Windward Park

Dateline: Venice Beach, January 1950. The good news of the day was that finally the beach would reopen to the public. An eight-year quarantine of the beaches from La Ballona channel northward through the three-mile Venice strand had first started on April 3, 1943, due to an excessive B-coli count in the water. Since the 1920s, visitors to local beaches had objected to raw sewage in their recreational waters. But with the opening of the Hyperion sewage processing plant in 1950, which included a full secondary treatment system and biosolids processing unit, the count fell to an acceptable count and on July 6th, the beaches were proclaimed safe for swimming once again.

It was also announced in January that Venice “Muscle Beach” was going to be built on Venice beach, with a grand opening planned for July 16. Locals felt that it was about time something be done with the former entertainment area, the Coney Island of the Pacific, since the sad closing of the Venice pier at midnight on April 20, 1946. It had taken a long drawn-out dismantlement of the pier for over a year, until arson of the remaining attractions finally ended the process in May, 1947. Both the Bam-boo Slide and the remaining roller coaster were quickly enveloped in flames. And that was it.

The L.A. Recreation and Parks commission had wanted the site of the Venice pier for a major recreational area, with baths, solariums and concert halls, but by then Venice had slumped into a seedy enclave. The area along Ocean Front Walk and Windward Avenue had turned into a virtual ghost town, and the opening of the new Muscle Beach, which local backers said would “out-muscle Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach, which had gained national publicity” would be the occasion for a community wide grand opening celebration.

Along with the Muscle Beach area, between Avenue 17 and Avenue 18, a new parking lot, for 929 cars, would be built at the end of North Venice Boulevard, where it joined the Sunset Pier.

At the grand opening of the Venice Athletic Beach, which was noted as “the greatest thing Venice has ever seen,” over 75,000 people thronged to Venice to view the parade which inaugurated the beach celebration. It featured lavish floats, bearing local beauties and motion picture starlets, and crack marching units including bands and majorettes.

Band music filled the air from 10:30 a.m. until midnight, for both entertainment and dancing. A huge fireworks display amazed the gathered crowds, followed by a community dance in the new parking lot. A grand time was had by all.

It looked like Venice was back on the map. With the re-opening of the beaches, swarms of folks came to view the new strand, with mild water temperatures bringing bathing parties out in force. There was bumper to bumper traffic along Pacific Blvd., with some visitors forced to park several blocks from the ocean.

The popularity of this event was so enormous that local leaders decided to do it again, every year. Starting the following summer, Venice hosted its annual Surfestival, which featured a parade of bands, a Miss Venice Beach beauty contest, a Mr. Venice Beach physique and posing contest, volleyball tournaments, a majorette contest, a mile swim competition from Ocean Park to the Venice breakwater, and the ever-popular Beach Camera Day. Amateur shutterbugs could photograph bathing suit-clad lasses in posed setups along the beach area.

In 1953, it took the naming of Venice Chamber of Commerce president Larry Norman to the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission to help spur further development along the beach front. Gone was the old dilapidated stub-end of the Kinney pier, when the city razed all buildings seaward of the Ocean Front promenade the previous year. A new landscaped park was built between Horizon Avenue and Avenue 17 that featured grass, shrubs and trees. Benches and walkways to the sand were added, so that citizens could stroll and watch the “goings on” at the beach, making it a genuine pleasure to meandor along the Ocean Front Walk.

In an article in the July 16, 1954 Venice Vanguard, the idea was proposed that a bandstand or outdoor permanent stage on the new grass area of the beach, just west of Windward and Ocean Front Walk, should be provided from which to stage the main Surfestival events in future years. It was noted that “this suggested improvement, with lighting, sound and all other needed equipment, would take some doing, for officials resist innovations and changes. But it is a timely suggestion and civic leaders might well start now to get the job done.”

Four years later, in June of 1958, talks on beach development were held with the L.A. Recreation commissioners. Officials looked at beach sites for a proposed lifeguard building and outdoor auditorium. The following spring, William Frederickson, Parks and Recreation Superintendent, traced the importance of recreation in Venice since its founding, and announced immediate plans by the department to create in the Windward Park area a modern outdoor auditorium and picnic area.

And so the Venice Pavilion was born. Designed by architect Vernon Duckett and Associates as an open, outdoor ampitheatre, the 7,000 square foot structure originally accomodated 1,200 spectators on concrete slab seats in a semi-circle around the stage. Other features included an indoor recreational area beneath the pavilion, a paved picnic area with barbecues and picnic tables, a concession building, and public restrooms. The stage was the only portion of the main building that was roofed.

Ground was broken on September 21, 1960, and the building was completed in 1961, at a cost of $867,000.

Salt spray from the nearby ocean often resulted in damp air and wet seats. Patrons were uncomfortable and the Recreation Department received a number of complaints. As a result, the city’s Public Works Department designed and installed a roof over the building in 1970. However, the roof resulted in an “echo chamber” effect with the pavilion, and an acoustical ceiling was later placed in the building.

Various activities were conducted at the pavilion over the years. The L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra once performed at the building. The Lennon Sisters sang there. Fleetwood Mac played there. On June 5, 1964, Duke Ellington launched the new ‘Theater By the Sea’ at the pavilion, a major musical event. In it he premiered portions of his music for Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens,” and his “Impressions of the Far East.” He finished the program with a medley of his hits, including such standards as “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady.” The enthusiastic, capacity crowd demanded many encores of his exciting, peerless jazz performed by his superb orchestra.

The Free Venice Theater was the next group inclined to make the pavilion a viable theatre space, passing it along in what came to be an inheritance of failure to other small theater groups, musical groups, and artists, none becoming permanent.

Steve Goldman, a Venice poet, was scouting around for a place to hold readings of his own. “I wanted,” said Steve, “to hear at length a number of good people who it seemed were unlikely to get a chance to read at length at Beyond Baroque.” The Venice Pavilion, a far cry from Kinney’s original culture palace with its brick facades and athletic areas, was the site finally selected. That first reading took place June 5th, 1978.

Diana Spears, a Venice artist who attended as an audience member, recalls that evening in a poem of her own:

There is something
About hearing poets read
That makes me envious
Their words breathe
Fire into my mouth
That makes by belly warm
And long for birthing
I spread my legs
And echoes of the ancients
Pour out.

Despite the high quality of the presentations, and the thrill of hearing actual waves behind the gentle voice of a young poet reading their work, few knew anything was happening there, probably because without a theater marquee, lobby and ticket booth, visitors couldn’t figure out what the building’s purpose was. So the poetry readings died a silent death at the pavilion.

In July 1979, an organization known as “Theatre by the Sea” presented Shakespeare’s “Othello” there. I remember attending a production of “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” around that time, held in the shuffleboard courts on the south side of the pavilion. My wife remembers attending a lecture by Pierre Salinger at the pavilion around 1962. In 1981, Stephen Tompkins, a local entrepreneur, produced several unsuccessful stage events in the pavilion. He had 558 permanent seats installed in the building, paid for by the Recreation Department. But they remained unused and useless.

The Festival of the Chariots, put on by the Hare Krishnas, also began in 1981, producing an annual and controversial event featuring painted elephants, huge flower bedecked floats parading down the ocean front, incessant musical drumming, and a free feast for thousands. It always took over the entire Windward Park area for over three days at a time.

The lower lever recreation building was once used as a small senior citizen center, replacing the lost area where card games were played by members of the “Spit and Argue Club” at the end of the old pier site. It also housed the director’s office, until it was turned over to the LAPD as headquarters for their Venice Beach patrol sub-station. It was here that also sheltered a few hardcore homeless people, who lived in peace with the surrounding elements. One notable was the old lady who never wore underwear, but was proud of her appearance and always had a fresh face of makeup at the ready.

The picnic area soon became an outdoor canvas for expressive artwork. In 1973 Judy Baca with 60 local artists and volunteers painted a series of historical panels, starting with the beginning of the world to Venice in the 1970s. Over the years, artists covered the walls, picnic tables, picnic benches, even the bases of palm tree trunks with splashes of the balloon-characters of indecipherable graffiti, covering most of the work from that earlier era, creating an area that became a neighborhood “treasure,” known by all as “The Graffiti Pit.”

Debra Padilla, assistant director of the Social Public Arts Resource Center (SPARC), lauded the Graffiti Pit as a bastion of creative spirit and expressed concern for its eventual demolition. “It’s a shame that one of the last places the graffiti artists can express themselves is being taken away,” she said.

Bob Bryan, a documentary filmmaker and founder of Graffiti Verite’, noted that the style and content of the graffiti mirrored how the artists have been affected by their environment. “There are times that the Pit became a menudo soup of tags, random pieces and throw-ups - some good, some bad, always relevant,” he said. “It became a visual metaphor for life in this city.”

Trash and beach debris soon began littering the graffitied concrete area and the pungent smell of brine and urine crept through the air. “The condition of the Pit spoke for itself,” Bryan said. “The lack of care and treatment for the area assured that it would inevitably die.”

As decrepit as the squalid Graffiti Pit had become, there were many in the Venice community who wanted to protect it as public art. Stash Maleski and a crew of underground artists, conscious of graffiti’s bad name, decided to do something to take the “illegality” out of urban and underground art, even as Maleski recognized graffiti’s long historical tradition. This ongoing process included actively advocating spaces like skateboard parks and playgrounds and sites for graffiti murals through the Department of Parks and Recs and the City Council. One of the first venues for support was the Venice Pavilion. Threatened with destruction, Maleski and SPARC actively advocated retaining the space for graffiti murals and restoring what had been previously whitewashed.

In 1983, the Department of Parks and Recreation solicited formal proposals from non-profit agencies for use of the pavilion. Having been vacant for much of its twenty-three years, the hopes for resurrecting the big white elephant at the beach as a facility of a recreational, educational, scientific, or cultural nature was met with 27 proposals. At the September 27th meeting, all were opened and evaluated, but none were accepted. So the pavilion just continued to sit there. Hey, at least the front area along Windward was being used as a skater slalom course, the graffiti pit held an occasional head-banging concert, and the ramp up to the southern entrances of the closed theatre provided a great view of the beach. A real ‘cool spot.’

The facility was officially closed in 1984, due to lack of use. Several well-publicized attempts to revive the pavilion by the city and the community group Venice Arts Mecca failed.

Once again in 1993, the Parks and Recreation Department tried soliciting proposals to reopen the pavilion for public use. Included in the guidelines for completion of a successful bid was a timeline of 30 months minimum to accomplish all the required reports, plans and permits for a successful venture. Needless to say, nothing came of the solicitation again, possibly because it was estimated to cost about $3 million to renovate the pavilion but only $400,000 to demolish it.

Finally, in January 2000, the California Coastal Commission voted 8 to 1 to demolish the hulking community center. Viewed as Venice Beach’s most visible and controversial landmark, the pavilion was described to officials as a financial sinkhole and a haven for rats and transients. The building would be replaced with a park and beach space, as part of a larger $15 million plan to spruce up Venice Beach in time for the upcoming Democratic National Convention in August.

Once cleared, the pavilion would be replaced by beach sand, a playground, a landscaped park, public sculpture, new basketball courts and restrooms, and a single-story police substation and park maintenance office. Several of the pavilion’s old decaying charms would be preserved, though. Two walls from the picnic area/graffiti pit would be kept, where the spray-painted concrete walls had been identified as a “cultural resource,” and would remain open to constant updating.

Only about half a dozen local protesters voiced their objections to the vote. Most notably, longtime Venice activist Pearl White accused commissioners of racism for failing to preserve the pavilion, based on her belief that it was intended to host entertainment events, day-care, and community service programs, especially for low-income black and Latino families. “You have turned against the poor people. That beach is there for everybody.”

“This will open the area up to everybody,” came the official response.

The first of the demolition equipment arrived in March. From there on until May 1st, it was all concrete crushing, hauling into big dunes of fragments, and more crushing of the old pavilion, into gravel-sized chunks to be used in the repaving of the entire Ocean Front Walk. The work became commonplace, with many of the vendors along the boardwalk complaining about their loss of income, due to the inconvenience afforded by the fenced-off construction zone.

Finally, on August 12th, the new Windward Plaza was scheduled to open. Workers were still pouring the last of the concrete on Friday afternoon, the day before the official opening ceremony, in time for delegates to the Democratic National Convention to visit the supposedly completed plaza. They had labored seven days a week on the project for the past two months. “We’re going to make it!” promised Cyndi Dumo, senior city recreation director for Venice Beach, as she helped workers move pipes at the edge of the new plaza on Friday. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Nearby, landscapers were laying new sod on a greenbelt area that would separate the boardwalk from the sand.

Thousands were expected for the “Venice Beach Showcase,” which started at 8 a.m. with handball championships, bicycle stunt riding, street performances, art displays and a roller-skating show. Bands performed throughout the afternoon on a stage set up on the new basketball court. A similar schedule of entertainment and events was held on Sunday.

Officials said two more months of work were needed to complete a nearby children's play area, a new police substation, a fountain and several art installations. But enough was done to give the place a finished look and let boardwalk merchants breathe a sigh of relief. Various portions of Ocean Front Walk had been closed at times over the past two years for work to be completed on the $8 million boardwalk restoration project

But when the politicians and tourists left town, the chain-link fences and bulldozers reappeared. Workers rolled up the sod they had laid down only days before and set back to finishing a project that was anything but complete. Officials had hoped to complete construction by mid-November and hold a grand reopening in early January.

Many thought the festival marked the end of a long summer of construction but found out that it was only the beginning of the end. “They just did a fast and crummy job because they were forced to go fast,” said Vivianne Robinson, who sells grains of rice decorated with people’s names near the plaza. “Then after the convention, they went back to their slow pace again.”

City officials, however, were excited about the improvements they had brought to the area. “One of the things that’s really neat is that people can’t remember how bad it used to be,” said Kathleen Chan, the city’s oceanfront project manager. “People are enjoying it and I think that aspect alone makes the project worth it.”

The city also intended to redevelop the former Damson Oil Co. site into a large roller skating rink adjacent to the plaza’s present skating area, but those plans never came to fruition.

Mayor Richard Riordan finally dedicated the improved boardwalk on January 15, 2001. He cheered with the crowd of officials, performers, tourists and locals. In a brief speech, Riordan honored the diverse talents of one of Southern California’s most popular tourist destinations. “This is a place to come and wonder at the beauty and splendor of the City of Angels. This is Los Angeles,” the mayor proudly said.

In true Venice fashion, “Mad” Chad Taylor, the Chainsaw Juggler, used one of his roaring blades to cut the red wooden ribbon at the rededication. “The pavilion . . . was a dream of a previous generation,” Ellen Oppenheim, general manager of the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks declared. “Now it's making way for the dreams of the next generation.”

Next came the poets’ wall, on the police substation.

Holy Ground
Stained with the blood of poets
City which lies
Beneath the breasts of birds
Guarded by cats
Behind every corner
The Muse, Angel of Surprise
Poems out of pavement cracks.

Philomene Long had penned the verse several years earlier to express her love for five decades of Venice bohemianism. It became one of 18 verses by Venice poets, past and present, etched onto four concrete walls on the beach at the end of Windward Avenue. Other poets whose verses can be found at the beach include Linda Albertano, Charles Bukowski, Ellyn Maybe, John Thomas, Exene Cervenka, Wanda Coleman, Taylor Mead, Manazar Gamboa, Jim Morrison and Viggo Mortensen.

The poets’ wall is a perfect complement to the Venice community, organizers said. Nearby is the psychedelic totem pole, the skate park and the remnants of the old Venice Pavilion, which now contains colorful, city-sanctioned graffiti art.

The final decoration, so to speak, was the installation of the massive steel sculpture “Declaration” by artist Mark di Suvero, from October 10 - November 25, 2001. Towering like a lighthouse composed of a pair of tilted triangles, this monument was described as either a beacon of playfulness, or as the “big masonic logo.” Originally intended to stay put for only 6 months, the sculpture is still there.

Today, you can find kids frollicking in the Windward Plaza fountain, and see everything from concerts to carnivals to bmx events in the park. Shoot some hoops, do some skateboard grinds, stroll over a map of the original Venice canals, or just loll about, watching the world of today’s Venice pass you by, all in keeping with the spirit of its location at Windward and Ocean Front Walk, as it’s been for the past 101 years.