‘Commercialized Grittiness’ Taking Hold in Free-Spirited Venice, California

Venice has evolved over the years from “Coney Island of the Pacific” to its current, funky tourist-trap vibe, but longtime residents say the histories of its working class communities of color should be preserved as much as its skater and artist culture. (Martin Macias Jr. / CNS)

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.

Commercialized grittiness

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.

Storefronts and food stalls on the Venice boardwalk are known for selling weird, kitsch t-shirts and greasy food, but as more polished, corporate shops like Ben and Jerry’s move in the mom-and-pop shops must fight for space and attention from tourists. (Martin Macias Jr. / CNS)

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?”

Save Venice

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.”

He says he remembers people of color in Venice – especially black residents of Oakwood, a Venice neighborhood – experiencing violent police arrests and home raids executed under the pretense of gang injunctions.

Far from the oily, bronzed bodies of Muscle Beach, touristy bars and the picturesque canals, black residents’ homes were gutted without notice and children had guns drawn on them, according to Oakwood residents’ 2010 lawsuit against LA.

Police said the actions would curb violence in heavy crime areas but a federal judge disagreed, barring LA from enforcing injunctions in 2018 over concerns of due process violations.

But Bravo said the injunctions left their mark, “priming neighborhoods for gentrification” by using broken-windows policing and harassing youth of color to push people out.

“These policies don’t always spell out what they really do,” Bravo said. “The intention doesn’t matter, it’s the impact.”

Bravo is helping a group called Save Venice to preserve one of the area’s last remaining black cultural sites, the First Baptist Church. The church – a beacon, first for new generation of formerly enslaved black people and later, for LA black residents fleeing restrictive covenants – was sold in 2017 and is slated to be developed into a single-family mansion.

“I want the new, white residents of Venice to acknowledge that they benefit from the displacement over the years,” Bravo said, adding he would like the city to embrace “right-of-return” policies.

Beach town homelessness

A short walk from the boutique shops and bars of Abbott Kinney Boulevard, Sharlana Torrey organizes her tent at a homeless encampment on Third and Sunset Avenues.

A homeless encampment stretches along Third Avenue and Sunset in Venice, a Los Angeles neighborhood that is home to the largest concentration of homeless people on the Westside. (Martin Macias Jr. / CNS)

Torrey grew up in Antelope Valley, California, and has been homeless in Venice off and on for two years, facing run-ins with angry residents and police who often fine her for blocking the sidewalk with her things.

“Being homeless in Venice is thrillingly terrifying,” Torrey, a poet and violinist, said. “It’s beautiful here but people put their noses up at us all the time. Most of the time I’m organizing things that haven’t been stolen yet.”

Venice has the largest concentration of homeless people on LA’s Westside. Residents and businesses were criticized in recent months for installing large planter boxes on sidewalks without permits, a move advocates say is a ploy to keep people from sleeping outside.

Torrey’s encampment spans an entire city block, from the sidewalk outside a public storage building to a high-end gym next to a fancy restaurant.

Down the street from the encampment, Los Angeles begins construction this week on an $8 million temporary homeless shelter. The shelter site – a former bus yard one block from Venice Beach – is surrounded by single and multifamily homes.

The Venice Stakeholders Association sued LA to halt construction of the shelter but was shot down by a judge in May. The group of residents and businesses claimed the 154-bed shelter would attract more homeless people and boost crime and noise levels.

While homelessness in Venice declined 18% between 2017 and 2018, this year’s point-in-time count found a spike of 12% in Council District 11, which includes Venice.

Los Angeles is set to begin construction on an $8 million temporary homeless shelter one block from Venice Beach and steps away from homes. Residents and business groups opposing the project say it will heighten noise and crime to insufferable levels and divert public funds away from permanent housing for the homeless. (Martin Macias Jr. / CNS)

Outside the site, Adilia Aguilar of resident group Venice United said while she supports housing for the homeless, she can’t get behind a loud, open-air temporary shelter.

“The homeless need long-term solutions that will work,” said Aguilar, a 25-year resident of Venice. “This is a three-year project and the city will ask for more money after that, but how many will be helped?”

Venice Stakeholders Association president Mark Ryavec said the shelter will encourage others to camp around the site, which is close to an elementary school.

“This is a magnet for homelessness on steroids,” Ryavec said, noting his group gives food and material donations to the homeless.

Bravo, who also served briefly on the Venice Neighborhood Council, said he’s upset the shelter funds aren’t going toward a long-term housing option for the homeless.

But the conversation about homelessness often falls into a binary trap of being either for or against the homeless, Bravo said, adding that donations by local groups are often “PR moves” that use altruism to mask the goal of getting the homeless out of Venice.

“Charity for the homeless can be a cop-out,” Bravo said. “They don’t need charity, they need solidarity.”

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