[The approach to Memorial Day weekend means many things—some of them far more serious, as I’ll get to in next week’s series—but one of them is most definitely the beach. Whatever this summer looks like for all of us, I sure hope it can include some beach trips, so to prime that pump here’s a series on the histories and stories of American beaches!]
[Jamie Hirami is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the amazing Penn State Harrisburg program, where she’s writing a dissertation on Venice Beach which promises to break significantly new ground in American material culture and cultural studies. This Guest Post is just a glimpse of what’s to come!]
Freak Beach. Muscle Beach. Silicon Beach. Coney Island of the Pacific. Slum by the Sea. Venice Beach, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, goes by many monikers. None of those nicknames reference the original plan that founder Abbot Kinney, heir to a tobacco fortune, envisioned in 1898 when he bought out his real estate partners for the southern portion land that also originally encompassed Santa Monica: a resplendent, middle-class seaside resort and town, which would cater to its clientele with Chautauqua’s and other elements of high culture. Ultimately, mass and popular cultures shaped its direction as an amusement destination while the counter cultures of the mid-twentieth century influenced its modern reputation as bohemian community.
Modeled after Venice, Italy, Kinney transformed the marshy land into a series of navigable canals along which, early visitors could buy real estate for single-family home development. Venice-of-America officially opened on July 4, 1905 to a crowd of about 40,000 people. Kinney’s grand cultural intentions culminated in a 3,400 seat auditorium built for educational lectures and cultural performances, which closed after one season. Instead, visitors flocked to the pier, bathhouse, beach and other amusements. In fact, rides and games proved to be so much more popular than the Chautauqua experience, that in January 1906, he opened the hugely popular midway plaisance, which included exhibits and freak shows from the world’s fairs in Portland and St. Louis.
By the time Kinney died in October 1920, Venice’s original luster had greatly diminished. The canals did not drain properly, creating murky and dirty waterways, and the national trend for boardwalk amusements, in general, faded. Years of opposition by the growing permanent residents and clergy to boxing matches, alcohol, dancing, and more sordid amusements was capped by a hugely destructive fire that caused over a $1 million in damages. In 1925, the City of Los Angeles annexed Venice, filling its famous canals in 1929 to make room for roads.
Over the next forty years, Venice remained an outwardly run-down version of its former self, but in its place, a vibrant counter-culture fomented cultural growth. It became a Southern California hotbed for the Beats; a hippie commune during the Sixties; and it embraced transients, hustlers, artists, and performers.
Today, Venice’s increasingly gentrified neighborhoods have put homeless and homeowners, hustlers and shop-owners, and low-income versus high-income residents at odds, but it still maintains a fierce stance against the mainstream. In 2007, Abbot Kinney Blvd. (the main commercial thoroughfare) opened its first chain store—Pinkberry—causing an uproar among residents and local shop owners who petitioned people to boycott the chain. Three years later, it closed because it was underperforming. More importantly, Venice still maintains ties to its popular culture beginnings with numerous sidewalk performers, a freak show along the boardwalk, and a voyeuristic outdoor gym among other diversions. Venice Beach, through its varied history, remains, at heart, a destination that caters to popular amusements.
[Next BeachStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other beach histories or stories you’d highlight?]