Venice: A Contested Bohemia in Los Angeles

Venice: A Contested Bohemia in Los Angeles

by Andrew Deener

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Nestled between Santa Monica and Marina del Rey, Venice is a Los Angeles community filled with apparent contradictions. There, people of various races and classes live side by side, a population of astounding diversity bound together by geographic proximity. From street to street, and from block to block, million dollar homes stand near housing projects and homeless encampments; and upscale boutiques are just a short walk from the (in)famous Venice Beach where artists and carnival performers practice their crafts opposite cafés and ragtag tourist shops. In Venice: A Contested Bohemia in Los Angeles, Andrew Deener invites the reader on an ethnographic tour of this legendary California beach community and the people who live there.   In writing this book, the ethnographer became an insider; Deener lived as a resident of Venice for close to six years. Here, he brings a scholarly eye to bear on the effects of gentrification, homelessness, segregation, and immigration on this community. Through stories from five different parts of Venice—Oakwood, Rose Avenue, the Boardwalk, the Canals, and Abbot Kinney Boulevard— Deener identifies why Venice maintained its diversity for so long and the social and political factors that threaten it. Drenched in the details of Venice’s transformation, the themes and explanations will resonate far beyond this one city.    Deener reveals that Venice is not a single locale, but a collection of neighborhoods, each with its own identity and conflicts—and he provides a cultural map infinitely more useful than one that merely shows streets and intersections. Deener's Venice appears on these pages fully fleshed out and populated with a stunning array of people. Though the character of any neighborhood is transient, Deener's work is indelible and this book will be studied for years to come by scholars across the social sciences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226140025
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Andrew Deener is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut.

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A Contested Bohemia in Los Angeles


Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-14000-1

Chapter One

A Beach Town in Transition

At the turn of the twentieth century, private developers transformed Los Angeles from rural settlements, marshlands, valleys, and hills into named subdivisions where they saw economic potential. By the 1920s, the construction of interurban and streetcar lines opened up a new possibility for dispersed communities built upon a "suburban ideal" of the single-family home. The demise of L.A.'s public transportation system over the next three decades further distanced the relationship between the center of the city and its periphery. While annexation of independently planned communities geographically expanded municipal authority, communities were still differentiated by varied natural landscapes of beaches, foothills, and valleys, all of which became loosely integrated into an ever-expanding regional freeway system.

Geographers of Southern California have repeatedly drawn attention to the region's sprawling spatial organization. However, as Los Angeles increased in territory during the second half of the twentieth century, large-scale population shifts, influential countercultural movements, and political-economic power brokers also transformed how people became positioned against others within neighborhoods and between them. In particular since the 1970s, immigration, homelessness, and gentrification solidified the diverse composition of Los Angeles as a sprawling and scattered urban ecology of competing interests over space and over the control of neighborhood public cultures.

This chapter addresses two historical tensions between the macrotransitions of Los Angeles in general and the microtransitions of Venice in particular. The first part of the chapter details the rise and fall of Venice as an independent municipality in the context of the mounting power of the city of L.A. During the early 1900s, Venice developed a reputation for seaside amusements and was a key part of a growing commercial and entertainment ecology of independent communities along the coast. Yet after consolidation with the city of Los Angeles and the overwhelming effects of the Great Depression, Venice fell into a period of disinvestment and decline, leading its reputation to transform from the "Coney Island of the Pacific" into the "slum by the sea." The second part of the chapter outlines how this economic decline created new opportunities for different groups to converge in Venice and define neighborhood public cultures. Although Venice became widely recognized for countercultural trends and bohemian lifestyles, it was also a rapidly changing coastal community where many different groups vied for prominence. More accurately, Venice transformed into a contested bohemia, a site of major confrontations over development, uses of public spaces, and ongoing tensions between sustaining diversity and generating exclusivity.

The Coney Island of the Pacific

Venice began as an independently planned and financed community. Abbot Kinney, born in 1850 into a wealthy tobacco family, inherited a substantial fortune. As an asthmatic, he followed a trend of moving to Southern California in hopes of improving his health. In Los Angeles, Kinney immersed himself in several different ventures, ranging from scientific to economic. He was an agriculturalist, served as the president of the Southern California Academy of the Sciences, and bought and sold property in downtown Los Angeles. After convincing the Santa Fe Railroad to open up a terminal in the southern end of Santa Monica, Kinney sought to develop the coastal area.

Kinney's inheritance coupled with subsequent successes buying and selling property enabled him to make an indelible mark on the Southern California coastline. He and partner Francis G. Ryan purchased a tract south of the city of Santa Monica and developed property to attract buyers. They called it Ocean Park, a label that remains today as the section of Santa Monica that borders Venice. After Ryan's death, Kinney and a new set of partners disagreed over the future direction of the area. They split the land and parted ways. Kinney controlled an undeveloped section of the Ballona Wetlands, a coastal marshland south of Ocean Park.

Abbot Kinney had big dreams. He hired architects Norman Marsh and Clarence Russell, who modeled a new city after Venice, Italy. They planned to drain the marshes, create an extensive canal system, and construct buildings with arches and columns. Kinney hoped to make this seaside attraction the "Venice of America," a center of high culture where the Chautauqua, a popular educational and cultural movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that originated in upstate New York, would serve as a model for organizing musical performances, artistic exhibits, and noted speakers for a creative and intellectual community. An astute capitalist looking to increase his wealth, Kinney pursued alternatives when his cultural assemblies lost money.

During this period, white working- and middle-class people, not the cultural elites to whom Kinney hoped to appeal, were flocking to Los Angeles. In the early 1900s, Los Angeles mostly lured white migrants from the Midwest looking for new financial opportunities. Between 1900 and 1930, Los Angeles County grew in territory at a rate of 40 percent per year and its total population multiplied by thirteen. With such a vast expansion, Los Angeles became the most Anglo metropolis in the United States. Two amusement hubs built in the area, the Ocean Park Pier, directly north of Venice, and the Pleasure Pier in Santa Monica, just north of Ocean Park, were meeting the cultural demands of this growing population of working- and middle-class whites.

Kinney altered his themed focus to satisfy the tastes of the masses and compete with nearby beach attractions in an emerging commercial ecology. He brought in the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition with roller coasters, a fun house, a Ferris wheel, an indoor swimming pool, and a range of carnival sideshows. The amusement atmosphere also became an emblem of popular culture, commonly serving as the setting for major silent films of the era. Charlie Chaplin's first performance of what would eventually become his famed Little Tramp persona took place in the comedy short Kid Auto Races at Venice, while parts of his more critically acclaimed film The Circus were shot on the Venice Amusement Pier a decade later. Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton, and many of the Keystone Comedy capers were also recorded in the vicinity of the Venice Boardwalk.

During this period, Venice had such a high degree of homogeneity that it did not even house a Catholic church. Most people who lived along the sixteen miles of canals in the early 1900s, a much more elaborate system of man-made waterways than the six waterways that remain today, were either proprietors of businesses on or near the pier or were vacationers who stayed in small, inexpensive, and poorly constructed wooden bungalows. Many stayed only during the summer months, as houses had poor insulation, and commuted to their jobs downtown along the Venice Short Line of the Pacific Electric Railway.

The only site of nonwhite residents was a small area north of the canals. It was a mostly undeveloped section that lacked waterways and public attractions and received little public attention. Abbot Kinney welcomed several African American families to settle in this tract, because they could serve as a nearby labor pool. He permitted them to build houses and open up small service businesses, and in doing so, established early conditions for the growth of a home-owning black community, anchoring what would become a persistent trend toward racial diversity in this section of Venice that eventually became the neighborhood of Oakwood. Allowing the settlement of African Americans was a basic economic investment for Kinney, as many were influential in shaping Venice's carnival identity. Nonetheless, African Americans, whose sweat and ingenuity helped build Venice's infrastructure and propel its popular identity, were still not welcome to participate in public events on the famous amusement pier due to the racial climate of the time.

"Place entrepreneurs" like Kinney, wealthy men who were seeking to maximize profits by creating distinct towns in Southern California, transformed the Los Angeles coastline into a competitive seaside commercial ecology, marketing their beachfront entertainment resorts to the public. In weekly flyers and newsletters, the Kinney Company pitched Venice as "a picturesque, modernized replica of the ancient Italian Venice," "the acropolis of fun seekers," and "Atlantic City's only rival." As owners of amusement piers vied for the biggest and best rides, games, and contests, the media labeled Venice as "The Coney Island of the Pacific." Historian Kevin Starr notes that Venice was the earliest themed environment in a metropolis that greatly popularized this urban planning genre in following decades. But even with Italian-style architecture, miles of canals, and a Coney Island–like boardwalk, popular enthusiasm for Venice of America soon faded.

Annexation and Decline

Los Angeles continued to grow in population and territory. Between 1906 and 1930, the city held seventy-three annexation elections and increased its size from 43 to 442 square miles. Ocean Park consolidated with the growing city of Santa Monica, but Venice remained an independent town. In search of a beach within its official limits, Los Angeles city officials urged the Venice community to join the expanding metropolis. Residents and merchants, having experienced substantial economic setbacks, considered the possibility. Prohibition instituted in 1920 generated a great deal of turmoil, forcing a number of establishments out of business. In the same year, Abbot Kinney died. The president and major financier of the Abbot Kinney Company, he had invested a fortune in building and maintaining Venice, remaining central in almost all local operations, including the organization of municipal needs. Kinney's death created a great deal of uncertainty and turmoil about how to finance and manage existing conditions. Several weeks later, the Windward Avenue Pier, a main source of income and employment in Venice, was destroyed in a fire that resulted in $1.5 million in property damages.

These setbacks aggravated an already complex set of municipal problems. Residents had limited access to drinkable water—a common complaint made by dwellers in independent towns—attributed to the expensive and complex irrigation engineering required in Southern California. They faced complications with waste disposal, as Venice's private sewage plant, initially constructed for a much smaller population, often over- flowed and forced the state to quarantine the beach and ocean. In addition, the city of Los Angeles dumped untreated sewage along the coast, which exacerbated health risks at Venice Beach.

A number of local interest groups believed that annexation with Los Angeles would alleviate these problems, but a powerful few wanted to preserve Venice's independence because they were still profiting from the control of local resources and feared that enforcement of L.A.'s blue laws on amusements, cafés, and dance halls would put an end to their dominance. Between 1919 and 1925, a battle ensued over the future of Venice, with residents considering three possibilities: remaining independent, consolidating with Santa Monica, or consolidating with Los Angeles. Movements and organizations waxed and waned during this period, leading to major confrontations about how to move forward. On one hand, residents feared that consolidation with Santa Monica would create backroom compromises between commercial entities in each of the two cities that would ultimately keep Venice's power structure in place and overlook residential demands. On the other hand, they thought Los Angeles was big enough that Venice's commercial interests would be unable to manipulate city officials. Instead, they believed Los Angeles leaders would alleviate many of the local problems through a fairer government system, strict moral laws on commercial activity, and substantial resources to improve quality of life. After years of conflict, residents voted narrowly for annexation to the city of Los Angeles in 1925.

Following annexation, Los Angeles city officials failed to follow through on extensive promises to resolve resident concerns, and the community's infrastructure further deteriorated. With the Los Angeles rail system in decline, the city hired a contractor to pave over the canals, Venice's most distinctive planning feature, in order to make room for automobiles. During the Great Depression, the remaining mostly undeveloped tract of canals was unable to support a tax assessment and the contractor never finished the job. Leaving the southern subdivision of canals in place has continued to demarcate this series of six waterways from its surroundings as a distinct neighborhood.

By 1929, Venice residents, like people across the nation, were suffering monumental economic setbacks that eventually turned into the Great Depression. A string of economic responses and government failures pushed Venice's infrastructure and natural resources into a state of disrepair. At the tail end of an enthusiastic oil rush in Southern California, with successful drilling along the coast at Huntington Beach, Long Beach, and Ventura, the Ohio Oil Company drilled directly beyond Venice's barren southern border, the future site of Marina del Rey. Striking oil led to a mad rush to profit under harsh economic circumstances. It was devastating to the natural scenery and to the popular amusements, and it also provided little economic security for locals. Most of the oil dried up quickly and the derricks furnished the beachfront with a noisy and polluting eyesore for the following four decades (see figure 2). Moreover, sewage dumping continued to contribute to ocean and beach contamination. To cap it off, Venice's housing stock and public structures were poorly maintained. By the 1940s, the sidewalks in the neighborhood of the Venice Canals were caving into sluggish waterways, leading the city to post signs that prohibited public access. These sidewalk conditions would remain until the 1990s. The amusement pier, reconstructed after the 1920 fire, was also officially declared unsafe by the city.

Whereas the amusement environment was the backdrop of a new age in silent films, the deteriorating conditions of the 1940s and '50s emerged as a perfect setting for noir film and literature. Orson Welles's classic Touch of Evil was filmed throughout Venice. The acclaimed author Ray Bradbury, who initially moved to Venice with his family as a teenager in the 1940s, portrayed the waning coastal theme park in the vivid opening description of Venice, the setting of Death Is a Lonely Business:

Venice, California in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad. It had fog almost every night and along the shore the moaning of the oil machinery and the slap of dark water in the canals and the hiss of sand against the windows of your house when the wind came up and sang among the open places and along the empty walks.

Those were the days when the Venice pier was falling apart and dying in the sea and you could find there the bones of a vast dinosaur, the roller-coaster, being covered by the shifting tides.

At the end of the one long canal you could find old circus wagons that had been rolled and dumped, and in the cages, at midnight, if you looked, things lived—fish and crayfish moving with the tide; and it was all the circuses of time somehow gone to doom and rusting away.

When the Kinney Company's lease on the pier ran out in 1946, having lost their clout to control the future of the local environment, the pier was condemned and demolished. Left behind were crumbling remnants of a popular themed environment. These conditions were not particular to Venice. Abandonment and decay were sweeping through American urban neighborhoods, leading city leaders and urban planners to call such places "urban slums." Public financing of housing developments and highways gave way to the massive new residential construction of modern suburbs and lured the middle classes away from places like Venice. As many departed, others without the same resources, including those opposed to the popular suburban lifestyle, moved into the dilapidated housing structures. Bohemian groups, made up of artists, poets, musicians, and others defining themselves in contrast to their own stereotypes of American middle-class conformity, sought out places where rent was cheap and moral constraints over presentation of self were few. As vibrant countercultural movements seeped into the American consciousness—beat and hippie movements the most visible—specific locales like Venice offered nurturing habitats as bohemian enclaves.


Excerpted from Venice by ANDREW DEENER Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures Preface Acknowledgments Introduction: Welcome to Venice
1. A Beach Town in Transition 2. The Transformation of a Black Neighborhood 3. People out of Place 4. Scenic Neighborhood 5. Bohemian Theme Park 6. Fashionable Bohemia 7. The Future of the American City
Notes Bibliography Index

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