Venice Against Itself

Words :

Shamik Maganlal 

Photo :

Emily Westerfield

The dream of Los Angeles stands apart from the American dream—still steeped in opportunity and aspiration, but more firmly rooted in proximity than success. The vision of Los Angeles is of a city where artists and actors, the successful and the struggling alike, share the streets and the sun. For this reason, it is a dream not merely accessible to locals—all Jane Diabetes from Farmtown, Oklahoma needs to feel the rush of LA is to catch the barest glimpse of a celebrity at a Starbucks on Cahuenga.

Even within Los Angeles, this dream was most fully realized in the beachside neighborhood of Venice. A bohemian fantasy of actors and artists and outcasts commingled by the beach became Venice’s reality, with successful entertainers and wealthy celebrities such as Dennis Hopper, Jim Morrison, and Julia Roberts living amongst working-class minority families, struggling artists, and itinerant surfers chasing waves. Perhaps it is for that reason that the people of Venice react so fiercely to gentrification—it is not just an attack on their way of life, it is an attack on their shared dream. By way of laws and sentiments aimed at curbing gentrification, Venice stands in sharp contrast to most other cities. While others may try to preserve their ethnic neighborhoods and their arts district, trying to keep each neighborhood the way it was, Venice aims to preserve heterogeneity.

As incomes and demand for housing in the area soared over the past decade, regulations on housing development and rent control have followed almost as quickly. The result is a city frozen in a mid-gentrification state, where zoning prevents most new construction and where the streets are checkered with modern glass beach houses next to old bungalows, tech elite living next to poor families who have been in the city for generations. Venice is, in effect, codifying the diversity and heterogeneity it had long celebrated, making concrete the dream of Los Angeles which had hovered at the edges of its collective consciousness. Does that make the culture of Venice today a genuine continuation of its heritage, or an ersatz replica of a spirit long gone?

Walking through Venice suggests the answer is in flux. Eclectic, colorful bungalows have been a hallmark of the neighborhood for decades. Influential architect duo Charles and Ray Eames located their offices on Abbot Kinney in the 20th century, and iconic homes designed by Frank Gehry in the ‘70s line the beach. But new development in Venice shows little of the lively, expressive design it gained a reputation for, instead trending towards modernist glass homes stripped of ornamentation and ringed by imposing  privacy hedges. A shift in the character of the neighborhood is evident. The air in Venice is still redolent of its heritage as a community for the restless, for actors and artists and outcasts alike, but for how much longer?

Gentrification, viewed as a general process, has a familiar and identifiable rhythm. Artists and outcasts inhabit a place, usually cheap. They form a community, a vibrant culture. Crime lessens. The place becomes attractive to others, to the new outsiders. These outsiders move in, displacing the original residents. Property values rise, development intensifies. This is the process of gentrification that has been halted mid-swing in Venice—the movement of people and the development of property. But what happens to the original culture, the original LA dream of coexistence and proximity? Has that been frozen as well, intangible yet indelible, or is it driven out? Do the newcomers own it, once the artists are gone? One thing remains clear: in the fight for Venice’s soul, the battle lines are still being drawn.