Abbot Kinney Blvd.

A DEATH IN VENICE

by P.S. Barber

“There is no such thing as society.”
— Margaret Thatcher

At the lowermost point of a southerly sloping intersection, California Avenue ends to form the bottom half of a long “T” with with its horizontal top, Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Situated at the northeast corner of that crossroads for the last quarter century, ABBOT’S HABIT has been a locals’ gathering spot, serving the community as the neighborhood’s primary nosh & coffee shop.
Every kind of anyone imaginable has passed through those doors, through the decades: Naked Poetry and Naked Bikers; sun soaked riff-raff off the beach; nascent lovers alongside the anguished unrequited; stars born, stars dying; poets, pimps, pugilists, priests and pirates; every stripe of wannabe or has-been; the profane and divine, musicians, miscreants, saints, sculptors, painters, writers; some taking their first steps, others on their last legs; tourists ad nauseam; junkies, gangbangers, surfers, skateboarders, people headed up and down, already lost or being found; the world’s hoi polloi California Dreamin’; those with way too much, those who‘ve begged their morning cup of joe.

We’ll look upon their like no more.

The doors to our local coffee shop will shutter soon, never to open again, taking with it the greater part of a spirit that’s been a beacon of Venice. Innumerable stories circulate of how the Habit-habit begins directly upon arrival to our beach village: the funky stop is the inevitable first place one lands when washing up on our shores. Its central location, like a vortex, draws people in; its welcoming brick façade and green awnings and red-neon come-on “COFFEE” as eclectic locals hang inside and out – all serve to make Abbot’s a natural meeting place for every soul strolling the well-worn sidewalks.

Nina Sant’Angelo has owned and operated Abbot’s Habit for the last 16 years, partnered with Noah Farrell, who originally opened the coffee shop with another partner in 1993. A few years ago, Nina bought out Noah and has, since then, run the shop by herself; but recently it’s gotten too difficult to make ends meet with rising rent and, at the same time, serve her community and employees.

So she’s done. And importantly her decision has to do with not just being beat up by the economic vicissitudes of the changing boulevard, but with the colonizing of it by CORPORATE RETAIL, altering the street’s innate and naturally-evolved identity, original culture, its authentic Venetian look and feel.
It’s no mystery what’s happened these last few years, the transformation taking place right before our eyes at an ever more accelerated rate. Nina seems like a modern day Cassandra, her store’s closure a warning to Venetians about the grim fate facing their neighborhood. And like Cassandra, Nina is excoriated by some residents while others blithely disbelieve her dire portents. But make no mistake — closing Abbot’s Habit is a significant sign that the founding and unique BOHEMIAN SPIRIT of Venice is palpably coming to a very quick end; unfortunately, many other Venetians feel the city’s essence is already long gone.

Talking with Nina, one’s reminded of a time when the boulevard housed watering holes like the original Hal’s, where world-class jazz was played live, Joni Mitchell’s art hung on the walls, Gregory Hines danced on the bar and Chaka Khan sang spontaneously; today, a smaller and frankly anemic version of Hal’s is stuffed and all but lost at the far end of Abbot Kinney, while other corporate stores, now centrally located, boast other retail locations like Paris, London, New York, Rome. “Soon,” Nina says, “all of Venice is going to look like Miami.”

Adidas, which colonized Hal’s old location, had the chutzpa to claim on its construction boarding that it was, “Defining Venice” – until unknown but heroic residents corrected the spelling to read, “DEFILING VENICE,” forcing Adidas to take down their arrogant and untruthful assertion of ownership to our neighborhood which is, in fact, a fundamentally anti-corporate culture.
Back in the fecund days of the Fifties and Sixties, when Venice was primarily an African-American community, there WERE locals like the Reese and Tabor families who began businesses which served their neighborhood, which were staples and necessities to the community; they’re long gone now, too. In fact, the African-American residents were the very first people driven out by well-tested political machinations that unfairly raised taxes, issued spurious property fines which drove out the POORER homeowners (wealthy homeowners now, instead, like to call themselves “stakeholders”). The STAKES they hold, unfortunately, are all too often driven straight into the hearts of vulnerable Venetians.

Until recently, until the suddenly increasing and overwhelming influx of high-end shops that have zero connection to the community, the Reese-Tabor spirit ran through the veins of Venetians, was reflected by the local stores which served the neighborhood: dress shops where everything was hand-made and no single dress was alike; The Sandbox, a local gallery below, where the artist lived above; even Abbot’s Habit was designed to be “of the people,” a place where, as Nina points out, “everything you get here, you can make at home.” At Abbot’s, the coffee is “damn good” and affordable for all, employees and patrons know each other’s names, and whoever enters immediately feels welcomed.

Not so on Abbot Kinney Boulevard anymore and, likely, never again. It’s the way of life, many say, an unstoppable tide of rapacious and predatory capitalism which can’t be rolled back at this late point in an inexorable process of “economic progress”. Besides, it’s the American Way and laissez-faire entrepreneurialism is the most democratic of forms, isn’t it? And doesn’t it, in fact, IMPROVE the quality of Venice? Property values go up, crime goes down, the neighborhood dies but big business thrives?

And what’s good for business is good for Venice, or so the refrain goes; little comfort to the hundreds of locals and others who daily depend on Abbot’s Habit and are going to be left out in the cold. And though it’s too late to save Abbot’s Habit, we residents must ask: is it still possible to save Abbot Kinney Boulevard?

Is it possible to still save our neighborhood from this organized movement of stakeholders renting their properties to the highest bidder, regardless of the cultural and social effects on the neighborhood, regardless of destroying the ETHOS and SPIRIT of Venice, obliterating its phenomenal diversity until the place becomes a dulling, homogeneous grouping of brand-businesses and box-houses where no one actually lives but ubiquitous Ubers shuttle visitors in-and-out of what once was a distinctive neighborhood and common community.
This crisis which Venice faces is existential, a life-and-death struggle as ancient as society itself. Thomas Mann, in his novella, “A Death in Venice,” based his theme on Nietzsche’s inventive battle between the Dionysian spirit of passion and unreason (which drives art and creativity), and which is in direct conflict with the life-force of Apollo, where restraint and well-structured forms (economics, in this case) take precedent.

It’s reflected in the long-standing struggle between the primal bohemian freedoms which have defined Venice up to now, and the corporate drive to control the assets and society which those bohemians built. Today this dialectic is misnamed, “GENTRIFICATION.” Misnamed because by now the word’s lost all meaning with its endless repetition, co-opting and purposeful misrepresentation. So let’s forget the word “gentrification,” stop using it: “gentrification” is the brand-retailer’s language, meant to sanitize their organized and well-laid plans for taking over Abbot Kinney Boulevard. “ECONOMIC COLONIZATION” is a more accurate term for what’s been long-planned and is being currently carried out.

This primal struggle for defining the soul of Venice, again, is between the Dionysian spirit, drunk with Eros and creativity – or the manufactured, corporate Apollonian view that organizes society based on, in this case, questions of capital.

Importantly, Mann asserts in his story, there’s a balance to be struck between these two opposing forces if society, or even in an individual, is to survive and ultimately thrive. Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic, to which Nietzsche owes his theories, also makes it clear that without a balance, the assumed “master” himself becomes a slave to the dialectic: he NEEDS his slave in order to maintain his own position and so is enslaved by his own needs.

Similarly, Venice is of no use to Adidas if the community becomes a sterile town, fetid and coldly corporate, bankrupt of its natural bohemian influence and Dionysian soul. And while no good Venetian in their right mind will ever set foot inside the Adidas store, we can all continue to assert our indomitable bohemian spirits, fight the Powers That Be, let our Freak Flags fly, and be creative in our fight against the current corporate blitzkrieg.

One thing we CAN’T DO is fight each other: divide and conquer is the enemy’s long-term tactic and it’s been very effective. Venice is infamous for its internecine conflicts, numerous opposing positions that clash – meanwhile, the Brand Retailers waltz away with what they want.

If Venetians are serious about stopping the corporate takeover of their neighborhoods, they must start to work IN UNISON against those who would openly rape the city for their own profit, who have no interest, concern, or living investments in Venice.

Roger Webster, a long-time Venetian and partner in Perloff-Webster Realty (which owns the lease on Abbot’s Habit) also decries the changes taking place in the neighborhood, emphasizing the need for Venetians to fight from, “the top down,” meaning residents can only have an effect against the forces of corporate greed by addressing our representatives, like Mike Bonin, forcing THEM to defend our neighborhoods against international Retail Brands and their predatory goals.

But right now, Webster says, there’s too much, “inbred fighting” and Venetians are so polarized that, “the city’s not doing what’s good for itself.” He suggests Venice needs a new vision for itself, perhaps based in the old, but not simply for nostalgia’s sake; instead, as a flame for the future.

“I see Venice as an estuary. A spot where life replenishes and re-nourishes itself,” Webster claimed, “not a place that’s necessarily dying off, leaving one with bitter memories of better times.” The trick is to force our Representatives, using our power as citizens and as de facto Venetian visionaries, to serve OUR purposes or we’ll promise to vote them out!

If we simply give ground without fighting, Adidas wins. So in the memory of Abbot’s Habit, all its meant to our neighborhood the last 25 years, in the spirit of Dionysus, the Reese and Tabor families, the myriads of people who’ve passed through this soon-to-be-gone coffee shop – FIGHT FOR YOUR CITY!

The closing of Abbot’s Habit should MOTIVATE our community to fight the brand-name bullies who have no sense of what Venice is, ever was, or ever will be; resist the dulling influence of Google and SnapChat employees who hide out in their corporate bubbles, never venturing from their safe havens to become authentic Venetians; resist the pricy restaurants not truly intended for anyone who actually lives in town; resist the corporatization of Venice.

ALL VENETIANS need to UNIFY in COMMON CAUSE and SAVE OUR CITY’S VISION OF ITSELF! At the same time, we MUST NOT ALLOW outsiders to define our future as one which has no place for us. We bear a moral culpability ourselves if we stay on the sidelines and simply bemoan the current or impending state of affairs. We are Bohemians, Dionysian dreamers, artists, sinners and saints – but above all, we are Venetians. And the demise of Abbots Habit is our Clarion Call – either we put aside our differences or we risk losing everything. Because, as Ben Franklin wisely observed on the brink of an earlier revolution, “If we don’t hang together… we will surely hang apart.”

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