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A Los Angeles Primer: Venice

"You could always live in Venice," a friend suggested as I considered both an employment prospect in Santa Monica and my own unwillingness to live someplace so seemingly distant and expensive. Venice, the next beach city south (albeit one incorporated into Los Angeles proper since 1926), has long reveled in the reputation of offering a cheaper, less controlled, more bohemian alternative to its neighbor. Though I didn't come away with the Santa Monica job, I did come away fascinated by this other, storied place in which, under different circumstances, I may or may not have lived. I still occasionally make the westward ride over there, never quite believing that just over an hour's pedaling from downtown brings you to what feels like a separate reality: Venice's abundance of cheerful, alternately slick and decrepit seaside architecture; its retail areas that range between highly curated and seemingly lawless; its European-filled beach; its famously freakish boardwalk.

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Yet I hear the boardwalk doesn't host as many freaks as it used to, the newer shops only vaguely reflect neighborhood history and identity, those crumbling apartments cost a pretty penny, and as for those live-work spaces with their planes of light wood and glass and surfboards resting on steel balconies, you might as well not even ask. Venice still feels, on the ground, like a distinct, and distinctively more relaxed, realm from the city to its east. Such realms, of course, inevitably make you wonder if they felt even more different before, in a time on which you've missed out. Decades ago, Jan Morris described Venice as "a struggling enclave of unorthodoxy," "a forlorn kind of suburb" built upon "the remains of a fin de siècle attempt to recreate the original Venice, 'Venice Italy,' upon the Pacific coast. A few Renaissance arcades remain, a Ruskinian window here and there, and there is a hangdog system of canals which, with their low-built bridges, their loitering ducks, and their dog-messed paths, their smells of silt and dust and their air of stagnant hush, really do contrive to preserve a truly Venetian suggestion of decay."

She wrote that in 1976, and a great deal has changed in the intervening years, those canals especially. I read about the long battle to preserve their decay in sociologist Andrew Deener's "Venice: A Contested Bohemia in Los Angeles," a newer study I picked up to help me make sense of the place. Those who fought to keep the canals a squatter's paradise eventually lost, such ragtag causes never having fared well amid growing real-estate demand, and today's visitors to Venice enjoy a walk along quaint and orderly if still muddy waterways threading past multimillion-dollar homes. As little in the way of activity as it offers to nonresidents (or those not looking to become residents), the canal neighborhood still counts as an essential Venice experience, alongside the beach, naturally an attraction since the days when tobacco magnate Abbot Kinney sought to build the "Venice of America", and the much more recently made commercial claims of the boulevard that bears the ambitious developer's name.

Just as a first-time visitor to Venice might assume that the canals have always provided a place to canoe (at least for their moneyed homeowners), they might also assume that Abbott Kinney Boulevard has always provided a row of unusual places to shop (at least for those willing to spend enough to command unusualness). In fact, the modern street has come as the result of an early-nineties renaming and rebranding of a confusing diagonally-oriented commercial stretch of Washington Boulevard. Deener calls Abbot Kinney Boulevard an example of "fashionable bohemia," a label sure to start a wide range of aesthetic, economic, and cultural debates. It lays beyond dispute, however, that the legally national chain-free street's current brand of bohemia — analog over digital, Continental over North American, earnest over ironic, handmade over precision engineered, midcentury modern over modern modern, with exceptions made for the Apple devices needed to make the transactions and supply the background music — has grown fashionable indeed.

Kinney himself had high-minded plans for the Venice of America, and not only architectural ones. Intent on crafting a cultural destination of the highest order, he mounted a series of performances, exhibits, and lectures there, which lost him enough money that he ultimately caved to popular demand for a West Coast Coney Island instead. Browsing the wares on his namesake boulevard 92 years after his death, I couldn't help but feel that the street had brokered some kind of compromise: buying a suitable low-yield wine, piece of artisanally distressed lawn furniture, Babar book, or fennel omelet does, I suppose, demand a certain level of knowledge and discernment, selling them a higher one still. Granted, me and my fellow shoppers hadn't come to broaden our knowledge of international life and thought, but nor had we come to gawk mindlessly at the garish seaside amusements that so appalled residents of the late 1900s. What garishness remains in Venice today, you'll find less than a mile away on Ocean Front Walk, also known as the boardwalk: sunglasses, t-shirts, souvenirs, and snacks for sale on the brick-and-mortar businesses on the inland side, and the theoretical free-for-all — sale, barter, or otherwise — in the "Free Speech Zone" of the beach side.

With no immediate need for incense, portraits of jazz musicians, Zippo lighters of unclear provenance, or my own name written in Chinese, I rarely patronize the Free Speech Zone myself. But I do understand the strip's importance as one of the last artifacts of Venice's well-known period of neglected utopianism. Deener's book, which examines various struggles for the soul of the area, heightened my awareness of that, though I now perceive the place as an all-out culture war between the transient boardwalk merchants, the immigrant souvenir shop owners, the entrepreneurs painstakingly selecting specialized coffee beans and Japanese sneakers, the ever-present and high-profile homeless, the frustrated homeowners and home-improvers who got in early, the blacks increasingly outnumbered even in their own quarter, the faintly unconventional Industry types and incoming well-off (possibly employed at Google's binoculars-shaped building on Main Street) looking for a cool place to live, and the numerous aged beach bums and hippies who still can't quite tell what hit their neighborhood. Walking the streets of Venice, I don't know whether to turn socialist or capitalist.

"Contested Bohemia" contains a few arguments for the anarchic life in glowing first-hand accounts from the beach, the canals, or the perpetual bounce from home to open home in the sixties and seventies. They remind me of the passage of Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" where he thinks back to his time amid the San Francisco counterculture, his absolute certainty that "no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was," the "fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning." "We had all the momentum," he remembers, "we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave," but now "you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back." I've often wondered if you can spot traces of that metaphorical wave in Venice, a place once considered as welcoming to hippies and other would-be re-inventors of society as San Francisco itself, but then I always get caught up watching the actual waves of the Pacific.


Photos by Colin Marshall.


More stories and history at DEPARTURES: VENICE


About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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