Venice 220, 2011
There are at least two places in America that call themselves Venice and probably countless neighborhoods in other cities that call themselves “little Venice.” I think it’s safe to speculate that all of them were the creations of real estate developers anxious to turn some kind of low, marginal land into desirable residential property. Having been developed to maximize the number of building sites, though, none of these ersatz Venices have the serendipity and narrow serpentine canals of Italy's Venice. Instead, where there are canals—Florida’s Venice doesn’t even have the canals—they are of uniform width and neatly lined up parallel to one another.
Florida's full of communities built along canals carved out of muddy swamps. Most were developed to appeal to "snowbirds" and, as such have the neat and tidy look of places where old men wear white shoes, play shuffleboard and reminisce about their old winter heating bills back in Minnesota.
California's Venice is like the other American Venices in that it was created by a land speculator, in this case a man named Abbot Kinney who built a giant amusement park and pier for the sweaty masses from nearby Los Angeles and later carved out a vast network of canals. But compared to Florida's neat and tidy Venice-as-snowbird-haven, California's Venice is decidedly shabby chic. Parts of it are downright shabby, others just comfortably casual enough for it to be clear that it takes millions of dollars to live there.
Venice, California, isn't just canals, though. (Besides, many of Kinney’s original canals were eventually filled in and turned into roads.) Venetians like to brag that they’re second only to the Mission District of San Francisco on the funkiness scale. Venice has a beautiful wide beach and oceanfront promenade that's home to all kinds of flaky businesses, buskers, body builders and vendors. Looking for a doctor who’ll certify you for medical marijuana? There's one in just about every block. Looking for psychic crystals, magic beads and throat whistles? Check, check and check. How about a freak show with a lady with three heads or buskers channeling everything from Peruvian pan flutes to old Doors songs and Hendrix riffs? Yep, all of those and more.
I’ve never been to Venice Beach when the promenade wasn’t crowded with people. Last Thursday was no exception. Thousands of people strolled, biked and rollerbladed along the concrete strand. The streets, alleys and parking lots were further congested by a fleet of Warner Brothers trucks and craft vehicles on location filming an episode of "Gossip Girls." At one point a cute young girl wearing little more than a bathrobe brushed past me. Nothing about her and her scanty clothing seemed out of place in Venice. Only because hundreds of people lifted their cell phones to snap pictures of her gave me reason to ask someone who she was? (A starlet by the name of Blake Lively, it turns out.)
When the crowds got to be too much for me, I wandered a few blocks over to the much quieter residential neighborhood where the canals are. As the sun began to set, neighborhood residents sat enjoying drinks and conversation in their yards overlooking the canals. Some visited with neighbors along the narrow walkways that line the canals. Once upon a time this area was a hangout for bohemian dropouts. Today it’s said to be one of Los Angeles’ most expensive neighborhoods. It costs nothing to walk in Venice, however, which made this a wonderful place to end the day before I had to go to the airport for an overnight flight back east and home.