By Jim Smith
Public space is taking a beating in Venice lately. First, our beautiful beach is off limits to Venetians, and everyone else, from midnight to 6 a.m. Then our nutty L.A. City Attorney, Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich, decided our busiest street, Ocean Front Walk, was actually a park and promptly took it away from the public during the same nighttime hours. Now our Venice Circle is off-limits to the public 24-hours a day, every day.
The concept of public space goes hand-in-hand with local democracy. Public spaces allow people to gather and exercise free speech. In years gone by, Venetians like Swami X and Bill Mitchell would climb up on a park bench and begin haranguing the crowd that quickly gathered. It didn’t matter if they said lewd or slanderous things about well-known people. That’s what free speech is all about. You can’t go into the Binocular Building, stand up on a bench and loudly launch an verbal attack on Google. But you can do that in a public space.
For anyone who doesn’t know, the third takeaway of public access, the Circle, is located where five streets come together, including Main, Windward and Grand. It is sometimes called the traffic circle, although real estate agents prefer the “Windward Circle.” Although “Main Street Circle” would define it just as well, “Windward” sounds classier.
In recent years, the Circle has been the site of free speech activities. Our 100-year anniversary of the founding of Venice and Independence Day parade on July 4, 2005, ended at the circle where speeches and music entertained Venetians. See the August 2005 Beachhead for photos and articles about the celebration. A couple of years later, the Venice Peace and Freedom Party initiated a peace vigil at the Circle opposing the ongoing Iraq occupation, the war in Afghanistan, and the threat of war with Iran. The vigils continued every week for 54 weeks.
Later, in 2011, the Circle was the site of the first Occupy Venice encampment. It has also been a place over the year for peaceful retreats, perhaps a day dream or two while lying on the green grass, or simply watching the people and the cars go by.
We can’t talk about the Circle without thinking about that adjoining public space that we recently lost, the Venice Post Office. Here, at the center of Venice, we could wander in and run into one or more of our neighbors, and marvel at the beauty of the 1939 building and its beautiful mural, called the Story of Venice. For more than a year, the building has been an eyesore as it has turned from a public space into a private ego trip. Hollywood mogul Joel Silver bought the building and found it not up to his standards of excess. Now the inside has been ripped out, the mural torn off the wall and only shown to those he wants to impress at the L.A. Museum of Art.
Did Silver ask for signs to go up at the Circle prohibiting pedestrians from entering? Perhaps, when he takes possession of his plush office, he won’t want to see any real Venetians malingering in the Circle. In any case, after more than 80 years, the City of Los Angeles has decided that visiting the Circle constitutes a hazard to us, similar to walking on a freeway. Oh yes, the same ordinance that bans pedestrians from walking on a freeway – L.A.M.C. 80.42.1 – now bans us from this lonely piece of our public land.
It wasn’t always like this. When Venice was a free and independent city (there I go again), the Circle was a lagoon that was the hub of the canal system in central Venice. When, after a farcical election for annexation, Los Angeles filled in all the canals and the lagoon.
As a sop to angered residents, the new Circle was named the Abbot Kinney Plaza, which is still its true name as far as I know. But don’t look for a statue to the founder of Venice, or a bandstand as in many Latin American plazas. Thanks to the Venice Historical Society, there is a replica of a gondola in the Circle, even if we can’t inspect it closely.
Thanks to another colossal ego and artist Robert Graham, we have to share our Circle with a statue to a dismembered Black woman. The statue was a gift from one of Graham’s patrons but the city paid $90,000 for the base on which it stands. To date, L.A. has only contributed $5,000 to the fund for a memorial to Japanese-Venetians who were put in a concentration camp during World War II. Such are the priorities of our oppressors. From the 1970s to the 90s, a people installed statue, called “Freedom,” which people actually liked, graced the Circle. It was stolen away one night by the L.A. street department without a word.
There have been lots of ideas over the past decades to beautify our Circle. One suggestion was to have a Farmers’ Market at the Circle every week. Another was to create a statue garden where we could wander through a flower garden, sit on benches and look at representations of the heroes and artists of Venice, including Kinney, Irving Tabor, Arthur Reese, Flora Chavez, John Haag, Vera Davis, Rick Davidson, Marvena Kennedy, Philomene Long, Carol Fondiller and others. Yes, we have quite a history in Venice!
If the downtown bureaucrats really cared about the safety of pedestrians going to our Circle, couldn’t they have considered other options. No, because in L.A. cars always come first, and people second, if at all. And no, if a 1 percenter like Silver wanted people out, who are we to think our opinions would even be considered?
In a better world, cars could be banned from the Circle. Most of the dangerous traffic is from cut-through commuters going from north of Venice to south of Venice. Surely, they could find a way to travel that didn’t involve roaring down residential streets in Venice. If they can’t be moved, how about a aerial bridge over the traffic. Let’s hold a contest for the most beautiful design. Oops, I forgot, Venice is all about taking money downtown, not bringing it back.
Will Venetians give up and go quietly into that good night? Or will they rage, rage against the dying of the light? When hat-in-hand appeals to the powers-that-be don’t work, then stronger tactics are required. If any public space is to survive, if any cottages and courtyards are to survive the Big Ugly Box onslaught, if Venice is to regain its soul, and independence, we must put our bodies where our words are.
If 50 of my closest friends invited me to a peaceful candlelight vigil in our Circle, how could I refuse? How could you refuse? As the police and TV vans roll up, could we not sing that old union free speech song, “We Shall Not Be Moved”? And the next night…
By Jim Smith