The system of enforcing vending laws along the Venice Beach Boardwalk has not been without its critics since it was established last year, dividing the areas for public expression on the beach.
Some claim they are losing out on space allocations in a weekly lottery to commercial vendors, while other complaints say that those entering the lottery for spaces can have friends or family members also enter to help their chances for getting picked.
The situation has become troubling for a group of boardwalk artists who say that the fallout with the vending law has disrupted the boardwalk atmosphere for artists who have been coming to the distinct place of self expression for years. Michael Oddo, an artist who has sold his oil paintings along Ocean Front Walk for five years, says most artists fail to make any money there today and the area has changed to the point where it doesn’t seem that an art scene exists.
“The reputation of Venice has gotten so bad that the opportunity that used to be there for generations of artists isn’t there anymore,” said Oddo, who calls himself a fourth generation Venetian.
“Basically it’s like we’re fighting for our lives. We see in a very real way that California has lost its biggest cultural venue.”
Oddo and a group of other artists have chosen to express their frustrations with the changes they say are occurring on the boardwalk by staging “painters protests” in recent weeks on Saturdays on the beach. The protesters, which have included up to 30 people, have set up displays of their artwork and walked the length of the boardwalk and back carrying signs to draw attention to their concerns. They say they’ve received support from beach visitors and are planning another protest Saturday, August 15th.
“We want to show anyone who’s interested what the Venice Boardwalk should be and what it’s missing,” Oddo said of the actions.
Painter Brenda Michelle, who has sold her art on the beach for over two years, says she has also noticed a difference in the boardwalk environment for artists and wanted to join in the effort.
“It was always my understanding that the boardwalk was intended for artists and performers, but when I see what it’s becoming I feel that something has to be done, so that’s why I got involved,” Michelle said. “I can absolutely say it’s changed. It’s definitely losing its artistic environment.”
Complaints with Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 42.15, which regulates vending and the time, place and manner of public expression activities on the west side of the boardwalk, are nothing new. A former version of the ordinance was challenged with a lawsuit, forcing city attorneys to draft a revised ordinance.
Under the ordinance, vending activity on the west side of the boardwalk is prohibited, with certain exemptions. Among those are performance artists, people vending items such as newspapers, leaflets and bumper stickers, and people vending items created by the vendor or items that are “inextricably intertwined” with a political, philosophical or religious message.
The ordinance divides the available space on the boardwalk into areas known as “P-zones” and “I-zones.” The 105 P-zone spaces cover areas for performance and the vending of items such as newspapers and books created by the vendor. The 100 I-zone spaces are areas for the vending of items created by the vendor, such as compact discs and paintings, or those inextricably intertwined with a message.
The artist protests began after a number of artists say they have gone weeks without receiving a space in the weekly lottery. They say that many more people than there are spaces are entering the lottery, as some participants have had family members, including children, take part to help chances for getting a space.
Oddo claims that while a seller’s permit from the California State Board of Equalization is required to sell on the boardwalk, the requirement has not been enforced in the lottery. Other lottery participants say that once some vendors are picked for a space, they will sell the spot.
Robert Haskin, a management analyst with the city Department of Recreation and Parks, said staff working the lottery are aware of concerns regarding multiple entrants, but there is no provision that states only one member per family.
Another argument of artist protesters is that the boardwalk has become a “swap meet” as some vendors will sell commercial items brought from elsewhere, such as jewelry, and say it is handmade or conveys a message. Some claim Recreation and Parks representatives have told vendors how to ensure items fall within the ordinance guidelines, but Haskin rejected the argument.
“No one from our office tells people how to avoid getting a citation. We inform them what the rules are and that they have to comply,” he said.
Haskin noted that it can be a particularly challenging task for police to distinguish which items are inextricably intertwined with the vendor’s message, but the department is working to address those and other concerns.
“We have meetings with representatives of the council office and the city attorney to try to find ways to address some of the concerns,” Haskin said.
While vendors have expressed frustrations with the enforcement system, others note that the lottery process may have flaws, but it has made drastic improvement at the boardwalk since it was enacted.
“Compared to the old open beach it’s a world better,” said artist and jewelry maker Courtney Evans, who has been selling on the boardwalk since 1978.
Evans said he has also noticed an influx of lottery entrants, but added that there is typically an increase during the summer. He said he too is disappointed when he misses out on a space, but he has accepted how the system works.
“I’m disappointed like them, but join the crowd,” Evans said.
Oddo said he doesn’t believe the vending ordinance needs to be rewritten to fix the problems, but the current laws need to be enforced.
“They just need to enforce what’s already been written,” he said.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl called the ordinance a “constant work in progress,” saying that officials are monitoring the incidents of people who may be taking advantage of the lottery system. He said he supports the efforts of artists who want to ensure that Venice Beach remains a haven for art.
“As far as the artists, I am a firm supporter of the artists and free speech expressionists having access to the beach,” Rosendahl said.