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Venice West Cafe: A Lost Beat Landmark that Helped Shape Modern-Day Venice

Piccolo Restaurant | Photo by: Kathryn Noonan

The Beat haunts of the 1950s and 1960s are hard to find in Venice, but their legacy is not. Today beach-goers encounter aspiring artists displaying their wares and sprawling murals across the walls of local buildings, and they also find skaters, ranging from ages five to fifty, dropping into the bowl. When sauntering down the boardwalk, however, a pedestrian can also pass 7 Dudley Avenue without realizing its importance to the eclectic landscape they see around them. The building, now an upscale restaurant known as Piccolo, used to be home to the Venice West Cafe. This space, popular among the Beats, inspired a counterculture that swept the streets of Venice, forever changing the neighborhood's cultural background.

 

Kinney's Vision for Venice

Shortly after purchasing 400 acres of land south of Santa Monica in 1892, Abbot Kinney began constructing a unique vision from nothing more than swampy marshland. 1 Although entrepreneurs mocked Kinney for his decision to purchase the bare and boggy area then known as South Ocean Park, the eccentric businessman from Morristown, New Jersey, saw potential for more than what met the eye. 2 He envisioned, historian Jeffrey Stanton argues, "a beach community that would foster a cultural renaissance, an American renaissance that would begin on the shores of the Pacific." 3 Before long, buildings with colonnaded archways and canals replicating those in Venice, Italy were constructed. As Kinney's vision came to life, the beach community rapidly became a Southern California tourist destination and remained a popular amusement center for much of the early twentieth century.

By the end of World War II, however, Kinney's vision began to fade and his well-known "Venice of America" soon became branded as the "Slum by the Sea". The discovery of oil in 1929 marked the beginning of a frenzy that had turned the once thriving beach community into an oil industry wasteland, significantly decreasing its amount of visitors and local property values. 4 Ultimately, the newly formed low-income area became home to drug abusers, underprivileged families, and poor artists, such as the Beats.

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Venice West

The Beat Generation, known prominently in San Francisco and New York, emerged in Venice in the 1950s. This younger generation of struggling artists and poets sought more than the suburban ideal and found the beach neighborhood a place that inspired their creativity. Most from local communities in Los Angeles, Venice beatniks, like their predecessors in North Beach and Greenwich Village, cherished an unconventional bohemian lifestyle that valued jazz, poetry, and art.

Lawrence Lipton, recognized by many as the Venice movement's leader, had lived in the area prior its popularity but befriended other prominent Beats in his early life as a writer and editor. Over time, his home and other public spaces became havens for the community's bohemian counterculture which would soon be publicly recognized as "Venice West". While seeking to define this newly evolved Beat Generation, Lipton's 1959 novel The Holy Barbarians brought publicity to the once forgotten neighborhood and introduced "Venice West" to the world. 5 Images throughout his book brought the most attention to Venice Beat hangouts, such as the Gas House and Venice West Cafe. Purchased by former San Franciscan Eric Nord in late 1958, the Gas House at 1501 Ocean Walk was previously a Bingo Parlor that his business partner Al Matthews had hoped to use as an artistic showcase. 6 With its Venetian colonnaded archways, the space served as a common place for bohemian activities.

The Gas House, 1962 | Los Angeles Public Library
The Gas House, 1962 | Los Angeles Public Library

Stuart Perkoff and the Venice West Cafe

While hoping to serve the same purpose, however, the Venice West Cafe, located at 7 Dudley Avenue, had a unique reason for opening its doors. Complicating the story of the Venice bohemians, Stuart Perkoff, a well-known Beat poet, became repulsed by Lipton who refused to share the "the face of Venice West". Born in St. Louis, Perkoff began publishing his work at the age of 20, moved to Venice with his family in 1952, and became, according to scholar Bill Mohr, one of the "most visible street poets of the Beat Generation." 7 As a result of his growing disgust for Lipton, the poet sought to establish a new gathering place, besides the Gas House and Lipton's living room, where Beats could assemble.

Late in the summer of 1958, Perkoff and his friend purchased a building just off Ocean Front Walk with hopes of providing a visible alternative to other Beat hangouts. Although Venice West Cafe would become both a coffee shop and popular Beat sanctuary, however, it would not do so under Perkoff's ownership. The poet owned the cafe for a short six months before he was forced to sell it due to lack of business. 8 Ironically, the coffee shop would not reach its popularity until just after The Holy Barbarians' release. Perkoff, however, never accepted this ironic connection and always claimed the cafe's eventual success rested upon the "inexplicable authenticity" interwoven into its founding framework. 9

Venice West Cafe | KCET Departures Flickr
Venice West Cafe | KCET Departures Flickr

Although beatniks debated who brought the cafe to fame, the coffee shop's popularity remained uncontested. Lined wall-to-wall with paintings and stuffed to the brim with tables and chairs, the spot played host to beatniks sipping coffee while writing and reciting their newest poetry. During the day, the air was filled with conversation and the occasional jazz song, but when night fell, the pounding of bongo drums reverberated throughout the neighborhood. 10 Charles Brittin, a photographer known for his coverage of Venice in the 50s and 60s, best captured some of these popular Beat scenes. 11

Interior of the Venice West Cafe | Photo by: Charles Brittin
Interior of the Venice West Cafe | Photo by: Charles Brittin
Exterior of the Venice West Cafe | Photo by: Charles Brittin
Exterior of the Venice West Cafe | Photo by: Charles Brittin

Community Resistance

Over time, battles with the broader Venice community and city plans for urban renewal forced the closure of both popular Beat hangouts. In 1962, Eric "Big Daddy" Nord decided to close his Gas House and move. The Los Angeles Times, reporting on the occurrence, mentioned that it was "possibly the end of beatism in the Venice area." 12 The Venice West Cafe remained in business for a few more years. In 1966, however, the landlord sought to evict the coffee shop after experiencing trouble renting out spaces adjoining the noisy cafe. This, along with pressure from the Ocean Front Improvement Association who was attempting to gentrify the area, ultimately forced owner John Haag to close his doors. 13 "The last of the area's coffee houses - the Venice West Cafe, 7 Dudley Ave. - has been served with an eviction notice effective Feb. 28," a Los Angeles Times article reads, removing one of the last visible reminders of Beat's presence from the neighborhood. 14

 

The Legacy of Venice West

Although Venice West had a seemingly short-lived fame, its bohemian culture continued to impact the area long after Beat hangouts disappeared. Today, the beach neighborhood still provides the community with an artistic outlet, while its Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) offers opportunities for creative expression throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Similarly, the region remains a center for poetry and home to literary organizations such as Beyond Baroque, one of the nation's leading independent Literary Arts Centers. Furthermore, bohemian's anti-mainstream values also encouraged a "drop out" culture that inspired the revolutionary Zephyr skate team and ultimately Venice's renowned skate culture.

While 1950s and 60s Venice may not have mirrored Kinney's exact vision, the beach community's Beat inhabitants became proof that the neighborhood could foster American cultural renaissance. In 2010, the Cultural Heritage Commission of the City of Los Angeles recognized the building at 7 Dudley Avenue to pay tribute to the local coffee shop that inspired the influential Beat Generation. 15 So next time you walk past Piccolo Restaurant along Ocean Front Walk, take a moment to peek at the plaque on the wall. The Venice you see today would not be what it is without the important history of 7 Dudley Avenue.

Venice West Cafe Plaque | Photo by: Kathryn Noonan
Venice West Cafe Plaque | Photo by: Kathryn Noonan


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1 John Hamilton Gilmore, Magic Wrought by Men and Money (Southern Pacific, 1911), 113.
2Jim Lilliefors, American Boardwalks: From Coney Island to California (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006), 176.
3Jeffrey Stanton, Venice of America (Los Angeles: Donahue Pub., 1987), 8.
4Howard Kegley, "Oil Field Found East of Venice," Los Angeles Times, Dec 20, 1929.
5John Arthur Maynard, Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 23.
6Hadley Meares, "The Gas House: Beatniks vs. Neatniks and the Battle for Venice Beach's Soul," KCET, February 7, 2014.
7Bill Mohr, Hold Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 70.
8Ibid., 71.
9Ibid., 72.
10 "Beach Music," Los Angeles Times, Jan 31, 1965.
11"Charles Brittin - Photographer: The Beat Years," KCET.
12Stan Mandel, "Big Daddy to Close Venice's Gas House," Los Angeles Times, Jan 28, 1962.
13Ken Hansen, "Venice West to Fight Eviction," Los Angeles Times, Jan 27, 1966.
14"Coffee House Ordered Out," Los Angeles Times, Feb 03, 1966.
15Martha Groves, "Site of Venice West Café Beat Generation Hangout Designated City Landmark," Los Angeles Times Blogs, May 19, 2010.