Venice's Boardwalk

I've recently read an interesting book, America's Boardwalks, which mainly tells the history of East-coast boardwalk towns, but also includes a chapter on Venice Beach.

Our nation's boardwalks - gaudy, intoxicating, bright, loud, and altogether American - were first invented so that beach-goers could stroll along the shore in their evening wear without tracking sand into train cars or hotel lobbies. But it wasn't long before the imagination of a country just becoming acquainted with the concept of leisure time, transformed the boardwalk into something more.

In America's Boardwalks, author James Lilliefors takes us on a journey along the edges of the country to its most famous beach towns. Starting in the Northeast with Coney Island, Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Wildwood, and Cape May, we continue south to Rehoboth Beach; Ocean City, Maryland; Virginia Beach; Myrtle Beach; and Daytona Beach. In California, we explore the exotic scenes at Venice Beach and Santa Cruz. Lilliefors traces each town's history and shows how the boardwalk has been essential to the area's economic growth, status, and appeal; revealing the vitality of the boardwalk as an idea, rather than just as a place.

Here's a little bit about each of these boardwalk towns: The nation's first boardwalk was in Atlantic City, NJ, opening on June 26, 1870. The second oldest boardwalk is in Rehoboth Beach, DE, which was founded in 1873. The name Rehoboth - an odd sounding word - means "broad places." It's from the Bible, Genesis 26:22 (Abandoning that one, Isaac moved on and dug another well. This time there was no dispute over it, so Isaac named the place Rehoboth (which also means "open space"), for he said, "At last the Lord has created enough space for us to prosper in this land.") The well was in Gerar, about 20 miles south of Beersheba. Now you know.

Next oldest is Coney Island, NY, which opened in 1876. It was named by early Dutch settlers for the rabbits, or konijn, that once ran free all around the area. Then Asbury Park, NJ - recently made famous by Bruce Springsteen - opened in 1878. It also started out as a religious retreat. Also that year, Cape May, NJ opened their boardwalk, and today features the largest collection of Victorian houses in the country.

In 1888, Virginia Beach, VA opened its boardwalk, with Ocean City, MD joining the seaside boardwalk craze in 1892. Wildwood, NJ today bills itself as America's boardwalk, and yet it opened in 1900. The following year saw the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach, SC arise from the sand dunes.

Out west, the first Pacific Ocean boardwalk was opened in Santa Cruz, CA in 1904, and we all know that the boardwalk here in Venice opened in 1905. Finally, another boardwalk covered in the book is Daytona Beach, FL, which opened in 1929, after making a name for itself through automobile racing along the hard-packed beaches.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't cover Seaside - that's the boardwalk in NJ where loyal reader Todd von Hoffmann spent many summers on. His favorite game was a small boxing ring with a floor covered in colored cups - you threw a volley ball in and placed your bet on the color(s) you thought it might rest on. You played for packs of cigarettes and when you had enough they exchanged them for a full carton - and we were 12!

So anyway, included here is the chapter on Venice, written in 2006...

Land unto Itself

It started with a coin toss and a choice. Abbot Kinney won the toss and made the choice: He would take the uninhabited parcel of marshland to the south, leaving the developed, seemingly more valuable half of Ocean Park to his former partners, who had bought their way into Kinney's land development company two years earlier. The choice surprised them. They did not know what the brilliant and eccentric speculator planned to do with the property.

Kinney was a distinguished, bearded, red-haired man with eclectic interests and large appetites - an author, businessman, botanist, and world traveler who spoke seven languages. Among his numerous endeavors, Kinney had started and built a lucrative tobacco business, translated a history text for Ulysses S. Grant,, and toured West Coast Indian territory with author Helen Hunt Jackson, a trip that became the basis for her best-selling novel Ramona.

An asthmatic, Kinney came to Southern California in 1880 to stay at a health spa east of Los Angeles. Finding the climate agreeable, he wound up building a hilltop house nearby, selling his shares in the tobacco company, and becoming a Los Angeles land speculator. In time, Kinney formed a partnership with businessman Francis Ryan, and together they purchased the Ocean Park Casino in Santa Monica, along with several hundred acres of beachfront property. Kinney married in 1884 and soon after built a beach cottage in Santa Monica. He was, by most accounts, content with his land development business and his life in Southern California, but that changed after Ryan died suddenly in the fall of 1898. Six months later, Ryan's widow married Thomas Dudley, a Santa Monica businessman who was often at odds with Kinney. The strong-willed Kinney also did not get along with the three businessmen who purchased Matilda Ryan's 50 per cent interest in 1902. In 1904, the four men agreed to dissolve the partnership, dividing their land with a coin flip.

Kinney's grandiose plan was to turn his marshy portion into an Old World-themed seaside village, based loosely on Venice, Italy. Venice-of-America, as he called it, would feature colonnaded Venetian-style architecture, an auditorium for dance and theater performances, art galleries, European gardens, strings of lights, and miles of canals with gondolas and gondoliers. The planned community would also include a pier with a ship-style restaurant, amusements, and a two-and-a-half-mile miniature railway. Kinney hoped the development would spark a cultural renaissance in the United States.

People thought his idea a little kooky at first, some calling it "Kinney's Folly." As the exotic-looking community took shape, however, skepticism turned to excitement, and building lots were snapped up along the canals. Kinney set July 4, 1905, as the grand opening date. When a storm battered the coast on March 13, destroying the new pier and auditorium, Kinney hired 600 men to work around the clock to ensure that Venice-of-America opened on time. It did. Some forty thousand people showed up for opening day, most arriving by trolley, to stroll amid the Byzantine- and Renaissance-styled architecture, to ride gondolas through the sixteen miles of canals, to enjoy the arcades and eateries, and to swim in the saltwater plunge. About $400,000 worth of property was sold that day.

Venice-of-America was an unqualified success - although Kinney had misjudged one thing: People were less interested in the community's cultural attractions than they were in being entertained. It was the rides and games they lined up for, not the art and music. The next year, Kinney added more amusements and built the Midway Plaisance, based on the midway model created for the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. Attractions included a funhouse, games of chance, a wild animal arena, belly dancers, and such sideshow attractions as Filipino headhunters and the eight-foot man and thirty-inch woman. Venice soon became known as a thriving sea-side amusement park with such rides as Race Thru the Clouds, which was the first roller coaster on the West Coast, the Scenic Railroad, the Tunnel of Love, the Giant Dipper, the Captive Airplane, and the Dragon Slide.

Unfortunately, though, the city of Venice, which incorporated in 1911, was frequently mired in political and financial difficulties. By the 1920s, the novelty and usefulness of Kinney's canal system had disappeared. Many of the canals were filled with silt, and the city often reeked of dead fish. Kinney had underestimated the effect the automobile would have on American culture and travel patterns.

With the city's financial difficulties mounting, residents bitterly debated Venice's future, some favoring annexation to the city of Santa Monica, others wanting to join Los Angeles. Several bond initiatives and annexation proposals were voted down before finally, in late 1925, Venice became a part of Los Angeles.

The city filled in most of Kinney's canals and turned them into roads. Venice's attractiveness as a resort was further diminished after the Ohio Oil Company discovered oil in south Venice in 1929. Suddenly, Venice's skyline consisted of dozens of oil derricks. With only limited environmental laws on the books, oil often soiled beaches, closing them to swimmers. For several decades, until its resurgence in the 1970s, Venice was seedy and run-down.

Today Venice Beach is neither a sophisticated cultural center nor an amusement park. It is a place so compellingly odd that it defies simple description. The concrete Oceanfront Walk - commonly called "the Boardwalk" - is the focal point of Venice Beach, crowded every weekend with street performers, Rollerbladers, bodybuilders, panhandlers, psychics, movie stars, drug addicts, street preachers, merchants, and plenty of people just there to watch. Venice still seems run-down in places, but property values are among the highest in the country. It's a fiercely tolerant, though often politically contentious, resort, which seems to have its own unwritten rules of behavior and logic. Freedom here is defined differently than it is elsewhere.

The Venice Beach of today, while not what Abbot Kinney envisioned when he opened Venice-of-America in 1905, can, in a sense, be traced to him - to his sense of individuality and to his idea of building a land unto itself. Historian and author Elayne Alexander, who is writing a biography of Abbot Kinney, points out: "History isn't places, it's people. That's especially true in Venice Beach. There has always been a welcoming attitude here. People are accepted whoever they are - and even valued for their unusual thought processes, more so than anywhere else I've ever been. That all goes back to Abbot Kinney, who was a very egalitarian man."

One Step at a Time

On a gray, drizzly winter morning, Elayne Alexander drives through the streets of Venice Beach, telling stories about some of the people who lived here and passed through: George Freeth, who introduced surfing and lifeguarding to Southern California; Orson Welles, who shot scenes for Touch of Evil at Windward Avenue; Charlie Chaplin, whose first Little Tramp appearance was filmed on the Boardwalk; Arnold Schwarzenegger, who pumped iron for years in Venice; and Jim Morrison of the Doors, whose towering image is painted on a building a block off the Boardwalk.

Mural art decorates the sides of buildings all over Venice, she says. It's a tradition that goes back to the beatniks who used to hang out at the Gas House and the Venice West Café.

On Pacific Avenue, she stops at the original Gold's Gym, opened in 1965 by a self-described "beach bum" named Joe Gold with equipment he built from old cars. During the late 1960s, Gold's Gym was the mecca of American bodybuilding.

Driving north, she indicates where the old Kinney canals once flowed and points out the homes of actors Dennis Hopper, Julia Roberts, and Orson Bean.

"This building used to be the King George Hotel. That was where Aimee Semple McPherson - Sister Aimee - was last seen before her disappearance," she says. McPherson, founder of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, came here to Venice Beach one morning in May 1926 to go swimming. "In those days, you checked into a hotel, changed clothes, and then came out onto the beach. She came here with her secretary, and she walked out onto the beach and promptly disappeared." Divers searched for days without finding her. The story of Aimee McPherson's disappearance became national news, with "sightings" reported all over the country. Then, five weeks after she vanished, Sister Aimee showed up in the Arizona desert, claiming to have been kidnapped. "But the story didn't ring true, and another story began to circulate: that she was in Carmel with her radio operator boyfriend and they had staged this whole thing to get away for a while. In those days, you didn't do things like that. Especially someone who was an evangelist." The city of Los Angeles brought charges against Sister Aimee, although they were mysteriously dropped the next year. "Back then, you could pay people off very easily in the city," says Alexander. "I suppose you probably still can."

She stops at an old green wooden house and gazes at it for a moment before speaking. "That was Kinney's place," she says. "He moved here in 1905."

The Kinney house doesn't look a hundred years old - which, she says, has been one of the problems with efforts to have it declared a historic site. "The second floor was made into an apartment in the forties, and for that reason we can't historically landmark it. We've had a terrible time trying to save this house. We've tried to landmark a number of buildings, and the city of Los Angeles does everything they can to prevent it."

Although Kinney moved here with his wife and sons, he also had a mistress, Winifred Harwell, who lived in nearby Santa Monica with their two illegitimate children. After his wife died in 1911, Kinney married Winifred and adopted the two children. Kinney died in 1920, of lung cancer, at age seventy.

Driving back toward the Boardwalk, Alexander talks about her own migration to Southern California in 1968. "I was living in the Washington, D.C., area. I made the decision quickly," she recalls. "I just got in my car and decided to drive to California. I'd been working as a model, and I thought I could continue my modeling career out here. Boy, was I surprised. All these actresses were trying to get into movies. So that was the end of my modeling career. I was twenty-six years old.

"I was a photographer and a writer. I came down here to roller-skate, but I also became very interested in the history of Venice Beach and in taking pictures of the old canals that were still left.

"I see my role here as trying to save as much as I can and to educate people. This city has a fascinating past, but there aren't many people interested in saving it. The city is trying to change the character of Venice, one step at a time. They want to turn this into Miami Beach. It's gradual, so many people don't see it happening."

She talks again about Kinney and his failed dream of a cultural renaissance by the sea. "What Kinney wanted to do was very daring for a number of reasons. At the time he created Venice, Ocean Park was an already established resort. Here he was putting another one right next to it. They were very powerful men who owned the other part, and they fought him every step of the way. You may have noticed that a lot of fighting goes on in Venice. That, too, can be traced to Kinney."

Free Speech Zone

Before the sun rises over the waterfront, dozens of people are camped out along the east side of the Oceanfront Walk, waiting for nine o'clock, when they can cross to the west side. The damp air is scented occasionally with marijuana and breakfast meats. Some of the people are sleeping. Others are talking, smoking, playing cards, listening to music. For vendors, there are literally two sides to the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Those who sell merchandise along the east side are either property owners or renters. For many of them, rents have jumped in recent years with the rise in property values. On the west side, vendors open up card tables and sell their goods to the same passing promenaders, without paying rent, taxes, or overhead. In some cases, they sell the same products that store owners across the walk are selling.

How things got to this point says a lot about the nature of Venice Beach. Back in the 1970s, the west side of the Boardwalk was mostly the domain of street entertainers - jugglers, magicians, musicians, comics. They were part of the carnival atmosphere that, along with roller-skating, had bestowed a new cachet upon Venice Beach. Gradually, though, that changed. Although vending was prohibited by city law on the west side, artists would paint there and sell their works for "donations." Incense sellers claimed they were exempt from the no-vending law by their right to religious freedom.

The west side is nicknamed "the Free Speech Zone," but the definition of free speech can be very nebulous in Venice. When police allowed the vending to continue, more and more people took advantage. By last summer, the whole west side was lined with merchandise sellers. There wasn't even room to cross over to the beach in places. Now, with people arriving before dawn to fight over spaces, the city is finally taking action, creating a lottery that it hopes will control the problem.

Venice Beach has always been a welcoming place that encourages what Alexander calls "unusual thought processes." Solving problems here is seldom simple. As businesswoman Carol Tantau says, "Venice is the only city in the world where if you get three people together in a room to discuss an issue, you'll end up with four different points of view."

THE BUILDING THAT HOUSES Small World Books, with its distinctive red-and-white awning, was a boarded-up warehouse when owner Mary Goodfader moved here from Marina del Rey. Someone had spray-painted GET OUT OF CAMBODIA on the front, she recalls.

"Venice was a more troubled place then," says Goodfader. "My husband saw this building and thought things might get better. They did. With the roller-skating boom in the late 1970s, it changed. I think Venice is a really unique community because of the artists and the writers, and the Hollywood element now. The thing I like best about Venice is its diversity. There are many smart people who live here. They're good readers. There are also some things that I don't like."

Goodfader has supported the lottery plan. Because of that, a sign recently went up across the Boardwalk urging strollers to BOYCOTT SIDEWALK CAFÉ. The adjoining Sidewalk Café, owned by her son Jay Goodfader, is a Boardwalk tradition and a prime place for people-watching.

"It's just a good idea," she says of the lottery. "It's gotten out of hand to the point that people start camping out at five a.m. now for a spot, and they can't go over there until nine. So the people who live around here just have to be woken up by these horrible goings-on. They're fighting now because there aren't enough spaces for everyone. And they all think they're entitled to have a rent-free spot."

FOR THE PAST FIFTEEN years, Noel Kehrlein has watched the Venice Beach parade from a beach chair on the west side, where she works as a psychic five days a week. "My readings are psychologically based, not fortune-telling," she explains. "The real purpose of a reading, or the way people should use them, is as a tool for self-knowledge"

Kehrlein, who grew up in San Francisco, says she was "one of those pioneering unwed mothers back in the sixties." She went on to earn two degrees in psychology.

"What I like about working here is that it's outdoors and people from all over the world come here. I've read for princes and princesses and for movie stars. I read for someone who had just gotten off death row and for another man who just had a sex change to a woman and said he was afraid he'd made a mistake. One of my most unusual readings was Roseanne Barr, because when I put her cards down, I said, 'Wow, I see babies everywhere.' She wasn't even married at the time. I had no idea she was trying to get pregnant. And she said on Jay Leno a few days later: 'A psychic told me she saw babies everywhere.'"

Although it's rare that people leave San Francisco for Los Angeles, she says, Kehrlein prefers the mood here. "Venice Beach promotes free expression. Everyone here is creative. San Francisco seems more yuppiefied. The thing I like least about Venice is the crazies. Not the homeless - the homeless are fine. They sometimes even help us set up. But the crazies are scary, especially when they get on drugs.

"The most remarkable thing about the Venice Boardwalk is that we've really formed a community. We have people from all different countries, all different socioeconomic classes. We have no boss, but we have managed to become a community and to police ourselves, with rules that seem to work. There are street rules and there are cop rules, and we've been able to form this community with our own rules.

"The way we do that is, we decided we would each pick a space and stay there, and then we would help each other keep it. We wouldn't bounce all around. So if you have to go to the bathroom, you feel no one will take your stuff. And each block sort of does the same thing, some better than others. Of course, this was easier when there weren't as many people. Now, you've got times where two people are fighting for the same spot. We decided that if a new person comes in on this block and tries to take someone's spot, we'll all group together and talk that person out of it. So we sort of formed a system, respecting each other and helping each other."

She says she isn't worried about the new lottery, although it will probably reduce her working hours. "In some ways, it'll be easier. I've been through the lottery system in Berkeley. Others haven't been through it, so they're freaking out. They don't know what a lottery is. I've been on this same block for fifteen years and now I'll have to move around. It will cost me my spot some days, but if they do it right, it should be okay. It's out of control right now."

THE IDEA OF IMPOSING a lottery to regulate a boardwalk that operates almost like its own country has riled up some of the longtime Boardwalk habitués. Probably the best-known performer is Harry Perry, who plays Jimi Hendrix-style electric guitar riffs while Rollerblading back and forth along the walk, dressed in a white robe and turban.

Perry cam to Los Angeles from Detroit in the 1970s, he says, "to break into the music business. I started doing this in Hollywood. It was the same thing there except there's more smog. It's more breathable here. I'm a professional street performer. I call myself a guerrilla artist. Being a street musician, there's a lot of freedom in that. But freedom is not automatic. The idea of freedom is different everywhere you go. I came here because Venice Beach has always been a Free Speech Zone."

Perry says he defines freedom as the right to pursue his livelihood. "They've changed the definition of freedom now in Venice by saying you have to buy a license and enter the lottery. That's not what Venice is about.

"This is the Free Speech Zone, and it will stay that way. The people will determine that, not the city. The city can do anything. They can build casinos here if they want, and as long as we keep our freedom, it's okay. You can't change that. The people here will not allow it. The reason this is happening now is because an appointed councilperson pushed for it. We didn't vote her in. She snuck in when they rearranged how the districts were set up. This is our world. It'll stay a free zone."

Perry, who says he is a Sikh, calls his music "an extension" of his religious beliefs. "I practice that there is but one God. Truth is his name. Great and indescribable is his wisdom."

"No Place Else in the Country"

"After being here for a number of years, I find everywhere else boring," says Larry Guiton, co-owner of the Boardwalk shop Ocean Blue. "It's really a bizarre little place. There is always something crazy going on. There are characters everywhere. You can see hobo bums sitting out there, or you might see Robert Graham and Angelica Huston taking a beach walk with their dog - they live right around the corner. But the thing that's cool is that everybody down-dresses. So the really rich and the really poor are all in shorts and T-shirts. I didn't even know Faye Dunaway was in my shop until my wife came up and said, 'By the way, that's Faye Dunaway.' She was on Rollerblades. Arnold used to come here every weekend with his wife and kids. David Bowie was in the shop once."

Guiton, who owns Ocean Blue with his older brother Jeff, is eating a casserole lunch out of a Styrofoam box on a picnic table behind the store he rents on the Boardwalk. He grew up in Rockland County, New York, and has worked in Venice for more than twenty years. Ocean Blue sells jewelry, aromatherapy products, salts, oils, incense, imported candles, metal crafts, and other items. The Guitons import most of what they sell.

"The funny thing I've found about Venice," he says, "is that people always come back here. Whether it's a trip, a vacation, or they live here and they leave, something always brings them back. And I laugh because basically it's the last stop. You can't go any further. It's the end of the road."

He eats in earnest for a while, then looks up. It's a warm, sunny afternoon in Venice Beach. "But here's the other side of it. The playing field here isn't level. And what's insane is that there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing at all. Across the Boardwalk there's a sign that says NO COMMERCIAL VENDING. If I were to ask you what that is over there, you would look at it and say it's all commercial vending. But if you ask any of them, they'll tell you it's their right to free expression. They'll say they're allowed to sell incense under freedom of religion because frankincense was sold by the Christians two thousand years ago. And the police don't do anything about it. If you read the law, it's very clear. Nothing's allowed on that side.

"This side of the Boardwalk is governed by variances, conditional-use permits. You can't set up poles. Your signs can only be so big. Over there, they don't even need to have a sales tax license. The city comes out here and they check each of our licenses, but they don't even talk to those people, and some of those people are taking in as much money as those on the private side.

"I used to be really involved in this," he adds. "I spearheaded a merchants' association, and we had almost every merchant involved. We put money together and we lobbied, but it never went anywhere. It's worse today than it was before. People do have a right to exercise their freedoms. Do they have a right to run businesses without the proper permits? I don't think so.

"What happens is, as soon as you get a good item, they'll set up on the public side and start selling it for less. I'll give you an example. I was one of the big incense stores on the beach. I sold a lot of incense, imported stuff, handmade, hand dipped. All that stuff used to do well for me. Then, for some reason, they allowed people on my side to move to the other side and set up and sell incense. Police said, 'You can't be there,' but they all said 'Yes we can, we have a religious right.' They all banded together and the police laid off it. In 1998, 1999, 2000, I did about eighty thousand dollars a year in incense sales. I'm lucky if I do fifteen thousand now. It's all commercial boxed incense they're selling, the same product I'm selling. But I can't do anything about it.

"There is no place else in the country where this sort of thing happens. That's what sort of blows me away. Why don't people set up in downtown L.A.? Nobody sets up in downtown L.A. because the police don't allow it. And I wonder why the police allow it here. It's the same law, it's the same city."

Guiton isn't so frustrated that he intends to leave, however. "I'm a working guy. I have children. And I like it here." He's pleased that the Boardwalk was recently rebuilt with new recreation areas and bathrooms. "It could have been real vanilla and it isn't. I like the fact that it's the playground for a major urban city and it's free."

He's heard the stories about developers turning Venice Beach into South Beach West but doesn't buy it. "There are too many different factions here," he says. "There are also some real zoning issues. They can try to get variances, but this community is hardcore. I mean, they'll come out in droves. I don't think it's mature enough for that yet."

Out on the Boardwalk, a man is juggling chainsaws. A Rollerblader goes by in a clown suit, followed by two sinewy girls in bikinis. In the next block, two men with dreadlocks are selling shirts and smoking marijuana. A gray-haird woman in a long flower-print dress shouts incoherently at the bicyclists and skaters. An old man whose belongings are in a shopping cart bangs his hand against an electric bass guitar and laughs, pretending to be a street performer. A pair of buffed men jog past, shirtless, talking baseball. At the Boardwalk Café, a couple is sipping white wine, watching it all. The man's wearing a beret. On a warm weekend afternoon, it's easy to become a little intoxicated by the hypnotic rhythms and strange logic of this place - even knowing the bitter conflicts beneath the surface - and to understand why people always come back to Venice Beach.