By John Wolff
Sometime back in the early ’70s, in Venice, on the north side of Brooks Avenue, between Pacific Avenue and the Boardwalk, in a vacant lot, someone set up the Free Clothes Box. It was a large wooden cart with a flat square base and one foot boards all around. There was a hand-painted wooden sign on a post in the middle of it that said, “FREE CLOTHES”. The idea was simple. If you had an article of clothing that you didn’t need, you could put it in the Free Clothes Box for anyone to take. If you needed something, like maybe a sweatshirt or a jacket, you could take it out of the Free Clothes Box. This phenomenon lasted for months because it served everyone and cost no one.
Another detail about the Free Clothes Box is almost unbelievable. There was a small can nailed to the wooden post with words that said, “SPARE CHANGE”. The idea was the same. If you had change to spare, you could put it in the Spare Change Can. If you needed a few coins, you could take them out of the Spare Change Can. This detail of the Free Clothes Box only lasted a few days. But, for a while there, you would actually see nickels and pennies in the Spare Change Can.
Would any of this be possible today? What would happen if some good soul set up a Free Clothes Box near the Boardwalk in Venice? There wouldn’t be a security guard to watch over it or surveillance cameras to record pedestrian traffic. It might get tagged with graffiti on the first day. Then the Airbnb tourists would throw trash in it. Finally, the L.A. City Spacemen in their Hazmat Pajamas would come and smash it to pieces. Why was a Free Clothes Box possible in a different time but in the same place?
Perhaps it was because Venice, in those days, could boast of a greater degree of Community. There was a sense of common ownership and identity with the neighborhood. What affected your neighbors affected you. People communicated not by email but by stepping out the back door and talking to the folks from the house across the alley. This was Community. But Community was born from various circumstances.
First of all, the economy was different back then. There wasn’t the kind of corporate, overseas, slave labor production of goods like there is today. Stuff was more durable then and it was manufactured here. That meant that if you worked at a job, any job at all, you could support yourself. It wasn’t the grasping greed economy that keeps everyone in constant competition for scraps. Your neighbors weren’t your opponents.
Secondly, Airbnb and their ilk didn’t exist back then. There weren’t armies of strangers occupying every house and apartment. You could expect to see the same faces every day on your way to work or school. If some shady character was looking in your window while you were away, you could count on your neighbor to say to him, “Hey man! What’s the big idea?” Everyone knew everyone in the neighborhood and kept an eye out for each other.
Lastly, Venice neighborhoods were made of families in those days. And kids are more ready to make friends with other kids than adults are with adults. There weren’t “play dates” then, where you have to drive your child across town to play with her best friend. A new kid just starts hanging out with the neighbor kids and then the parents get to know the parents. Soon, everybody knows and cares about each other. Picture outdoor block parties in the warm summer nights. The whole neighborhood comes out with potluck food. You make the sandwiches, they’ll make the salad, my mom always makes that cake with the hole in the middle. We run up and down the street barefoot after dark and there is no need to fear. No fear.
Venice can have this today. Things can change for the better overnight. An advance in technology could make Google obsolete and chase Big Tech right out of Venice. Airbnb could be supplanted by something cheaper somewhere else. The world economy’s music could stop and all the corporate developers would be left standing without a chair. A sudden local event could make Venice inhospitable to big business. And people’s minds can change; they can change for the better.
There can be a new Free Clothes Box. There can be a Free Book Box or a Free Toy Box or a Free Food Box with no one guarding it but the whole Community. This can happen.