The modern conception of Venice, California has a long and rich history that begins with an act of outrageous ambition. Fueled by dreams of erecting a new American city with the culture and sophistication to match Europe’s finest metropolitan centers, Abbot Kinney—tobacco millionaire and real estate developer— would purchase 400 acres of land south of Santa Monica in 1892 in an attempt to construct what historian Jeffrey Stanton described as "a beach community that would foster a cultural renaissance, an American renaissance that would begin on the shores of the Pacific."
Kinney envisioned a resort town, culturally and architecturally reminiscent of Venice, Italy. This “Venice of America,” first took shape as a seaside amusement park with rides, game booths and a miniature railway. Even with its own canals and gondolas, the neighborhood fell on hard times and was transformed again by the discovery of oil in 1929, nine years after Kinney died. Over 50 oil wells opened in and around Venice Beach, bringing revenue to an area struck especially hard by the Great Depression. The oil was pumped for decades, until the wells finally ran dry. But by that time the damage had been done – the coastline ruined by the machinery of extraction, the beaches spoiled by hazardous waste. The residential community fell into disrepair, and real estate values plummeted.
Nevertheless, it retained a peculiar charm. One of Venice’s most famous and loyal inhabitants, author Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles; Fahrenheit 451), had moved to Venice in 1942 when he was 21 or 22, into a small Craftsman style bungalow built in 1923. Even after moving many years later, the author retained a fondness for his former home, and used Venice as the backdrop for his book Death is a Lonely Business. “Some of the books most bizarre images,” explained writer and Venice historian Delores Hanney, “like the circus wagons and cages mired in the muck and polluted water of a canal, or the Arabesque mansion on the sand or the false eyeballs displayed upon pedestals in a storefront window – gurgled up from the shabby phantasmagoria that was actually the Venice gestalt in the 1940s.” Despite the neighborhoods ill reputation, Bradbury’s believed in a Venice that was more quirky than sordid.
And yet, as writer Gordon Hazlitt describes in the January 1980 edition of ArtNews, “by the fun-filled '50s, Venice was well established as the westside slum, an area of one-way streets (actual and metaphoric), peeling paint, abandoned warehouses and a population that made a virtue of all that and more… In short, it was just the place to carry on that fractured, alienated enterprise called modern art.” Affordable and ocean adjacent, Venice became an attractive option for the creative set looking for an alternative to Hollywood and Downtown, and soon became home to many of the writers, artists, and actors that would help define Los Angeles as a worthy cultural epicenter.
Ed Moses moved to Venice in 1950. His first “shack” was on the Silver Strand (in pre-Marina Del Rey days), for which he paid $15 a month rent. Soon he was carousing with a small band of artists, a group that included Ed Keinholtz, Ed Ruscha, Craig Kauffman, Robert Irwin, and Wallace Berman. Though Berman didn’t reside in Venice, he was at the epicenter of a scene that included raucous artists and writers who called the Westside home, painters like Arthur Richer (1928-1965), photographer Charles Brittin (who methodically photographed the underground artists and poets in Los Angeles during the 50s and 60s, providing one of the few visual records of the scene) and poet Stuart Perkhoff, a central figure in the west coast Beat movement.
Another chief ambassador was author Lawrence Lipton, who’d settled in Venice in the mid-1950s. He began to experiment with spoken poetry as an interactive vocal and collaborative art, and became enthralled with the poor young artists who called Venice home. His book, The Holy Barbarians, published in 1959, is a celebration and canonization of the Venice scene, a portrait of a failed American experiment brought back to life by revolutionary youth. “When the barbarians appear on the frontier of a civilization,” he writes, “it is a sign of a crisis in that civilization. If the barbarians come, not with weapons of war but with songs and icons of peace, it is a sign that the crisis is one of a spiritual nature."
Though the Beat scene’s thunder declined in the early 1960s, its bohemian culture continued to impact the area. The region remained a center for anti-mainstream values in arts and literature due in large part to organizations such as Beyond Baroque. Founded in 1968 as an experimental literary magazine, Beyond Baroque, provided a platform for the Venice Beats, and would later influence the burgeoning Punk movement. The center's first librarian was Exene Cervenka of the band X, who formed after Cervenka and bandmate John Doe met at the Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop – an event that is still offered to this day and is the West Coast’s longest-running free poetry workshop. Many of the city's leading literary talents, including Dennis Cooper, Wanda Coleman, Tom Waits, and Amy Gerstler, are alumni of the workshop.
Venice would soon also become a center for the selling as well as the making of art. Peter Gould opened the L.A. Louver Gallery in 1975, and Doug Christmas moved Ace Gallery to Venice that same year. There were still artists with studios nearby, like Ed Rusha, Sam Francis, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Graham and Elsa Rady, among others, and the atmosphere was still laid back and “local”— few tourists, an assortment of mom-and-pop shops and diners. The area continued to evolve. The locally-owned barbershops and soul food joints that once dotted Washington gave way to minimalist cafes and modern storefronts. Now bustling restaurants helmed by top chefs line the street, as well as numerous independent retailers, international flagship stores, boutiques, art galleries, and nightlife destinations.
Artists and writers and actors still roam these streets in a city that is certainly a cleaner, more tidied-up version of its former countercultural self. Nevertheless, the creative spirit remains, that ephemeral quality that artist Tony Berlant reached for when declaring that “Venice is a zone, a modern monastic zone where the artist is secular priest. For “artists are the last of the introspective, free-enterprise monks, each working in his own little cell."
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