I’m hanging out on "Coolest Block in America" – Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach – sitting on the patio deck of a shop that is indicative of the area’s transformation.
TOMS is the first retail branch of a shoe line whose non-profit arm provide shoes to poor children around the world. Customers buy coffee and take it to the patio deck out back to use the free Wi-Fi. In between, they try on shoes safe in the knowledge that their First World commercialism is having an impact in the Third World.
The clientele is very white. As the gentrification of what some now call Silicon Beach continues, the black and brown people who have been in Venice since its inception have been edged out. “The homeless people aren’t even black anymore,” says a friend, who claims the Los Angeles police had a hand in forcing ethnic minorities out by slapping gang injunctions on young people.
I speak to Carol Tantau, the owner of Abbot Kinney jewelry store Just Tantau, about that claim. She has been on the boulevard for 30 years and was instrumental in naming it after the town’s founder. She also works closely with the LA Police Department and serves on the Community Police Advisory Board.
“It’s not quite that much of a conspiracy,” she says. “Gang injunctions have been put in place all over the city. It means that if a person is identified as a gang member it deprives them of certain civil rights. It used to be that if you were at the corner of 6th Street and Broadway it was like McDonald’s for drugs. They would give you car service.”
Carol tells me that if a known gang member went to jail, came out and lived with their family in public housing but continued engaging in illegal activity, the family would be evicted. “Because you can’t be a criminal and get government-subsidized housing,” she says.
It is a draconian measure that produces a shocking chain of events, even if the original intent was to rid the streets of the drugs and gang violence that marred so many US cities in the 1980s and ’90s.
The other reason the area is becoming more gentrified? Many African-American and Hispanic homeowners are tempted by money in a town where in 2012 the average house sold for $1.3 million. “They don’t want the house,” Carol says about the new property owners. “They want the dirt. They want to build their own house on it.”
It seems that Venice has fallen victim to the gentrification virus that has hit many poorer neighborhoods, such as Brooklyn in New York and Hackney in the East End of London, UK.
In come crime-fighting initiatives and urban regeneration, house prices soar and, eventually, out go ethnic minorities and the poorer classes. I always fear the new wave of inhabitants will sanitize the area and make it a seamless, homogenous entity devoid of all color or culture.
My only hope is that as more companies clamor to invest in Venice Beach, they do not iron out the quirks and idiosyncrasies that have long made it charming. I also hope that the beanie and flip-flop wearing hipsters are just passing through and when another another becomes cool, they will be gone. Whether that is just wishful thinking remains to be seen.