California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Venice


Downtown Venice, Los Angeles

Venice is a neighborhood in Los Angeles‘s Westside. It’s neighbored by Santa Monica to the north, Mar Vista to the east, Culver City and Del Rey to the southeast, Marina del Rey to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It’s famous for its canals, Muscle Beach, Venice Beach, and Ocean Front Walk — aka “the Boardwalk.”

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of Venice, available in art prints and on a variety of merchandise

Venice is, racially speaking, moderately diverse for Los Angeles: 64% white (primarily Germanic and English), 22% Latino of any race (mostly Mexican), and 5% black. However, sub-culturally speaking, it’s a motley collection full of bikers, chooches, crusties, cyclists, dog-walkers, homeless, jocks, gays, skaters, surfers, stoners, tourists, and more. I ventured over by myself in the morning and met up with KXLU‘s DJ Ned Learner later. It was a gorgeous day, although the air in Venice smelled like a mix of cheap cologne, burning marijuana, fish, sizzling street food, and dog poop.


Venice was built atop the Ballona Wetlands, which were historically home to one of the largest concentrations of Chumash — the region’s indigenous people. Several thousand years later, the Tongva people arrived and established a village, Kecheek, just to the north. The first white people to arrive in the area were explorer Gaspar de Portolà and his party, which camped nearby in 1769. It was conquered, along with all of Alta California, for the Spanish. In 1819, Ygnacio and Augustin Machado, and Felipe and Tomas Talamantes were given permission to graze their cattle on the land, part of Rancho La Ballona. After Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, individuals began to own the land and the Machados and Talamantes became owners of the land in 1839. The United States declared war against Mexico in 1846 and in 1848, conquered Alta California. The land was sold to Mrs. Nancy A. Lucas in 1874 and was farmed by her sons.


To the north, development of Santa Monica began in the 1870s and by the 1880s, it was booming. Tobacco baron Abbot Kinney and his partner Francis Ryan bought a section of oceanfront property in 1891. They built a resort town on the northern end of the property, called Ocean Park, which was billed as “The Coney Island of the Pacific.” Neighboring Mar Vista began as “Ocean Park Heights.” Ocean Park was later annexed by Santa Monica. After Ryan’s death, Kinney formed a new partnership and they began developing the marshes south of Navy Street. The new partnership dissolved in 1904 and a solo Kinney pressed on with his vision of Venice of America.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of the Venice Canals, available in art prints and on a variety of merchandise

Venice of America was set to open for business in May 1905. However, two intense winter storms destroyed the newly constructed 1,200 foot-long pier. Over 1,000 workers rebuilt the pier as well as an auditorium and a pavilion in time for the 4th of July opening. In addition to the aforementioned attractions, Venice of America also boasted an amphitheater, a lagoon, a miniature railroad, ship restaurant, a block of businesses built in the Venetian style and, most famously, the canals. Almost 20,000 people showed up, most having arrived on the Pacific Electric Railway red cars from Los Angeles.

In 1907, the Ocean Park Pier’s board of trustees refused to issue Kinney a permit for a proposed bathhouse and hot salt water plunge. Kinney began pouring the foundations anyway. The sheriff attempted to dynamite them but was rebuffed by the women’s Pick and Shovel Club. A free pool opened in August and in January 1909, the Venice Aquarium followed (and later became the official marine biological station for the University of Southern California). Along Abbot Kinney Boulevard, a miniature scenic railroad passed through fake mountains and a tunnel. On the pier, Kinney added a Dentzel carousel, a Ferris Wheel, a Japanese Tea House, an Ocean Inn Restaurant, and a rapids ride.


By 1910, Venice’s population had reached 3,119 but up to 150,000 tourists were soon flooding the town on weekends to enjoy even more new amusements, including the Virginia Reel, Whip, and Racing Derby. The town officially changed its name to Venice in 1911. Since the Venice downtown business district was allotted only three one-block-long streets, and city hall was more than a mile away, other districts developed in the town, including East Venice, Machado, Marina Peninsula, Milwood, and Oakwood.

Inspired by Kinney’s success, one of his former partners, Alexander Fraser, constructed Fraser’s Million Dollar Amusement Pier in 1912, the largest in the world. The pier housed a dance hall, two carousels, the Crooked House fun house, the Grand Electric Railroad, the Starland Vaudeville Theater, Breaker’s Restaurant, and a Panama Canal model exhibit. Shortly after it opened, however, it (and five blocks around it) burned to the ground. A new pier was built and Venice soldiered on, hosting the first bathing beauty contest, acquiring a baseball team, and a Gran Prix. The fun ground to a halt when the US passed prohibition in 1919, damaging Venice’s tax revenue. Kinney died of lung cancer the following November.


By 1920, Venice’s population was 10,385. In order to remain competitive with Santa Monica’s piers, the Kinney family (led by the eldest son, Thornton) added two roller coasters, a new Racing Derby, a Noah’s Ark, a Mill Chutes, and other rides, reflecting the ongoing shift toward amusement rides and away from alcohol-fueled nightlife. Not surprisingly, however, a number of speakeasies popped up in the basement businesses along Windward Avenue.

In 1923, Charles Lick built the Lick Pier at the end of Navy Street. In 1925, the Kinneys added a third coaster, a tall Dragon Slide, fun house, and a Flying Circus aerial ride to their pier, elevating it beyond the competition. Another pier was planned in 1925 at Leona Street (now Washington Street) but plans were scrapped. Venice was by then increasingly difficult to manage and the infrastructure crumbled, unable to keep up with the expanding numbers of citizens and tourists.


The Venice board of trustees voted, by a narrow margin, to annex to Los Angeles, which it did in November 1925. Sadly, comparatively conservative Los Angeles began immediately dismantling Venice’s attractions. The railroads were torn up and by 1929, after a three year battle against the residents, all the canals north of Venice Boulevard were filled to encourage reliance on automobiles. The city also wanted to close the piers immediately but had to wait until the leases expired in 1946 (ostensibly to widen the beaches). In 1932, the Depression hit hard but the discovery of oil in 1929 helped economically if not environmentally. Within two years, 450 wells contributed to the toxification of Venice’s waterways.


The “Oakwood Pentagon,” also known as “Ghost Town,” became one of the Westside’s only black neighborhoods when it was set aside during the era of racially restrictive housing covenants. It was originally designed as a “servants zone” for Venice’s elite. Many blacks moved to Venice to work in the oil fields during the 1930s and ’40s. The construction of the San Diego Freeway through largely Latino neighborhoods resulted in many displaced Mexican-Americans relocating to the neighborhood. In the 1950s, the Venice 13 gang formed out of the neighborhood’s extreme poverty. When hippies later began moving to the area in the 1960s, V-13 made their money controlling the drug trade. In the 1970s, they began facing competition from the Venice Shoreline Crips. It remained overwhelmingly black and brown until the 1980s when whites began moving there in larger numbers.


East Venice is a residential neighborhood that is separated from Oakwood and Milwood by Lincoln Boulevard. A housing project, Lincoln Place, was conceived by a black architect, Ralph Vaughn, in 1949, who also worked as a set designer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was designed to house returning World War II veterans. The rest of the neighborhood is dotted with small homes and features the large Penmar Park and adjacent Penmar Golf Course.


By the 1950s, the rest of Venice was impoverished and neglected too, and people commonly referred to it as the “Slum by the Sea.” Pacific Avenue remained unpaved until 1954. Many European immigrants, including many Holocaust survivors, moved to the area, attracted by the cheap housing. In addition, many artists, poets and writers were lured for the same reason. Local Beats like Stuart Perkoff, John Thomas, Frank T. Rios, Tony Scibella, Lawrence Lipton, John Haag, Saul White, Robert Farrington, and Philomene Long favored the Gas House on Ocean Front Walk and Venice West Cafe on Dudley.

Muscle Beach

A different crowd was also drawn to the beach: bodybuilders. The Venice Beach Weight Pen was opened and operated by the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department in 1952. After the closing of Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach, Venice’s weight pen became the new site. It was replaced by the current, large facility in 1980. The first Gold’s Gym opened in Venice in 1965. Music Beach has been featured in many films, commercials and TV episodes, most notably on the Baywatch episode “Bash at the Beach,” when Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage were rescued by CJ and Caroline after the Hulkster was knocked unconscious. They later discover that Ric Flair has bought the Venice Boys Athletic Club.


In the early 1960s, Los Angeles began enforcing building standards in Venice. 550 older buildings were demolished as a result. A lawsuit eventually stopped Venice’s wholesale destruction. The art scene continued to flourish and hippies and other ’60s counterculturists moved to the area. In 1965, UCLA students Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek formed The Doors after bumping into one another on Venice Beach. Later “Hello, I Love You” was written about a girl Morrison encountered on the boardwalk and “Soul Kitchen” was about Olivia’s Place, a diner on Main Street.


Venice Fishing Pier

Along the southern portion of the beach, at the end of Washington Boulevard, is the Venice’s only currently extant pier, the Venice Fishing Pier. The 1,310-foot-long structure opened in 1964. It’s been closed several times due to damage but is currently open. Ned Learner told me there is a feature where voices carry clearly over long distances but I didn’t experience that.


In the 1970s, the focus was on redeveloping the neighborhood for residents rather than tourists. In 1972, the city constructed an eighteen-mile bicycle path adjacent to Ocean Front Walk. In 1974, nude sunbathing was permitted north of the Pavilion although it was again banned soon after by the Taliban/city council.

In 1976, with the invention of the polyurethane skate wheel, skating exploded in popularity and the Boardwalk became famous for images of scantily clad Californians and tourists frolicking under the palmed-lined beach. Soon street performers, artists, juice-heads, musicians, vendors, palm-readers, trinket-sellers and homeless flocked to the once again-popular area.


Eastwind Gardens

Today Venice Beach remains the neighborhood’s main attraction. Venice Beach includes the beach itself, the promenade, handball courts, tennis courts, skate dancing plaza, beach volleyball courts, the bike trail, and the adjacent businesses. Other sites of interest and events in Venice include the Venice Farmers’ Market, Eastwind Gardens, the Venice Beach Freakshow, JillyJazz at Electric Lodge, the Venice Beach Recreation Center, The Moth, the Westminster Off-Leash Dog Park, Festival of the Chariots, the Pacific Resident Theatre, and the Venice Center for Peace with Justice and the Arts.


Producer Roger Corman formerly owned a production facility, the Concorde/New Horizons Studio, on Main Street in Venice and it was there that many of his films were shot. This facility was later razed to build the Venice Art Lofts and Dogtown Station lofts.

Many movies have been shot there. In the silent era, Venice appeared in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), The High Sign (1921), The Balloonatic (1923), Sugar Daddies (1927), The Circus (1928), and The Cameraman (1928).

Since then, Venice has been a filming location in Fish Hooky, Dante’s Inferno, Quicksand, Touch of Evil, Night Tide, Inside Daisy Clover, The Wild Angels, Blood Bath, Love You, Alice B. Toklas, The Outside Man, Cisco Pike, other, Jugs & Speed, Spawn of the Slithis, Grease, Roller Boogie, Walk Proud, The Jazz Singer, Xanadu, Breathless, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Breakin’, Weekend Pass, The Falcon and the Snowman, Cobra, Roller Blade, Thrashin’, Colors, The Doors, L.A. Story, White Men Can’t Jump, Falling Down, GIFT, Point of No Return, Extreme Justice, Clean Slate, Monkey Trouble, Speed, Strange Days, The Net, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, History X, The Big Lebowski, Bounce, Dogtown and Z-Boys, Hollywood Homicide, Thirteen, 2Pac: Resurrection, Million Dollar Baby, Monster-in-Law, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang House, Lords of Dogtown, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, Because I Said So, Smiley Face, Wild Hogs, Southland Tales, Disfigured, Drillbit Taylor, Role Models, Love You, Man, Funny People, StarStruck, and Valentine’s Day, to name a few.

Venice, in fact, is always being filmed; check out this webcam.


Television shows that have featured Venice over the years (in addition to Baywatch) include Adam-12, Beverly Hills, 90210, CHiPs, The L Word, MADtv, Simon & Simon, Pacific Blue, The A-Team, The Real World – Los Angeles , Huff, Freakazoid!, Three’s Company, Just Legal, Rob & Big In, One On One, The Rookies, Starsky and Hutch, 24, Alias, The X-Files, Yo! MTV Raps, South Park, Californication, Wipeout, FlashForward, Entourage, NCIS – Los Angeles, Victorious, The Hills, and America’s Next Top Model.


Venice is even a popular setting or playable level in many computer and video games, including Future Cop: LAPD, Gangstar: West Coast Hustle, L.A. Rush, NBA 2K7, NBA Street, Street Hoops, The Longest Journey, Thrasher: Skate and Destroy, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, Tony Hawk’s Underground, and True Crime: Streets of LA.


Venice’s art scene remains vibrant with artists including R. Cronk, Marc “The Sandman” Goodrich, Steve Shizumura, Eleanore Fahey, and Nancy Sadler calling Venice their home. The area also has several art events and galleries including Venice Art Walk, Altered Space Gallery, The G2 Gallery, Gebert Gallery, Denizen Design Gallery, LA Louver, Mitch Reiter Photography, and VOCA Gallery. There are many murals too, including a big one of Jim Morrison.


Many more musicians have made their homes in Venice than have hailed from there originally. Rapper Evidence is one exception. It’s also where many bands have formed, including (in addition to The Doors), Suicidal Tendencies, Jane’s Addiction, X, Neighborhood Watch, Immature, Cycotic Youth, Infectious Grooves, Ellyn Maybe, The Naked, Excel, No Mercy, Beowulf, and The Venice Beach Drum Circle.

Aaron Morales‘s “Angel of Venice Beach,” Jonathan Richman‘s “Rooming House on Venice Beach,Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ “Venice Queen,” Katy Perry‘s “California Gurls,” Notorious B.I.G.‘s “Going Back to Cali” and Jack Mannequin‘s entire album, Everything in Transit, all reference Venice, as did Welcome to Venice, a split/compilation album released in 1985 by Suicidal Tendencies, Beowülf, No Mercy, and Excel.

Venice has also appeared in videos including The Backstreet Boys“Inconsolable,” Leona Lewis‘s “I Got You,” David Guetta‘s “When Love Takes Over,” and Travis McCoy‘s “Billionaire.”


Venice is, as you may expect (given its name) home to many Italian joints, as well as BBQ, food trucks, wine bistros, and more, with most of the street food sold along the boardwalk and the Abbot Kinney District hosting most of the more chi-chi joints. Ned Learner introduced me to the delicious Empanada’s Place several years ago. When I first moved to Los Angeles, La Cabaña was our go-to Mexican place on the Westside, largely for the ambiance. The same Santa Monicans that introduced me to that place used to take me, somewhat regularly to Cafe Collage as well.

Venice eating establishments include Abbot’s Habit, Ado, Amuse, Argentinian Empanadas,Baby Blues BBQ, Beechwood, Bellissimo Venice, Benice, Big City Cakes By Ruwan,Big Daddy & Sons, Bombay Indian Cuisine, Bondi BBQ Australian Style, Cafe 50’s, Cafe Venicia, California Chicken Cafe, Campos Tacos, Canal Club, Canali Cafe, Candle Cafe & Grill, Casablanca Restaurant, Centanni, Charly Temmel, China Beach Bistro, Dagwood’s Pizza of Venice, Del’s Lemonade, El Tarasco, Elvino Wine Shop & Tasting Bar, Figtree’s Café, French Market Café, Fruit Gallery, Gjelina, Glady’s Doughnuts, Glencrest Bar-B-Que, Great Western Steak & Hoagie Company, Groundwork Coffee, Hal’s Bar & Grill, Hama Sushi, Hint Mint, House of Teriyaki Too, Inka Deli, Intelligentsia, James’ Beach, Jin Patisserie, Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom, Joe’s Restaurant, Johnnie’s New York Pizzeria, Kogi, Komanna, LOVE, La Fiesta Brava, La Isla Bonita, La Oaxaqueña Taco Truck, Let’s Be Frank, Lidia’s Pupuseria, Maki Yaki, Mao’s Kitchen, Markie D’s Taste of Philly, Marla’s, Massimo’s Caffe, Monkees, N’Ice Cream Homemade Gelato & Sorbet, Party Q’Sadilla, Piccolo Ristorante Italiano, Pizza Pizza, Primitivo Wine Bistro, Raw, Rawesome Foods, Rey’s Pizza, Robin Rose Ice Cream, Rose Cafe & Market, Santino’s Paninerio, Sauce on Hampton, Seed, Siam Best Restaurant, South Beach Cafe, Sushi & Crab, Tacos de Valle, Taste of India, Tasty Goody, The Boxer Cafe, The Breek Truck, The Brick House Cafe, The Cow’s End, The Firehouse, The Sidewalk Cafe, The Talking Stick, Thomas, 26 Beach Restaurant, Venetian Grill, Venice Beach Ice Cream & Gelato Cafe, Venice Beach Wines, Wabi-Sabi Sushi & Asian Cuisine, Wacky Wok, Windward Farms, Wirin Thai Restaurant, Yumi’s Teriyaki, and Zelda’s Corner Deli.

World Famous Hinano Cafe at Venice Beach

I met up with Ned Learner at Hinano Cafe, which he described as a chill dive bar. It is, in fact, a sports bar and was packed with people screaming at the many televisions for some reason. Other bars include Roosterfish, The Otheroom, Cabo Cantina, the Air Conditioned Supper Club, High, The Brig, Venice Ale House, The Garter, Nikki’s, and Townhouse Cocktails.

C & O

I must say, C & O‘s garlic knots were so good that I had them at lunch and dinner. We also grabbed a bite at Benny’s Tacos.

Marina Peninsula

Support Eric Brightwell on Patreon

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

26 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Venice

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