Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown
Venice LA: Westside Meets Seaside
Since its founding 117 years ago this month Venice Los Angeles has always attracted visitors, both from the region and, later, world. Conceived as a Disneyland – before Disneyland existed or had even been conceived – it was a crucial developmental stage between the early amusement parks, like Coney Island, and the huge adventure parks of the mouse kingdom. Indeed, Venice was ahead of its time in that it was always planned as a mixed development, both amusement park AND residential neighborhood. It’s also a great example of Los Angeles’ ability to inspire people to reimagine the world, to reinvent it and create a new reality. Whether you’re visiting Venice LA from elsewhere, or you’re a resident of Socal, there are more than enough things to do in the neighborhood to spend a day – or two – and I’ll give you the full rundown here.
In this guide I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of Venice LA, and then make some recommendations for things to do, historic sites to visit and some places to eat and drink there.
Venice LA History
For untold millennia the Los Angeles River had emptied into the Pacific where Venice is now. The flowing of the waterway through the area had created quite a different landscape to what we see now – and quite different to what many people imagine the natural state of Los Angeles to be. Extensive forests covered the area, made up of sycamore, oak and willow trees, which were also watered by several natural springs that arose in the Hollywood Hills. There were many Tongva villages in the area and they would have played and fished in the river and estuary. However that life was brought to an end when the Spanish arrived and colonised the area at the end of the eighteenth century.
In 1821 two important ranchers of the period, Augustin Machado and Felipe Talamantes, were given permission to graze their cattle on the land, which was named Rancho La Ballona, and in 1839 they were granted the land by the Mexican Government, which had by then gained its independence from Spain.
By that time big changes were afoot that, for once, hadn’t been created by man, but by nature. In 1825 dramatic storms had caused the Los Angeles River to burst its banks where it turned West, South of the Hollywood Hills and Elysian Park, so that it flowed straight down to what’s now Long Beach, the course that it follows to this day. This meant that the old watercourse gradually dried out and the forests and marshland began to disappear. Over the years the old estuary became a tidal lagoon, stretching for miles into what’s now the Westside.
Descendants of Machado and Talamantes owned parcels of land in the Ballona until the end of the nineteenth century. By that point Los Angeles was growing rapidly and Santa Monica had become a seaside resort town for Angelenos and visitors. Meaning that there was increased interest in what was by then what we would now call a tidal wetland (then it was simply a swamp).
Today we recognize the huge ecological value of this kind of eco-system. In those days, not so much. Even more ironically it was a well-known early environmentalist, Abbot Kinney, who ultimately came up with the plan – and financing – to destroy much of those pristine wetlands.
Creation of Venice of America
Abbot Kinney was born in New Jersey, in 1850, as the scion of a wealthy and influential family. He came to Los Angeles in 1880, in order to visit a health resort in the San Gabriel mountains. Apparently, his asthma was cured overnight and so he stayed. Through purchasing a ranch in the mountains near Pasadena he became interested in matters of conservation there, and he was instrumental in establishing what later became the Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains. That in itself is a great legacy, as it encompasses over a thousand square miles. I’ve often hiked there and it’s a wonderful asset for Southern California.
Kinney wasn’t done though, and in the 1890’s his attention turned to the fast-growing resort town of Santa Monica, where he would take the waters in the summer. He developed several tracts in the area before, in 1898, he won a coin-toss and with it full ownership of a substantial portion of the old Rancho Ballona, from his partners. Over the next few years he put his grand plan into action.
Venice of America (as Venice LA was then called) had its grand opening on July 4,1905. Why Venice? Kinney had travelled there in his youth on a walking tour of Europe and fallen in love with its old-world charm. Venice, Italy, was also built in a marsh, so it’s not as crazy an idea as you might think.
However, Kinney gave full range to his imagination with this new-world version of the European classic. There were gondolas, whose gondoliers would serenade passers-by in Italian, a miniature railway to transport visitors around the resort, a racecourse, a huge amusement park and a full-size entertainment pier (like today’s Santa Monica Pier). The architectural style of the larger, brick, buildings was drawn from Venice Italy’s Moorish and Renaissance influences.
The original waterways covered an area much larger than the present Canal Historic District. Ironically the present-day district wasn’t part of the initial development, it was constructed around 1910, as the Venice Canal Subdivision.
Having noted the ecological destruction that resulted from creating Venice, it’s only fair to point out that the development itself would be considered sustainable, in many ways, by today’s standards. Visitors would arrive by train or streetcar from downtown and use the miniature railway, pedestrian paths or gondolas to get around. Residents could keep their own boats for transport. Cars were few and far between in LA in those days and there was no place for them in the masterplan.
In February 1914 a young actor called Charles Chaplin, who’d only arrived in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier, came to the racetrack to shoot a movie called Kid Auto Races at Venice. The five-minute one-reeler was improvised in front of a crowd of actual race spectators. It was the very first appearance of the iconic Tramp character on celluloid and was a huge success, Literally within weeks the producers were being contacted by their theatrical distributors demanding more Chaplin movies and he’d become the first global megastar.
Kinney died in 1920 and then, a few months later, the pier was destroyed in a fire. His son immediately rebuilt it though and other entrepreneurs, like Charles Lick, built their own amusement piers nearby. Venice LA has its busiest years in the mid 1920’s, but by that time there were also major issues with the canals needing repair and the water and sewage systems were starting to fall apart. In 1926 the residents voted to merge with the city of Los Angeles.
Venice LA Changes
Now Los Angeles, which had been no less than fourteen miles away when Venice opened, had reached the sea and the car was becoming ascendant in California. There was a battle between business owners and homeowners about what to do about the canals needing renovation work and the fact that there was no car parking. Ultimately, in 1929, most of the canals were filled, leaving just the six we have today.
As if to remove all evidence of this crime many canal names were changed. Aldebaran Canal became Market Street, Coral Canal turned into Main Street and Venus Canal was renamed San Juan Avenue. Only Grand Canal retained its former name, becoming Grand Avenue. I’ve often wondered if a young filmmaker called George Lucas knew some of this hidden history when he named the planet that is Alderaan, in Star Wars. The streets where the Pacific Electric streetcars ran became, appropriately, Pacific and Electric Streets.
Nevertheless, Venice LA’s watery memory lived on and it’s hard to believe that someone like Walt Disney wouldn’t have visited in the years after he arrived in Los Angeles, in 1926, drawing inspiration from it, while planning his own Disneyland (which opened in 1955).
Just as the era of the Entertainment Park that was Venice was ending a new boom was starting: a black goldrush. In 1929 a large oilfield was discovered beneath it and within a few years there were nearly five hundred oil wells covering the area. By the 1960’s though most of the oil had been extracted and nearly all of the wells have now been capped.
During the 1960’s Venice became an important center of the counter-culture, as it was transforming from the Beat generation of the 1950’s to the anti-Vietnam War Hippie movement. In fact to this day Venice LA has one of the highest percentages of Vietnam Veterans in LA County. It does also have one of the highest percentages for divorced and never-married men and women – so perhaps a good place to hang out if you’re single?
Most visitors to Venice LA head to the boardwalk, and there are a number of things to check out there – Muscle Beach, the skateboard park and hard courts (the official 3×3 basketball games will be played here when the Olympics come to town in 2028) – but there are plenty of other nooks and crannies to explore if you venture off the beaten track.
1. MUSCLE BEACH AND VENICE LA BOARDWALK
The original Muscle Beach opened in 1934, just south of the Santa Monica pier. In many ways it’s the birthplace of the personal fitness movement. From when it opened until well into the 1950’s it was more about acrobatics than what we would consider as pumping weights. Acrobatics were a popular entertainment in nightclubs and circuses, whereas weight training and bodybuilding were considered a freakish, even dangerously unhealthy, activity.
In 1952 a small training area opened a little north of today’s Muscle Beach in Venice LA. Then in 1959 the original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica closed. Muscle Beach arguably reached the peak of its fame in the 1960’s and 70’s, when people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno (who played the Hulk on Television) and Stanley Tookie Williams (co-founder of the Crips Gang) were training there regularly. The present one opened in 1989 and was given the name Muscle Beach Venice, to distinguish it from the original. Day passes are $10-15 per person.
Right behind the boardwalk, on N Venice Boulevard is James Beach, a great local restaurant that turns into a local nightclub after 11 pm. Further into the heart of Venice is Baja Cantina, on Washington Boulevard, a nice neighborhood bar with free chips and salsa and a good in-house Thai restaurant.
2. ABBOT KINNEY BOULEVARD
Renamed in honor of Venice Los Angeles’ founder in 1990 Abbot Kinney is close to a must-see when visiting the area. It has been described as “the coolest street in America” and it definitely has a laidback Westside charm all of its own. Its collection of independent shops, bars and restaurants is really good too (which sports a large MedMen, natch).
3. VENICE CANAL HISTORIC DISTRICT
The only reason these canals still exist is because no one could agree on who should foot the bill for filling them, the owners or the City of Los Angeles! Still, thank God they did survive. Who would have thought that waterfront property could be so valuable? Although it’s also incredible that the streets around here are in such poor condition, it kind of adds to Venice LA’s charm.
4. BINOCULARS BUILDING
One of the famous architect Frank Gehry’s earliest designs that actually made it into bricks and mortar (or more accurately concrete, steel and glass). Designed for a marketing company and opening in 1991, it’s now occupied by Google. The binoculars themselves are a separate artwork, which flanks the parking entrance, and would seem to signify the ability of the company to look ahead.
5. MAIN STREET, SANTA MONICA
Clearly not in Venice itself, but nearby Santa Monica, Main Street is nevertheless only about ten minutes walk North of Abbot Kinney Boulevard, so more than close enough for an inclusion on this list. Like Abbot Kinney there are a lot of independent shops and nice bars and restaurants (pound for pound it’s probably the best part of Santa Monica in which to go out).
6. SANTA MONICA & VENICE BIKE TOUR
Every day at 10 am we have a bike tour of Santa Monica and Venice. It starts in downtown SaMo and takes the beach cycle path down to Venice, where we visit the canals and Abbot Kinney, before returning via Main Street. We might be biased, but it is a fantastic way to see and experience the neighborhood (and we have the reviews to prove it :-).
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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)