By Jim Smith
1968 was one of those tumultuous revolutionary years like 1917, 1848 and 1789 and 1776. Unrest, led by a youth revolt, spread across the world. France nearly became a socialist country and Czechoslovakia nearly became a capitalist country. The Tet offensive proved conclusively that the United States was not winning the war in Vietnam. Rev. Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The Democratic Party was breaking apart, as Chicago demonstrations turned violent and bloody. The Tlatelolco Massacre by the Mexican Army in Mexico City killed hundreds, if not thousands, of the country’s youth. That nightmare still weighs heavily on the country’s conscience. Millions of young humans on planet Earth were alive with new ideas, new music and new ways of interacting. As the Buffalo Springfield put it: “There’s somethin’ happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” Forty years later, it still ain’t exactly clear what happened.
The Sixties Generation was unique for a number of reasons. After World War II there was an explosion of babies as GIs returned from years away from their spouses. The years immediately after the war witnessed the height of the American Empire. Half the world gross product was produced by the U.S. Optimism and faith in the future was soaring. Public works, a university education for all, and an ever improving life were the accepted ideology.
But as the baby boomers began going to college, that world began to shatter. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought home the real possibility of nuclear annihilation. The assassination of John F. Kennedy ended the hopes and dreams of millions. Segregation and racism weren’t about to go away. The Vietnam War kept growing and seemed entirely senseless. Into this boiling cauldron was poured the catalyst: pot and LSD. Psychedelic visions of a world based on love, joy and meaning moved most of an entire generation to view their lives in an entirely new way. Venice was again at the center of the storm.
It was an ecstatic time to be in Venice. Rents were low, and the neighbors were non-judgmental. A job was something one did if it was absolutely necessary to earn some money. The real “job” was existing in the open air University of Venice. Getting up in the late morning and just walking toward the beach meant that anything could happen. Often, one ended up with new friends and perhaps someone new in bed. The next day the world started anew.
In the Venice of yore, anyone seen wearing a suit or driving a late model car was taken to be a landlord come to collect rent. Quick! Out the back door, if you don’t have it. Likewise, anyone with a camera was probably a narc, as was anyone who asked for your last name. Wanting too much personal information about someone – job, address, background – tagged the inquirer as a square who wasn’t living in the Now. And Venice in 1968 was living the endless summer.
But every good story needs a villain, and into our story came the Venice Master Plan, a devious scheme by the L.A. city government to destroy the Venice we knew, and replace it with a high-rise nightmare, with a yacht harbor where the canals stood and a freeway bisecting Venice into Black and white neighborhoods. It was urban renewal at its worst. Urban removal was a better description.
Fortunately, Venice had its share of political radicals who knew how to call a meeting, make a flyer, pressure elected officials and build a community.
John Haag, with his wife Anna, had been the proprietor of the Venice West Cafe, one of the last Beat hangouts. When it closed in 1966, Haag was ready for something new. He got involved with civil rights activities and was an initiator of the California Peace and Freedom Party. His efforts were instrumental in putting the new party on the ballot in 1967 as an anti-war alternative to the Democrats.
By 1968, it was clear to him and others that if change was going to come to America, it would happen community by community. Haag; Jane Gordon, a teacher; and Rick Davidson, an architect; decided to work full time for the Venice Peace and Freedom Party. They were given an office at 1727 W. Washington Blvd. (now Abbot Kinney Blvd.) by artist Earl Newman. Out of this office, scores of activists came and went, and occasionally held brain storming sessions. Out of one of these sessions, it was decided to launch either a Venice newspaper or radio station.
The newspaper won out. It was dubbed the Free Venice Beachhead. Free Venice was a term that was being applied to lots of different organizations that were emerging to fight the Master Plan, or to organize theater groups, food distribution and child care. Beachhead could be interpreted several different ways. In military terms a beachhead (the Normandy Beachhead) is a toehold against an entrenched enemy. Many people felt that Venice was a beachhead for a radically new lifestyle. A Beach Head is also a pot smoker, of which there were many among the planned readership. Other definitions of beachhead may occur to you as you think about it.
The first issue – it was planned as a bi-monthly until the amount of work overwhelmed the staff – appeared on Dec. 1, 1968. A front page editorial proclaimed, “This paper is a poem.”
It went on, “We decided not to sell it to some of you, but to give it to all of you. It is a poem for all the people…Our subject this issue is Venice. Our purpose is to create a community.”
While John and Rick are no longer with us, and Jane has moved to the Valley, we of the current Beachhead collective are very proud that another founding member Carol Fondiller is still part of our staff, and still cranks out her unique prose when she’s good and ready to do it.
Forty years ago the Free Venice Beachhead was greeted by Venetians as a welcome new addition to their community. We hope that in 2008, we continue to earn your welcome and your support.