Author John O’Kane explores tensions between the bohemian Venice of yesterday and the trendy, tech-savvy Venice of tomorrow
By Michael Aushenker
That’s the question John O’Kane grapples with in his new book “Venice, CA: A City State of Mind,” excerpts of which he will read and discuss on Friday at Beyond Baroque.
There is little debate that Venice is a neighborhood that prides itself on a freethinking, freewheeling creativity — basking in a rich cultural legacy passed down from early 20th-century developer Abbot Kinney to the Beats of the 1950s to the musicians and street artists of the ensuing decades.
“There’s something in the air in Venice that makes you feel different,” said O’Kane, a UC Irvine writing and media instructor who last year began to chronicle the neighborhood for KCET’s online “Departures” series.
In his book, O’Kane contrasts the bohemian spirit of Venice’s past with today’s more highly commodified sense of cool.
But Dogtown still has plenty of fleas on its tail, despite gentrification’s forward march. A stabbing last Saturday on Ocean Front Walk, a vicious beating with a folding chair in December and the fatal stabbing of a restaurant worker in November serve as all-too-stark reminders.
Given Venice’s history of crime and gang violence and its large numbers of homeless and mentally ill residents, is it or was it ever a quality bohemian community comparable to the idealized Paris of the 1920s or New York in the 1960s? Are Big Development’s transformations of Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Rose Avenue from troubled tracts to tourist destinations all that bad for the neighborhood?
“It’s a paradox,” O’Kane, a San Pedro resident who lived in Venice from 1985 to 2006, said. “Alongside the cheap living, there was a lot of crime — even now, although it’s a lot better than it was before.”
But, as his book details, “The wish is to improve it as opposed to huge properties coming in and buying it and flipping it. [The goal shouldn’t be] to leave it in a fallow state. Unfortunately, the way it is being gentrified is part of the problem. People are being displaced.”
What would Kinney, the tobacco millionaire who founded Venice as a resort town in 1905, say? O’Kane is upfront in his book that Kinney, who he describes as “a cultural visionary,” envisioned a stylized, pseudo-Italian wonderland with lofty amusements — something more akin to Rick Caruso’s The Grove than the chaotic, anything-goes boardwalk of today. While Kinney had hoped to shape an environment ripe for fine arts and intellectual salons, he didn’t bank on the boardwalk’s sideshow spectacles, which over the decades gave root to a counterculture zeitgeist.
“He wasn’t all that excited about the circus atmosphere … [but] he had a strong sympathy for Venice’s lower class,” O’Kane said.
Despite the changes of the past decade, “Venice is different than Laguna and other beach communities. It has the long cultural legacy. You’re always going to have residues of that in Venice [despite] the way it’s going. It was a high-end place. Then came the Depression slum [from which followed] the Venice Beats in the ‘50s.”
In his book, O’Kane exalts Aldous Huxley and, to a lesser extent, Jim Morrison of The Doors as poster children and positive by-products of the Great Venice Experiment, with one caveat: “Huxley’s use of mescaline was to expand his consciousness. That can be seen as the healthy side; drugs enhancing consciousness instead of having a good time, blowing your mind.” He criticizes Morrison’s self-destructive drug use, but credits The Doors (named after Huxley’s 1954 book “The Doors of Perception”) for injecting psychedelic poetry and some artistic darkness into the mainstream.
If asked to choose between Silicon Beach and 1960s Venice, O’Kane said unabashedly he’s “on the side of the bohemian scene” and bristled at GQ’s crowning of Abbot Kinney Boulevard as “the Coolest Block in America” last year.
But O’Kane, also at work on a novel focused on contemporary Venice street life, does not believe the Venice he loves has been jettisoned completely: the checkerboard of modern architecture, the café and street cultures, the wild murals, the walkways are all still there. He praises the neighborhood’s community housing corporation and the beachhead collective.
“Without them, the city would be Laguna by now,” he said. “The Beachhead still brings a lot of that culture, a lot of political activism, but the forces of development [are winning]. In the recession, housing prices went down, but not as much as a lot of places. Rents are still really high.”
As for the new generation of young creatives rising with the tide of Silicon Beach, O’Kane countered: “Creativity for what purpose? Bohemian spirit is usually about avoiding commercial impulses Making creative products is hardly the same as putting together novels and making art. Once the profit motive enters, other issues do, too: class and exclusion, for example.”
Confronted with reminders that development had already in the 1960s and ‘70s squeezed out landmarks such as Pacific Ocean Park and Olivia’s Kitchen, O’Kane responds that “Venice has always been in [states of] transition and decay.”
The lines blur and the answers don’t come easy, but for O’Kane the fertile spirit of Venice remains untamed.
“It’s a force that takes over you and makes you want to create,” he said.
John O’Kane reads from “Venice, CA: A City State of Mind” at 8 p.m. Friday at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Tickets are $10, or $6 for students and seniors. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.com.