Venice Beach, aging playground Energy: This California remnant of the laid-back 1960s clings to its existence in the bottom-line '90s, fostering the offbeat, celebrating the tacky and diluting the relentless forces of change.


November 13, 1997|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

VENICE BEACH, Calif. -- On this steamy afternoon, Venice is like a city with a hangover.

A sand sculptor grouses at tourists who photograph his work without paying him. The big draw on the boardwalk -- the chain saw juggler -- has vanished. Rumor has it he's moonlighting down the street as Barney the dinosaur. Huba Huba, a veteran performer of the bizarre, absent-mindedly trudges barefoot across broken glass.

Venice Beach -- the heart of let-it-all-hang-out California -- is changing. The hippies are older, the cops tougher and the boardwalk is cracking, leading some to wonder: Has this seedy playground passed its prime?

In its '60s heyday, this mecca for beatniks and flower children promised a never-ending summer of love, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Venice prides itself on being the birthplace of the Doors.

To sand artist Martin Wilson, it's still the place to be. He lights a Marlboro and offers this: "It's paradise, man."

But one man's paradise can be another man's perdition, especially amid this circus. The boardwalk -- not the beach -- is ground zero. A rag-tag strip of shops and businesses, it doubles as stage, sideshow and art gallery. Sword swallowers compete for attention with in-line skaters, tattoo artists, big dogs, little bikinis.

At one end of the boardwalk is Muscle Beach, where men test their strength against steel. At the other is Beach Cam, a video camera that sends photos of Venice to the world via the Internet.

In the middle are psychics using tarot cards, numerology, palms and a laptop computer.

Their voices blend together: "January will be an important time." "Money will be scarce." "You'll be happy and fulfilled."

A homeless man in kimono and army fatigues wanders near, cursing and flailing his arms. "Don't tell me what to do," he screams at the psychics. "Police, police!"

Jeffrey Stanton, an aerospace engineer turned local historian, stops on his bike. He's lived here 25 years and says the homeless have changed -- and changed this place.

"They're angrier than the bums used to be. They fight with people all the time," says Stanton, who's in his 50s.

Rip Cronk, a muralist witnessing the scene, disagrees. "That's a regular event," he says. "People just let him be. That's the beauty of this place. It absorbs him."

Between stints in Zurich, Honolulu and other cities, he has lived here since 1979. "I'm looking for this kind of energy," Cronk says.

That energy often translates into art. One of his most famous murals around town is "Venice Reconstituted," a playful ode to Botticelli featuring local icons: surfers, street performers and cafes. He has added elements to keep pace with changes here, painting in Oakley sunglasses, tarot cards and police in recent years.

This afternoon, he's doing damage assessment, surveying pieces that have been marred by weather, vandals or pigeons. His work has hit the big time -- turning up in movies including "L.A. Story" and "White Men Can't Jump" -- and he prides himself on maintaining these images.

Off in the distance is a favorite -- "Morning Shot," a huge blue mural of a bare-chested Jim Morrison, who lived in a house by one of the canals here.

"I try to do work that represents a broad audience," says Cronk, 50. "As a result people are proud and accept it as part of them."

Many points converge in Venice (population 30,000). Movie stars including Dennis Hopper, Angelica Huston, Dudley Moore and Wesley Snipes have homes here. Artists, gang members, writers, muscle builders and business executives also live in the area.

With so diverse a population, decisions can be slow in coming. For years, Venice has debated how to repave the boardwalk, struggling to reach a consensus in favor of brick, asphalt or concrete.

More controversial has been the Venice Beach pavilion, known locally as the graffiti pit. In late summer an arts group sponsored a graffiti "paint out" after the sunken area had been whitewashed.

Two images -- a policeman depicted as a pig and a seminude woman -- didn't pass muster and have generated community debate over public art and censorship. Local lawyers evoked the Federal Visual Artists Rights Act to try to protect the art.

The works already have been partially graffiti-ed over, but the battle rages on.

To Cronk, the turn of events confirms a long-held belief about this place: Venice has a way of working out its own problems.

More troublesome has been the struggle with crime -- particularly gang- and drug-related violence. Near his home some years ago, says Cronk, a man was killed, but it didn't cause him to rethink living here.

"It's that edge that musicians and artists look for -- where they're close to the abyss and where life is vital," he says. "Those things have meaning here. It's in the learning of who you are."

Stanton, the local historian, says that Venice has taught him some things he didn't want to know about himself.

"I've never been accepted as part of the community," he says. "I don't have the personality to engage people."

So research engages him.

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