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COVER STORY : Venice Has Always Thrived on the Unconventional, but Those Who Make a Living Off the Tourist Trade Say It's Time for . . . : A Renaissance on the Boardwalk

March 03, 1994|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behind Venice Beach's clownish facade are the worry lines of a place fretting about its future.

A severe business slump--the product of recession and new rivals for tourist dollars--has forced desperate souvenir merchants to borrow on their credit cards just to pay the rent. Boardwalk shopkeepers are still struggling to overcome worldwide publicity over gang fighting that prompted police to close the beach one afternoon last spring. And some artists grumble that the carnival air is being lost amid the din of amplified musicians and fly-by-night vendors, who they say have turned the boardwalk's kooky performance strip into an glorified flea market of cheap incense, churros and cut-rate T-shirts. Even the fortunetellers accept credit cards.

"The magic's not really there anymore--people feel it," said Walt Davis, who for five years has drawn caricatures on Ocean Front Walk, as the boardwalk is officially known.

"There's no money down there," said Amani, a former boardwalk stunt performer who gave up last fall and now entertains on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade. "The people who spend money weren't going."

While no one predicts that Venice's year-round street fair will fold up its tent, the malaise has raised the stakes of two important upcoming battles: the shape of a planned $10-million make-over and a bid to more strictly regulate commercial activity along the boardwalk's western seaside edge, which is city-owned parkland.

The proposals are favored by an unusually broad alliance of merchants, landlords and residents. But they are opposed by boardwalk Bohemians and a few others who fear that polishing the area's rough edges could also scrub away the chaotic spirit that brings tourists in the first place.

"If you want to destroy the boardwalk, all you do is regulate it," said a longtime performer known as Jingles, who now promotes vegetarianism from a table on the boardwalk. "Like the American Indians, it'll be the end."

The renovation plan, spearheaded by the Venice Boardwalk Assn. and Venice Action Committee, would refurbish the asphalt boardwalk with brick paving and antique lighting to evoke the turn-of-the-century era when Venice founder Abbot Kinney turned the beach into a West Coast Coney Island.

The groups' proposal, which is before city recreation planners, would also create a series of small performance areas along the edge of the boardwalk and add a new paved beach path for walkers and skaters, who now clog the bicycle path.

The plan calls for the eventual demolition of the idle Venice Pavilion, a former theater whose fate has been bitterly disputed in years past. A group called the Venice Arts Mecca wants to resurrect the dilapidated 33-year-old building as a community artists' bazaar, day-care center and theater.

Recreation and Parks Department officials already plan to spend up to $3.5 million to restore the damaged Venice Pier, which has been closed since 1986.

The refurbishment, to be paid from a $10-million bond issue approved by voters in 1992, will be the focus of a community meeting later this month. A detailed plan is to be sent to the city's Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners in April, and eventually will go to the City Council.

Merchants and officials are also taking aim at the trade that bustles along the seaside edge in defiance of city law banning sales in parks. The law was amended three years ago to exempt political groups and charities. But many consider the measure a failure because artists have been cited by police, while groups claiming to be nonprofit have sold everything from jewelry to candy--competing with nearby stores.

"It's almost like a flea-market setting down there," said Hector Hernandez, the city's chief park ranger. "There's no control."

The boardwalk association wants artists and nonprofits to register with the city before selling merchandise and limit any group to a six-foot space. Performers would not be affected. A multi-agency city task force is looking for ways to clamp down on illegal vending without denying First Amendment rights. It expects to recommend new rules in April.

Jewelry and clothing shop owner Pierre Khoury gestured angrily at a Rastafarian sect member selling T-shirts at a 20-foot-long table across from his shop. "We pay rent. We pay taxes. We pay employees," Khoury said. "We sell T-shirts for $13. He sells them for $5. How can we compete?"

At the table, Hendy Foote folded black-pride shirts and shrugged off the shopkeepers' complaints. He pointed to a nearby booth advocating the legalization of hemp. "We're livening up the corner. If it wasn't for us and the hemp people, this would be a dull, dead corner. We're the reason they're making money."

*

The boardwalk alliance's twin efforts represent the most comprehensive attempt to manage the 1.5-mile strip--which extends from the Santa Monica border south to Washington Boulevard--since the demise of Kinney's Venice of America amusement park in the 1940s.

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