Jeffrey Solomon runs Venice Beach Walking Tours. After starting his day watching dolphins swim outside his beachfront home, he takes a minimum of two visitors on tours that can last anywhere from two to seven hours, depending on the clients.
I am on my own, so he won’t take me on a tour of Venice. Instead, he agrees to meet me at Café Gratitude. Part of a California chain, it is a restaurant on Rose Avenue serving organic, vegan food. It is a true hotspot – the jewel in the crown on a street that used to be Abbot Kinney’s shabby neighbor, but on which expensive condos, chic boutiques and trendy bars have sprung up in the past couple of years.
This area of development runs around 12 blocks between Pacific Avenue (where the well-known landmark of a clown with a five o’clock shadow wearing a tutu hangs over a pharmacy) and Lincoln Boulevard, the main road that connects neighboring Santa Monica to Los Angeles International Airport.
Jeffrey is running late and I feel out of place as I wait for him. Everyone who walks by seems to be yoga-toned, manicured and impeccably groomed. The rough edges and anything-goes vibe seem to have been smoothed away. I swear it is not because I have gotten older and put on some weight. Something has changed.
“I am Fabulous and she is Magical,” Jeffrey tells the waitress taking our order, shortly after he arrives. He is reading off the Café Gratitude menu, where positive affirmations are used to name the dishes. “Fabulous” he is disappointed to learn, is no longer available so he opts for “I am Mahalo” instead. Mahalo is the Hawaiian word for thankful and Jeffrey is later presented with a raw deep dish Hawaiian pizza of pineapple, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, avocado and cashew mozzarella on a bed of dehydrated onion sunflower crust.
I munch on a veggie burger and salad as he tells me about the history of the town we both call home. Born in 1850, Abbot Kinney was originally from New Jersey on the east coast of America. A partner with his sibling Francis in the Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company, he made his home in Southern California by accident. In 1880, after a business trip abroad, the asthmatic docked in San Francisco with the intention of taking a train southeast to Florida to rest at a health spa. Heavy snowfall in the High Sierra Mountains scuppered that plan but he found he preferred Southern California’s warm climate instead.
A few years later he sold back his shares in the tobacco company to his brother and started land speculating. By now a summer-time Santa Monica Bay resident, he formed a land development partnership with a man called Francis Ryan. It was with the sudden death of Ryan in 1898 – and the subsequent sale of the deceased’s shares to four other men – that Venice was born.
“His partner's wife married somebody else – who he hated,” Jeffrey says. “They didn’t get along. So finally Abbot Kinney said: ‘OK, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. We can’t be partners anymore. We’ll flip a coin and the winner gets everything north of Ocean Park and the loser takes all this s***’. They flipped the coin. Abbot Kinney won the toss and gave them everything north of Ocean Park. The rest was like a swampland.”
Inspired by Venice in Italy, he set about developing the area and built canals, real estate and a pier featuring an auditorium for concerts and art exhibitions. Unfortunately for Kinney, the locals were less interested in his cultural aspirations and more attracted to features such as the gondoliers, camel rides and miniature railroad jaunts. “This was not supposed to be an amusement park,” Jeffrey says. “It was supposed to be a culture center like Venice, Italy, but we were a bunch of hokies and we screwed everything up.”
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