especially how they could fuse and re-fuse these elements into new meanings.

Ray Manzarek, a surviving Door, said that what distinguishes this bohemia is the freedom of everyone to explore states of mind, no matter what your state in life. It's shaped by a variety of stimuli from nature and the playful amusement scene, an explosive cocktail that vaults you beyond yourself to yourself. No need to even worry about the expanding valet culture on Rose Ave or elsewhere. You make freedom in the cracks of the glistening facades, and in the contrasts between the new additions to Rose Ave, like Moon Juice, and the residuals like Rose Market. These keep citizens' senses pitched toward the variances from easy and obvious reality.

For over a century this impulse has breathed through residents like a contagion, often erupting accidentally through the most unsuspecting citizens, even street folks, turning them into momentary visionaries. And it's safe to say that Venice is haunted with the memory of these transactions. People come here and change, never leaving. They become possessed and metamorphose into a peculiar kind of Venetian whose rich spirit trumps wealth and poverty.

Will advancing gentrification ever leave Venice immune from recession and the scars of downbeat worlds; reach a point where the ghosts of the past are exorcized and alternative residents cease being formed? Not likely, since profits need low wages; wealth needs and breeds contrast. Super-sized homes bring the homeless. Bubbles burst with deflated contents.

Plus the Kinney legacy and the city's rep as a cultural colony are too entrenched. The scene will likely always bring those who want to discover and rediscover, perform themselves into the popular pantheon.

And many citizens, and their habitats, simply can't be gentrified. Some folks occupy physical and mental spaces so alien to market logic that supply and demand curves are like some new language. They're like Dostoyevsky's underground man who stubbornly acts against his own apparent rational interests, and the ideals of progress.

And some spaces are doomed to remain fallow, returning a wealth of squatters but not profits.

The energy of Venice comes from the coexistence of many tipping points that tip toward the smart and sanitized final fumigation that never seems to arrive. The escrows may fly fast and straight through all barriers, but the Venice that truly matters is produced through angles: what's over, under, sideways and down from the straight and narrow. The anglers worth their sea salt can thumb down the world of exchanges and barter their way through the street mazes where improvement has a diversity of meanings, and gentrification is often gibberish.

The bohemians' days will always be numbered in a society saturated with exchange rituals and money transactions. But the effect of these conditions and influences has led to a redefinition of what a bohemian is. Those who mostly occupy these spaces now are not the "old" bohemians, who may be nearing extinction. Many of these have crossed over and become honorary gentry, or wealthy in their own right, or moved on to another slum where their creative lives can flourish. The remaining bohemians mostly play beneath the radar, or flip their identities in sync with the property speculation and become difficult to pin down. They often speak in tongues, or through their slips for sure, stuttering their adjustment to a world where the relationship between the past and present is becoming so skewed that they feel like they're living in a time warp.

Venice was once an upscale resort and crashed, giving life to other worlds now threatened with extinction. Few likely want a return to a seedy slum of under-consumers. Will it take another Depression, or the discovery of another valuable substance in the sand and swamp to reverse course, to breed another generation of quality anglers, or at least give gentrification a more human face? Perhaps some of those displaced by gentrification will begin to occupy the foreclosed homes, and this will grow in popularity and allow an assortment of new and "old" types to take back the city.

Of course there's always a chance the gentry will get caught in a hotspot, donate their wealth, and slum it on the beach with the pigeons...

But more realistically, change is still possible. Venice's broader political identity after all is a hang-loose facsimile of an independent city-state where citizen-activists, like those around the Free Venice Beachhead, its monthly alternative newspaper, have learned to monitor and challenge the interests that threaten the community, especially those from outside it. Since their numbers have dwindled as well, and given the foothold these interests already have, we can hardly expect a reversal of gentrification any time soon; a return to the days when alternative residents could influence zoning laws, or even shape rent control laws with teeth. But if they can only hold on for a little longer...!

Photos: John O'Kane

About the Author

Long time Venice resident John O’Kane teaches writing and media at the University of California, and has published AMASS Magazine since 1988. He has published many articles and essays, as well as pieces of journalism, poetry, fict...
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