Abbot Kinney, an eccentric visionary, built the city of Venice upon a mosquito-ridden swamp on the edge of the Pacific in 1904, envisioning the rise of a new American cultural center. Instead, his Venice became known as a carny town, a home for dreamers and hard cases, a reputation that spurred sportsmen, pleasure seekers and artists to migrate there. During World War I, Kinney campaigned to have a deep-water naval harbor built at the southern end of his city to provide coastal protection against enemy U-boat attacks. At the same time, Los Angeles clergy, temperance leaders and editorialists were waging a war to close Venice's saloons and other allurements. Nearly 50 years after Kinney's harbor plan was first broached, Marina del Rey was opened on the site as home to 6,000 small pleasure craft. The passage of time has brought new buildings and new faces; few physical vestiges of those old days remain. In Venice and Marina del Rey, though, there's still room for individual vision.
Long, dawn-light shadows follow tiny shore birds as they dash away from the rush of water after each wave crashes on a deserted Venice beach. Fifteen yards from shore, Ed Perry holds back the 21-foot dory for a moment and waits for a steep wave to crash. He then pushes on the oars, propelling the wooden vessel through white foam before the next wave crashes toward the shore.
The retired merchant seaman and lifeguard, who was born in Venice 71 years ago, took his first small boat through the surf 60 years ago. He still rows 6 to 10 miles each morning. "We've flipped. We've taken dangerous spills," says Perry. "You don't go through the surf in one of these boats 365 times a year without having problems. I don't care who you are." He's also encountered whales that grazed the dory's keel--"if he flipped his tail I would have landed in Catalina"--and schools of dolphins that playfully followed the boat for miles. "The ocean," he says, "keeps me young."
Rain dances loudly on the roof as Robert and Shirley Weinstein's home bobs about in the stormy Southern California night. That rhythmic movement has been a fact of life for the 10 years that the couple has lived in the customized 46-foot houseboat moored in the harbor directly behind the palm-tree-lined white facade of the Marina del Rey Hotel.
The Weinsteins' fondness for the live-aboard life style is tempered by occasional drawbacks. Once they returned home to discover that a water line had burst. Three inches of water covered the bedroom deck, and the bilge pump was struggling to keep that level from rising. "That's one disadvantage," Robert says. "If you have a plumbing problem in a regular home, at least it won't sink."
But you can't ferry a bungalow across the harbor channel to tie up for dinner at one of the many Marina restaurants, or move it for a spur-of-the-moment visit to Santa Catalina Island. "It's a fantasy," Robert says.
Near the intersection of Windward and Pacific avenues, where column-lined arcades mark the heart of old Venice, the small produce market is packed. A bulky weightlifter stands in the check-out line in front of two elderly Mexican women; behind them is a bearded man with a motorcycle tattoo on his neck; there's a businessman in a suit and tie; a black youth on roller skates; a nurse, and a long-legged dancer in leotards.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. We have a dress code here," the checker admonishes the woman at the head of the line. She is wearing an ordinary dress. "You don't scare me," she retorts playfully. "I took a nap. I'm ready for you."
The checker is Niles Brewster, a 50-year-old actor who started working in produce while breaking into acting. Now, after considerable acting success, he continues to operate the cash register at Venice's Windward Farms market, supplying a steady stream of comments and questions to each patron. There's talk about the beach, personal struggles, business successes.
"A lot of people see us as a constant point, a place for touching base," Brewster explains. "Through the levity, perhaps we can dilute their problems. Despite the glitter of the post cards, in Venice there are a lot of people searching for a natural way of life."
An orange forklift positions two long bars, and three men begin to move an inventory of concrete castings, following the sculptor's animated instructions. Moving with the practiced coordination of dancers, the assistants serve as human clamps until the sculptor feels right about the concrete composition.
"I think that sculpture is more difficult than painting," Guy Dill says. "You don't even have a canvas to start with."
An internationally respected sculptor, Dill has lived and worked in Venice for nearly 15 years. "I grew up on the beach," he recalls. "Venice had cheap space and good weather. I could see no point in living in Los Angeles."