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A Line in the Sand : Tensions Persist Between Venice Boardwalk Merchants and Unlicensed Vendors

November 27, 1992|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just beneath the Venice boardwalk's usual perfume of incense and white sage hangs an unmistakable whiff of unease.

The summertime police crackdown on performers, artists and self-proclaimed healers who collect donations for their work has given way to an anxious autumn truce. City officials are pondering exactly how to preserve the carnival feel of one of Southern California's biggest tourist attractions and at the same time protect merchants nearby who fear they are losing business to growing numbers of unlicensed vendors.

"It's just going to get worse as the Christmas season comes. There are people out there selling things that compete directly," said Steve Heumann, manager of a firm that owns the boardwalk's Sidewalk Cafe and two lots occupied by licensed open-air vendors.

Heumann and other merchants say something must be done to curb commercialization of the western side of the mile-long Ocean Front Walk, which is public land. There, alongside Tarot card readers and spray-paint artists, entrepreneurs sometimes hawk T-shirts and incense only feet away from recession-plagued vendors on the private east side who complain that they have to pay the overhead of taxes, permits and rent.

"We don't have a problem with people out there doing their thing. We like it," Heumann said, acknowledging that merchants depend on the millions of curiosity-seekers lured to the anything-goes street show. "(Merchants) just don't like people competing directly across from them."

On weekends, the boardwalk is a noisy bazaar and a crazy street stage for anyone with an act and a collection bucket.

Along the long stretch just north of the famed Muscle Beach outdoor gym, blues singers compete for attention with chain-saw jugglers while a legion of bored-looking Tarot card readers wait for customers at their card tables. Standing on a lonely patch of grass a man wearing a bikini and devil's horns stumbles through "Love Potion No. 9" with his partner, a woman in a glittery Cleopatra wig and grass skirt.

The competition isn't limited to the performers. The private east side is a long string of open stalls and small shops--offering a seemingly unending supply of sunglasses and Venice Beach T-shirts. Here you can get a massage in the same place you buy bracelets, or pick up a stick of incense where you get your ears pierced.

On the public west side, mixed in among the performers, huddles of tourists watch as astral-scene posters materialize from the spray of paint cans while a Rastafarian named Hendy minds a table covered with Malcolm X T-shirts. Everyone from New Agers to Scientologists peddle their books.

Here outright sales are forbidden, but the line between peddling and accepting donations gets blurry. A woman selling spray-painted posters told a reporter the works were probably worth a $10 donation, but when an interested customer approached she quoted a price of $25.

Police have quietly backed away from stepped-up enforcement of city laws banning the advertising and sales of anything but newspapers and magazines at the beach. Over the summer, police issued more than 50 citations to healers, fortune tellers, painters and performers for advertising and taking donations for their work, though most of the charges were dropped.

The crackdown, which police officials said came in response to complaints from the licensed merchants, angered the community of free-lance artists and performers and prompted a federal lawsuit claiming the laws violate the constitutional right to free expression in public spaces. Civil liberties lawyers for some of the cited artists and the group Save the Healers, Artists, Politicos and Entertainers (SHAPE) are planning a second federal suit and a parallel challenge to the city laws in state court.

Partially in response to the controversy, the city's parks chief said the Department of Recreation and Parks plans a broad review of boardwalk uses early next year. The department may seek suggestions on how to regulate the public side of the boardwalk if any changes are thought to be necessary, said general manager Jackie Tatum.

Though those who favor tighter regulation along the boardwalk say they have no desire to wipe out the daily street show, SHAPE leader Jerry Rubin and supporters argue that any new restrictions are just the first step toward erasing Venice Beach's longtime role as a town square for the counterculture--and a lucrative tourist trap.

"If you take all this away, they lose all that," said self-proclaimed healer Demetrius Tahmin, pointing toward T-shirt stalls across the boardwalk.

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