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The price of loving Venice

A real estate broker who is an integral part of the colorful beach town embraces its diversity, even though it nearly cost him his life.

July 16, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

THE confrontation took place just inside the front entrance of the dream house in Venice that Jack Hoffmann had been painstakingly renovating for three years.

A homeless man, strong from bodybuilding, whipped out a knife and thrust it twice into Hoffmann's chest. Then he sliced across Hoffmann's throat. When Hoffmann raised his arm defensively, the man cut across it as well. Then he speared Hoffmann's back with the knife, nicking his liver.

Hoffmann wondered: Is this it?

And then: I haven't even finished the house.

He chuckled softly at the memory. "I thought, yeah, I'm not ready to go."

Hoffmann is the owner of the Venice Properties real estate brokerage, a purveyor of cutting-edge lofts, houses and studio and commercial spaces that sell for millions. And he is part of the cast of characters that has made Venice the colorful mix he has loved so much -- and still loves, despite his violent encounter.

Hoffmann represented architect Frank Gehry when he bought Venice land for his own dream house; he counts artists among his friends and collects their pieces for his home; and he presided over the Venice Action Committee in the early 1990s when the group of local business owners and residents wanted to beautify Venice and lobby for better services from the city of Los Angeles.

"It's like he's the mayor of Venice or something," his friend artist Chuck Arnoldi said.

But it's a town with rough edges where diversity among residents means artists and entrepreneurs rub elbows with hard-toiling renters, gang members and troubled, sometimes drug-addled, street people.

Hoffmann's attack rattled friends and neighbors accustomed to convenient, even self-conscious, relationships with the homeless who frequent the streets and alleys of Venice, often acting as informal security for homes and businesses. The incident was a raw reminder that Venice's gritty street chic sometimes gives way to violent crime.

Tall and muscular at 51, Hoffmann bears a faint white line of a diagonal scar across the front of his neck, a reminder of the attack on July 20, 2005.

"It was just this close to the jugular," he said of the throat wound. "But yet I have very fond memories of it in a way."

His words are startling, even more so because he utters them so matter of factly. He's talking not about the experience of having a knife pushed through internal organs by a crazed man but about the sense of life in the moment when it might be taken away.

"It was just so intense and so clarifying and so real. I see why guys end up hanging around Elks clubs and VFW centers after wars, because what they face brings them to such a deep awareness of the human experience that there's almost no one else they can relate to."

According to Hoffmann's friends, the attack did not change him. He remains the philosopher-real estate broker that he's been for years, usually clad in neat-fitting T-shirts, casual slacks and gym shoes.

On this day, he stood in the airy, art-filled office of his real estate brokerage, pointing out landmarks on an aerial map of the community. He seemed to possess an encyclopedia's worth of knowledge about Venice and can tick off a list of who lives where and how long they've been there and who has left.

In his mind, he doesn't merely sell property. "I want to sell people foundations that propel them into life, rather than roofs to shelter them from it," he said.

SOME of the community activists who have done battle over the years with high-end developers moving into Venice are a little more prosaic about Hoffmann than he is about himself. "He's a real estate agent. What can I say?" Carol Berman said, laughing. The 70-year-old longtime Venice resident, who lives in a government-subsidized apartment, has been on opposite sides of issues from Hoffmann. But she also calls him "a decent guy" who helped her out with nuisance problems in the neighborhood.

Hoffmann's involvement in the community may be what keeps the activists from reviling him. That, and his ability to talk to just about everyone.

"One of the things that's a pain about working out with him at the gym is he's always talking to people," said Arnoldi, Hoffmann's workout partner at Gold's Gym. "I tell him, 'We're not here to sell condos; we're here to work out.' "

But Hoffmann is voracious about conversation. "Jack just has a great sense of what's going on in the neighborhood," said his friend Tony Bill, a director and producer who bought his house through the broker.

Hoffmann may be one of the best-known real estate brokers in Venice, but he's not trying to be the biggest.

Hoffmann said he turns away clients he doesn't feel simpatico with and regularly dictates to the ones he agrees to take on.

Indeed, Hoffmann has been something of a real estate counselor to rising artists over the years, urging them to buy properties they might have second thoughts about.

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