Art

The Case of the Disappearing Benches

By Carol Fondiller

Reprinted from the October 1983 issue

At one time there were sixty of them. They were double benches. That is, one could sit and face the west and watch the ocean, or one could sit and face the east and watch the human parade that strolled, shuffled and bumped up and down the Ocean Front Walk.

I always ended up perched on the top of the bench with my feet on the bench seat. If one sat there long enough, and I did, friends and cronies would collect and we’d spend the day at the bench.

Sixty sturdy benches like duennas at a cotillion, strung out from Navy to 18th St. offering aid and comfort to those with blisters, broken skateboards, too many packages, too much sun and alcohol, too much time on their hands, and not enough money in their pockets. Postcards printed in the late ’20s, when Venice was annexed to the City of Los Angeles showed double benches on the Ocean Front Walk.

In World War II, the Avalon Ballroom was open 24 hours a day and the little trams ran up and down the O.F.W. till 2:00 a.m. The benches, with the seal of the City of Los Angeles branded on their cement haunches, supported soldiers, sailors and shipyard workers as they massaged their feet, smoked, made out, and/or looked at the moon or the sun. Venice was swing-shift city.

In the late ’50s, when I first visited Venice, the last Bingo parlor was being closed down.

Between Navy and Marine streets were coffee shops, souvenir shops, newspaper kiosks, bars, and lots of people day and night. My friends and I would walk and talk and sit on the benches.

Herb Caen, San Francisco columnist portmanteaued the word “Beatnik” to describe the men and women who dressed in black, played guitars, listened to jazz and wrote poetry that was street language one could get arrested for. The benches were used as rallying points and meeting places after the Ocean Front Improvement Association, headed by that seeker after equality, truth and beauty. Werner Scharff pressured landlords, the police and the Los Angeles Department of Health and Safety to bulldoze and/or close down every coffee house in Venice. They succeeded.

Curt Simon, Werner Schaarf and other property owners, smaller property owners who thought they were in the same league as Werner & Co., tried to get the Ocean Front Walk closed down at 10:00 p.m. But it was pointed out that the Ocean Front Walk was a public thoroughfare and the benches and pagodas were on the public walkway, and such a curfew would be unconstitutional, or something like that. Every spring, the benches would be painted, and broken slats would be replaced.

The benches with the seal of the City of Los Angeles had withstood rain, sun, salt air, being moved, sat in, humped on and vandalized for nearly 40 years. When the Roller Skating Craze literally hit Venice, the old benches were moved to the grassy area west of the walk to ease access for the skaters. They were moved carelessly and cruelly without regard for age or condition of previous servitude as they were dumped on soft uneven earth, or moved to the middle of Ocean Front Walk, where they were destroyed even faster, as skaters used them for jumping off places, and people shoved them back to the cement in an effort to restore a feeling of community. Nobody wanted to sit in the middle of Ocean Front Walk. It had all the charm of waiting on a traffic island in the middle of Lincoln Blvd. in Marina del Rey.

With the advent of Proposition 13, the benches were no longer repaired and gussied up every spring. During the speculation boomlet of the mid-’70s, a new business organization called the Venice Beach Association was convinced that Venice would be the new Gold Coast. Some of the members who owned or leased Ocean front businesses were appalled at the fact that people could sit on the benches for free and didn’t have to buy $3.00 drinks in order to sit down and enjoy the beach. The Venice Beach Association declared war on “the over-age hippies on Welfare,” as they described the people who stared back at their customers. Some of the members of the V.B.A. boasted at meetings how they moved benches away from their establishments, how they broke the benches to prevent the undesirables from discomfiting the trendy folk who came to Venice because it was quaint and raffinee.

People saw frayed but still usable benches being hauled away by City or County trucks. There were ten benches left between Navy and 18th Street. There used to be approximately 60 benches. Carol Berman called Councilwoman Russell’s office. “How about bus benches with advertisements on them?” … Well…better than nothin, but…

She got in touch with Pam Emerson at the Coastal Commission. Didn’t the Coastal Commission mention that amenities were to be provided for the public, and shouldn’t benches be considered public amenities – and since there were benches, and benches had always been used by residents and visitors, shouldn’t those benches be considered essential to the welfare and enjoyment of all people including those people who couldn’t afford $2.00 cups of coffee?

Ms. Emerson said she’d look into it. A few weeks later she called back and told Ms. Berman that the Coastal Conservancy had no money for benches. However, she came up with the idea of having someone who was building a condominium on 18th St. donate money for a bench in lieu of an extra parking space. Ms. Kelly Doyle of Sail Realty suggested the idea to her clients. They loved the concept and were willing to pay for it, but couldn’t they be like the old double benches?

WHO’S IN CHARGE?

No one in the City seemed to know who was responsible for the upkeep and replacement of benches, and whether or not privately funded benches could be put on publicly owned property, and whether the property was County or City owned, and whether the County or the City would be responsible for the benches after they were installed. Ms. Emerson called Ms. Berman to inform her that watching the City and County bureaucracies trying to escape each other while entangled in each other’s coils was not a pretty sight.

With the help of Carol Shapiro, aide to Councilwoman Russell’s office, Ms. Emerson wended her way through Recreation & Parks (City), through Street Maintenance, Bench Division (City) where she was stalled for a while in the Department of Benches and Banners (City.) For a while, the Case of the Orphan Benches was tossed between Recreation & Parks (City) and Parks & Recreation (County.)

Ms Emerson found in a contract between the County of L.A. and the City of L.A., that the County is responsible for all property west of the Ocean Front Walk, and the City of L.A. is responsible for property including the Ocean Front Walk. The benches were on No Man’s Land. A clause in the contract stated that the County was responsible for the benches.

Craig Woodell of County Department of Harbors and Beaches looked through the Bench Catolog – something approximating the old benches was found, but they cost $500.00. Well, that’s that. Scratch that idea. A few weeks later, Ms. Emerson reported that Craig Woodell found the original mold for the old benches. He’d arranged for the men at Wayside Honor Farm to manufacture 10 benches at a cost of $125.00 each. The new benches have been placed. Most of them are on Rose Ave, north, in front of the Israel Levin Senior Citizen Center. Unfortunately, $1,250.00 is all the County can afford for the benches. However, there is an opportunity for individuals, organizations, and businesses to donate money – tax deductible – to a fund for the benches. One bench will cost $150.00 (costs of materials are going up.)

What a lovely idea if all the take-out places on the Ocean Front Walk would plow back some of the money they make from the beach back into the community and make it more comfortable for their customers. What a lovely idea if all those people who want restaurants but have no parking could provide some benches in lieu of some parking spaces.

 

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