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

Matthew Jaffe

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

But such sentiments were heard around this beach enclave whenJulia Roberts bought a Craftsman house on a quiet Venice sidestreet. It was probably nothing personal against Roberts. It's justthat Venice ― arty, iconoclastic, diverse, and increasinglypricey ― tends to be protective of anything that mightfinally throw off its precarious balance of funky and swanky.

And yet, for the casual, noncelebrity explorer, Venice has neverlooked better. Abbot Kinney Boulevard has grown into Los Angeles'best main street. Even the ever-anarchic Venice Boardwalk hasundergone a major renovation, adding a beachside sculpture park,sidewalk art, and improved lighting.

Mary Goodfader has seen a lot of changes around the boardwalkduring her 30 years as owner of the Sidewalk Cafe and Small WorldBooks. When Goodfader and her husband first bought and refurbishedone of Venice's original buildings, the boardwalk was moribund,barely resembling today's bazaarlike strip. Now it's SouthernCalifornia's second-biggest tourist attraction afterDisneyland.

Overall, Goodfader is considerably more sanguine about Venice'songoing evolution. "I've lived here since 1974, and no one canconvince me that Venice is changing quickly," she says. "But a lotof 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 annualVenice Art Walk shows off the city's vibrant cultural scene.

A haven for skateboarders and artlovers

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

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

That honky-tonk Venice was in decline by the postwar years, butfrom that squalor the Venice we know today emerged. Affordablerents lured a counterculture crowd. Venice became a center forSouthern California's rising art scene. By 1975, when L.A. LouverGallery owner Peter Goulds was looking for a store location, Venicewas the place to be.

"I had limited means, very little experience, and plenty ofopinions," Goulds recalls. "Budget entered into the decision. Butmore important, Venice was where virtually every artist lived orworked. There was a definite spirit here." Today L.A. Louver is aninternationally known contemporary gallery and Venice is synonymouswith Southern California art.

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

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

"People wander in wearing beachwear and with sandy feet," saysElizabeth East of L.A. Louver. "Then there are people from theother side of the world who make the gallery a destination and setan appointment to see it. There are still plenty of extremes aroundVenice."

Boulevarding, Venice style

The Venice Boardwalk is well known among tourists. But localsknow that Venice has a real main street, though it's not theofficial Main Street that Venice shares with neighboring SantaMonica. The city's true heart is Abbot Kinney Boulevard. The streetruns on a sharp diagonal against the urban grid, a geographicmetaphor for Venice's against-the-grain ways. It blends strikingmodern buildings with storefronts that date to Venice's founding.With its restaurants and boutiques, Abbot Kinney has grown from apurely local street into a destination― without losing itsindependent ways.

For example, those who frequent Abbot Kinney Boulevard speakwith pride about their lack of Starbucks and the preeminence of theneighborhood cafe, Abbot's Habit. On any nice day, its tables are crowded withlocals and the most prominent canine contingent this side ofParisian cafes. The street is a paradise for interior design, withmany examples of midcentury modern decor. Stores tend to be bothstriking and understated― such as Pearce, with its minimalist white walls and elegantly carvedwood and stone sculptures. Down the street, at the florist and giftshop Scentiments, shoppers browse for tea sets and sushi dishesin an atmosphere perfumed by fresh flowers and warmed by themultiple hues of modernist-influenced glassware, aglow in thesunlight streaming through the front windows.

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

Abbot Kinney Boulevard's eclecticism, like that of Veniceitself, defies easy categorization. But one JuliaRoberts-in-training on her mobile phone came reasonably close, asshe looked around the boulevard and declared to her caller, herslang skipping across the decades, "It's all good here. Relaxed andgroovy."

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