By John O’Kane
Many have expected Venice to become another upscale coastal community ever since the early 60s, when the city directors began dozing the architectural gems copied from the Italian source. The gentry go after good business deals and cheap property wherever they may be. Once the poor man’s beach, Venice lagged behind other coastal areas due to a Depression made worse by the discovery of oil, and has been targeted by developers ever since.
But Venice has been more than undervalued property, and still is to some extent: a creative bohemia, relatively independent political city-state, and alternative cultural haven. The members of these communities have always been refusers who believed in living differently, and unplugging from the mainstream. They’ve fought back against efforts to make it an homogenous, upscale-consuming community, and they had the numbers to succeed for many years. These old Venice types were not merely colorful under-consuming eyesores vibrating some extinct religion, though there are a number of these around. They’ve always needed low rents to survive, and sought out cheap hoods to subsidize their art-making and lifestyles.
As the history of bohemia shows, however, they only have so much time before the entrepreneurs find them and they have to migrate. While their lease has been nearly up for years, they’ve helped keep Venice other than a top-end shopping mall.
In the early phases of gentrification aspiring members of the bohemian club, whatever the strain, dedicated themselves to poverty as a way to symbolize their refusal of the material world, but also as a way to manage their time and resources better so they could live a more spiritually-rewarding and insightful existence. They were educated folks, religiously inspired, and breathing the city’s beaten legacy nurtured over the years by diverse performers. High rents have made this dedication difficult. But the upgrade of this craft can be found in various states of withdrawal from the rat race and passionate devotion to the quality life.
High consumption has always coexisted with real and dedicated poverty here. Abbot Kinney, the city’s founder, constructed an upscale resort with cultural attractions, but was its first bohemian. He was not happy with the quick arrival of the Coney Island carnival mind, since his culture was upscale too, but he believed in culture. These attractions inspired a climate that welcomed creators of many stripes, and encouraged a marriage of culture with the circus. The resulting mass entertainments were distractions for many over the years, but they mushroomed into unique pop forms that became part of the identity of the refusers, their ways of expressing themselves: performance art, rock music, surfing sub-culture, murals, street theater…
These free forms were valid alternatives to the upscale ones, and they remain today. Somehow it seems Abbot would have at least appreciated Jim Morrison’s free verse poetry, and the “doors of perception” metaphor his band borrowed, as well as the automatic writing of the Beats who made the city’s postwar identity that persists in alternative circles.
After all, he showed sympathy for the lives of interest to the Venice Kerouacs and Ginsbergs in building Tent City while he constructed Venice. It was for those who came to buy plats but were written out of the plots. The nitty-gritty of lives down below fueled the Beats’ mojo, that of the beatens who mirrored them, as well as that of the surrealists whose names and actions found a secure existence here. They were all fascinated by the zen principle of bewitched bodies finding spiritual meaning and transcendence in the contrasts of ordinary objects, structures and events in the everyday world, and fused these elements into new meanings.
Some would say that Abbot’s sympathies toward the lowly are most evident in his bringing of pigeons here, leaving his first family on Paloma Ave to breed like some drugged-out kin network.
Ray Manzarek, a surviving Door, says that what distinguishes this bohemia is the freedom of everyone to explore states of mind, no matter what your state in life. Its source is in the variety of stimuli from nature and the playful amusement scene, an explosive cocktail that vaults you beyond yourself to yourself. No need to even worry about the mushrooming valet culture on Rose Ave or elsewhere. You make freedom in the cracks of the glistening facades, and in the contrasts between the downbeat liquor store and the upbeat boutique next door that keep citizens aware of their surroundings.
For over a century this impulse has breathed through residents like a contagion, often erupting accidentally through the most unsuspecting citizens, turning them into momentary visionaries. And it’s safe to say that Venice is haunted with the memory of these transactions. People come here and change, never leaving. They become possessed and metamorphose into a peculiar kind of Venetian that is neither wealthy nor poor, but rich in spirit.
Will gentrification ever leave Venice immune from recession and the scars of downbeat worlds; reach a point where the ghosts of the past are exorcized and alternative residents cease being formed? Not likely, since profits need low wages; wealth needs contrast. And the creative life is too entrenched, blurring the divide between new and old. The scene will always bring those who want to discover. And certain sectors as well as citizens simply can’t be gentrified.
There’s always a chance the gentry will get caught in a hotspot, donate their wealth, and slum it on the beach with the pigeons…