The Streets of Venice

The other morning as I was jogging back from the beach along Windward Avenue east of the traffic circle, I saw an old Chevy or Ford pickup truck coming towards me. It was an old vintage model, with the exhaust daintily belching out into the clean morning air. A nice long blue stream. I swerved to ultimately avoid as much of this caustic pollution as best I could, but when I got to the corner of Riviera and had to cut right, that’s when I got the “big whiff.”

And that blast of exhaust took me right back to my youth, when I used to remember these crazy fools chasing the Bug Man on a nightly basis. We were kids in Valpo in the summer, and there was the city truck guy that drove around spewing bug spray to eradicate the mosquitoes, in the early evening. The Bug Man. I remember kids willingly following the big sprayer around on their bikes, and going on and on till they couldn't take it any more. Like some badge of courage to breathe in all those carcinogens. I instantly remembered that smell.

The streets of our life lay deep within our consciousnesses, because it’s the roads of our homes that played a big part in each of our early development. Can’t you remember the street or road outside your house where you grew up?

That’s why I remember the Bug Man, and why it came so immediately through my olfactory response. One small sniff reestablished a whole childhood of memories.

And so it was with the little child city of Venice in the early 1920s. After about 15 years of amazing vitality, the newness spirit of this ocean-side attraction was starting to get a bit old. To having sniffed a bit too long. Transportation was a main factor, along with the generally developing decrepit state of this model city as a whole. It was definitely becoming carni-ville, rather than the grand carnivale idea of old.

Outmoded transportation availability, meaning the lack of proper streets capable of handling the new auto traffic, and faulty sewer systems, along with gambling, corruption, bootlegging, the Pickering & Lick pier fires, all helped weaken Venice. The canals north of Venice Boulevard became deeded to Los Angeles in 1924, with Venice being annexed to the city in 1925.

By 1927, the city of Los Angeles legally changed the canal names to streets, intending to fill them in. And so a dark day fell on Venice when on Saturday June 29, 1929, the first trucks arrived to start filling the canals. And by the end of the year, their task was accomplished, and what was once water, was now asphaltic concrete. Luckily, the southern canals were saved by the depression and contractor bankruptcy. And the lack of need for more roads.

I’ve always found it amazing how many of Venice’s streets have changed names over the past 100+ years. When the original canals became streets, almost half of them were renamed. Like San Juan Avenue today was once Venus Canal. Or Windward Avenue was Lion Canal, east of the lagoon, where I recently experienced my flashback.

Market Street today was originally named Zephyr Place, west of Coral Canal - today’s Main Street - and Aldebaran Canal, eastward to Cabrillo Canal. Aldebaran, by the way, was the fallen angel that once tried to disguise himself as a bull. By doing this, he tried to commit the sins of lust with an Assyrian queen, much like Zeus transforming into a bull to seduce king Minos’ wife. Now he’s the brightest star in the Taurus constellation.

Windward Circle was once labeled the Bathing Lake, from a map dated 1904. Later on, city officials wanted to name it Kinney Boulevard, which was passed over. Today, it features the Mirtle Wilson magnolia tree in - another new moniker - Kinney Plaza, planted and dedicated in August 1977.

Even the main route to Venice, Venice Boulevard, was known as Central Street, on the north side, and Virginia Avenue, on south Venice. Everyone, I hope, remembers when Abbot Kinney Boulevard was known as West Washington Boulevard. But who of you knew that 102 years ago it was the Camino Real?

Pacific Avenue today was named Trolleyway, the main line of the old Venice Short Line electric commuter railway. Did you know there was a local civic action to rename it Pacific Ocean Avenue, to tie in with Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, in the 50s?

Other street name changes: Lincoln Boulevard was known as Compton Road in the 1910s; Glencoe Avenue was the old Ocean Park Avenue. Today’s Zephyr Court, the half-block long alley just north of Windward, was originally named Subway Place, the famous alley of bootleggers and riff-raff. And Riviera Avenue was also known as Rialto, north from the present Rialto Avenue. It kinda curved around up to Westminster Avenue, following the miniature train line over Lion and Aldebaran Canals.

Ocean Front Walk, a.k.a. the Boardwalk, was originally labeled the Pacific Promenade. Today, after its most recent updates, it still remains one of Venice’s most famous landmarks. Who of us locals hasn’t cruised it many times, from early morning til late at night, enjoying the unique character of its timeless charm?

But did you know, obscurely, that there are 52 manholes along this walk from Washington Street north to the city line north of Ozone Avenue? Although it’s interesting to note that there’s none from Washington to 24th Street, along that narrow bituminous kind of private residential section. Privilege pays… what?

Then there are the streets that have totally disappeared: White Wings Avenue and Portia Avenue - named after the heroine in the Merchant of Venice - were once the main thoroughfares of Villa City, the popular area of over 400 rentable tents. Now, totally gone. And there was Barcelona Avenue, the street running down the middle of St. Marks Island. Now, the parking lot for the postal annex.

And then there was the original Via Mar, which was somehow changed, and for many years became Strongs Drive. Some time later, it was changed back to Via Mar (this during the mid-70s), then back to Strongs. Why the incessant flip-flop? Several other streets in the area suffered a similar fate, switching back and forth.

Local resident Jim Smith asked me why so many streets - like the aforementioned Barcelona Avenue, Andalusia Avenue, Alhambra Court, Navarre Court, Cadiz Court, Aragon Court, Valencia Court, Toledo Court, Granada Court, Seville Court, Cordova Court, most of them alleys - are named for cities in Spain, when the city itself was named after a city in Italy. He’s asked two of our most prominent historians, and neither knows why. Good question, Jim. Any hypotheses?

Abbot Kinney must have been quite the schmoozer, I guess. Who in his past were Lorelei, Mildred, Florence, Dorothy and Virginia? And why did they get original Venice of America streets named after them? From Windward south past Center Street. All glorious non-Italian luscious turn-of-the-century babes, I guess.

And Washington Street was originally known as Leona Avenue. Another babe?

As an aside, did you know there are 62.5 curb miles in Venice? This represents a little more than .005% of the 10,700 sidewalk miles in all of Los Angeles. They are the same, aren’t they? Sidewalk miles and curb miles…

Another current roadway aspect, reflecting the leanings of our town, are the huge peace signs painted in the public streets. Located at 9 Westminster, and at the intersection of Cabrillo and Altair Avenues, these two symbols are both symbolic and patriotic in their attempts to capture the spirit of the present, and past, times. Yeah Venice radicals!

Also along the curbs are mini-peace signs. Abbot Kinney Boulevard sports a plethora of these address-identifying peace signs: 1204, 1312, 1324, 1329 1/2 (what a great address!), 1335, 1341, 1356, 1418, and 1520. They’re also found at 2012 Linden Avenue and 505 Rialto Avenue, among other locations. So there really is peace in Venice.

But most grandly, Venice uniquely has the only 2 functional traffic circles in all of Los Angeles. Name me another, I dare you. The circle at Windward and Main, and the circle on Shell Avenue south of Palms Boulevard, reflect a very Victorian, classical ambiance in their roundabout grandeur. Or maybe, in the case of the traffic circle by the post office, just the obvious solution back in 1930, when the lagoon was filled in and paved over, and the storm drain pumping station needed hiding.

But why the small-sized circle on Shell Avenue? Probably laid out between 1905 and 1910, it most likely tried to express the American preoccupation back then of a national identity, as expressed by modernism and technology as well as academic classicism. What better way than a palm tree-centered circumlocutionary?

The walk streets between Shell Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard can also be considered streets, in a technical way. The properties front along them. And along the 3-block length of these walk streets - Amoroso Place, Marco Place, Nowita Place, and also, Crescent Place - in the middle of each block are official vest-pocket parks, or mini-traffic circles, if you will. A nice circular break from the straight concrete paths. At Shell and Crescent Place, and Shell and Marco you’ll also find two large circular walkways, right next to the actual traffic circle, nicely recently repaved. (Just what do those triangle symbols painted in the roadway mean?) So I guess we can add 11 more traffic circles to this unique Venice neighborhood. How charming even today in their classicism, as well.

Anyway, enough about these streets. Let’s get back to that bug spray man. Whaddaya say?

Steve Buck, an old high school friend, weighs in: As for the bug machine- my brother and Lenny Green (Dr. Green’s kid) used to have big dirt clod fights before they would chase the bug machine like maniacs. You can make a case that breathing that crap may have effected some people mentally. Look at my brother, but then again my mother dropped him on his head when he was 6 months old. Lenny Green on the other hand, ended up being a fairly successful OBGYN in southern Indiana.

Steve Phipps, an elementary school classmate: I remember this vividly. I’m pretty sure it was DDT spray suspended in oil of some sort, then heated and sprayed out.

I thought even then that the bug-truck-chasing kids were crazy, although I read “Silent Spring” pretty early, and it may have been Rachel Carson’s malignant liberal influence that made me think so. I used to run inside when the truck came by, and shut house windows - puffs and gusts of the stuff would come indoors, otherwise. Failing this, I would try to hold my breath until the smell dissipated.

Even at the time, I couldn’t imagine that this stuff could be deadly to mosquitoes, but harmless to humans, especially in far higher concentrations.

You have said it exactly correctly - the bug-truck chasers were almost all boys, of course, and it was a badge of kid macho to do this. Another badge of honor was to get as close to the nozzle as possible.

My sister Deb: I do remember his driving past our house. Don’t recall any of the three of us kids running or biking behind him. Smart kids? I do recall him being up at the other part of the subdivision by Brad Dolezal’s house with Brad and the kids who lived next door running behind him with great fervor. And you’re right, the longer you stayed in that thick, white cloud, the cooler you were. How long can you hold your breath??? Where were the parents?

Jeez, I don’t know. Probably out back with their martinis and smokes. At the time we were all more interested, I think, in the big subjects of juvenile life. Like, remember putting baseball cards in the spokes of your bike to make it sound like you had a motorcycle?