It's all good in Venice

Southern California's funky-swanky beachtown has never looked better

Matthew Jaffe

Venice may be the only community in Southern California where an Oscar-winning, $20-million-a-picture actress moves in and the reaction on the street is, "There goes the neighborhood."

But such sentiments were heard around this beach enclave when Julia Roberts bought a Craftsman house on a quiet Venice side street. It was probably nothing personal against Roberts. It's just that Venice ― arty, iconoclastic, diverse, and increasingly pricey ― tends to be protective of anything that might finally throw off its precarious balance of funky and swanky.

And yet, for the casual, noncelebrity explorer, Venice has never looked better. Abbot Kinney Boulevard has grown into Los Angeles' best main street. Even the ever-anarchic Venice Boardwalk has undergone a major renovation, adding a beachside sculpture park, sidewalk art, and improved lighting.

Mary Goodfader has seen a lot of changes around the boardwalk during her 30 years as owner of the Sidewalk Cafe and Small World Books. When Goodfader and her husband first bought and refurbished one of Venice's original buildings, the boardwalk was moribund, barely resembling today's bazaarlike strip. Now it's Southern California's second-biggest tourist attraction after Disneyland.

Overall, Goodfader is considerably more sanguine about Venice's ongoing evolution. "I've lived here since 1974, and no one can convince me that Venice is changing quickly," she says. "But a lot of people don't want Venice to change at all."

May is a great time to visit this changeless changing city. There's good weather, smaller crowds than in summer, and the annual Venice Art Walk shows off the city's vibrant cultural scene.

A haven for skateboarders and art lovers

Venice's founder, tobacco magnate Abbot Kinney, envisioned the canal-crossed community as a combination resort, planned suburb, and center for high culture ― Disneyland, Irvine, and the Getty Center rolled into one. That's not quite how it went.

"Venice started out with gondolas and canals and tried every sort of scheme to get people to settle there," according to a 1948 book chronicling the area's history. "Highbrow lectures didn't work, so they brought Sarah Bernhardt to do Camille. That didn't work, either, so they stocked up with convex mirrors and bearded women."

That honky-tonk Venice was in decline by the postwar years, but from that squalor the Venice we know today emerged. Affordable rents lured a counterculture crowd. Venice became a center for Southern California's rising art scene. By 1975, when L.A. Louver Gallery owner Peter Goulds was looking for a store location, Venice was the place to be.

"I had limited means, very little experience, and plenty of opinions," Goulds recalls. "Budget entered into the decision. But more important, Venice was where virtually every artist lived or worked. There was a definite spirit here." Today L.A. Louver is an internationally known contemporary gallery and Venice is synonymous with Southern California art.

For much of the year, the inner workings of the art community aren't all that obvious to visitors. But each May, the Venice Family Clinic's Venice Art Walk, a self-guided tour of studios and homes, reveals the number of artists working in private bungalows, lofts, and industrial spaces― each studio like a three-dimensional still life of its artist's world.

Walking through Venice's studios and galleries, you sense that at least part of Kinney's vision was finally realized.

"People wander in wearing beachwear and with sandy feet," says Elizabeth East of L.A. Louver. "Then there are people from the other side of the world who make the gallery a destination and set an appointment to see it. There are still plenty of extremes around Venice."

Boulevarding, Venice style

The Venice Boardwalk is well known among tourists. But locals know that Venice has a real main street, though it's not the official Main Street that Venice shares with neighboring Santa Monica. The city's true heart is Abbot Kinney Boulevard. The street runs on a sharp diagonal against the urban grid, a geographic metaphor for Venice's against-the-grain ways. It blends striking modern buildings with storefronts that date to Venice's founding. With its restaurants and boutiques, Abbot Kinney has grown from a purely local street into a destination― without losing its independent ways.

For example, those who frequent Abbot Kinney Boulevard speak with pride about their lack of Starbucks and the preeminence of the neighborhood cafe, Abbot's Habit. On any nice day, its tables are crowded with locals and the most prominent canine contingent this side of Parisian cafes. The street is a paradise for interior design, with many examples of midcentury modern decor. Stores tend to be both striking and understated― such as Pearce, with its minimalist white walls and elegantly carved wood and stone sculptures. Down the street, at the florist and gift shop Scentiments, shoppers browse for tea sets and sushi dishes in an atmosphere perfumed by fresh flowers and warmed by the multiple hues of modernist-influenced glassware, aglow in the sunlight streaming through the front windows.

Maybe it's the breeze coming off the nearby Pacific, but Abbot Kinney Boulevard lacks the haughtiness of some more renowned Southern California shopping destinations. At Double Vision, which eschews the midcentury label for a more encompassing "just good design," the owners can advise patrons on art that ranges from French school posters to postwar paintings. And it's safe to say that Abbot Kinney Boulevard is the only place where, at a single store, you can buy a skateboard and an Eames chair (the company's main studio was once on the boulevard), then cross the street and pick up an original 1955 Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki movie poster.

Abbot Kinney Boulevard's eclecticism, like that of Venice itself, defies easy categorization. But one Julia Roberts-in-training on her mobile phone came reasonably close, as she looked around the boulevard and declared to her caller, her slang skipping across the decades, "It's all good here. Relaxed and groovy."