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Council Bans Freestyle Vendors in Venice

Boardwalk: Unlicensed dealers say they're being run out.

April 02, 1998|JOHN M. GLIONNA and SUSAN ABRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Ask artist Jackson Collins and he'll tell you: They killed a piece of the Venice Beach boardwalk's fragile free spirit Wednesday, choked off the quirky free enterprise side of its personality that has established the manic oceanside walkway as the region's least conventional tourist attraction.

To Collins, Wednesday was the day Big Business chased away the tiny mom-and-pop trinket sellers, hustled away the mumbling peddlers of tie-dyed shirts and the sometimes homeless purveyors of off-the-wall, only-in-Venice arts and crafts.

In the latest development in the years-long legal wrangling over the rights of Venice Beach vendors, the City Council voted unanimously to ban all unlicensed boardwalk vending, sparing only the constitutionally protected sellers of religious or political tracts. Performance artists who don't sell actual goods, such as jugglers, singers and palm readers, are also exempt from the ordinance.

The new law, signed by Mayor Richard Riordan after the council vote and due to take effect in a month, will allow police to issue citations to people like Collins, a 38-year-old Mississippi artist who asks $60 apiece for his oil paintings of landscapes, entwined lovers and jazz musicians on the lawless west side of the busy boardwalk.

When the ordinance takes effect, Collins will be out of business unless he's willing to rent space along with the legitimate merchants on the east side of the walk, paying rents that can run as high as $1,700 a month. His only other option would be to freelance without pricing his work, asking only for donations.

"This is corporate America trying to take over Venice Beach," Collins said. "They want to make it like any other strip mall, like Redondo Beach or Beverly Hills."

Collins said cities like New York and San Francisco and many throughout Europe encourage artists by making paid permits available, something Los Angeles apparently will not do. Police counter that they have tried to establish a permit system for unlicensed boardwalk vendors, but found that few purchased the licenses.

All along the boardwalk Wednesday, vendors and their customers buzzed about this latest legal crackdown at the Los Angeles beach landmark.

For the last few years, police have stepped back from issuing tickets after a previous city law was successfully challenged in court as being too broad. But after years of legal face-offs, the city is back with a new version of the ordinance it insists offers 1st Amendment protections to religious groups and other causes.

Lynda Racimora, a Northridge resident who purchased a painting from Collins, called the new law absurd.

"There's no way they can get rid of all this," she said. "It's people like this man who make Venice Beach special."

The Human Jukebox agreed. So did the gypsy palm reader, the snake handler and the self-proclaimed world's greatest wino and sex counselor, Clarence Bobby Brown.

"This is one lousy law," said the 60-year-old Brown, a.k.a. "Doctor Kindlove, Sexologist," who expects that his services will be excluded from the new ordinance. "Every time you pass a law, you take away somebody's rights."

He waved a hand across the boardwalk at the stalls of licensed merchants. "And it's all the fault of the greedy land grubbers over there."

Venice Beach merchant Barbara Duffy, who helped spearhead the new law, said she hopes police will clear out unlicensed vendors before the start of the summer tourist season, when local store owners make a majority of their annual profits.

Duffy, who has owned a boardwalk business for 17 years, told council members that high oceanfront rents--which she said were akin to those on Rodeo Drive--made it difficult for merchants to make a living, even without the undercutting efforts of the scofflaw vendors.

On Wednesday, the boardwalk scene was quiet as men in shorts strolled the area bouncing basketballs and the strains of Rasta and rap music wafted from a nearby sales stand.

But come weekends, especially during the summer with the arrival of tens of thousands of tourists, the boardwalk becomes a gold mine for the illegal vendors, who proponents of the law say can make profits of up to $1,000 a day.

"As the weather gets better, the vendors will multiply," Duffy said, vowing that she and other merchants will make citizens arrests if police fail to crack down.

Longtime Santa Monica peace activist Jerry Rubin cautioned the council on its move to ban the fringe-element vendors.

"If we can find a way to save J.J. the whale," he said, "then we can find a way to protect the artists."

Before the council's 13-0 vote, with two members absent, council member Ruth Galanter, whose district includes the boardwalk, told other panel members that the ordinance would finally eliminate the tension between illegal vendors and rent-paying merchants.

That's fine with William Hallett.

Sitting in his patrol car, the Los Angeles police officer welcomes the opportunity to begin ticketing offending vendors once again.

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