The Great Leveler: The Venice Boardwalk

Beat poet Philomene Long once said that the remains of the great American feast--its crumbs--ended up in Venice. In no place is Long's insight more evident than in the polyglot tapestry of the Venice Boardwalk. People flock to the Boardwalk because the narrow stretch of wood, concrete and sand is among America's great levelers: it pairs the weird with the sublime, the rich with the poor, democratizing long-time residents, newcomers and tourists in a way that is hard to duplicate in any other place.

Where else except the Boardwalk could author, comedian and Venice legend Swami X have stood for years, performing acid, incisive poetry next to another area favorite, street performer Harry Perry? (You know Perry: he's the guy with the turban and electric guitar... on roller skates!)

Since the very beginning, Venice's boardwalk was a combination incubator, blender, stage and catwalk for street culture that broke boundaries and expectations. In the 1970's, for example, a group of kids who would eventually become internationally known as the Z-Boys where mentored by skate and surf legends Skip Engblom and Jeff Hoo, all of them coming together to create the tools, attitude and artistry of modern skateboarding. In addition to creating new forms, the area gave back to older ones, as Boardwalk-minded Venice artists, surfboard shapers and car shops experimented with high-end industrial materials borrowed from Southern California's aerospace industry, introducing cutting-edge technologies to their fields.

As with all meeting-places, though, the Boardwalk is not just a site of artistic and creative innovation, but also a place of occasional social conflict. Perched at the iconic edge of America, its temperate climate, open space and live-and-let-live ethos have long attracted large numbers of the homeless. Venice's social values could for many years be described as accommodating to this population, But the one-two punch of the last century's rapid upswing in property values and California's fraying social safety-net are forcing community activist such as Barbara Peck to fight for the rights of the area's homeless as never before.

This week, Departures: Venice will explore these poetic - and sometimes hard-edged - crumbs, and discover how the area's live-and-let-live attitude is deeply rooted in the American West's ethos of individualism, non-conformism and personal responsibility.


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