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Wandering the West

Here in arid, landlocked Utah, beach vacations don’t come easy. Yes, there are reservoirs galore, including huge ones like Flaming Gorge and Lake Powell, but sitting on the dirt shores amid a landscape of sagebrush just doesn’t cut it. For a real beach, a place with crashing surf, wide sandy stretches, an ocean pier and entertaining people-watching opportunities, there’s no place like Southern California, and in So Cal there’s nothing else like Venice Beach. I’d dropped in a few times in the Sixties and Seventies, but it wasn’t until a quick LA trip last month that I had time to revisit the place again to see how it has evolved.

On a beach-weather-perfect Sunday, a short stroll along Ocean Front Walk turned up an infinite number of tacky souvenir stalls, a guy who jumped from a ladder into a pile of broken glass, dozens of henna tattoo stands, a guy who painted himself gold and imitated statues, hot-dog and shaved-ice vendors, a rollerblading guitar-playing entertainer with a following of hardcore motorcycle types, and oh yeah the guy at Muscle Beach wearing a camouflage thong as he juggled shot puts.

Off of the walk, there are side trips to the graffiti wall, where artists with permits hanging around their necks are encouraged to "tag" cement walls erected just for them. Look at the side of the walls and you’ll see the layers of spray paint are an inch thick and growing. Walk away from the ocean and you’re in the original canal district where a land developer had visions of Venice, Italy.

In the early part of the last century, developer Abbot Kinney set about turning a swampy section of coastline west of downtown Los Angeles into a resort like Coney Island. He built a huge pier with a dance hall, swimming pool, amusement park and the like, and turned the swamp into a subdivision complete with 16 miles of canals. He had canoes and gondolas to rent and succeeded in turning the neglected stretch of coastline into a popular summer resort.

But, of course, these kinds of big dreams tend to become nightmares over time. The pier and all its attractions burned. By 1929, most of the canals were filled in and paved as streets, and Venice, like its East Coast counterpart, Atlantic City, began a slow slide into seediness.

By the ’60s, Venice was a lively-but-rundown place a funky center of free-spirited hippies and artists. The Doors played the local clubs, and Jim Morrison lived in a house on one of the few remaining canals. Muscle Beach, the area set aside for weightlifters to pump iron before admiring crowds, made it into the era’s beach-themed movies, and over a few blocks, in a garage, a brilliant car modifier, Carroll Shelby, turned tame new Ford Mustangs into growling Shelby Cobras.

Venice was famous, but never went the way of tonier Santa Monica a few miles up the beach. It kept its Coney Island atmosphere, filled with cheap souvenirs and street performers. By the ’90s, the city of Los Angeles had pumped money into restoring some of the canals, built a bike trail 16 miles long that heads south to Torrance and north to Santa Monica, and upgraded the public areas between Ocean Front Walk and the Pacific Ocean. Venice’s canal-lined neighborhoods now are coveted, even though the houses are packed in tight on canal-front lots not much bigger than Old Town Park City lots.

The real entertainment here is not water based, but performance based. Before the glass jumper made his barefoot leap, he slowly broke the glass while hustling the crowd for "I dare you" money. The guitar-playing rollerblader Harry Parry is a Venice fixture, as are the muscle men and women pumping iron, along with the chainsaw juggler and sand sculptor. This is guerilla theater at its finest a year-round human carnival.

Oh yeah, when you tire of the human parade, there is a great beach here, with a good surf break and lots of glorious sand. And no sagebrush in sight.

Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.

THE VITALS:

Web site: http://www.westland.net/venice/

Insider tip: Get there early on a summer weekend. By afternoon the crowd will swell to 150,000 or so. If you’re after a quiet afternoon at the beach, its not here!


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