“I love L.A.!” Randy Newman sang way back in 1983. Except he was speaking for himself. Ask many people about cities in California such as San Fran and Monterey and Santa Barbara, and they’ll rave about them, how wonderful, and how lucky to live there. Visitors reliably repeat-sing their praises. Yet ask about Los Angeles, residents and visitors, and the “eh” comment might squeak out. People don’t fall in love with that sprawling place so easily, including me. But there’s one area of L.A where I would hang out again and again, for the wackiness, the people-watching, and the fish tacos: Venice Beach
My wife, not a native of the U.S., observed after our first visit to L.A. that the area doesn’t seem to have its own culture, a statement that shocked me. Of course it does, along with all the usual tropes, the movie stars and the glamor and the cosmetic surgery and the California rolls at the sushi bar and eating avocados and artichokes and driving (or idling) on endless highways. Sure it has its own culture, but the local norms don’t always come out so easily, because L.A. is largely one extended strip mall. I had to go to the coast to find the extremes.
Venice (or Venice Beach) is the only part of L.A. I like. That’s it. I don’t know the area cold, but everything else I tried there failed. Hollywood sucks, a bait-and-switch destination. The Hollywood Walk of Fame is boring, just a bunch of names on the ground, you can’t visit the famous theatres there, and if you make it to the corner of Hollywood and Vine, you’ll realize there’s nothing. Not that it’s overrated; I mean there is absolutely nothing to see. Rodeo Drive is just high-end shopping, and you can buy your Gucci much closer to home. You won’t spot a movie star.
I don’t why I first went to Venice Beach, but I was hooked immediately. It’s the scene and the people, because it’s just so incredibly different. I want to call it a freak show, in that everyone who is different in L.A. seems to end up here, on display. Anything goes. Come dressed like a coconut, or in nothing but a loincloth, or in an all-magenta outfit, and people may take your photo but no one will judge. Everyone is accepted. I saw people with wild costumes, people with dreadlocks down to the ground, people barely wearing anything, people who wouldn’t fit into any culture possible, and it’s all fine. I’ve never felt so normal and boring, and self-conscious about it.
Venice has a beach, sand and waves just like any other, but the big attraction is the large pedestrian strip between the sand and where the buildings start. It’s sometimes called the boardwalk. Here is where the freak show happens, parading up and down. It’s all types of people just doing some really serious hanging out, and you should join them.
Because of the freaks, you might think the Venice Beach neighborhood is a haven for artists, the counterculture, the social drop-outs, and such. Not so much. It now costs a fortune to live there, especially around the nearby street called Abott Kinney, which GQ magazine called back in 2012, “the coolest block in America“. There’s no artists quarter there; they can’t afford it.
Abott Kinney was in fact the name of the man who dreamed up the concept of Venice. In his history of the development of Venice, author Kevin Starr writes, “Kinney envisioned Venice as an upper-middlebrow Italianate Chautauqua resort for Greater Los Angeles,” but that didn’t work and so Kinney turned the place into a fun get-away. It was his idea to install canals, just like the real Venice, and so he did, but the city of L.A. filled in most of them when it absorbed Venice in the 1920s, and the neighborhood went downhill. In the great tradition of neglected areas everywhere, lots of eclectic people filled the gaps, and starting in the 70s, the area became popular when the pedestrian strip, which was just a bike path at the time, started attracting skateboarders and roller-skaters.
The average rental price of a two-bedroom apartment in Venice Beach in January 2017 is $4,900 a month. There are many reasons for this, but one is that Venice has fought further housing development, ever since the 1960s. The number of housing units hasn’t increased much at all, but the demand surged. The average home value there is now around $1.6 million. Many of them have been slowly converted to hotels over the years, and with the advent of Airbnb, many more of them are unofficial hotels.
The stretch around Abott Kinney was the only semblance of a commercial strip I saw in Venice, besides the beach itself, and it wasn’t much. Because this is L.A., you’ll be driving there. Nobody walks in L.A., as the song goes, and to get around, public transportation takes forever. Cars take forever as well, because traffic is awful. Venice isn’t very convenient to anything else in L.A., except next-door Santa Monica. If you’re driving and want to spend the day there, go mid-morning, after rush hour but before the parking fills up. If you’re going public transportation, try to do trains as much as possible, rather than buses.
Parking lots close to the beach cost about $25; those farther out (public ones) can be much cheaper. Or, just look on the streets for a space, but be absolutely sure they are legal, allowed parking spaces, or your car may vanish.
On my first visit to the area, standing by a Vietnamese restaurant on North Venice Street waiting to cross, I realized I was dressed wholly inappropriately. I was wearing white Sisley trousers, Puma sneakers, and a black tee-shirt. The three people next to me were in tiny loose shorts, flip-flops, and shirts that looked hand-cut from a sack. No sleeves, not much of a neckline, and some were long enough to cover their torso and some not. I was probably more covered than anyone on the strip. This is no place for normal clothes. You can wear anything in Venice, but a large number of people are barely wearing anything.
As it’s a beach, lots of people are just sporting bathing suits. Others just seem to wrap some rags around themselves, and some have very revealing costumes. At one point I saw a drumming circle, about eight guys pounding out rhythms while a woman danced in the center. She was awfully curvy and wearing little besides a mesh bodysuit that didn’t really cover anything up.
If you want the beach itself, you’ll find shacks renting anything you need, chairs, tubes, umbrellas. Other shacks rent bikes, and this can be a good idea. You’ll want to be on foot for a good part of the day, but with a bike you can cover a lot of ground. You also could just park yourself somewhere on the strip, because eventually everyone will pass you, but there are various things going on in different areas.
The most famous part is Muscle Beach, an open-air workout area right off the strip. It’s a gym, with weight equipment geared to body-builders. Only a waist-high fence separates it from the strip, meaning everyone there is on display. It’s been there since 1963 and people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno (the original Incredible Hulk) used to work out here. Today all the participants are well aware that people come right up to the fence to photograph them working out. Some participants will clearly be bodybuilders, some just aspiring. Some will be wearing nothing but a banana hammock or a string bikini. If you want to join them in a workout, a day pass is only $10. Think about it.
But you don’t need sights, a destination. Just walk the strip. Various musicians are standing about, selling CDs and playing their music, some live, some recorded. Some are rap artists. Some are just artists, selling their paintings or other creations, a whole collection spread out. A sand artist was making a sculpture of a mermaid out of sand from the beach, brought over to the strip.
One the strip of grass between the beach and the strip, some corporate event was happening, its nature a mystery to me. The theme had a connection to teen-age girls, but that’s all I could get. People crowded around booths, and my own gain came from some samples. Clif bar was handing out Clif-kids, something like a fruit roll. Vitamin Water was handing out samples of their green tea flavor. “Wouldn’t green-tea flavored water actually become green tea itself?” I asked them. Their resulting stare was not unawkward.
Enough commercial ventures, back to the freak show. Various musicians hawking their CDs would slip headphones onto you and let you listen to their wares. They tried with me, but I have years of experience disappointing people and they left me alone. Most everyone leaves you alone in Venice. People don’t come up to you; you must make your own future.
The only other people who tried to entice me to do anything were the medical marijuana evaluation people, a process I found baffling and thus avoided. In between the palm readers and the massage places, people wearing green scrub outfits encourage you to get a medical marijuana license. For a fee, they’ll evaluate you. All you need is a medical condition like insomnia, and your word is good enough, no medical records needed. By law, a medical exam is needed, which they will do on the spot by looking you up and down and probably taking your pulse. A few minutes later, you’ll be out the door with the official letter of recommendation saying you would benefit from medical marijuana, which you take someplace, perhaps to a real doctor, to get your weed.
Food isn’t a draw in Venice, so don’t expect much. I hang at the Venice Café for legal drugs (beers), where the inside three-sided bar is often packed. Some look like aging Hell’s Angels, others just look like Jimmy Buffet’s best friends. The people next to me are often in their 60s, and I bet they spent last night watching some Grateful Dead tribute band. The place was packed, and everyone was overwhelmingly white, not real normal for L.A. I wanted to drink something local, but the craft beer kick hasn’t hit L.A. as much as some other places in the States. If it was more of a working-class city, they would make their own beer. L.A. probably just makes craft daiquiris instead, so I was drinking Stella. The staff wasn’t beautiful beach people, more like guys in shorts with ragged hats. I fit right in.
Not the best tacos in L.A., by far. But who cares?
There’s plenty of quick take-away fast food such as hot dogs, pizza slices, gyros, and fried things. I generally eat the fish tacos at a very large take-away called Big Daddy’s, in a large blue building where Market Street meets the strip. It’s more of a pizza and burgers joint but they have a few fried seafood items, and if you’re going to eat something fried, it should be spicy as well. I paid something like $8 and was handed a card saying “3 tacos”, to be surrendered at window #4 when it was ready. I walked around the corner to find everyone at window #4.
The shops on the strip are mostly beach paraphernalia, sunglasses and hats and suits and such, but being Venice you’ll also find tattoo joints, Chinese massage places, and lots of smoke shops where you can buy a bong pipe. The shops are fun and not at all serious. Everything is open-front, like it’s a big long market
The canals of Venice make for a nice walk
It’s remarkable that while writing this, I couldn’t think of particular establishments to recommend, besides the second-rate (if that) places where I drank and had fish tacos, but Venice is a destination in itself. Besides the beachfront strip, one could walk along a few of the old canals that are still around, just south of Venice Boulevard, about two blocks inland. The homes there are grand and it’s a nice walk. But the attraction is the strip. It’s the type of place where people don a wild costume and stroll along, for no reason except they can. You don’t need any other reason to go.