Venice Beach, an Italian dream in California

4 September 2017

By reproducing the architecture of Venice south of Los Angeles, Abbot Kinney wanted to marry real estate, culture and amusement park. A century later, the neighborhood changed.

The birth of a city sometimes does not mean much. Venice Beach would not have been born without a snowstorm preventing Abbot Kinney from leaving San Francisco to reach the East Coast in 1880. This millionaire who made a fortune in tobacco took the opportunity to descend to Los Angeles and appreciated so much climate of the region that it bought a strip of land of 2.5 kilometers along the Pacific Ocean. At the southern end are swampy marsh lands that Abbot Kinney decides to "turn into gold by building an American Venice," says Arnold Springer, a historian at California State University Long Beach. He wanted to create on the West Coast an equivalent of the seaside "resorts" then fashionable on the East Coast, like Coney Island and Atlantic City.

At the heart of the project is a system of canals inspired by the Italian city, on which sail gondolas imported from Venice, but also a jetty offering dozens of attractions, from roller coasters to whirling dervishes to swimming pools, whose manager ignites before throwing himself into the water. The city attracted 40,000 visitors at its inauguration in 1905 and 355 cottages are sold in two hours.

A very creative past

The promoter is inspired by the architectural current "Beautiful City, born at the end of the 19th century with rural exodus, who believes that" cities can stimulate virtuous behavior through architecture based on the notion of order, attention to public spaces and borrowing from old European styles, "says Arnold Springer. The developer asked two architects to build buildings in the Renaissance style and persuaded the traders to choose facades in harmony with this style.

The Chautauqua, an adult education movement in vogue at the time, also influenced in its decision to build an auditorium of 3,600 seats to host the Venice Assembly, a kind of popular university or hold Italian operas also although meetings of suffragettes. But the experience runs short, vacationers prefer to have fun at the edge of the ocean rather than shut themselves up in an amphitheater.

The dream of Abbot Kinney died after his death: the Los Angeles Municipality annexed the neighborhood in 1929 and blocked the majority of canals to build roads. The discovery of an oil field is also pushing people to move, and the arrival of entertainment such as radio and cinema makes the outlet at the water's edge less attractive.

But the original vision of Abbot Kinney - a romantic and nostalgic community with an alternative lifestyle - has not completely disappeared. In the 1960s, the neighborhood became "one of the highlights of the Beat Generation, with Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York, hosting the poet Allen Ginsberg and the rock band The Doors," says Ira Koslow, the president of the neighborhood council. Venice then became the cradle of other subcultures, such as bodybuilding, rollerblading and skateboarding.

This very creative past attracts today the stars of the tech. Google has expanded its presence in the neighborhood since 2011, but it is mostly Snap who is accused of accelerating gentrification by installing its head office. As a symbol of these tensions, the start-up of ephemeral videos has recently been pointed at the curiosity cabinet Venice Beach Freakshow, an emblem of the "weird" culture located on the waterfront.

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