LOS ANGELES (CN) – To the uninitiated, riding an e-scooter along the boardwalk or seeing an Instagram-perfect sunset may be quintessential and authentic Venice Beach, California, experiences.
In their defense, few can resist the siren call of the “spirit of bohemian style in the heart of a beach town,” a place that transcends the concrete gridlock and beckons the “artist in all of us,” as one tourist website promises.
But for longtime, working-class residents of Venice – a Los Angeles neighborhood founded in 1905 – the postcard image of palm tree-lined boardwalks and sun-kissed beachgoers doesn’t match their experience. Waves of rampant urbanization, over-policing, spikes in cost of living and government acquiescence to developers and tech companies have created a tumultuous environment that is hard to cope with.
Tobacco tycoon Abbot Kinney molded Venice from a marshy coastal strip into the “Coney Island of the Pacific,” replete with resort hotels, an aquarium, streetcars, an indoor salt-water bathhouse and boat races on an artificial lagoon. By the mid-20th century, Los Angeles’ trolley system ferried people to the area, where a fleet of gondolas transported them between attractions.
Well into the new millennium, magazine articles have dubbed Venice the “Coolest Block in America” highlighted new couture clothing shops, galleries and modern furniture stores. But the visit-and-shop-here narratives leave out that yesterday’s amusement parks are today’s marijuana “clinics,” weird kitsch shops and Instagrammers hunting for selfies.
Longtime resident Erin Darling says today’s boardwalk scene harkens back to when Venice was one of the few racially diverse California coastal communities. With a boardwalk that has hosted fringe members of society – freak shows, warring gangs, buskers, skateboarders and homeless people – Venice is like the “bohemian version of Rodeo Drive,” Darling said.
A white attorney born in Venice, Darling went to the local high school and grew up in the 1980s and 90s when local gang violence was high. He said having to “navigate difference” in a multiracial community was a good thing.
“It was intense but also beautiful,” Darling said. “I remember kids not wanting to go to birthday parties because of gang violence. Now Venice is a global tourist destination.”
Tourist companies have sought to capitalize on Venice’s history by selling a “commercialized grittiness,” Darling said, adding that Venice has never been “one thing.”
Darling served briefly on the Venice Neighborhood Council – a group that advises the LA City Council – where he brushed against the pro-developer forces that have shaped Venice into the largely privatized space it is today.
These groups, Darling said, think a neighborhood is safer for investment or more interesting when development is rampant and public spaces have been ripped up to make way for commercial developments.
“Who is the neighborhood for?” Darling said. “Is it for people who struggled here for decades, or for people who come in with money and want to enjoy it as an urban playground?”
With stretched ear lobes, tattoos and long, dark hair, Venice resident Mike Bravo stands out in the crowd of white, bearded laptop clackers at Groundworks cafe on Rose Avenue, a short drive from the beach.
Bravo comes from five generations of Venice residents. They lived through a period during the War on Drugs, when Venice was called the “ghetto by the sea.”