By Jeffrey Stanton
Venice, California, from the time of its founding in 1905 as a unique canaled real estate development, was a successful tourist destination and summer resort for Los Angeles residents living 14 miles inland. It developed into the Disneyland of its day, with a large network of picturesque gondola-filled canals branching from its central lagoon (where the present day traffic circle is today), a miniature railroad, that took tourists for a tour of the community, and two huge hot salt-water swimming pools. Its two enormous three-block-wide amusement piers (one at Windward Avenue, and the other from Navy Street in Venice north to Pier Avenue in nearby Ocean Park) were filled with roller coasters, dance halls, fun houses, restaurants, and an assortment of other rides and attractions.
Summer weekends were packed with several hundred thousand visitors, who arrived by electric trolleys and automobiles from Los Angeles and elsewhere. Since they each spent about $3, the town’s merchants were flush with money, often $1,000,000, which was a lot of money during the teens and twenties. It generated enough municipal income that the city’s property tax was quite low, and it financed the city’s rapid growth for municipal services.
However it had a largely factional and dysfunctional city government, especially after its founder, Abbot Kinney, died in 1920. Unfortunately the city didn’t have a large enough central business district near the beach, so business districts developed near the distant city hall, near the Lick and Ocean Park Piers, near the small Center Street at Venice Boulevard, and along W. Washington Boulevard (now Abbot Kinney Boulevard). A new pier owned by roller coaster designers Prior and Church was planned to be built at the foot of Leona Street (the site of the present Venice Fishing Pier) for the 1926 summer season, and it would create a sixth business district.
Venice’s Board of Trustees couldn’t agree on plans to improve municipal services such as a new sewage plant, or even which streets needed to be paved. Consequently, they and the 750 member Chamber of Commerce for the February 1923 election decided to submit a change the city’s charter to a city manager form of government to keep the city’s business out of politics. But before the election a petition for consolidation to Santa Monica got enough signatures to be put on the ballot. Then a month before the election the Trustees befuddled the electorate by putting $1,600,000 in bond measures, including a new convention center and library on the ballot. As usual all factions opposed each other’s solutions and all ballot measures failed. Since they were disgusted with the Trustees, enough signatures were obtained to place annexation to Los Angeles for the July 10, 1923 election. To squash annexationists selling points the Trustees began a series of long forestalled street improvements and lifted the ban on swimming on Venice’s south beaches since the new sewage purifying plant became operational. One thousand more voters went to the polls than during the Feb 1923 election. Annexation lost by 346 votes, 1,849 to 1,503.
Venice’s 1924 spring election brought to power an administration that seemed bent on self-destruction. The Civic Betterment League gained a majority of the Board of Trustees. They were committed to local government only if the public confidence could be restored to enable financing of a comprehensive series of civic improvements.
However, their ideas of improving Venice in the way of progress was to turn Venice’s canal network into roads, and to pave the Pacific Electric’s right of way so that automobiles could operate on a street that was too narrow for both. The canal property owners were in an uproar and a judge granted them a temporary injunction to prevent the city from destroying their neighborhood.
Unfortunately Venice, during the spring and summer of 1925, continued on a course to becoming politically impossible to govern. When a series of bond measures for public improvements totaling $1,185,000 failed to pass in the August 14, 1925 election, the Trustees called a special annexation election for Oct 2, 1925.
Annexationists and anti-annexationists fought a bitter campaign. Signs in windows proclaimed, “Annexation Means Slavery.” The ‘anti’ group claimed that annexation would bring Venetians “nothing but higher taxes, bossy interference with their affairs, slavery, bankruptcy, and misery. The ‘pro’ forces claimed that it would provide more water and a better police force, and “generally drag dear, blessed Venice out of the gutter.” They pointed out that the selfish pier businessmen were only concerned that Los Angeles’ stiff Blue Laws, which contained anti-gambling statues and banned Sunday dancing, would deprive them of income. The Kinney Company pledged its support for consolidation with Santa Monica if voters rejected annexation.
Out-of-towners temporarily moved into town to qualify to vote, joined the right clubs, and talked of nothing but annexation. Perhaps the residents listened, or perhaps they were willing to vote for any alternative to Venice’s inept government. Annexation won 3130 to 2215. Some citizens wanted to file an injunction to stop annexation since the two cities weren’t contiguous, (a gap of nearly 10 miles at the time). But no action was taken and Venice became part of Los Angeles as scheduled on November 25, 1925. Provincial Los Angeles, with its pretensions of becoming a world class city, fulfilled it dream of expanding to the Pacific Ocean by acquiring Venice.
The big question as one looks back in retrospect at 83 years of Los Angeles government, was it good or bad for Venice? Historians are supposed to be impartial so let’s look at the evidence.
Basically there was an incompatibility between the two cities from the very beginning, much like trying to mix oil and water. Venice was a laid back resort town that many considered the Disneyland of the day, created by a visionary who wanted it to resemble its namesake in Italy. Its lovely canals were incompatible with automobiles, its Venetian architecture along its business streets were arcaded with its upper floors extending over the sidewalks and didn’t fit the Los Angeles building code, and its amusement piers conflicted with Los Angeles’ ordinances and Sunday Blue Laws. And to those in its Dept of Recreation and Parks, the piers were eyesores that blighted nature’s vistas.
Venice’s amusement zone was affected immediately. When the anti-gambling statues and ban on Sunday dancing began, pier business suffered. The effect was most pronounced on the Lick Pier at Navy Street. Patrons simply spend their money at Santa Monica’s adjacent Ocean Park Pier. After two danceless Sundays, amusement owners decided to campaign for a special amusement zone.
Prior and Church, who had acquired 710 feet of beach frontage between Avenue 30 and 33 and intended to build a $1.5 million fun zone on a 1200-foot-long pier with two roller coasters, a ballroom, bathing plunge, they were denied a permit. Los Angeles was intent on acquiring all beach frontage including tidelands leases.
Venice residents became concerned when Gordon Whiteall, Director of the Los Angeles City Regional Planning Commission, declared that it would be criminal if the city allowed another bit of its newly acquired strand to become cluttered up with “hurdy gurdy piers and other obstructions which would mar the gorgeous vista of nature’s handiwork.” Several days later officials assured the town that the present piers would be left alone, but no new piers would be allowed. The Venice Amusement Pier’s tidelands lease wouldn’t expire for another 20 years.
Petitions circulated around Venice in January for an ordinance establishing a special amusement zone. The ordinance was eventually scheduled for a special April 30th election. There was a fierce debate throughout Los Angeles over the measure. Its opponents were church groups aligned with ultra-conservatives. The Venice Chamber of Commerce pointed out that Sunday was the only day a working person could get away for pleasure. Fortunately the majority voted for the special amusement zone; 112,305 for it, 77,832 against it.
Venice’s citizens were irate that there was a lack of promised municipal improvements during the first few years. Their property taxes had risen to Los Angeles’ higher rates. The promised paving of Trolley Way (Pacific Avenue) was postponed, and was not completed until 1954 when California state and country gas tax revenue paid for it. Los Angeles took Venice’s brand new fire truck and replaced with an inferior older model. However, when a bond measure to improve beach access failed, the city allocated $20,000 for the construction of a brick lifeguard headquarters on the beach at Brooks Avenue. They also bought $4500 worth of boats and canoes from private interests to promote boating on the canals while the court case dragged on.
Judge Henry Hollzer of the California Supreme Court confirmed in December 1926 that the city had the power to fill in the canals. But the city wasn’t going to pay for it. Instead they formed an assessment district of property owners and charged them for destroying their canal neighborhood. They claimed that only 62 out of 750 property owners protested. They proceeded in the summer of 1927 by legally changing the canal names to streets, and on December 12, 1927 awarded the canal fill project to the R.A. Watson Company.
Although the contract was signed, the Board of Public Works refused to execute it in January 1928. The canals had been given to Venice on condition that they be used solely as permanent waterways. The board feared that if the canals were filled they would revert to the Kinney heirs. Watson took the case to court, but the Court of Appeals refused to hear it. He then went to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in the contractor’s favor. Filling in Venice’s beloved canals began on June 29, 1929 and finished by the end of the year at a cost of $636, 205.
Venetians were becoming more frequently dissatisfied with Los Angeles city government. They were forced to grapple with a government bureaucracy physically remote and preoccupied with ameliorating the economic effects of the Depression. While they expected a fair shake after annexation, it seemed that all they got were increased takes and little service in return.
Property taxes increased by 116 percent from 1925 to 1929, yet not one issue for local improvements was approved by the electorate during the first few years after annexation. Bond issues for the community clubhouse and auditorium were regularly defeated. However, Venice did obtain a new police headquarters in 1930 when they built one for $100,000 on Venice Boulevard just east of the old city hall They also built a new library structure for $23,000 the following spring on California and filled it with $48,000 of newly purchased books and fixtures. And finally, they took possession of the Sunset Pier at Venice Boulevard and built a 64 x 160 foot municipal bathing pavilion on the pier.
Some suggested secession from Los Angeles. Secessionists managed to obtain 12,000 signatures on petitions asking for a state constitutional amendment to hold a special election within the old incorporated city. Assemblyman Ernest O. Voight authored the amendment and it passed the Assembly 54 to 13, on June 14, 1935. The bill then went to the Senate where powerful lobbyists from the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power attempted to defeat it. Unfortunately for Venice, they were able to delay it just long enough for the Senate to adjourn before action could be taken on the bill.
Venice’s remaining canals in the Strong & Dickerson tract had survived filling in because there weren’t enough residents to support an assessment, and Los Angeles wouldn’t spend the money to do the job. They had become run down with badly crumbling walls and sidewalks.
When federal Works Progress Administration funds became available to repair them, the city turned them down, while Long Beach’s Naples canals were repaired. Sea water feeding the canals ran a mile and half through a polluted oil field south of Washington Street, and besides WPA funds could be better spend elsewhere, especially if the city eventually wanted to fill in the canals.
When the Kinney Company’s 25-year tidelands lease for their amusement pier expired on January 13, 1946, they were dumbfounded when its landlord, The City of Los Angeles Parks and Recreation refused to renew the lease. The Depression and World War II had just ended, and a refurbished amusement pier was expected to revive Venice’s tourist industry. Since it was the town’s bread and butter industry. It was the key to the town’s return to prosperity.
But park officials were intent on not renewing the lease because the pier conflicted with their master plan. They expected to widen the beach soon with sand sluiced up in huge pipes from the site of the Hyperion sewage plant located 7 miles south of Venice. They wanted all structures jutting out into the ocean removed. When the Kinney Company asked for a delay, through the summer season, the city claimed that numerous residents asked that the city tear down the pier immediately because they mistakenly believed that the nearby pier depressed property values. When the pier closed on April 30, 1946, it was the end of an era. The Kinney Company had until May 15th to remove anything valuable before the pier and the Venice Plunge were demolished. As to the beach, it was quarantined from contaminated water until the new sewage plant was completed in 1950.
With its amusement pier gone, Venice didn’t recover financially after World War II. Its housing stock was run down and it became a slum by the sea. It was the least expensive place in Los Angeles to live, and it attracted young beat poets and starving artists because studio space was cheap. It became a counter-culture mecca, much to Los Angeles’ dismay. It soon became clear that the city was waging a campaign to evict the ‘undesirables’ from the community. The police harassed, arrested and often beat hippies, anti-war protestors, blacks and Chicanoes. A federal project called Neighborhood Legal Services often defended the poor and oppressed.
In the early 1960s the city, using money from bond issues passed in the late 1950’s, built a new recreation center along the beach on ex-pier property purchased by the state from the Abbot Kinney Company in 1950. Athletic facilities, beach parking and a main pavilion building were constructed and opened in 1962. There were plans to construct a swimming pool beside the pavilion, but when costs escalated, the Board of Education offered to contribute if they would build it adjacent to the Venice High School campus.
Since Venice residents were a thorn in their side, they naturally wanted to redevelop Venice just to get rid of the residents. They slyly crafted a measure in 1961 that all buildings in Venice had to be brought up to present building codes, and if the owner couldn’t comply for financial reasons, he had to demolish his structure at his own expense. The project would be done in three stages and take three and a half years.
The first two buildings inspected in January 1962 were the Gas House on Ocean Front Walk, a center for artists and poets, and the St. Marks Hotel on Windward. Neither passed code and were found in such a state of deterioration that repairing them would be useless. When they were condemned for demolition, the owners asked for a hearing. After all the buildings on Windward were either condemned or the owners were asked to make expensive repairs for which they couldn’t get loans, they formed a Shoreline and Landmarks Society to get them declared historic landmarks. The city claimed the Venetian styled buildings weren’t representative of Southern California architecture and denied them landmark status.
A lawsuit to stop demolition failed and much of the Venice’s historic buildings were demolished. Phases II and III took place in 1963 and 1964 with little opposition. By the end of 1965, 550 buildings, one third of the Venice community had been demolished, much of it near the beach. Venice took on the appearance of a bombed out war zone just cleared of rubble. Fortunately code-enforcement for Oakwood and other inland sections of the city were minimized by a series of lawsuits that prevented Los Angeles from redeveloping an entire city as one big project.
It is quite apparent that the city of Los Angeles took Venice’s tax money and returned precious few municipal benefits, while continuing to destroy the community. They filled in the canals, closed its amusement piers that generated its tourist business, and destroyed most of its historic buildings. Annexation to Los Angeles was definitely a mistake.
One could speculate what would have happened if Venice had consolidated with Santa Monica. The canals would have been likely filled in because Venice wasn’t laid out for automobile traffic and the age of the automobile meant progress. It is unlikely that the city of Santa Monica would have torn down Venice’s historic buildings, and they would have supported an enlarged business district that would have been built along Venice Way. The three amusement piers complexes would have lasted at least until the late 1960’s, if not longer. The amusement park business throughout the nation hit bottom during the decade of the 60’s and parks were closing everywhere, and it is unlikely that all three could have survived financially. Santa Monica did their best to run Pacific Ocean Park out of business while they were redeveloping Ocean Park into tall apartment blocks. They feared that people didn’t want to live near an amusement pier, and despite providing the pier with a new parking lot, made getting to the pier nearly impossible with deliberate street closures. Its City Council who was against all piers, voted to tear down the Santa Monica Pier in 1970. And when its citizens rose up in anger, those who voted for it were kicked out of office. But overall it would have been a better match between the cities, since both communities had the same interests.
There are still factions, although fewer than a decade ago, who yearn for seceding from Los Angeles to form an independent city. They believe that Venice’s high residential property values and taxes (which are dropping rapidly) will fund its city government. But property tax is paid to the State, and then divided up for education, for County government, and only about 15% is allotted to local cites. City income has to be supplemented by taxes on industry (Venice has none) and commercial business sales tax. Frankly there isn’t a lot of revenue from selling cheap sun glasses and T-shirts along Venice Beach, and Venice’s many tattoo parlors don’t generate sales tax either. There are a few hotels, but not enough.
The solution is to have a larger city that might include Mar Vista, Playa Vista and Westchester. But it is doubtful that they would have the desire to merge with Venice. I would expect the new government to be just as factional as it was in the 1920’s. Just go to any meeting and if there are 100 people, there are 70 different opinions and no one wants to compromise. Besides the sticky part is that not only getting the residents of the seceding city to agree, but to get all the voters of Los Angeles to agree to the divorce. That is highly unlikely.
–continued next month–
Jeffrey Stanton is the author of Venice California – Coney Island of the Pacific, the definitive 288 page hardback on Venice’s history with an 80,000 word text and 367 historic photos of Venice’s canals, amusement piers, and historic buildings. He sells his $50 book, which was published for the Venice Centennial in 2005, along Ocean Front Walk on weekends, or you can call him at (310) 821-2425. [email protected]