The Venice Walls: A History Demolished and Buried Under Sand

Written by Mark Diaz

The Ghetto by the Sea. Dogtown, or the latest and maybe most appropriate moniker, Silicon Beach due to the high-density of tech companies that now call this place home. These are all pseudonyms of Venice Beach, the suburb founded in 1905 by land developer and real estate collector Abbot Kinney, a tobacco tycoon from a wealthy bloodline of eastern breeding in the Washington D.C. area.

After successfully developing a 550-acre section of Pasadena (27mi northeast of Venice) he set his sights on a desolate-swampy coastal marshland just a stone’s throw south of the already developed upper-class homes of Santa Monica. A world traveler, and connoisseur of art and science, he was heavily inspired by the beauty of Venice, Italy and set out to create “The Venice of America” with canals and all. His contemporaries referred to his plan as “Kinney’s Foley,” as he was the object of public ridicule, but he didn’t let that hinder his vision of building a home for art and culture in hopes of creating an American Renaissance. His dream would come to fruition and become economically viable, and after his death it would become a derelict nightmare fueled by drugs and crime, only to rise again as one of the most commercially sought-after zip codes in Los Angeles.

“His dream would come to fruition and become economically viable, and after his death it would become a derelict nightmare fueled by drugs and crime, only to rise again as one of the most commercially sought-after zip codes in Los Angeles.”

Taking advantage of the natural geography, he turned the swamplands into miles of eucalyptus tree-lined canals, complete with imported Italian immigrants from New York he hired as gondoliers. Rather than the auditorium where poets, lecturers, and musicians took the stage, or the opera house, crowds flocked in droves towards the boardwalk for the freaks, side shows, and rollercoasters, seeking amusement over intellectual entertainment. Sporting events, auto racing, and a parade of bathing beauties kept visitors and residents coming wave after wave. A virtually unknown Charlie Chaplin debuted his character “The Tramp” unbeknownst to a crowd of race fans for an unscripted performance that made many laugh and left some so annoyed by his act they threw him to the floor. After the passing of Abbot Kinney in 1920, prohibition, competition, and the burning of one of the four amusement parks atop a pier, led to a dwindling attendance that plummeted city revenue. By 1929 Venice had lost its independence and was annexed by Los Angeles. That same year, oil was discovered, and the majority of the canal system was paved over, what canals remained were filled with trash. Down came the Ferris wheels and up went the oil pump, the ride was over, the circus had left town.

The 1950’s were a melting pot of the working-class poor, the community was made up of Jewish, Black, and Mexican residents. Artists and intellectual anarchists attracted to the downtrodden beach town made their way to take advantage of the cheap bungalows for rent. An embryo of counterculture was starting to take shape. LAPD imposed a lookout of poets, painters, and musicians, as their authority felt threatened by the non-conformist lifestyle of beatniks.  The people fought back in protest and the lookout was uplifted shortly after. Ignored by society at large, frustrated with living in a slum and seeing a hopeless future, teenagers began to form gangs as an act of self-empowerment and rebellion.

“Down came the Ferris wheels and up went the oil pump, the ride was over, the circus had left town.”

As the 60’s rolled in, Venice was a haven for junkies, outlaws, and hippies. In 1961 the Venice Pavilion was built right on the beach with rows of picnic tables constructed entirely out of concrete. Originally designed for music, The Pavilion was left abandoned a few years later when a wall was built around it to keep the volume down, destroying the acoustics. Local surfers had made home of a secret surf spot called “The Cove”, a seedy section surrounded by the skeleton of the once-lively amusement park pier, Pacific Ocean Park. Broken pilings protruded the ocean’s surface resembling a war-torn shoreline more than it did the California coast. Tribal localism was the rule of the land, any visiting surfers who didn’t heed to the “locals only” warning signs accompanied with a skull and crossbones graffitied in the parking lot, and were brave enough to paddle out, were met with a barrage of debris raining down on them at the hands of surf groms standing on top of the abandon pier. A few years later these groms would grow up to become the world-renowned Z-Boys, a group of professional skateboarders with the raw aggressive surf-style unique to Venice. Rejecting the floral prints and pastels that represented the squeaky-clean surf image of the day, they dressed for battle in fedoras, bandana headbands, and Pendleton flannels, inspired by the Chicano aesthetic and hard rock, looking more like a street gang than a skateboard team.

By the mid 70’s California was facing the worst drought it had ever seen. A water conservation mandate left an abundance of empty swimming pools throughout the Southern California area. These empty pools would serve as a breeding ground for the birth of vertical skateboarding as the Z-Boys discovered you could carve a pool like you could carve a wave, except these concrete waves break perfectly 24/7. The guerrilla ambush on empty pools had the Z-Boys running through alleys and hopping fences like a pack of wild dogs being chased by homeowners and police. At the head of the pack was Tony Alva, his aggressive style and rock star persona helped put skateboarding on the world stage, selling his signature model skateboard by the hundreds of thousands. In 1977, at the height of his success the young pioneer proved yet another innovation, the frontside air. At the time, an inconceivable maneuver where the skater blasts out of the lip of the pool, grabs the board, and turns midair, landing back in the pool, and set the foundation for all future vertical skateboarding: the birth of aerials.

“Rejecting the floral prints and pastels that represented the squeaky-clean surf image of the day, they dressed for battle in fedoras, bandana headbands, and Pendleton flannels, inspired by the Chicano aesthetic and hard rock, looking more like a street gang than a skateboard team.”

The tide had shifted, the commercial buzz had fizzled out, skateboard parks were bulldozed over, and as far as the mainstream was concerned skateboarding was all but dead. Starting in 1980, the pulse of the alternative sport had found its way back to the beach, core skaters congregated at the Venice Pavilion. Better known as “The Pit” (presumably because it was approximately 4-6ft below the rest of the boardwalk and had walls of about 15ft around the perimeter) the Pavilion was a hub for breakdancersgraffiti artistsskateboarders, punk rockers and gangs. A cross-contamination of cultures fed off of each other in synergistic harmony. Graffiti artists had covered almost every inch of concrete in a beautiful collage of all colors and skill levels. They could harness their craft and take their time as you couldn’t see what was going on in The Pit unless you were in it. A new wave of ambitious skaters driven by progression saw endless potential in the useless architecture. Walls, benches and ledges, handrails and staircases were all fair game in this completely new style of skating. The Pit is regarded as the birthplace of street skating, the most popular form of modern day skateboarding due to its accessibility, any kid with a skateboard and imagination could take advantage of the civil architecture in their own backyard. Despite the communal creativity of The Pit, it was not somewhere you wanted to be after dark. With the crack epidemic in full swing by the late 80’s, tensions began to rise amongst the once cordial gangs of Venice and its surrounding neighborhoods Mar Vista and Culver City. The friction came to a head over control of the highly lucrative drug trade. A turf war ensued, leaving the community in a constant state of terror of senseless violence, it simply became known as “The War.”

The economy was in the dump. The poverty-line was stretching higher than ever before and eating up more of the middle-class, the defunding of public assistance programs and the deregulation of Wall Street took inequality to another dimension, largely impart by the trickle-down theory of Reaganomics. As a generation of disillusioned youth were coming of age, Los Angeles became a harbor for heavy loads of cocaine imported directly from Colombia, Mexico, and Nicaragua. Most of the cocaine was converted to crack (a cheaper, more concentrated, and highly addictive version of cocaine) and distributed both locally and across the country. The city became the center of the crack epidemic. As millions in cash flowed in through the drug trade, street gangs grew exponentially in numbers and weaponry, and some of the bloodiest turf wars would pop up around the city. In 1992 over 7 people a day were being murdered in Los Angeles County.

“A cross-contamination of cultures fed off of each other in synergistic harmony.”

The violence in Venice peaked in late ’93 and early ’94, over a nine-month period where bloodshed was all too familiar, leaving 70 wounded and 20 dead, most of which were innocent bystanders or targets mistaken for gang members. There was no safe time to be outside. Residents had to walk around with guns, and if you didn’t have one, you were escorted by someone who did, just so you could make it from point A to point B without becoming a casualty of The War. The boardwalk became a battle zone. Control over the boardwalk’s drug trade was big bucks, it had clientele coming from the more affluent neighborhoods on its northern and southern borders as well as tourism. The Pit was host to many gang fights, some would be as big as 100 on 100, with the chaos spilling over and turning into full-blown rioting and looting on the boardwalk. You could be standing next to someone one second, and then they would drop dead the next second from a stray bullet. The media covered it as a race war, which in my opinion, subconsciously deepened the divide among minorities as a byproduct of their sensationalism. It was anything but a race war, gang wars have always been about turf control and vengeance. LAPD had no control of the situation. Residents had enough and the community protested. It took a probation officer to realize only the gangs could stop the violence, so he sought out the leaders to see if they’d be interested in a truce.

After more than an hour of conversation between the rival gangs’ most influential players, they agreed upon a truce to finally stop. The community healed. The prohibition officer who initially organized the truce knew it wouldn’t hold up because it was an unofficial truce, and that stood to be true. Gang activity resumed, not to extreme levels as it once was, but to a more normal rate of what you might expect from a known gang zone. LAPD finally got a grasp on the problem, not through community outreach, but through military tactics. The first ever Police Department to employ official military tactics on its civilians. In 1999 gang injunctions were granted by a judge at the request of the city attorney. Although successful, they were criticized for being an invasion of civil liberties and rights, and a license to harass black and brown people gathered in 2 or more if they were suspected to be gang members.

“You could be standing next to someone one second, and then they would drop dead the next second from a stray bullet.”

The gang injunctions were said to kick off the first big wave of new settlers (although one local says you could see the origins of gentrification as early as the late 80’s). Corporate-hipster techies were able to get in first on this “up and coming” beach community and feel safe walking to get their coffee knowing anyone who looked like they didn’t belong in their own neighborhood would be harassed by cops. That same year the city demolished The Venice Pavilion. It was torn down, and large pieces were left intact and buried under sand. They were smart enough to preserve sections of The Pit. Portions of the perimeter wall and giant cement chimneys shaped like cones from the picnic area, popped out of its sandy grave like an Egyptian temple.

These remnants of the old Venice were sanctioned for graffiti and deemed legal to paint, becoming known as The Venice Walls. About 30 yards from where The Pit once was, a LAPD sub-division now sits. The city proposed a new roller rink on the location of the old Pavilion, the proposal was met with resistance by what locals were left. They assembled a rally for a skatepark instead. The city approved the skatepark, and part of Venice’s historical importance by being the birthplace of skateboarding was honored. Local government did a decent job at keeping a piece of the counterculture that once roamed freely. Anyone is free to paint, skate, and paddle out into a disorganized lineup to try to catch a wave. Venice is one of the most expensive areas to live in, it’s up there with Beverly Hills. Its original spirit will live on as the mecca of California beach culture, with its style known around the globe.