by Jon Wolff
In April of 1969, a Venice activist by the name of Helene Wolff presented a prepared statement to Los Angeles City Planning Commission. It went something like this:
The City’s study of Venice is founded on the idea that it is desirable that property values go up and that everything else is incidental to that. I believe that this is neither necessary nor desirable to many homeowners in Venice. We have bought homes – on lots we consider “just right” not “substandard” – in neighborhoods we consider varied, interesting, loving, changing, and challenging.
Venice may be unique in the whole world – neighborhoods that are truly integrated. My block has homeowners and renters, very old people and very young, hip and square, young families and middle aged families, married and unmarried, schizophrenics, trouble makers, peace makers, recluses, busybodies, cats, a St. Bernard dog, beautifully kept gardens, unkempt yards, at least one racially mixed couple, a millionaire, welfare recipients – and many people I do not know. I am speaking of one block.
Interesting Like most streets in my Venice neighborhood, mine is a walk – you cannot drive on it. The fronts of the houses are not merely impassive facades. We tend to live in the front as well as the back. Neighbors can lean over front fences to talk or fight or observe. With a variety of people, a variety of things happen and when they happen most neighbors will help, or hinder, or at least watch.
Phone calls – “your car was home – are you all right? – you are usually at work”…”I smell smoke”…”where did the fire engines stop”…”Bill died”…”has his cat been taken in by anyone”…”may I borrow just one cup of rice”…”the battery is dead? take my car”…”go ahead, I’ll watch the kids”…”would you like some coffee – the night was so cold and you slept outside”…”I’ll leave the key”…”the kids were busted? I’ll feed the dogs.” Christmas Day: a young man with a flute stopping by the gate to serenade the cats.
The average age on the block was 80 when I moved in six years ago. Many friends have died. Many people have moved in. Trees are taller. So are the children. With Washington Boulevard [West Washington Boulevard which is now called Abbot Kinney Boulevard] as a gateway there is a chance of understanding between black and white communities – a chance for more blacks to move from Oakwood into other parts of Venice if they want to – and for whites to move into Oakwood (many do). Change Washington’s zoning and still the busy sounds, the joyful music, of an art renaissance.
Challenged to open up Oakwood.
Challenged to live with people different from one’s self – perhaps difficult people — old, alcoholic, mean, rebellious, — perhaps braver, gentler people – all people.
Challenged to learn from them.
Challenged to teach them.
Venice challenged to decide its own fate – make its own plan.
“Property value” is relative. You cannot raise my property’s value to me – only lower it. Lower it by forcing my neighborhood to reflect one social or economic or moral or racial strata of society. Lower it by raising its monetary value so that I am forced out by developers. Lower it by buying it to build a freeway or parking lot. Lower it by building a freeway as a wall dividing Venice – or dividing the ocean.
Helene Marie Wolff passed away some years ago. If she were alive today, she would be 85. But her words create a sort of mirror’s reflection of the struggles facing Venice in 2016. What she referred to as “Varied” we now call Diverse. She spoke of Venice as being “Interesting” with people interacting at their front fences; difficult nowadays with ten-foot-high fences on some streets. She told the Commission that Venice is “Loving” because of the way neighbors care and look out for each other; may we be so blessed this day. When she said that Venice was “Changing”, she meant that the people were growing and aging; now, Change means evictions and demolitions. She declared that Venice is “Challenging”, but that the challenges are Venice’s own challenges. And she showed that Venice’s real value is in its strength as a Community.
Today, Venice faces ever more sophisticated threats from malevolent outside forces. But can a renewed strength of Community bring a new hope of Victory? And can we imagine that we stand at a point on the journey that we could not see in 1969?
There is strong talk in Venice of Secession. Is this possible? Could Independence be imminent? Understand that if Venice breaks free from L.A., one of two things will happen: either the money classes will rule or the people will rule. But are the people ready to rule? The strength and sophistication of the Venice Community activists of today say “Yes”. Simply stated: The People of Venice are ready. We are ready for the Day of Independence that was dreamed of by our Venetian forebears.