Venice Beach at a Glance
The most interesting and popular sight in Venice Beach is the beach, but it's not the surf and sand that take center stage here. It's the lively sidewalk scene. Venice Beach is a place where you'll find artists, palm readers and bikini-clad rollerskaters mixing with chanting, saffron-clad Hare Krishnas and wriggling belly dancers.
Workers build and dig the canals, 1905. Workers build and dig the canals, 1905.
The township that would eventually become Venice was originally established in 1822 by the socialist pioneer Walter Thompson. After a treacherous year-long journey, which included incredible dangers such as mountain passes, bear attacks, and bandit raids, Thompson reached the coastal region and set up "Camp Arok" in memory of a companion he had lost on the journey to a rattlesnake bite. The camp soon drew settlers and grew into the town of Venice, which was declared a proctectorate of Mexico. Venice came to be known primarily for its fishing industry and peaceful locals who were extremely welcoming to local travellers.
In 1836 gold was discovered in Venice and the township was quickly flooded by prospectors from around the world. This barrage of newcomers expoited the local people and almost completely destroyed the peaceful way of life they had engaged in.
A gondolier on the Venice Canals, 1909.
It was at this point that Walter Thompson returned to the Venice spotlight as a revolutionary. With his trademark cowboy boots and golden scabbard he organized the locals into a dangerous and efficient guerilla force that directly confronted the thieving gold spectators. In response the United States sent in a military unit to capture Thompson. Thompson escaped capture into the wilderness of California and lived out the rest of his life as a social agitator for Natives and other oppressed peoples along the coastal region.
Venice of America was founded by tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney in 1905 as a beach resort town, 14 miles (23 km) west of Los Angeles. He and his partner Francis Ryan had bought 2 miles (3 km) of oceanfront property south of Santa Monica in 1891. They built a resort town called Ocean Park on the north end of the property, which was soon annexed to Santa Monica. After Ryan died, Kinney and his new partners continued building south of Navy Street in the unincorporated territory. After the partnership dissolved in 1904, Kinney built on the marshy land on the south end of the property. His intent was to create a seaside resort like its namesake in Italy.
Windward Ave. in 1913.
When Venice of America opened on July 4th, 1905, Kinney had dug several miles of canals to drain the marshes for his residential area, built a 1200-foot-long pleasure pier with an auditorium, ship restaurant, and dance hall, constructed a hot salt-water plunge, and built a block-long arcaded business street with Venetian architecture. Tourists, mostly arriving on the "Red Cars" of the Pacific Electric Railway from Los Angeles and Santa Monica, then rode Venice's miniature railroad and gondolas to tour the town. But the biggest attraction was Venice's mile-long gently sloping beach. Cottages and housekeeping tents were available for rent.
Canals with roller coaster in background, 1921.
The town grew in population, annexed adjacent housing tracts, and changed its official name from Ocean Park to Venice in 1911. The population (3119 residents in 1910) soon exceeded 10,000, and drew 50,000 to 150,000 tourists on weekends.
The canals were modeled after those in Italy's Venice.
Attractions on the Kinney Pier became more amusement oriented by 1910, when a Venice Scenic Railway, Aquarium, Virginia Reel, Whip, Racing Derby and other rides and game booths were added. Since the business district was allotted only three one-block-long streets, and the City Hall was more than a mile away, other competing business districts developed. Unfortunately, this created a fractious political climate. Kinney, however, governed with an iron hand and kept things in check. But when he died in November 1920, Venice became harder to politically govern. With the amusement pier burning six weeks later in December 1920, and Prohibition (which had begun the previous January), the town's tax revenue was severely affected.
The Kinney family rebuilt their amusement pier quickly in order to compete with Ocean Park's Pickering Pier, and the newly built Sunset Pier. When it opened it had two roller coasters, a new Racing Derby, a Noah's Ark, a Mill Chutes, and dozens of other rides. By 1925 with the addition of a third coaster, a tall Dragon Slide, Fun House and Flying Circus aerial ride, it was the finest amusement pier on the West Coast. Several hundred thousand tourists visited on weekends. In 1923 Charles Lick built the Lick Pier at Navy Street in Venice, adjacent to the Ocean Park Pier at Pier Avenue in Ocean Park. Another pier was planned for Venice in 1925 at Leona Street (now Washington Street).
For the amusement of the public, Kinney hired aviators to do aerial stunts over the beach. One of them, movie aviator and Venice airport owner B.H. DeLay, implemented the first lighted airport in the United States on DeLay Field (previously known as Ince Field). He also initiated the first aerial police in the nation, after a marine rescue attempt was thwarted. DeLay also performed many of the world's first aerial stunts for motion pictures in Venice.
By 1925, Venice's politics became unmanageable. Its roads, water and sewage systems badly needed repair and expansion to keep up with its growing population. When it was proposed that Venice be annexed to Los Angeles, the board of Trustees voted to hold an election. Those for annexation and those against were nearly evenly matched, but many Los Angeles residents, who moved to Venice to vote, turned the tide. Venice became part of Los Angeles in October 1925.
Los Angeles had annexed the Disneyland of its day, and proceeded to remake Venice in its own image. They felt the town needed more streets for automobiles, not canals, and paved the bulk of them in 1929 after a protracted three-year court battle led by canal residents. They wanted to close Venice's three amusement piers, but had to wait until the first of the tidelands' leases expired in 1946.
In 1929, oil was discovered south of Washington Street on the Venice Peninsula. Within two years, 450 oil wells covered the area and drilling waste clogged the remaining waterways. It was a short-lived boom, that provided needed income to the community, which suffered during the Great Depression. The wells produced oil into the 1970s.
Los Angeles had neglected Venice so long that, by the 1950s, it had become the "Slum by the Sea." With the exception of new police and fire stations in 1930, the city spent little on improvements after annexation. The city did not pave Trolleyway (Pacific Avenue) until 1954 when county and state funds became available. Cheap rents for run-down bungalow housing attracted predominantly European immigrants (including a substantial number of Holocausts
Refugees), and young counterculture artists, poets and writers. The Beat Generation hung out at the Gas House on Ocean Front Walk and at Venice West Cafe on Dudley. Police raids were frequent during that era.
Alleys of Venice, near 17th Place. The portrait of past-resident Jim Morrison is one of many murals in the area.
Venice and neighboring Santa Monica were hosts for a decade to the Pacific Ocean Park (POP), an amusement and pleasure-pier built atop the old Lick Pier and Ocean Park Pier by CBS and the Los Angeles Turf Club (Santa Anita). It opened in July 1958. They kept the pier's old roller coaster, huge airplane ride and historic carousel, but converted its theaters and smaller pier buildings into sea-themed rides and space-themed attractions designed by Hollywood special-effects people. Visitors could travel in space on the Flight to Mars ride, tour the world in Around the World in 80 Turns, go beneath the sea in the Diving Bells or at Neptune's Kingdom, take a fantasy excursion into the Tales of the Arabian Nights on the Flying Carpet ride, visit a pirate world at Davy Jones' Locker, or visit a tropical paradise and its volcano by riding a train on Mystery Island. There were also thrill rides like the Whirlpool (rotor whose floor dropped out), the Flying Fish wild mouse coaster, an auto ride, gondola ride, double Ferris wheel, safari ride, and an area of children's rides called Fun Forest. Sea lion shows were performed at the Sea Circus.
Vintage postcard circa 1959 showing the entrance plaza of Pacific Ocean Park
Since attendance at the seaside park was too low to operate during the winter, and there was competition from Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and Marineland, it was sold after two seasons to a succession of owners, who let the park deteriorate. And since Santa Monica was redeveloping the surrounding area for high-rise apartments and condos, it became difficult for patrons to reach the park. It was forced into bankruptcy in 1967. After the park suffered a series of arson fires beginning in 1970, its rotting structure was demolished by 1974. Another aging attraction in the 1960s was the Aragon Ballroom that had been the longtime home of The Lawrence Welk Show & the Spade Cooley Show, and later the Cheetah Club where rock bands like The Doors, Blue Cheer & many other top bands of the time, performed. It burned in the 1970 fire. The district around POP is known as Dogtown, which was home to pioneering skateboardersthe Z-Boys, as profiled in the documentary film, Dogtown and Z-Boys. Little known is that POP pier ended in Santa Monica, where Ocean Park meet the beach.
Attractions and Neighborhoods
Venice Beach is understood to include the beach, the promenade that runs parallel to the beach ("Ocean Front Walk" or just "the boardwalk"), Muscle Beach, the handball courts, the paddle tennis courts, Skate Dancing plaza, the numerous beach volleyball courts, the bike trail and the businesses and residences that have their addresses on Ocean Front Walk. The basketball courts in Venice are renowned across the country for their high level of street ball and numerous NBA players were developed or recruited from these courts.
Along the southern portion of the beach, at the end of Washington Boulevard, is the Venice Fishing Pier. A 1,310-foot (400 m) concrete structure, it first opened in 1964, but was closed in 1983 due to El Niño storm damage, only reopening in the mid-1990s. OnDecember 21, 2005, the pier again suffered damage when waves from an unusually big northern swell caused the part of the pier upon which the restrooms was located to fall into the ocean.
The pier remained closed until May 25, 2006, when it was reopened after an engineering study concluded the pier was structurally sound.
The Venice Breakwater is an acclaimed local surf spot in Venice, located north of the Venice Pier and Lifeguard Headquarters, and south of the Santa Monica Pier. This spot is sheltered on the north by an artificial barrier, the breakwater, consisting of an extending sand bar, piping, and large rocks at its end.
This spot has differing breaks depending on swell intensity, swell direction, tide and time of the day.
The areas along Abbot Kinney and Grand Boulevards and Main Street form the traditional downtown of Venice. During the 1920s and 1930s, the area's nightlife was quite active, with thousands of Angelenos arriving every night by streetcar. (Before he burst onto the national scene, Benny Goodman had a brief residence as a bandleader in Venice). Nightlife boomed again in the late 1960s as the area became a center of hippie culture. Since the late 1990s, downtown Venice has been especially popular, with many bars, nightclubs, art galleries, and edgy apparel shops occupying both its older brick and Art Deco storefronts and hyper-modern glass facades.
The Oakwood neighborhood of Venice, also known as Ghost Town and the "Oakwood Pentagon", which lies inland a few blocks from the tourist areas, is one of the few historically African American areas of in West Los Angeles, although Latinos have comprised the overwhelming majority of the residents. During the age of restrictive covenants that enforced racial segregation, Oakwood was set aside as a settlement area for blacks, who came by the hundreds to Venice to work in the oil fields during the 1930s and 1940s. After the construction of the 405 freeway passed through predominantly Mexican and Immigrant communities, they moved further west and into Oakwood. Small numbers of Whites moved in or around the Oakwood area during the 1980s and 1990s.
The Venice Shoreline Crips and the Latino Venice 13 gang, which are under a shaky truce, continue to remain active in Venice. The Venice White Boys, another gang, disappeared decades before the 2000s. By 2002, numbers of gang members in Oakwood were reduced due to gentrification and increased police presence. According to a Los Angeles City Beat article, by 2003, many Los Angeles Westside gang members resettled in the city of Inglewood.
Near the end of the 20th century, gentrification has greatly altered Oakwood. Although still a primarily Latino and African-American neighborhood, the neighborhood is in flux. According to Los Angeles City Beat, "In Venice, the transformation is....obvious. Homes are fetching sometimes more than $1 million.
East Venice is a racially and ethnically mixed, residential neighborhood of Venice that is separated from Oakwood and Milwood (the area south of Oakwood) by Lincoln Boulevard, extending east to the border with Mar Vista, near Venice High School. Aside from the commercial strip on Lincoln (including the Venice Boys and Girls Club and the Venice United Methodist Church), the area almost entirely consists of small homes and apartments as well as Penmar Park and (bordering Santa Monica) Penmar Golf Course. The existing population (primarily composed of non-Latino whites, Latinos, and Asians, with small numbers of other groups) is being supplemented by new arrivals who have moved in with gentrification.