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The Mixed-Use Concept of Zoning was Abandoned Amid the Post-World War II Explosion of the Suburbs. But as People Once Again Strive for a Shared Sense of Community, Abbot Kinney Boulevard Has Become an Eclectic Model for the Rest of Los Angeles. In the process, the Revitalized Neighborhood Also Has Become a Symbol of a . . . : Renaissance in Venice

February 25, 1997|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Lianne Gold, 38, saw a crack dealer plying his trade in front of her Abbot Kinney Boulevard home in Venice, she did not call the police. Rather, she rushed out, by herself, at 11 p.m, incensed that the culprit invaded her neighborhood.

"I told him to leave," recalls Gold. "I didn't ask; you don't ask people like that. You raise your voice and shout at them, and that's what I did."

Leave he did, never to return--despite the fact that a mere block away, gangs trade gunfire and drugs.

The tale is significant because it speaks to a trend beginning to sweep Los Angeles--a revitalization of neighborhoods based on siting homes, small businesses and community areas side by side. In its most traditional form, the merchant or artist often lives behind or within walking distance of his or her business.

This mixed-use concept was abandoned amid the post-World War II explosion of the suburbs, with zoning regulations segregating businesses and residences. Thus, throughout much of the country, bustling downtown areas often became no man's lands after hours, while residential areas had whole blocks that were virtually deserted during work hours. All of this brought longer commutes, anonymous neighborhoods and a rising fear of crime.

Which is why the fate of Venice's Abbot Kinney Boulevard is so important.

Abbot Kinney founded Venice in the early 1900s as an idiosyncratic seaside resort modeled on its Italian namesake, providing relaxation for the city's weary masses. Even as the city of Los Angeles subsequently absorbed Venice, however, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which is just east of its well-known canals, escaped largely unnoticed, keeping intact Venice's small-town traditions.

Four years ago, after decades of regulating against mixed-use occupancy, the city once more legitimized the concept. And over the next decade, mixed-use projects will grow to encompass more than 5% of all Los Angeles residents, says city planning director Con Howe.

Abbot Kinney Boulevard, with its long head start, is an important, if eclectic, model for the rest of Los Angeles.

Ask the people on Abbot Kinney Boulevard why they are there, and the answer, in differing words, is invariably the same: quality of life.

Thus, Richard Schiffer, 30, co-owner of Abbot's Pizza, says he not only knows his customers on a first-name basis, "I know beforehand the kind of slice they're going to order."

During slow periods, brother Tom Schiffer, 27, says, he likes "to b.s. for an hour or two with customers over a slice of pizza. We encourage it here."

A recent conversation ranged from the future of religion to whether the grunge look is Generation X's attempt to rediscover 1960s hippie ideals. Tom punctuated the first topic by rolling up his sleeve to display an entire biblical verse tattooed on his arm--in Hebrew.

In short, the pizza shop doubles as a sort of Athenian forum. And partially because of this, the brothers know not only their customers' personalities, but also those of their dogs.

Nearly everyone on the boulevard seems to have a dog, but the best-known one--the leader of the pack, if you will--is Sonny, a massive mongrel owned by the proprietor of a nearby coffee shop. Sonny likes to roam the boulevard unleashed, a virtual one-dog Neighborhood Watch.

On most mornings, Sonny shows up at the pizzeria's front door, where he listens as Tom tells him to go around back. There, Sonny finds his reward: a few slices of pizza--and not just the plain cheese variety. Sonny has his preferences, and his favorite, says Tom, is pepperoni pizza.

Why does Tom feed him? "I've known Sonny for a couple of years now, and we're friends," replies Tom.

A few doors down, Michael Stern, 27, assistant manager of Abbot's Habit coffee shop, is shaking his head at how the once-respectable neighborhood in which he grew up is going down the tubes. His views are not standard Chamber of Commerce stuff.

One of his favorite hangouts, says Stern, used to be the nearby canals. But now, he says, "They fixed the canals. And they ruined them."

In the good old days, "the canals were like old buildings; they had character." But now, he laments, "They're just sterile," engineered merely "to boost property values."

Stern relates all this while taking an order for a sandwich, as the customer--another local resident--sidles over to the kitchen to watch his sandwich being prepared.

Several doors down lives Carol Tantau-Smith, 51, president of the Venice Chamber of Commerce and co-owner for 14 years of a gift shop specializing in handcrafted items. Walk in and you'll find a store downstairs, a loft office above, and a two-story residence in back. The residence boasts a baby grand piano, allowing Tantau-Smith to practice her Beethoven while watching her customers shop from behind a one-way mirror.

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