By Theo Kirkham-Lewitt
Back and forth on her low-ride beach cruiser bicycle, wearing a black Suicidal Tendencies band t-shirt, dark Ray Ban shades and blood-red lipstick, she pops out against a background of the now tame Abbot Kinney Boulevard. “F.U. GQ! Get out of our city!” Tamara shouts repeatedly as she continually passes by the Party’s entrance. Her partner in protest, with a blue Mohawk over an otherwise bald head and a black shirt that reads, in a white gothic font, “I hate Venice…because of you,” detonates punk rock tunes from a small boom box. Their elderly comrade, wearing a floral print kimono, bobbed grey hair dyed blindingly purple, holds a sign reading, “Venice, The People’s Beach.” Amongst an array of picket signs held by a militantly diverse crowd of long-time Venice residents, GQ magazine’s team of systematically styled representatives stand at attention, arms crossed, hair gelled, matching shirts reading “GQHQ,” projecting an overall aura of disinterest in the growing boycott around them.
The fenced off party held in the parking lot of Brandelli’s Brig, a once rough and tumble bar that attracted Venice’s rather surly crowd, had been transformed into a tidy display of fashion and ‘culture.’ Equipped with a photo booth resembling that of a red carpet and a skateboard ramp attended to by young, manicured men whose image seemed more in line with a Hollister brand advertisement than Venice’s bristly skateboarding past, GQ Magazine’s party on Abbot Kinney Boulevard manifested a change in physical form. The partygoers, a trendy crowd of recent Venice transplants, clashed tremendously with the protest going on just on mere steps away.
Abbot Kinney, the roughly mile-long commercial Boulevard that stretches between Venice Boulevard and Main Street, sacrificially accepted the blunt force of Venice’s transformation, often referred to as the street’s ‘renaissance’. Gentrification seems more fitting. One of the few prominent commercial streets along Venice’s coastal regions, Abbot Kinney acted as a cross section, one in which storeowners, restaurateurs, gallery owners, and their patrons came into close proximity with the neighborhood that rears the boulevard to the east, Oakwood. Abbot Kinney’s close vicinity with Oakwood, a neighborhood central to the once considerable amount of the gang activity in Venice, created a tension between the sundry residents. While ‘tension’ tends to take on a negative connotation, it took partial responsibility in defining Venice as a whole for quite some time. Creative people of all types flocked to Venice in part because of this very cultural friction. While nearby suburbs lacked tension, Venice had abundance, and thus, had its identity.
On November 16th, 2013, GQ magazine decided to throw a party to celebrate the boulevard’s rise to its current position upon the regal thrown of LA’s hip social scene. As a follow up to an article they published in April of 2012, GQ announced that it planned to “take over” what they had called “the coolest block in America,” for a (pretentious) day of “style.” November 16th (1850) also marks the birthday of Mr. Abbot Kinney, the developer and conservationist that founded Venice beach in 1905. GQ’s celebration seemed, however, to focus more on the “coolness” of the once turbulent boulevard, rather than celebrate the historical relevance of the day, a subtle, albeit, perhaps unintentional, slap in the face to those residents who have called Venice home for a lifetime.
I grew up on Dudley Avenue, one of the many ‘walk-streets’ in the area, a microcosm of the surrounding three square miles that once endearingly embraced a title, “Ghetto by the Sea;” a melting pot within melting pots. As a young kid who wanted nothing more than to surf all morning and skate all day, the backdrop of my daily life seemed exclusively of ‘the street’. Pre-sunrise commutes down the iconic Venice boardwalk, surfboard in hand, bled into countless hours clattering up and down the walk-street with the other neighborhood kids.
First-name basis conversations with the local homeless men and women were the norm. Pick up games of basketball with the gypsies’ kids from down the block happened weekly. Altercations between seedy hooded men and women in front of the crack house at 58 Dudley Ave kept us on our toes. The neighbors’ urban chicken-coup provided hours of entertainment. The Phoenix house, a drug rehab center a few steps around the corner, added its own array of unstable characters to the circus, while across the street, Eric Clapton’s modern mansion stood obtrudingly amongst the surrounding cottages and stucco apartment buildings. Across the street from my 1907-built home, a successful entertainment lawyer lived next door to Katherine Hardwick, Hollywood director most well known for Thirteen and the first Twilight movie. A quick glance up my street, across the perpendiculars of Pacific Avenue and Main Street, and the iconic Frank Geary designed “binocular building” dominated the horizon. Assuming the weather was favorable, floods of tourists wedged themselves into the mix of street vendors and vagrants, as if they were the excessive grout between lines of deteriorating bricks.
In the midst of this charming chaos, the neighborhood kids went about their daily non-routine, Dudley Avenue as their playground. Of course we had some loose supervision. My dad, an independent film producer, often watched us skate, occasionally accompanied by his old friend Eddie Bunker, a former two-decade-long inmate at San Quentin Penitentiary turned writer, who would humorously point out to my dad which houses on the block he had boosted in his former life. Apparently he had hit them all. Our once-drug dealing neighbor served as another source of supervision. Always home, he ceaselessly kept at least one protective eye on us, the other eye on his ‘business’. In the event that Crazy Mary, a local schizophrenic homeless woman that frequented our neighborhood, decided to venture up onto our urban playground, screaming indecipherable nonsense, our adolescent games of tag suddenly became training. She scared the living crap out of us, and would send us hopping over my home’s short fence, darting onto my porch quicker than a ‘crack head’ could put flame to pipe. To us, it was an exhilarating, and admittedly horrifying, game. My parents and older sister (of 4 years) would always laugh in retrospect at the time she got her dress stuck on the fence in attempt to run from an approaching Mary, frantically running in place as she gained no ground. Too young to remember this incident for myself, it became that of a wives’ tale to me, The Legend of Mary and the Dress.
The luxury of a living on this “walk street” meant that all of the interaction and people-watching unfolded without the interruption of passing cars; our very own concrete park. Perhaps if we had lived on one of the more popular commuter streets like Pacific, Rose, or near Abbot Kinney Boulevard, we would have noticed all of the fancy cars that were becoming more and more common over the last near-decade. Fumes of change began seeping through the cracks of our wonderfully confused community. Sure, our contemporary “Ghetto by the Sea” remains by the sea, but the “Ghetto” qualities that made the community exciting have since faded to near extinction.
Upon this stage of both sub-cultural confrontation and coexistence, creative people of all types found inspiration. Steadfast in their devotion to non-normative society, the beatniks adopted Venice as a Mecca. Here, they drew inspiration from the surrounding street culture and the accessibility of narcotics. Throughout the seventies and beyond, Venice became known as one of the most hardcore, localized hubs of surf and skate culture to date, germinating yet another subset of social rejects. Venice’s history of providing room and board for hoards of culturally deviant castaways certainly left its mark on the small beachside city. While the beatniks may have faded, relics of their era persist. One glance at either the beachside parking lots or residential side streets, and the curious visitor would have been hard pressed to miss the bearded men in their florally cloaked trailer homes, throwbacks to the city’s fading past. The lack of these vehicular floral orchestrations both literally and metaphorically marks a sad end to the vibrancy of Venice’s identity, its shift towards ‘the ordinary’.
Over the course of the last dozen years or so, Venice’s reputation of cultural eclecticism has fallen below a matter of fact, and crept closer and closer towards the realm of myth. Many Venetians attribute much of their present disillusionment to Google, who, in November of 2011, moved roughly 450 engineers into the space at the Frank Geary Binocular building, simultaneously taking over the two surrounding buildings. While the move may have only taken place recently, the surrounding community began experiencing a shift in character months in advance, as the number of high-end restaurants and designer boutiques began to inflate at an alarming rate. Rose Avenue, a commercial street less than a block away from Google’s new headquarters seemed to mutate the fastest. In what felt like an overnight occurrence, condo complexes were erected, along with a string of cafes serving up ten-dollar juices and five-dollar coffees a la Café Gratitude. To a devout foodie, the flash flood of fine dining was a blessing. The obvious alignment towards an incoming upper social class of technological entrepreneurs, on the other hand, made me nauseous.
In an article published on LA Currents in May of this year, Tasbeeh Herwees illuminates the opinions of a handful of longtime Venice residents, including those held by Deborah Lashever, member of Occupy Venice as well as a small local business owner. She recalls that Google said “that they were moving to Venice because they really like the culture…so I don’t understand why they want to wreck it.” As Tamara, one of the more vocal protesters from the GQHQ protest points out, “they wanted to make it a community and make it part of our community, but they’re not. They’re totally separating themselves. They literally look at us like we’re the scum of the earth, but we’re the artists! We’re the ones that made [Venice] what it is!” While expressing her thoughts, Tamara’s frustration became increasingly visible as she noticed her ex-landlord hanging out at the GQ event. Recently evicted due to drastic increases in rent, Tamara, and many residents in a similar situation, take the changes in Venice’s character very personally.
Despite all of the changes brought forth by the rushed gentrification of the once coastal ghetto, and the apparent death of a city’s soul, oddly enough, tension, that ever-defining trait, lives on. Whereas the past embraced a tension between art and crime, concrete and sand, both the present and foreseeable future seem to have adopted a new, perhaps more ubiquitous alteration, one that exists between economic and social classes. Perhaps more accessible to the observing outsider, this archetypal tension follows suit with Venice’s shift towards becoming increasingly palatable to the masses. Having lived in Venice for just over twenty years, I’m disturbed at how quickly I have been assigned a sense of displacement towards my own city. While Venice will always be my home, I may have to dig increasingly deeper into my memory to regain the sense of place that once defined my home experience. Timothy Leary sightings replaced by glimpses of Robert Downy Jr., and artists replaced by trust-funders, the old kind of Venetians roll with the punches, still the early rounds of a steep uphill battle for ownership; Venice’s new form of turf warfare.
Above: Ocean Front Walk, 1972. Photo: Richard Mann
By Theo Kirkham-Lewitt