Skating Sikh, other artists sue L.A. over crackdown


September 04, 1992|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- The boardwalk on the city's west side community of Venice Beach has had the look of a Medieval fair since the 1960s.

Each weekend, a half-million people go there to eat, shop or be entertained by spiritual healers, fortune tellers, artists, street musicians and performers, making Venice Beach Southern California's second-biggest tourist attraction. Its beach setting and painted walls are often seen in movies like "L.A. Story" that take a humorous look at the city's unconventional side.

But what gives a distinct character to this part of Los Angeles between Santa Monica and the unincorporated area called Marina del Rey may soon be gone. Many artists, musicians and outdoor vendors who have made a living trading in souvenirs or taking donations on the beach's 1 1/2 -mile boardwalk are being told to find another stage.

In May, the Los Angeles police announced that they would step up enforcement of 18-year-old city ordinances that prohibit any unauthorized display of commercial signs or wares or the sale of any merchandise in public areas.

The ordinances ban the vendors outright and bar the artists and performers from advertising or taking money, although they can still perform and tell fortunes in their usual spots along the west side of the boardwalk. The ordinances do not affect the merchants whose shops line the east side of the walkway.

"What's happened, unfortunately, is they're trying to change Venice, to control the west side of Venice," said Harlan Steinberger, a musician who has performed on the boardwalk for the last decade.

Mr. Steinberger recently produced "The Spirit of Venice," a cassette collection of the work of boardwalk musicians, including Ted Hawkins, a blues singer; Dr. Geek, a rapper; Lampopo, a Russian folk-and-roll band, and Harry Perry, a turbaned roller-skating Sikh who plays an electric guitar.

In the last three months, about 50 artists and performers have been arrested and released pending court appearances. But the boardwalk people, including Mr. Steinberger, fought back by organizing a group to oppose the rules, Save the Healers, Artists, Performers and Entertainers, or SHAPE, on constitutional grounds.

In Southern California, only Disneyland outdraws Venice Beach. But the merchants, who pay taxes, fees and stiff rents, have been pressuring the city for years to control the outdoor vendors and performers.

Residents of the area have complained that crowds drawn to the boardwalk clog thoroughfares, slowing emergency vehicles and making life difficult.

A group organized by merchants and residents, the Oceanfront Walk Association, is pushing for even more restrictions, including rules that would require artists and performers to obtain permits and restrict them to certain areas of the boardwalk.

To fight the ordinances and fend off further restriction, SHAPE filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, asserting that the laws violate their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly. The group argues that its members have the right to collect money in public places for what the courts call expressive materials under the protection of the First Amendment.

City officials say they do not intend to rid the boardwalk of the artists, musicians and entertainers whose eclectic spirits define Venice Beach. They say laws that prohibit the sale of merchandise on public beach property are necessary to prevent commercialization of the west side of the boardwalk. And they argue that city vending laws are reasonable.

A date for the trial is expected to be set next month.

While the struggle has continued, changes are already visible on the boardwalk. Tarot readers, fortune tellers and astrologers, who once put up signs with palms and other symbols of their services, now often sit idle and indistinguishable from one another. The displays put out by caricaturists, artists and plate painters have been taken down. And spiritual healers who used to perform ritual massages under public pagodas are scarce.

It isn't clear yet whether tourism has been harmed, but SHAPE says the city has driven a stake through the heart of Venice Beach.

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