July 2008 – Cityhood Redeemed – The 80 Year Venice Dream

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at the edge of a city enormous with enemies
–Stuart Perkoff, Venice poet

By Jim Smith

In May, the Venice Town Council was reestablished as part of the city of Venice to the acclaim of Venetians meeting at the United Methodist Church auditorium. The VTC had been the de facto government of Venice for 20 years beginning in the 1970s. At the May meeting, there was no dissent that Venice once again needs its own independent city organization.

In recent years, too many meetings and closed-door decisions had been made in our more populous neighbor to the east. In fact, tiny Venice has but 1 percent of the population of the city of Los Angeles. No wonder that Venice needs get short shrift in the corridors of L.A. city hall.

Hardly any of our 40,000 Venetians could be oblivious to the problems of over-development, traffic, parking, chain stores, and the growing imbalance between rich and poor in our community. Yet, on none of these issues – or any others – do Venetians have the final say. Even the neighborhood council, which was established by the city of Los Angeles to head of succession movements and to pacify communities with the appearance of power and decision-making, has not a wit of genuine power. It can only advise our colonial masters in the L.A. city bureaucracy. They are free to ignore it, as they often do.

This month, we are celebrating the legendary founding of the city of Venice on July 4, 1905. Venice was the garden spot of Southern California, and a thriving city as long as Abbot Kinney lived. When he died in 1920, the vultures began circling. The head vulture was the city of Los Angeles, which at that time was much smaller in size and population than it is today. Yet its city fathers were imbued with the vision of manifest destiny, in this case, the extension of the L.A. city limits to the Pacific Ocean. Venice had to be absorbed.

Every trick in the book, including threatening to cut off Venice’s water, to infiltrating pro-L.A. voters into Venice, to making promises it would not keep, was employed until Venice finally voted by a small margin in 1925 to be annexed to Los Angeles. Almost immediately things went down hill in Venice. The central Venice canals were filled in, “blue” laws were imposed on our party town, needed city services were ignored and our new fire truck was taken away to be replaced with an old clunker. Demands to restore cityhood began to be heard. Those cries for freedom and independence have continued to be heard nearly every decade since.

Meanwhile, the beach was polluted by Hyperion Sewer Plant. It was quarantined and closed to swimmers from 1943-48. Venice became a “slum by the sea,” in Lawrence Lipton’s words. It was one of the cheapest places to rent a home or apartment in all of Los Angeles. When the Kinney Company’s lease on the pier at the end of Windward expired in 1946, the city – in a final indignity against the founding family – refused to renew it. It was torn down a short time later. 

By the 1950s, the city wanted to level Venice as an urban renewal project and build high-rise apartments as Santa Monica had done over the bones of Ocean Park. In the 60s, the city’s plan evolved into the Venice Master Plan, which would have turned the remaining canals into a yacht harbor, run a freeway down the middle of Venice, and turn the beach area into high-rises. Fortunately, Venetians came together and successfully defeated the Plan after a long struggle. It was during this time that the cry of cityhood was heard again.

The desire for Venice cityhood sparked the creation of the Free Venice movement. Each Free Venice group was independent of the others but all were united by a desire for freedom and self-determination. There was a Free Venice Food Co-op, a Free Venice Theater Group, a Free Venice Play Group, and many more. The only Free Venice group to survive today is the Free Venice Beachhead. Strengthening the desire for the restoration of cityhood has always been a part of the Beachhead’s “mission.” Perhaps it has survived so long thanks to a dogged determination to achieve that goal.

In the meantime, legal hoops were erected to make it easy to get into a city but almost impossible to get out. Even so in Venice, considering how much talent we have in our community, it should be possible to restore cityhood if we really want it. Here are three possible scenarios to winning back our city.

1. Use the existing law. The current law says that any area that wants to establish its own city must vote in favor of separating from the larger city. That’s the easy part. It also requires that the rest of the larger city also vote in favor of the separating. This might seem to many voters like voting to cut off their arm. The law is administered by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). You might have heard of LAFCO if you followed the effort of the San Fernando Valley to create a new city (see Beachhead, Oct. 2002 at www.freevenice.org). Ultimately, the Valley voted in favor of succession, but the rest of the city voted against. End of story. The possibility of convincing voters throughout Los Angeles to vote to let Venice go is made even more remote if the campaign against Valley cityhood is any example. Big developers poured millions into the campaign against succession. They’ve got a good thing going in the L.A. megapolis and they know it.

2. Change the law. Just a minor adjustment to the Cortese/Knox-Hertzberg Act which LAFCO administers and Venice could break the chains that bind it to Los Angeles. At the present time it would take either Assemblymember Ted Lieu or State Senator Jenny Oropeza to introduce an amendment providing that any part of a city that had formerly been its own city could hold an election to reconsider its vote for annexation. Buyers remorse is a well-established reaction whether it is a new car or a new city that’s being bought. Perhaps a committee of Venetians could be organized to meet with Ted and Jenny.

3. County Government. The sprawling city of Los Angeles is nearly ungovernable, and the greater metropolitan area is even worse off. Traffic is approaching gridlock and regional planning is a joke. London, United Kingdom, has solved this problem by creating a Greater London government that deals with these and other regional issues. Within Greater London are 32 boroughs which are basically equivalent to our cities. They make most of the decisions which affect people’s everyday lives. Under this system, the L.A. boosters would get an even bigger Greater L.A. and we would get a city of Venice. A county, or regional, government is almost an inevitability given the enormity of the problems we confront in Southern California. The question is, will it result in more democracy or less democracy.

There may also be a point four that will shortly be suggested by a reader, and will be so simple that everyone will jump on the Free Venice bandwagon. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 83 years.

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