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Wealth, Poverty, Anger Live Together in Venice

June 09, 2006|Martha Groves and Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writers

In the Oakwood section of Venice, two worlds tensely coexist.

One is characterized by stylish glass-and-wood houses with lush gardens that grace the pages of Architectural Digest and Dwell.

The other is marked by small run-down apartment buildings and neglected bungalows with overgrown yards.

On avenues like Indiana, Brooks and Westminster, celebrities such as Dennis Hopper own homes alongside descendants of working-class African Americans who came from the South in the 1920s to find jobs and immigrant Latino families struggling against grinding poverty.

At one edge of the neighborhood runs Abbot Kinney Boulevard, lined with trendy eateries, upscale shops and galleries. Just blocks to the east, police say, Latino and African American gang members deal drugs to customers in BMWs.

In the early 1990s, this enclave was the scene of some of the worst gang violence in Los Angeles history, with nearly two dozen people killed and scores more wounded in battles between black and Latino gang members.

The violence has declined in the last decade, and Venice's hip factor has risen.

The gentrification that began three decades ago around Venice's famous canals has pushed inland into the Oakwood area, as urban professionals and Hollywood types sought that perfect Craftsman to restore or the ideal lot on which to build a designer home.

Monday's shooting death of Agustin Contreras, 17, at Venice High School has brought residents' simmering fears and resentments over this gentrification spewing to the surface.

The next evening, more than 100 residents attended a community forum that had been called to discuss racial tensions in the neighborhood.

The scene soon deteriorated into invective, with blacks alleging that police officers unfairly target them and that whites fear them. Whites in the audience retorted that it was black people who hated them.

Several African American residents angrily berated the community's well-heeled newcomers for desiring the community's beachfront culture while hunkering down in mammoth houses ringed by high security fences.

"Why do they have these fences?" said Stan Muhammad, director of Venice 2000, a gang intervention group. "Is it because of gang violence? No. Is it because of drugs? No, it's not." It is, he said, because of the fear born of guilt.

Although most participants were inclined to view the shooting as a tragic but isolated incident, they said it sharpened their focus on broader problems -- notably a lack of jobs for young men of color and a broken relationship with police, conditions that have given rise to angry and aimless young men who get into trouble.

The shooting occurred at a time when tensions between low-income and high-income residents already were becoming an issue. In fact, the community forum had been called well before Contreras' slaying to address concerns about an inflammatory letter that was distributed in the neighborhood and published last month in a local community newsletter. The letter complained about black "drug dealers, pimps and riff raff" who "never work and always leave the park just like the pig's sty they live in."

At the forum, there was much heated discussion about who wrote the letter. The conversation eventually dissolved into a shouting match.

"This community's problem is all the black people hate the white people!" shouted Wendy Lowe, who is white, after a black woman asserted that Lowe was the letter's author (something Lowe strongly denied).

The meeting reflected the dissension that goes along with Venice's vaunted vitality and diversity, which are particularly evident in the Oakwood area, a roughly one-square-mile area bounded by California Avenue, Lincoln Boulevard, Rose Avenue and Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

Abbot Kinney, an eccentric developer who a century ago dreamed of re-creating Venice, Italy, on the beach, complete with canals and gondoliers, set aside the Oakwood neighborhood for working-class blacks. For a time, "it was the only place that African Americans, Asians and Latinos could live," said Jack V. Hoffmann, a Venice aficionado and real estate broker with Venice Properties.

"It was always the most diverse area and had artistic people and writers and painters and just a lot of cultural and social and community life," added Steve Clare, executive director of the Venice Community Housing Corp., which provides housing for low-income individuals and operates youth development programs. "Venice has been a terrific place to live. What makes it so terrific is this diversity. Very few communities have this economic diversity, which is always enriching."

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