This time it’s from my friend, the excellent writer William Fowler, who spent a decade mooching around some of London’s good and not-so-good advertising agencies as a copywriter. For about five years he wrote the Gordon Comstock column in Creative Review. A few years ago he met a girl at a wedding in Mexico, and ended up moving to LA to live with her. It turns out he believes Venice Beach is the most interesting place in the world and he wants to write you an email about it. You can read this week’s here. And if you’d like to sign up, here’s the link.
(For those of you too lazy to even do that, here’s the letter):
People move to Venice because of the ocean, because they like to surf, because they have artistic aspirations or pretentions, or because they’re insane and homeless and the American welfare state has virtually no provision for them. The beach, like almost everything in California, has been artificially expanded. It’s also a national park, which means it’s illegal to camp there at night, but the area is is so vast that moving-on the itinerants who’ve pitched tarps under the palm trees, in any conclusive way, is impossible. Particularly as Venice, doesn’t have city status, and therefore doesn’t have the civic muscle or the proprietary police force that would enable it to carry out the campaign of harassment and eviction that this would entail. And so the boardwalk has become a kind of parade ground of insanity, from meth addiction to florid schizophrenia through PTSD-plus-alcoholism to straight-up, raving mania. There’s also an actual freak show, either a cruel joke at the expense of the beach’s residents, or a tacit acknowledgement of the deep character of the place. I’ve never been inside, but the barker’s patter seems legit: ‘Step right up ladies and gentlemen! See the bearded lady, see the smallest man in America! Marvel at the wolfman! You’ll love our turtle, did I mention he has two heads! Ladies, you’ll love our dog, he has five legs! etc.’ I suppose it’s possible that he’s a reconstructed hipster freak show barker, maybe he got into freak show barking through improv school. You can never be sure.
The boardwalk is also a one-sided shopping street, the Pacific Ocean lapping against Camden Lock, with a similar shit-to-gold ratio. There are a couple of really good coffee shops, a few friendly skate and surf shops, even Small World Books where Geoff Dyer does readings. But by far the majority of these establishments are green doctors, bong shops, Tattoo Parlours and t-shirt printing stalls. You can tell the story of Venice in t-shirt slogans, ‘Venice: Where Art Meets Crime’, changed to ‘Venice: Where Art Meets Meets Eviction’, and then, the latest ‘You Ruined Venice.’
Google bought the old Chiat/Day building, its frontage designed by Frank Gehry to incorporate an enormous pair of binoculars, the irony of which I suspect is lost on them. Buzzfeed have taken a space at one end of the area’s main shopping street, Abbot Kinney, and Vice rent a building at the other end. Snapchat have occupied an entire street two blocks down from here, displacing a homeless charity, an art gallery and a bar. An epic dick manoeuvre that only a 25-year-old billionaire could possibly believe was ok.
The new residents are resented by the old residents, not just because they’re young, well-paid and forcing up the rents, but because they’re nerds. They ride phunkeeducks down the boardwalk and fly quadcopters from the roofs of their offices. For half a century mad hippies have been living on the beach complaining that there are robots in the sky taking their picture. Now there actually are. So were they mad?
Of course, I work for a tech company, so I’m part of the problem. I can see that siliconization is gentrification in its most virulent form. Tech entrepreneurs define themselves as creative, sculptors working in ergonomics and raw capital, and it appeals to their vanity to move in on bohemian areas. It’s hard not to see them as parasites killing the thing on which they feed.
I resented the new colonists of Shepherds Bush – a bunch of Edinburgh graduates who want to turn the whole gaff into a branch of Jamie’s Kitchen – and now I’m resented in just the same way. That’s not to say people aren’t friendly, but I did get drive-by abused by a bunch of surfer bros who shouted ‘fuck you, hipster’ before tearing off in their mini van. Maybe it’s in the nature of the samsara that you eventually get to be the person you dislike most.
But, by-and-large, people don’t judge. Where the median of weirdness is high, you can act very strangely indeed without anyone so much as batting an eyelid. I went out skateboarding on Friday at 10.30 at night, which is maybe an undignified pursuit for a man of my age, but I was passed at speed by a local thalidomide survivor called Gerome AKA “Widget the midget”, who rides around on his belly on a skateboard, using one shortened arm to propel himself down the asphalt, who has a long rap sheet for a range of sexual offences, used to breakdance and allegedly turn tricks behind the pagodas for drug money, who was muttering ‘black cat, black cat, meow meow,’ while he waltzed with a large remote controlled truck, about the same size and same elevation as him, with flashing neon lights and a sound system built into it. I can’t remember what music it was playing, it might have been Kool and the Gang. No one noticed me. No one.
People move to Venice because you can do whatever you want here.
It’s the edge of the world
where the sun sets on the continental 48,
& I remain,