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Venice Turns 100, but Not Without a Fight

The centennial was seen as a way to unite the community's disparate elements. Instead, multiple fetes are planned.

June 24, 2005|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Built on a whim by a fantastical dreamer, Venice turns 100 on July 4 -- minus its original canals but with its pop-cultural zest intact.

A summer-long celebration will kick off near the boardwalk Saturday with an amped-up Carnevale featuring costumed revelers, music and abstract showpieces from Venice's crowded stable of resident artists.

Given the coastal community's dynamic beginnings and chaotic history -- a mere 50 years ago, the place was called "the sewer by the sea" -- it won't come as a surprise that the celebration has engendered controversy.

What is surprising is that Venetian activists, notorious for not playing well with others, managed to pull together to light the birthday candles.

One could say that the Venice centennial committee has accomplished its task in spite of itself. So varied were panel members' visions and so contentious their dealings that some participants dropped out to organize their own events or just plain dropped out.

"Venice is a community made up of severe individuals," said Tom Wright, an actor who, with little help from the centennial panel, has co-planned a July 9 surfing contest at the Venice breakwater. "When you have a community of severe individuals ... it's extremely hard to find a middle ground."

Or, as locals are fond of saying: When you have three Venetians in a room, you will get five opinions.

Just imagine what it must have been like at that first centennial-planning meeting a year ago when 30 or so strong-minded Venice residents sat around the table.

At the time, Venice was in the midst of a raucous battle over how best to preserve the diverse community's quirky, artsy character. Tourists know Venice mostly for its eclectic boardwalk. But it is also a neighborhood of million-dollar homes, celebrities, artists, a healthy population of black and Latino families, and street people. Venice has long struggled to figure out how to meld all its disparate elements.

On one side of the fight was a group of self-proclaimed progressives who had gained control of the Grassroots Venice Neighborhood Council with an ambitious agenda: Stop gentrification, build more low-income housing and help the homeless.

On the other side were residents who believed that a radical fringe was opening its arms to indigents and their vehicles, exacerbating parking and sanitation problems in the congested area.

Sandy Kievman, a field deputy for Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, whose district includes Venice, thought the opponents could find some rare common ground on a centennial planning committee.

"When I pulled it together, it was supposed to be a way of healing what was going on in the community," Kievman said. "It didn't turn out that way."

One group envisioned a truly local celebration focusing on the history of Venice and its people. Others pictured a world-class happening, with grand events such as a concert that would feature Santana, Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt.

According to participants, committee co-chairman David Buchanan, an advertising man and promoter with Marina Media Group, promised big things. A marketing packet touted plans for outdoor theater, a music festival honoring the late dancer and actor Gregory Hines and a re-creation of the electric "VENICE" sign that once stretched across Windward Avenue. (Neither the play nor the music festival came to pass, and volunteers are still attempting to raise money for the sign.)

National sponsors were invited to contribute at levels as high as $250,000. Not one did. Some corporate sponsors offered a few thousand dollars; others have provided bottled water and other refreshments for events. (To date, the committee has raised a total of about $75,000, according to recent financial statements.)

Buchanan acknowledged in an interview that, given the short planning window, "we don't know whether that was ever realistic" to raise significant amounts from corporate sponsors. To some extent, the committee decided to piggyback on other regular events, such as the Carnevale.

A planned three-day event at Muscle Beach has been pared down to one, and, even though a swimsuit competition is advertised in the centennial brochure, women will not be parading in bikinis.

That contest was nixed by Kievman and other women on the committee.

Some panelists resented other Buchanan ideas. After learning that Las Vegas would also celebrate its centennial this year, he and others went to Sin City in August to attempt to arrange a fundraising show of works by Venice artists -- in Las Vegas.

"I thought it was an exploitation of Venice artists," said Bonnie Cheeseman, who served a few months on the committee. "Why not have an art show here? I'm from Boston, and I've been through centennials and bicentennials. Not once did we think of leaving town to celebrate our birthday."

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