LA's Venice is today a ground zero of neoliberalism and its most vile thug, gentrification. All seem to have given up on the city by the sea, lest for some activists and a few organizations. Whatever happened to Venice? What could Venice look like if we do fight for it? Culturally? An oasis of human activity and collectivity in our unique biome?
Instead, we should be discussing the future of this city in Venice Beach, and also writing songs on napkins that are unafraid of what Edward Soja termed as our postmetropolis. Instead of being the modern agora by the sea that it promises to be, the Venice Beach boardwalk, public space, is today the crystallization of the liberal or neoliberal compromises of the businesses that line the infamous street, that underlie its everyday instead of the jovial naivete of tourists and locals walking to and fro.
Instead of being the modern agora by the sea that it promises to be, the Venice Beach boardwalk, public space, is today the crystallization of the liberal or neoliberal compromises of the businesses that line the infamous street
There is beach, sand, grass, and especially unhoused persons there, a huge amount who not only participate in the life of the boardwalk that fills the coffers of business owners, but also manifest the compromise as dirty sleeping bags, trash dives, skin lesions, mite bites, sleep deprivation for many, and other illnesses that come from quite simply letting things be by our society except for the Friday morning street sweep wherein police officers display the contradictions of the system that is L.A. government: well mannered according to them, they break hearts already broken by life in squalor and destitution.
Many of not most of these unhoused persons are artisans and appreciated by many. Others are musicians of yesterday, belting for today’s heart strings. A close look at their art will prove that most of it is very similar to dominant kitsch aesthetics like psychedelic aesthetics, mostly omni-rock and roll California aesthetics, the sort that caters to money. This is the art of entrepreneurship, a ruthless rugged kind similar to that of 19th century cities such as London of the 19th centuries with artisan-jokesters whose art does not manifest the contemporary at much as it attempts to sell itself to contemporary psychology. This may come from the fact that the American artisan has never truly been aided by cultural policy or charity like the artist, given the veneration for beaux-arts by the American upper and middle classes, the financiers and administrators of cultural and social order.
The Venice boardwalk should be organized in another way, one wherein humanity and solidarity guide art, culture, commerce, conversation, etc. Such a way can only come from the polity, political community, that is Los Angeles wanting to produce a cultural zone or site, like what the UNESCO means by this, whether through government, political, or charitable enterprise.
Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan poet, priest, revolutionary who was the Minister of Culture of Nicaragua founded a community / cultural movement with elements that may help guide a new boardwalk, Solentiname. Solentiname produced beautiful, unique art, and thus a renewed life for its artisan-peasants by grounding a community in activities such as workshops and classes that would then fuel art. It was a Christian community so they met at a central chapel that was designed by an architect to foster religious community wherein God was a God of the poor.
The site Hyperallergic recently published a piece on the communitarian movement. In it, they noted that many international artists visited the site, such as the Argentine writer of the novel Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar. Cortazar on Solentiname:
I can’t remember who it was that explained they’d been done by local people, this one was by Vicente, this one’s by Ramona, some signed, others not, yet all of them incredibly beautiful, once again the primeval vision of the world, the pure gaze of someone describing his surrounding in a song a praise: dwarf cows in the meadows of poppies, a sugar cabin that people were pouring out like ants, a green-eyed horse against a backdrop of swamps, a baptism in a church with no faith in perspective that climbs and falls all over itself, a lake full of little boats like shoes, and in the background a huge laughing fish with turquoise lips.
Cortazar was amazed. Such art was raw and new. Imagine? What if the art on the Boardwalk was at such a level, made for the 21st century, instead of kitsch? What our city deserves. Beauty came pouring out of organizing and community at Solentiname, the sort of beauty that can come out of housing the unhoused artisans on the boardwalk and organizing them through activities etc. These artisans, but also poets, musicians, etc, could be the life of an agora, a meeting place for the hearts and minds of LA and its visitors.
This agora should also include helping the working and middle classes thrive, as a progressive agora. Coffeeshops should line its streets, shops that are not only run by big dollar management. Have you visited the Mercado La Paloma near USC? It is a project of Esperanza Community Housing and could find a home on Venice Beach, where breeze meets mind. There, all can be given the right to the city.
Why is the Venice Beach boardwalk in such a state? The answer may be that Venice’s councilperson Mike Bonin has myopic vision of what life by the sea can be, and so do other organizations in the arts blindfolded by triumphant lunch and brunch liberalism. Which bands come play by the sea? No one does anymore. Why is there so much squalor in the end? How has it become a bacchanal for the rich? All are questions that lead to one answer: it’s time for us to meet around the future of the boardwalk.