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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Bohemia at the Beach : Venice: Human Tide, Spiritual Currents Are Big Draws for Boardwalk Area Residents

November 03, 1994|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sitting at a table in her oceanfront apartment, Stephanie Fields takes in a post-sundown Venice Boardwalk, the daytime carnival of street performers and vendors long since departed.

A bearded transient swathed in rags floats by ghostlike on in-line skates, pushing a shopping cart full of bags. Puppies, leashes dragging behind them, frolic amid scattered trash as their owners huddle nearby, smoking and talking. Later, a man wearing sunglasses, a beret and a wool poncho struts jauntily by.

"You can see tonight that there is such a contrast between Saturday afternoons and a Friday night," reflects Fields, a four-year resident of the Charlie Chaplin apartment building on Ocean Front Walk, just south of Westminster Avenue. The boardwalk "is interesting to watch. Forget about taking a nap during the day. But in the midst of it all, there is this sense of community . . . and the ocean."

Tourists flock to the Venice boardwalk to see what many consider quintessential California--the sun worshipers and weightlifters, the musicians and the magicians, the basketball hustlers and the hustled, all mixed amid people-watching throngs.

But little noticed in the hubbub are the people who live in the apartment buildings and bungalows that line Ocean Front Walk, a low-rent alternative to the glitzier Santa Monica and Malibu neighborhoods up the coast.

Ranging from young professionals taking their first job to middle-aged new-agers struggling at second careers, they have in many cases set down roots so deep that not even the boardwalk's noise, congestion and increasing crime will drive them out.

"I lived four blocks from the ocean in Playa del Rey and it's a different kind of energy down there," said Fields, 42, an airline flight attendant and postgraduate student. "I came back to Venice with all the artists. . . . Poor people can live next to rich people. White people can live next to black people. It doesn't matter."

Given the diverse, Bohemian flavor, many residents say, Ocean Front Walk's drawbacks are a small price to pay.

"You open the front door and there's music . . . polka, rap and Indian music. You could be talking to somebody about therapy, then the next thing you're talking about praying to Buddha and then you're at a Baptist revival at the church on Brooks (Avenue)," said Robyn Bernard, 33, who shares a tiny single apartment in the Chaplin with fellow country and gospel musician Bobby Paine, 47.

"Living here for a year, it was like the ultimate Venice experience right out your front door," Paine said. "It's a complete cross-section of L.A. . . . It's the human tide and with it, you take the good and bad."

The tolerance of boardwalk residents, however, is not without limits. Two months ago, four sledgehammer-wielding oceanfront residents destroyed several concrete and marble tables at Westminster Avenue and Ocean Front Walk. The tables had become a late-night gathering place for drug dealers, revelers blaring loud music and transients and youths who often came to blows. The racket enraged sleep-deprived residents, who say they felt under siege by a "virus" of "disaffected youth."

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Since the tables were destroyed, Ocean Front Walk has been relatively quiet after dark. Police investigated the destruction of the tables, which were donated to the city by a restaurant owner, but no arrests have been made. Many residents, meanwhile, display a proud defiance about the affair.

"I was ecstatic that the tables were gone," said Fields, who calls all her friends honey . "I should have opened a bottle of champagne."

Linda Albertano, a 10-year resident of the Ocean Front Walk area, said she has felt liberated from fear since the tables were removed.

"I love Venice," she said. "That was really the first time I thought of moving. There was just this disaffected, angry, lost youth--flotsam and jetsam, getting into fisticuffs right outside my window. I used to have a problem with people (urinating) outside my window. But you don't yell anything because you are afraid of retaliation."

For Albertano, however, the benefits of life on the boardwalk more than make up for the hassles. A self-described "spoken word" artist, she lives in a basement apartment in the 20-unit Morrison building--named for the late rock singer Jim Morrison, who reportedly slept on the roof. Her kitchen is filled with herbs, vitamins, tinctures and teas. In her bedroom stands an antique piano, a violin and a floral cloth-draped bed that doubles as a couch. By day, she works out of her apartment as a nutritional counselor.

Albertano considers Venice an artistic community, despite its commercialization.

"It's like Soho West," she said, donning a black and white vintage floral dress. "This is the last slum on the beach, dare I say it."

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