By Marty Liboff
Everyone in Venice is familiar with the historic old Israel Levin Senior Center with its wonderful Marc Chagall style murals at 201 Ocean Front Walk. It has gotten the O.K. by the Coastal Commission to be demolished. In its place will be a modern structure and more of old Venice’s amazing history will be lost. However, membership has dropped substantially in recent years and there are new plans for utilizing the space.
The Israel Levin Center is owned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and is run by the Jewish Family Service. The planned new structure will have three stories and will be double the height of the present building. The bottom floor will be a large meeting hall or community room. The second story will have administrative offices and the top floor will have a rooftop deck and Jewish youth housing. There will be a kosher kitchen and many walls will be modular so it can have varied uses.
The historic old building is already there in a postmarked 1915 postcard. Before that there was a wood house similar to many one and two story wood houses that lined the beach front in those days. It was called the New Denver Hotel. The New Denver Hotel had two floors and advertised steam heat and hot water in rooms. Hot water and even any running water was a luxury back then in hotel rooms. It was built next to one of the most amazing buildings ever seen in Venice, the Ocean Park Bath House that looked like an enormous ancient Muslim mosque (image below). Today I’m sure that Donald Grump would scream and rant that the mosque looking bath house must be some sort of plot by Obama and Leftists and you will somehow be turned into an Islamofascist from the bath water.
Through the years there were different shops around the front of the hotel. There was the Seaside Barbeque that served barbeque sandwiches. I’d love to eat one now! They also had chile and had big signs up advertising Tacoma Brew. Tacoma Brew has been long gone, but a new Tacoma Brew beer was started in 2012 and is supposed to be an excellent beer. There was an ice cream parlor, a drug store and for awhile there was an auction house selling local property. Land was still cheap and they auctioned off land around Venice and Ocean Park. Even in my time there were still big empty lots even on Main St. where we kids played. The block on Rose Ave. and Main St. where the dancing clown building is and CVS Pharmacy was a big empty field inhabited only by birds and furry gophers. You had to watch where you stepped or you would trip in a gopher hole.
During the 1940s the beach had gambling parlors with several games similar to bingo. They tried to trick the city’s anti gambling laws by giving prizes and calling them by different names like bridgo and tango. The hotel had bingo style gambling on the bottom floor and they may also have had dancing.
The second story was reputed to be a whorehouse. Then lady luck ran out. Finally the city raided all of these establishments and ended the beach gambling. Many years ago my mother used to say, “When they closed the bingo parlors all the money left the beach.”
After that it became cheap apartments as I remember. The beachfront was predominately a Jewish area when I grew up here in the late 1940s and 1950s. There were several synagogues, kosher butcher shops and delis. We loved to get a corned beef on rye at the original Zucky’s Deli that was on the ocean front before moving to Wilshire Blvd. My mom, Ruthie Liboff ran a Jewish style bakery on the beachfront during my youth. I still dream of the thick cheese cake with cherries on the bottom and the yummy chocolate brownies. I want to write more about old Jewish Venice in the future.
In around 1964 an elderly Jew by the name of Israel Levin bought the aging building. My pal Mitch Lachman who has lunch now in the center tells this story: “My mom said I want you to meet this man who wants to do something nice for the Jews. She took me over to see Mr. Levin and he was expecting me. It was a hot summer day and he was lying there in his tee shirt looking like an old Cary Grant. He had a Zionist magazine by his side. He told me that he wants to do something good for the Jews in the community and to help society.” So he bought the building as a community house for mostly older Jews in the neighborhood and for others as well.
The bottom floor was used as a hall for food and events and the top floor remained cheap apartments. They served inexpensive lunches for seniors, and they still do. Most members think the food is pretty good most of the time. One member did complain that the food is good but could use more flavoring. I’ve eaten there and it can sometimes be a bit bland because some seniors are on low sugar and salt diets. However, I have always enjoyed the meal and the company is delightful. Seniors can be from any faith or ethnicity. My mom used to eat there for lunch when she got older.
She had a nice non Jewish friend who ate there who was German. My mom used to say that there were some good Germans and we shouldn’t hate them all for what happened to the Jews during the war. Although she got really pissed when I bought a VW…
Then the city decided the second floor could be dangerous in an earthquake and they forced the tenants out. For a while Morrie Rosen who ran the Levin Center for many years still had his little office upstairs but finally it was also taken away and the second story apartments were removed and the windows were sealed up as it is today. Morrie was a big activist for the poor and elderly, and fought for low cost housing out of the Levin Center.
Back in those days the center was usually filled with people getting lunch and doing activities. Several of the Jews were survivors from Nazi concentration camps. My aunt Adele Mark used to go to the the Levin Center years ago and she was a survivor of Aushwitz and had her tattooed numbers on her arm. She told many chilling stories of Nazi brutality. There used to be many benches on the ocean front and they were filled with old Jews. Now most of the benches are gone and I am one of the last (alter kocker = old pooper) old Jews sitting on the last of the old benches.
In 1972 an anthropologist by the name of Barbara Myerhoff did a study of old people in the Levin Center for a few years. She made a short movie called, “Number Our Days” in 1976. The movie was made by Barbara and was directed by Lynne Littman and it got an Academy Award for short documentary film in 1977. Then Barbara came out with a book by the same name and it got great reviews. The movie and book made the Levin Center known around the world.
The beautiful mural on the Levin Center was mostly designed by Christina Schlesinger and was painted by her and several local artists. Christina lived in Venice from 1971-1980 and was an artist and activist and daughter of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who worked as a historian and writer for both President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. When living in Venice, she came out as an outspoken lesbian and feminist, and was mostly doing erotic art. She returned to L.A. in 1991 to work on a couple of murals and painted with the help of some locals the mural on the Levin Center she called “Chagall Comes to Venice” in 1991. The mural has been retouched a couple of times since. Unfortunately some of the original mural is gone. After it had been redone following some damage it was renamed “Chagall Returns to Venice”. One of the last remaining artists who went to the Levin for lunch and had worked on the mural, Fay Conn recently had to move to a rest home.
Besides having low cost lunches for seniors, the Levin Center has offered many free classes for seniors including art, music, singing, exercise, dance and even Yiddish and Klezmer music. They have Tai Chi with wonderful Rosemary and Pilates with Phyllis. On Friday they hold a Shabbat service or Jewish Sabbath with a prayer and candle lighting. They are thinking of forming a jazz band with members and I may be one of the old farts playing music with them. They also have a little gallery and presently the great
Venice photographer Ned Sloane has his photos on exhibit there. Mary Getlein is one of the present members going to the Levin Center and she said, “Going to the Levin Center has really helped me a lot! You can go there and rest and hang out and the people are so nice. The exercise class and tai chi has helped me recover from my injury from falling off a bike. A social worker comes in usually on Fridays and helps with housing and other problems we have. And Sherry the director is always so sweet and helpful.” I had talked to one of the previous directors at the Levin Center a few years ago about the plans for it being remodeled. The final plans were still being worked on and at first they were going to keep the outside shell and not demolish the entire old structure. The new plans will have a completely new building. The old director of the Center said, “You know Marty, this property is worth a LOT of money now and the directors of the Jewish Federation want to do something with it and maybe put some of their offices here.” I said that, “When Venice was still considered a poor part of town they didn’t care, but now it is worth BIG bucks!” She said that the changes will make it better with more room and new activities and people. So now they can be neighbors with the Google and Snapchat billionaires. The Levin Center is also near the border of Venice and Santa Monica, and it is sort of a no man’s land there, where all the crazy drunks and druggies hang out. Venice Beach, where the surf meets the sand and the billionaires meet the homeless. Venice Beach, the outdoor insane asylum…
According to the Jewish Journal magazine from March 15, Jay Sanderson, the President of the Jewish Federation, says they plan to break ground before the end of the year. The new building has an estimate cost of 7-8 million dollars and they hope it can be completed by the end of 2018. The seniors still going there now may meet at some other facility nearby until it is completed. Some members have told me that when the Levin Center was being renovated years ago, they had met at the Miskon Tephilo synagogue a few blocks away on Main St.
The poem by Dora Baycheck on the Levin Center’s mural says:
Roots will deepen, spread and sprout through the threatening heights,
through stormy seas. Youth on wings carried dreams
With Jewish faith and blessings with the flame of the young,
Braved wild virgin land to build a new free life
By the sweat of their brows, with strong, calloused hands.
Go by the Israel Levin Center and say goodbye to the old historic building and wonderful mural. Let us hope the new center will be as good for the future of Venice as the old one was for our past…
For more fun history read Jeffrey Stanton’s Venice of America Coney Island of the Pacific