For decades, Venice has been known as a place where the wonderfully weird and way-out converge. A community of nonconformists trying to preserve a piece of Los Angeles that’s still pure in origin and protected from over-gentrification.
Despite the influx of newly renovated mid century mod palaces, pretty faces and tech companies migrating to the neighbourhood en masse, Venice is still weird.
The Venice Boardwalk is where the more colorful locals tend to congregate, although anywhere between Washington and Ocean Park, and east towards Lincoln is a people-watching paradise. Middle-aged men whizzing by on skateboards with the same temerity of a teenager, because no one gives a fuck how old you are. It’s irrelevant. No one is judging anyone. Everyone simply observes.
Even on upscale Abbot Kinney people don’t take themselves too seriously. One night, after too many craft cocktails, we found ourselves at Abbot’s Pizza for a slice on the way home. While in line, a popular 90s dance track came on and my husband started to boogie a little. Then the woman in front of him, dreadlocks piled high on her head with a toddler in tow, began to dance uncontrollably until the whole line-up was going for it.
During lunch one day, we overheard the table next to us chatting with some older gentlemen who declared they were long-time Venice residents. When asked what they did for a living, they said they used to play with a band called The Mamas & the Papas.
We’ve become addicted to what I call affirmation shakes at Café Gratitude on Rose Ave. When ordering, you ask for your smoothie beginning with ‘I am’ followed by whatever concoction you’ve chosen, like ‘Grace’ for example (my favorite). I am grace. And then you suck it back through a paper, recyclable straw while listening in on the tarot reading going on at the next table.
Staying on Victoria Ave, a sleepy, palm-lined street about 10 minutes by bike from the beach, characters still emerged daily. The Barry Gibb lookalike who walks his little dog every morning – same time – always rocking an ankle length fringed vest and flowing scarf to match. The mysterious tube TV that was left on our sidewalk and remained there for 10 days. The artists, established and aspiring. Folks who never left the 70s…or the 70s never left them.
But if it’s madness you crave, the Boardwalk is your jam. You’ll encounter iconic buskers that work the strip every day like Harry Perry, who rocks out on guitar while twirling circles around the tourists on his jacked-up rollerblades. Being recognized by him is kind of like a Venice rite of passage. There’s the Venice Beach Freakshow luring lookie loos in with America’s smallest man and the bearded lady – the best 5 bucks you’ll spend at the beach. There’s the transient travelers with signs that say ‘will strip for cash’ or ‘field goal my nuts for 20 bucks’. Or the more creative offerings like the First Organic Television, which is basically a guy with a TV screen wrapped round his face shouting nonsense at you as you scurry past him.
One of the things I love most is the non-stop party vibe of Venice. Men on roller skates dancing to disco in the basketball courts before the b-ballers arrive. While cruising the bike path, every few minutes someone breezes by with a ghetto blaster blaring everything from Marvin Gaye to the new Kendrick Lamar album. And what better way to end a day in Venice than jumping into the centre of the Drum Circle – a weekend ritual that goes from late afternoon until sunset – and dancing like hundreds of eyes aren’t watching your every move.
The woman we stayed with – Jenny, a designer and long time Venice resident – told us a story of how she had to leave for a while to appreciate how special her neighborhood is. Right around the recession she needed to, as she described, restore her faith in Americans. So she kitted out a VW van and embarked on a road trip that followed along the outer edges of the continental US. North along the west coast, east through the mid west, south along the eastern seaboard until her beloved van blew up in middle-of-nowhere Florida. Literally, flames a mile high.
Not wanting to quit before her journey was complete, she bought a miniature school bus and converted it to a road-trip-ready vessel that would carry her through the final leg of her tour.
These are the people who built Venice. The weird and the wonderful.
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