How did the Venice Beach of today — with its sprawling, sandy, sunny eccentricity — come to be? Whether you’re a newcomer or a local, it may come as a surprise that this creative, vibrant, and quirky neighborhood in West Los Angeles has its earliest roots in the swamp, intellectual pursuit, and oil — in that order. Consider this your Venice Beach history primer.
Venice Beach was founded in the early 20th century by a tobacco millionaire and real estate developer from New Jersey. Visionary Abbot Kinney wanted to build a replica of Venice, Italy — his favorite city — but in America as a themed seaside resort along the Pacific.
Why Venice? Perhaps because, at the age of 16, Kinney’s parents sent him to Europe to acquire a more well-rounded education and absorb various cultures and languages. He spent his final months exploring Venice and the Italian Riviera, which made a lasting impression on Kinney in his youth. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has visited Venice, Italy — it’s as enchanting as you imagine it to be, both centuries ago and today.
Unsurprisingly, Kinney wasn’t alone in his admiration. French Ambassador Philippe de Commynes declared, “I have never seen a city so triumphant” after visiting Venice in 1494 — more than 350 years before Kinney had arrived.
Smithsonian Magazine agrees, writing, “Venice appears to be immortal — its greatness ordained in the classical past, its effortless wealth resting on a mastery of trade and navigation.”
Started from the swamp, now we’re going places
Kinney won the Southern California land (called Ocean Park at the time) in a coin flip with former real estate partners in 1904. Back then, it was just deteriorating marshland — essentially a swamp — not the effervescent beachfront neighborhood we know Venice Beach to be today.
But Kinney pushed back on the opposition, seeing beyond the lackluster and toward the beauty of imagination and possibility.
Why? Perhaps un-coincidentally, Venice, Italy — the city Kinney wanted to replicate — also rose from a literal marsh: “Painstakingly reclaiming marshland, stabilizing islands by sinking oak piles in the mud, draining basins and repainting canals, maintaining barriers against the threatening sea … the result of centuries of self-disciplined effort by a hardheaded, practical people.”
Kinney, too, was a disciplined and practical individual, but with an idealistic streak. After all, digging miles of canals, draining marshes, and turning a swamp into a beachfront amusement center was no small feat in 1905. It required a balance of good judgment, spontaneity, and vision, and the eccentric Kinney was unquestionably the man for the job.
Intellectual freedom and a leisurely backdrop
So what, exactly, about Italy’s Venice did Kinney want to parallel in Southern California — and perhaps more importantly, why?
Though we can’t be certain, “Bruno in Venice West,” a poem by Beat poet Lawrence Lipton might offer some hints. It imagines Giordano Bruno — an Italian Renaissance mathematician and philosopher who was persecuted and burned to death in the 16th century — visiting Venice, California in the 20th century:
“At the tavern doors, the winos
wandering in and out of the alleys,
blinking in the neon lights, and you
Giordano Bruno between the halberdiers
and the smoking torches wandering
In the wind off the Pacific, here
in this our Venice by the western sea
as when, hooded, under the marble
colonnades of old Venice once
you walked, curing the Doges; burning
Sapphire and crimson under his golden umbrella
the merchant prince, over the pigeon droppings
among the trash cans, Kinney’s dream
of gondolas and gondoliers, his
picture postcard Venice…
…your Venice was no rose bed
open sewers and tanners vats the fish wives
haggling, sweat and fear, the smell that money makes
The windows darken, only the street lights
and the torches now, our Venice sleeps;
Your eyes burn, Bruno, scanning the heavens,
vacant now; no angels hymn
the heavenly court, we are rational men;”
While Kinney wanted to parallel Venice, Italy’s old world charm — its breathtaking architecture, elegant bridges, and quaint canals — in his Venice of America design, perhaps he also wanted to spread freedom and the pursuit of knowledge, entertainment, and leisure. Compare this to Bruno’s time centuries earlier in Italy, when one could be killed for believing in science.
Perhaps this is why Kinney’s original vision for Venice of America was “a place dedicated to health, higher learning, and education … where people would come to relax and enjoy the ocean air while following intellectual pursuits.” In other words, he hoped to foster a cultural and American renaissance.
In fact, he was so attached to the idea that after Venice of America’s recreational area opened in Ocean Park on July 4, 1905, Kinney invited writers, professors, and other intellectuals to deliver lectures on what he believed would be well-attended seminars at his 3,500-seat auditorium: the Venice Assembly.
To compare, Venice, Italy was not particularly known as “a center of learning.” The city’s monumental developments and innovations in printing, however, enabled it to publish texts for public consumption, producing a million books in two decades. Eventually, it became a beacon for not only specialty goods but books, as well.
Though his original intentions paralleled the renaissance that spread across Venice, Italy centuries earlier, Kinney discovered that the people in his time were more interested in the seaside amusements he’d created — a network of canals, piers, pools, piazzas, colonnades, gondolas, roller coasters, high-flying aerial shows, and a miniature steam train — rather than yawn-inducing lectures on philosophy and the mysteries of life.
But can you blame The People in 1905? The beach and Kinney’s realized imagination were pleasantly distracting. (In fact, word has it the first documented surfing demonstration on the mainland U.S. took place in Venice in 1907.) There was also far less entertainment — much less, surfing — in 1500.
Due to the popularity of Kinney’s amusement park throughout the early 20th century and his influence in local politics, he had the name Ocean Park changed to Venice in 1911 — a full, almost poetic realization of his vision.
Rapid changes: death, divisions, the depression, and the discovery of oil
If history is any indication, nothing is permanent. And if there were places with rich, multilayered, and perpetually shifting histories, Venice would be at the top of the list.
Exhibit A: When Kinney died in 1920, Venice was so unable to adequately govern itself that residents voted to merge with the city of Los Angeles in 1926. But how did it come to that point? Was this development simply due to Venice losing the guidance and vision of its founder, or something else?
While Kinney’s death is a part of the equation, there’s more to the story. Namely, technological innovation vis-à-vis The Automobile and the onset of the Great Depression. These developments spurred the community’s first waves of change since Kinney had raised it from a swamp.
Exhibit B: Venice’s original canals, once deemed the main attraction, were now seen by business owners and city leaders as useless, unnecessary, and an “obstacle to progress.” (It’s safe to say Kinney would not have approved or agreed.)
You can thank the automobile for the shift in perspective. To accommodate this new mode of transportation, Kinney’s prized canals were filled in, paved over, and converted into city streets in 1924 — tragically, depending on who you ask. For example, Venice residents resisted the project and property owners rebelled against a special assessment to finance it.
“Litigation lasted four years,” according to Gizmodo. “…By the time the court battles were finally resolved in the city’s favor, Venice had consolidated with the city of Los Angeles … and on July 1, 1929, as dump trucks deposited their first loads of dirt into Coral Canal, public officials held a special ceremony … [where] California Governor C. C. Young ‘congratulated Venice on her foresight in sacrificing sentiment to progress’.”
Exhibit C: The Great Depression began a month later — in August 1929 — and wasn’t favorable to the once-bustling Venice, which had been supported almost completely by the amusement industry during the early 20th century.
With massive unemployment and low wages, “compounded by a severe drought that destroyed crops and farms,” Americans didn’t have the time or resources for entertainment or leisurely pursuits. Hard times were here.
Exhibit D: Fortunately, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. In the midst of the Depression, in 1930, oil was discovered on the Venice Peninsula. For residents, this meant work and a way out of their despair. But at what cost?
While jobs were created from Venice’s oil fever, it also created environmental destruction, including the pollution of surrounding residential areas and beaches.
By June of 1930, Venice began to transform from a once-upon-a-time beachfront resort to a scene that would’ve been unrecognizable to Kinney: an oil field that “was producing $75,000 a week,” according to Atlas Obscura, “and by September, 50 wells were in operation, blacking out the coastline and turning the view into an industrial nightmare.”
The impact the Great Depression had on the residents of Venice was extraordinary. These were the same residents who, only months earlier, had worried that changing the landscape to accommodate the automobile would reverse the residential, beachfront allure of their community. But in desperate times like these, something had to give, and nearly 95 percent voted in favor of re-zoning to allow for drilling.
For many residents, the opportunity was too good to pass. (Who would have thought there would be oil here?) By 1931, the Venice oil field was the fourth most productive in California.
With any action, however, there are always consequences — this time, environmental: “…the landscape had been completely pillaged, with more than 400 oil wells puncturing the built environment. Drilling and spillage further polluted the already abandoned and clogged canals,” reports broadcasting outlet KCET.
Though the oil drilling was devastating to Venice’s landscape, it was a short-lived and highly successful experiment. And by 1932, the wells were finally tapped and oil production dropped in order to stabilize prices.
But there was still a mess — a big one — to clean up.
By the end of 1942 — three years after the Depression ended — a whopping “47,488,128 barrels of bubbling crude had been sucked out of the [Venice] shoreline, and with the wells running dry the unsightly oil derricks were being removed as the population grew and the city yearned to get its beach back.”
It’s curious, but perhaps unsurprising, that once basic, physical needs — food, water, shelter, and a living wage — are met, sentimentalism — for beauty, knowledge, freedom, for what is lost, and for what is intangible — returns with conviction and reigns.
Venice today: history is myth and mural
In 1941, as Venice’s oil wells were being capped, the Treasury Department commissioned Edward Biberman to create a painting for the original Venice Post Office — located at Windward Circle — titled Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice. It was and is a love letter of sorts to Venice’s past and Kinney’s idyllic imagination.
“Kinney is flanked by images from the ‘40s,” describes Los Angeles Times. “To his right, a crowded beach scene in which sailors court their dates, sun worshipers savor glistening ice cream cones, and crowded amusement park rides dot the horizon; to his left, men in fitted suits huddle before a more ominous landscape of oil rigs and holding tanks.”
In the early ‘90s, by the time Venice’s oil field officially ran dry, renowned muralist Rip Cronk finished a piece titled Venice Reconstituted along a building located at Speedway and Windward Avenue.
It’s huge, at 100 feet long and 21 feet high, and features a modern Venus — a parody of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus — roller skating along the Venice Boardwalk accompanied by a single thought bubble: “History Is Myth.”
The building the mural was painted on has changed over the years, just as Venice itself has changed. There are remnants of history, certainly, but it is fundamentally different.
What can these murals and the change surrounding them tell us about history and its impact?
Today, as you explore the beauty, color, and entertainment of Venice Beach, don’t be afraid to pursue flânerie: the art of “disassociating from one’s surroundings, of taking a step back … [while] sampling its sights and sounds.” It’s about thinking historically and nostalgically about time and its impact on landscapes and the human experiences within them.
A good place to start? Abbot Kinney Boulevard — which GQ named the Coolest Block in America in 2012. As you saunter, think past this designation, beyond the row of funky shops, cafés, and restaurants. Just as Kinney had done in 1904 when he saw beyond the swamp on which Venice is founded on.
Think about the shops in Piazza San Marco, the heart of Venice, Italy, and its influence on Kinney’s imagination — how it has sparked our own imaginations in this place. In this time. In ways we didn’t expect.