Venice hides its history in plain sight, a history more intricate than the erosion of the old beneath the veneer of the new. A lost Atlantis sleeps between gastropubs and cafés, only visible to those who look close enough.
A bizarre traffic intersection—one of Los Angeles’ only roundabouts—lies triangulated between a Bank of America, a wall of chromatic spray-painted portraits of dead rockstars, and a surf shop on Grand Street in Venice Beach. Cars and Metro Rapids circle confusedly around the patch of grass with a black marble bust, a single tree, and a sky blue gondola, shored like the ancient bones of some extinct animal. The small boat is nearly invisible to drivers who are predominantly in search of an increasingly rare parking space rather than a portal to a distant past. Few are alive who could remember the days these streets were filled with water, where singing Italian immigrants rowed past what is now a health food market, a tapas bar, a thrift shop.
The eccentric tobacco baron and entrepreneur Abbot Kinney, with quixotic dreams of an American city of canals, probably never imagined his name would come to be associated with food trucks, Lindsay Lohan’s necklace theft, and exorbitant custom-made perfumes. He probably never imagined the cultural hub he built against all odds in a desolate marshland would descend into a carnival gag within two decades of its creation, that the waterways built in the image of The Floating City in Italy would be drained and filled with asphalt when the carnival turned from novelty to nuisance. Kids from broken homes would turn those streets into a lawless Dogtown in the seventies, and the slave quarters Kinney designated as Oakwood were to become the site of violent crack-related gang wars in the eighties and nineties. In Venice, history exposes itself in every aesthetic idiosyncrasy—the growing mass of gentrifiers build mansions and boutiques atop a reservoir of memory. The shadow of Jonathan Borofsky’s Ballerina Clown looms stoically—a homeless man’s head atop a poised frozen dancer.
“Gentrification is an unstoppable weed that casts much needed shade and grows beautiful flowers but kills the natural habitat of wherever it grows.”
On the corner of Lake and Lincoln in Venice Beach, time stands still. Black coffee flows eternal, thick cut fries well infinitely from the boiling depths of the old fryer, and the rip on the red leather booths at the back is still the same size as it was eighteen years ago when Jayne Gunning, the fast-talking British waitress, started working here. She glows thinking back on her years of work: “I love the customers. They walk in and they know we’re family. They come in with their babies and I get to watch them grow up.”
A conductor in an orchestra that never slows down, she slides a fragrant cheeseburger and a small bowl of coleslaw atop a porcelain plate to a nearby customer as she points down Lake Street to the ghost of her former home. After nearly a decade of walking to work from the quiet housing community Lincoln Place, she was offered the choice between a payoff to leave, or an eviction notice. She took the payoff and two kids and moved to nearby Marina Del Rey. Tied up in litigation, her home, and those of her neighbors, remained empty for years. The grass grew tall in deserted cul-de-sacs, doorways hung agape like starved mouths, and throngs of stray cats took up residence there.
Today, the same eerie post-war glow hangs about the uniform community, though the low-income price tag has since changed to a minimum rent of $2000 a month. The families have been replaced by single-occupant young professionals, the seas of stray cats replaced by swimming pools. Jayne remembers the days of 3-4 gang shootings a week and is glad that they’re over but also laments the 30-year-old market next door which stopped being able to pay the rent and closed down, the beloved customers who were forced to move away. Her heart is the jukebox filled with oldies, and she’s sailing with Cafe 50’s as long as it can float.