By Jamie Virostko
Free Venice Where Art Thou?
How will Venice’s future be affected by the recent and continuing influx of the Tech Industry? That was the subject of the well attended Emergence of Silicon Beach Town Hall, held at Westminster Elementary on April 12.
Money and expertise are sweeping into Venice. We stand to gain jobs, economic prosperity and resources for our children. We must make a crucial and difficult decision. What we do about the homeless and economically challenged will define our soul as a community for decades to come.
In the past, you could count on poets, painters and musicians to align with the Venice disenfranchised. Hustlers, junkies, sunsets, bums, sex and freedom – that’s why they came. In Venice, artists are not shielded from life.
Is there now a danger that the tech industry could soften the community’s resolve in regards to our fragile citizen wanderers? Silicon Beach could significantly broaden the global reach of our substantial artistic population. Why not go for it? Do we have to lose our diversity in the process?
By the time the Town Hall was over, Councilmember Rosendahl’s passion to sell this influx of the tech industry, combined with a pervasive culture of individualism, undermined reaching the inconvenient heart of serious community concerns.
Only in LA would a “Town Hall” have corporate sponsorship, a set provided by a local furniture store, a catered spread and an after party. With twenty-five companies on display, a semi-dazzling Trade Show greeted the Venice public. Rather than a Town Hall, it was a Showcase of the Tech Industry. A true Town Hall would’ve had at least one community leader, within the panel discussion, representing the diversity and homeless issues.
Wrangling the well-fed crowd, VNC President, Linda Lucks, preambled about “unique” and wonderful Venice, challenging the all tech panel to consider the “fabric of our community.”
Our charismatic moderator, Bill Rosendahl, soon took control and we were off. Marveling that he had never seen such a crowd at a town hall, he informed us that it was being broadcast throughout Los Angeles on Channel 35. His coining of the word “Venassiance” produced not only laughter, but audible groans. He took it in stride.
Our all tech panel was introduced: Thomas Williamson from Google, James Citron with Mogreet, Jeff Solomon with Amplify, and JJ Aguhob from Viddy.
Transitioning into the discussion, it was mentioned how social media played an important role in the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement. That certainly gives lip service to the community’s political activism.
James Citron informed us that, where there was an insertion of a 10 percent increase of cell phones into a developing market, the GDP increased 3 percent. That is impressive.
Google opens up portions of its local facilities for public use. Very nice.
But, why did the tech industry choose us? According to them, 1) ready and available talent; 2) Venice is a world renown, cultural icon; 3) it is an enjoyable and inspiring environment in which to live and work; and, 4) the proximity to the entertainment industry.
Since money does not partner where it does not anticipate a genuine benefit, I would say, there is a sincere belief in the high level and quantity of creative talent in this community. I believe there is a need within Silicon Beach for that creativity.
After being told how fabulous we are, we learned how important bike paths are to tech folks. Apparently, we will get bike paths as a result of Rosendahl learning how many Google employees ride bicycles to work. Sure! The cycling lifestyle is great!
Our Moderator/Politician continued posturing, bringing up the Venice Post Office. Extremely important to the community, I understand the significance of the Biberman work. May I quickly point out; however, that a mural to your life is not your life. Be careful…
As the internal panel discussion continued, two key divides surfaced: The value of the Entertainment Industry and an understanding of the Free Venice Culture.
Your three young startups (Solomon, Citron and Aguhob) seemed hungry for Hollywood to merge with tech. Existing film and TV crews could shift their expertise into the development of premium internet content. Venice Beach (with its hip and eclectic backgrounds, top level talent and the latest technology) would be an ideal center for that production.
Thomas Williamson (a generation older), maintained that, so much highly viewed internet content was generated by average users, he didn’t feel the need to marry entertainment and tech per se.
As for the panel’s understanding of the community’s existing culture, you will be happy to know, Free Venice, our young startups welcome your “being weird” and have no problem with the strange guy walking down the street in the “big pink hat.”
Initially, the characterization of Free Venice was oversimplified and condescending to say the least. Witnessing the look of bliss in Citron’s eyes, as he shared, “when you see a three or four year old kid pick up an iPhone for the first time,” God bless him…
Within this aspect of the younger generation, there is a disconnect from the idea of doing what you wanted with your body, because it was not only a cosmic principal, it is a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America! It is about freedom of expression, not about “being weird.”
Williamson, from Google, redirected the issue more respectfully, “They [tech industry] didn’t move to San Francisco necessarily because they wanted to appreciate San Francisco for what it was. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening here now. But, they moved to change it into something they liked or something they wanted. So, I think we have to be careful about the things that make Venice special here and that the people we hire respect those things and want them to preserve.”
Despite good intentions, what happens when wealth sweeps into a community; thereby, the poor and struggling middle-class (and diversity) are property taxed and rent increased out of apartments?
James Solomon pointed out that startup guys were not rich. He didn’t want to see rents go up either. But, he is not an elderly person on a fixed income, or collecting recycling to survive. An increase in rents would not push him out of the neighborhood, as it would more marginal folks.
Reassuring the crowd, there was an appeal to our legendary Venetian Acceptance: The influx of tech represents one more face of Venice in an eclectic sea of faces, asserted the all male, mostly white, panel.
Culture of Individualism vs. Community
Throwing us into the Q&A, Moderator Rosendahl skipped the portion of the town hall where our organized community leaders addressed the organized tech panel with our focused and well articulated community concerns. In his defense, the VNC didn’t schedule that portion into the agenda.
Opening the microphone to the general, Rosendahl requested to please ask questions and not give speeches. Unfortunately, a pervasive, narrow-minded individualism, within the random sampling of our citizens, provided a way for our un-objective moderator to skirt uneasy topics.
Without getting into embarrassing specifics, let’s just say the Q&A emphasized the need for community leadership, within such areas as: 1) Outreach to our economically challenged: How can they compete for entry level tech jobs? What support industries do we anticipate cropping up around Silicon Beach? How do we mentor potential local entrepreneurs within our struggling communities? 2) Organization of the Creative Community: How do we marry the local talent to all this new production? Should we think about an infrastructure or database designed to interface local artistic talent with outside companies staffing projects? How do we manage our own quality control? How will tech truly expand our reach? 3) Homelessness: What are viable, enduring solutions to the homeless dilemma? Who will make long terms commitments to those solutions?
A Community Must Decide
Even with a fair amount of time devoted to the homeless issue, the panelists rightly concluded that, though they can be a part of the solution, they are not the solution. Homelessness is a complicated social challenge anywhere, but particularly within the Culture of Venice Beach.
To many Venetians, sweeping the homeless out of our community is karmic blood we do not want on our hands. The tech industry claims they are here because there is no where else in the world like Venice. As a community, we must decide if the homeless are as much a part of the Venice Brand as graffiti, music, love, skateboarding, freedom, pot and breath… as anyone of us in all our variegated diversity.
Regardless, they are human beings who give us the opportunity everyday to choose soul.
More from the author at jamievsblog.wordpress.com