While I was living in L.A., I never knew that Venice Beach was the second biggest tourist attraction in Southern California, to the tune of ten million visitors a year (second only to Disneyland.) It felt like a unique and colorful place but I had no idea what an economic powerhouse it was for Los Angeles County.
Its value as an economic, entertainment, tourist, and residential asset has been severely compromised this past year, due to a large homeless encampment along the Venice Beach Boardwalk that sprung up in the wake of the pandemic.
Fifty tents at the beginning of the pandemic grew to two hundred fifty. YouTube channels and news clips provided a graphic image of violence and addiction that had spiraled out of control. It was a frightening and dangerous place after dark. Residents and business owners were frantic over the “loss” of their neighborhood and angry that local politicians seemed unwilling to commit to serious action.
Venice Beach is finally ready for its close-up
If you saw Venice Beach in 2020, you were likely to be on wheels. A small number of locals continued to bike, rollerblade, and scooter through the boardwalk. Some even continued with their jogging routines. But no one lingered, and that was by law. You couldn’t just sit on the sand or the grass and relax by the water – that was prohibited by pandemic regulations.
But then the local stay-at-home orders were lifted. The mask mandates were removed. The first sign of serious change was the clearing out of the handball courts. Each one of them had become homeless living space and was filled with garbage, as well as human waste and rats. Their occupants were given enough warning to take their most valuable items, and then a bulldozer pulled out everything. Disinfectant, a fresh coat of paint, and the courts were finally open.
They were soon followed by the skatepark and the basketball courts (the hoops had previously had wooden planks blocking them and rendering them unusable. The guitar players, the piano players, the rappers, and the acrobats optimistically tried to re-establish their busking income. The tents were pushed back to make free passage for pedestrians, the restrooms were cleaned, and the palm trees were trimmed.
Build it and they will come. It didn’t take long for the word to get out. Granted, it may take a while to get back up to ten million visitors, but the crowds have returned and so has the party. Costumes, colorful hair, and colorful behavior are on full display – a sort of Mardi Gras by the sea. The Venice Beach vibe has no rivals – whether you’re a spectator or part of the show, nowhere else can you see this weird or be this weird.
Does this mean that things are back to normal?
The homeless have always been part of Venice Beach’s “normal”
My mother came out for an annual visit at least a dozen times when I lived in L.A. Of course, the beach was on almost every trip’s itinerary. I had been to Venice enough on my own to anticipate that we’d across a few homeless individuals here and there. It’s never been a huge problem – either I dig into my pockets and find a few quarters for them or politely let them know that I’m out of change.
Once, about ten years ago, we were sitting on a bench in the middle of our walk down the boardwalk when we saw a homeless man ask two passing men for money. They weren’t content to just say no – they had to deliver a few choice insults to the man. Bad idea. He proceeded to follow them, screaming and threatening, and there was a real possibility that the incident could have erupted into violence.
All because the two “tourists” felt the need to display their superiority over someone they regarded as a bum. What they lost sight of is that this man had nothing to lose, while they might have suffered quite a few losses that day. Today, provoking desperate people is an even more ill-advised move. With the growth of the tent encampments, the violence on the boardwalk has been off the charts.
Before the pandemic, the homeless would set up tents and sleeping areas on the beach every night. But then the local police would come through every morning at seven o’clock and force them to clear out. So, the residents and tourists were always able to enjoy the boardwalk, free of anything resembling a tent encampment. Some homeless would be based at Venice Beach for many years under this arrangement – back every night, leaving every morning. Even before the lockdown, many regarded Venice Beach as their home. I’m sure the local homeowners didn’t love it, but it was just the way things were, and it was being managed.
Back to peaceful co-existence?
Not quite yet. The tourist industry, the business district, and others who want to give Venice Beach their full support right now are likely to downplay the ongoing unhoused population. But while a lot of garbage has been cleared out and all recreational and vendor areas have been reclaimed, the homeless have not disappeared. They are being confined to a smaller and less obtrusive space so that the commercial and sports districts can revive themselves. But they will remain at Venice Beach until they have somewhere better to call home.
I would love to believe that emergency, temporary and permanent housing could be found for all of Venice Beach’s homeless in the next few months. But that’s an unlikely scenario. As Councilman Mike Bonin points out, there are 225 people made newly homeless in L.A. County every day. The best of homeless assistance plans (which we have yet to see) would have great difficulty keeping up with a growing problem of that magnitude. One thing he adds is that it that criminalizing homelessness has never helped to solve the problem and even most of his frustrated constituents would agree.
As far from solved as this social problem is, Venice Beach business owners are still ready to rejoice. They have been waiting a long time for this day.
Let the party begin
People have often wondered if the 2020s will have any resemblance to the Roaring Twenties of the twentieth century. After the horrors of World War I, which was immediately followed by the global pandemic of the 1918 flu – Americans were tired of endless grief and stress and they were ready to party - with alcohol-filled speakeasies, wild new dances, and liberating styles of clothing and speech.
That was the image I was reminded of when looking at the joyful mania of Venice Beach’s renaissance. Life has been too hard and perhaps we can hasten the departure of those hard times with a big celebration. On some level, everyone has an awareness that those social and physical problems are just a stone’s throw away. But for now, the roller skaters are dancing. The entertainers are doing backflips and backbeats. The smell of waffle cones is in the air. And the boardwalk is filled with irrepressible smiles - a treasured local asset is now joyfully open for business.