By Jack Neworth
Venice Beach is home to some of the most talented street artists and musicians in the world. In some way it’s part of why Venice’s fame extends around the world. And it definitely does. In various polls of desired destinations of international tourists, visiting Venice is #2 right behind Disneyland. That one is a theme park and the other is where people work, live and call home, illustrates that Venice’s notoriety is just one of many enigmas of life here.
Skyrocketing real estate values have also brought additional pressures here leading to seemingly constant battles between developers, landlords and residents. In the middle are often Venice’s street performers and homeless population. With regard to the homeless, to their credit, most Venetians seem to favor compassionate treatment of those less fortunate than themselves.
Among the most respected of the “boardwalk people” is Cornell Smith (AKA “Smitty”), who’s both an artist and homeless. Smitty “resides” at Horizon Avenue and Ocean Front Walk in space #30. Each morning Smitty gets up before 6 a.m. or he will get a ticket. Then he must be in his spot on the boardwalk by 9 a.m., with all his possession, or he faces another ticket.
A plumber for over thirty years, as well as artist, film maker and writer, Smitty is most famous in Venice for his unique wheel chair, which has to be the Cadillac of all wheelchairs with its almost magical feel. It took Smitty three years to build. It includes dozens of sections of plumbing piping.
Hooked up to a powerful hose, the wheel chair becomes a fantastic water show. It has 36 separate valves that open in sequence that when choreographed to his music system, creates a breath-taking performance art. (Let’s see a Cadillac do that!)
Unfortunately, building the chair cost Smitty his last residence near downtown L.A.’s skid row. Apparently, construction of the elaborate chair violated his lease and led to his homeless condition. He certainly can’t afford to store the chair, plus he loves talking to people about it, so Venice is a perfect fit.
Born in Chicago 60 years ago, Smitty was raised with his six siblings, in the dangerous South Side neighborhood with its gangs, drugs and violence. When he was ten his father gave him a Super 8 camera and his dream of being a film maker was born. So it was, that after graduating high school, Smitty wound up attending Columbia College majoring in Film Studies.
In 1992, Smitty won two film making awards and has continued to write screenplays even while without a roof over his head. Despite his difficult living circumstances and health issues, Smitty remains ever hopeful.
Due to Smitty’s diabetes, eight years ago the lower part of his left leg was amputated. He also has a heart condition which often leaves him weak. Add to that the general obstacles all homeless folks face, and you can imagine the day-to-day challenges Smitty deals with.
For example, just sleeping can leave a homeless person vulnerable to being robbed or attacked. Fortunately Smitty has friends on the boardwalk who protect one another. And then there’s always the fear of police harassment, though Smitty says for the most part the police make an effort to treat the homeless with respect.
Some of Smitty’s friends have created a website hoping to start a new life: Www.cheapestactors.com – it includes a profile on many of Smitty’s friends looking for work as actors and/or background players for TV and movies. The community motivates each other and are like family. For example, if someone needs a visit to the doctor’s, Smitty gladly drives them in his wheelchair.
Smitty continues to dream that one of his many scripts will ultimately see the light of day. His goal is to have his work read by a Hollywood producer. He’s currently crafting a low-budget gangster movie set in the Depression-era Chicago.
As summer approaches, tourists are flocking here in even greater numbers. On any given day, his health permitting, Smitty can be seen lovingly tinkering with his wheelchair like the caretaker of a great work of art. Despite his physical ailments, Smitty is always eager to answer tourists’ questions and pose for photos. It pleases him to imagine that, as these tourists return to their homes all across the globe, a tiny part of himself goes with them.
(To find our more about Smitty and or see his magical wheelchair, go to Ocean Front Walk and Horizon Avenue, space #30, or email: [email protected])