Friday, December 26, 2008

Venice Beach - the "Slum by the Sea"

Windward Avenue, 1953, from the Los Angeles Public Library

Orson Welles' 1958 film "A Touch of Evil" begins with a close-up of a man setting the timer on a bomb. The camera pulls back to show a long columned arcade, and then the man plants the bomb in the trunk of a sleek convertible. A man and woman, laughing and embracing, get into the convertible and cruise down a crowded night-time street in a Mexican border town.

This shot, about four minutes long, was filmed as one long tracking shot, and is praised by film critics as one of the most amazing pieces of cinematography in film. The car drives through the crowded streets, passing the shabby arcades with their old-fashioned columns. As it stops for traffic cops, pushcart vendors, and herds of goats, we wonder - when will it explode? who will it kill? The introduction of the film's hero and his new bride, walking along the slowly cruising car and standing beside it as they clear the border crossing, heightens the suspense.

Orson Welles used Windward Avenue in Venice, California as the location for this shoot. The car passes the columned hotels and liquor stores on the north side of Windward, then turns onto Ocean Front Walk, passing what is now the Sidewalk Cafe, and the remains of the Mecca Cafe - by then a bingo parlour.

It was not a stretch to transform it into a sleazy border town. By 1958, Venice had fallen on hard times.

The decline had begun years ago. Abbot Kinney's control over the design and cultural life of the town was broken with his death in 1920, and in 1925 when the citizens voted to become part of the City of Los Angeles.

As many writers have observed, it was akin to annexing Disneyland. Venetians didn't realize that control from downtown wouldn't always have their best interests at heart. In 1929, Los Angeles decided that the canals were hard to maintain and obsolete in the age of the automobile. A huge public works project was begun to fill them in and pave them over. The lagoon and the canals to the north were filled in, but the Depression halted the project before it could reach the canals south of Venice Boulevard - the poorer neighborhood, once tent cities and then simple bungalows and shacks.

Another unintended effect of annexation was the City's conservative ordinances that shut down dancing on Sundays, hurting business on the Pier and along the boardwalk. Venice citizens had to petition for an exception for them, as an Amusement District. Venice became the home of many varieties of amusement - some not so family friendly. Prohibition, in effect since 1920 but enforced more rigorously by Los Angeles, hurt business. Gambling flourished, both on shore in back rooms and on gambling ships moored just beyond the 3-mile limit. It was said that the tunnels beneath Windward Avenue, intended for utility and water lines, were used to smuggle bootleg liquor.

In 1930 oil was discovered in the salt marshes in the southern part of Venice. Soon oil wells were going up in the midst of residential neighborhoods. With the oil came jobs, but also pollution and environmental hazards. These neighborhoods had been the poorer neighborhoods anyway, so few civic leaders cared about what happened there.

In 1933, when alcohol became legal again, the bars and cocktail lounges flourished. The off-shore gambling resorts became even more popular, with a high-class clientele. In the late 1930's a mobster named Tony Cornero brought customers with a fleet of water-taxis. He served good food, unwatered booze, hired top-class dance bands to play. He ran all the popular games, including roulette, craps, blackjack, poker, and chinese lottery.

In "Farewell My Lovely," written in 1940, Raymond Chandler's sleuth Philip Marlowe bunks in a seaside hotel, and waits until dark to take a water taxi out to a gambling ship.

The reflection of a red neon light glared on the ceiling. When it made the whole room red it would be dark enough to go out. Outside cars honked along the alley they called the Speedway. Feet slithered on the sidewalks below my window. There was a murmur and mutter of coming and going in the air. The air that seeped in through the rusted screens smelled of stale frying fat. Far off a voice of the kind that could be heard far off was shouting: "Get hungry, folks. Get hungry. Nice hot doggies here. Get hungry."
Marlowe's hotel may have been the once-fine St. Mark's Hotel:

There was no elevator. The hallways smelled and the stairs had grimed rails. I went down them, threw the key on the desk and said I was through. A clerk with a wart on his left eyelid nodded and a Mexican bellhop in a frayed uniform coat came from behind the dustiest rubber plant in California to take my bag. I didn't have a bag...
Marlowe goes out to find the water taxi, and describes the scene on Ocean Front Walk:

Outside the narrow streets fumed, the sidewalks squirmed with fat stomachs. Across the street a bingo parlor was going full blast and beside it a couple of sailors with girls were coming out of a photographer's shop where they had probably been having their photos taken riding camels. The voice of the hot dog merchant split the dusk like an axe. A big blue bus blared down the street to the little circle where the streetcar used to run on a turntable. I walked that way.
With the coming of the war, the aircraft industry drew workers from all over the US to Southern California. Curfews prohibited any activity on piers and beaches after dark, but servicemen on leave and factory workers came to sample Venice's increasingly seedy attractions.

After the war, the City of Los Angeles chose not to renew the lease on Abbott Kinney's pier. A master plan was implmented with the intent of removing all beach piers and widening the beaches. In 1946, the Venice Pier was torn down. No trace of it remains today.

The fine hotels had become flophouses. Amusement arcades turned into peep shows and bingo parlors. Resident poet Lawrence Lipton described Venice as "a jerry-built slum by the sea."

The City's building inspectors harassed Venice property owners on code violations. Costly Upgrades were mandated. Many owners chose to demolish instead.

Some Windward Avenue buildings lost their upper stories, leaving only the arcaded first floors. All the buildings on the seaqard side were demolished. In 1964, St. Mark's Hotel, anchoring the northwest corner of Windward and Ocean Front Walk, was torn down.

In 1959 the Bingo parlor became a coffee shop called the Gas House. Hell's Angels parked their motercycles under the arched colonnades of Abbot Kinney's Venetian replicas. Homeless people, drug addicts and, later, hippies hung out on Ocean Front Walk.

The theatres, the dance halls, the rides were gone. The remaining buildings housed sleazy concessions - fast food stands, T-shirt dealers, head shops.

But things would change again. Things always do.


Briget said...

I love these walks through California history! Have you ever read any Gene Stratton Porter? Particularly her stories set after she moved to California in the early 20's? The stories are very dated, but her descriptions of the landscape are wonderful.

I can't wait for you to bring us up to present-day Venice Beach!

cactus petunia said...

Thanks for the history! It's amazing how shortsighted government can be, isn't it? Just think what it would look like now if all of that had been preserved!

Anonymous said...

g ~ You always write to beautifully, and often about things close to my heart.

When I moved to L.A. in 1977, I accidentally stumbled across Venice while driving south on Hwy 1 from Santa Monica, in search of a parking place near the beach. Having spent my teenage years as a San Francisco Bay Area hippie type kid, it felt like a homecoming.

I can't count the hours and days I spent in Venice over the next ten years ... shopping, skating, swimming, people watching, and having brunch at the Sidewalk Cafe. Their Italian sausage omelet -- topped with rich spaghetti sauce and stuffed with tons of mozzarella -- was a delicious work of art, and no doubt the precursor to many middle aged heart attacks in So Cal).

Those were the days when Arnold was still a student at Santa Monica college, working out at Muscle Beach daily in his quest for the first of five -- or was it seven -- Mr. Universe titles?

In a box of treasured family photos, I have a picture of my grandfather and his brother -- circa 1924 -- lying on the sand in Venice, wearing natty dress suits, button up shoes, and fedora hats, having just arrived from Minnesota to seek their fortunes. There are neighborhood photos of the canals, too, and the movie set of Ben Hur, in which my grandpa and uncle got low-paying roles as extras in crowd scenes.

Thanks for the memories, as always. I'll be updating my Canada food adventures again soon, and enjoyed reading about your Indian lunch in the valley after you visited my post about our Vancouver cooking class.

Happy New Year from Victoria

Anonymous said...

You know there is more to Venice then Windward! What about Hamburger Square? Abbot Kinney? The Jetty. Step outside the box!