Many newcomers to Venice aren’t aware of what went into making the Venice Canals the wonder that they are today.
They probably stroll along the banks and think to themselves, “What a fabulous place,” not knowing that it wasn’t always this way.
As a matter of fact, it has been only the last 13 years that the Venice Canals were worthy of being praised.
The Venice Canals as we know them — Sherman, Howland, Linnie, Carroll, Eastern and Grand — were started south of Venice Boulevard in 1905, a little after the construction of Abbot Kinney’s no-longer-existent Venice-of-America canals, north of Venice Boulevard.
What we now know as the Venice Canals south of Venice Boulevard were dug on land owned by the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad and called the “Short Line Venice Canal Subdivision Number 1.”
Due to high maintenance costs and the advent of the automobile, Kinney’s original Venice-of-America waterways north of Venice Boulevard were filled in after Venice was annexed to the City of Los Angeles in the mid-1920s.
Not so with the Short Line Canals, however.
There is little information in Venice history books about the Short Line Canals, whereas there are numerous photographs and many postcards from that time depicting Kinney’s canals.
What we do know, according to some history books, is that when the Short Line Canals were constructed they were planned to be as attractive as the Venice-of-America canals, but no such improvements came about.
Purchasers of lots waited in vain for landscaping and even safety measures. Material and workmanship turned out to be inferior. Lots sold poorly because the area was an eyesore, and gas, electric and sewer lines were not initially available.
In 1929, the canals were only partially developed and the residents could not afford the city assessment for fill-in costs.
As Venice declined in the ’30s and ’40s, this neighborhood became more neglected.
In the ’40s, the canals were officially removed from public access due to deteriorated sidewalks, crumbling banks, sewage pollution and a backup of oil brine from drilling operations.
By the late ’60s, the canals had deteriorated into stagnant, murky pools.
At that time, the area became a haven for hippies and other counterculture enthusiasts because of its location, uniqueness and cheap rent.
Then came the ’70s. The Venice Canal Association (VCA) was formed in 1978. Founding members were Henry Colman, Murray and Maxine Leral and Bonnie Felix.
One of the objectives of the Venice Canal Association was to restore the canals. Although there had been previous attempts, they had all failed. As with almost any project in Venice, discussions weren’t without differences of opinion and opposing factions.
Would it work this time? Let’s fast-forward to 1983.
Mark Galanty bought a home on a canal and became active in the association.
“I could see the direction being taken resulted more in disharmony than positive efforts,” he says.
His background in politics, producing television and radio spots for vote propositions and candidates, provided a good starting point in gathering consensus.
“I never did grass-roots work where you actually deal with people,” he says. “I thought this would be an interesting approach.”
Mark’s political expertise came to the forefront when Ruth Galanter became councilwoman of the local district.
“One of my memories,” he says, “was when Pat Russell was still councilwoman and I went to a meeting and I said, ‘I hear through the grapevine that Pat may not make the election.'” He says it was thought that, if elected, Galanter would destroy the canal project.
Mark recognized the need to “come to grips” with Ruth being elected and having to deal with it. It was at that time that he really started to get involved.
“The more I got involved, the more I took on,” he says. “I don’t know if it was forced upon me or I took over.”
Mark became chair of the restoration committee before becoming president of the association.
“One of my roles,” says Mark, “was to change the reputation of the association. The VCA, because we wanted to restore the canals, was considered ‘pro-development’ and ‘anti-environment.’ My job was to show what we were all about. We just wanted to restore the canals.”
Initially Galanter wanted the restoration done “her way or no way.”
“That was in the early days before she knew how to be a politician,” says Mark.
Later on, she became a proponent of compromise. What she wanted was to keep the cost down, retain historical aspects, keep it safe and make it environmentally friendly.
The one issue missing was esthetics.
“That was really a debate,” says Mark. “She was eventually willing to take it on, but we basically had to come up with an alternative.”
“Compromise” and “alternative” became the buzzwords.
What can be done and how can it be done to get the restoration through? Numerous controversies had to be resolved and hurdles overcome.
Finally, after all the other issues — environmental, safety, historical — were ironed out, the big day came for the California Coastal Commission hearing.
“The most magical moment,” says Mark, “was seeing Maxine with tears in her eyes. It was a great sight to see. It was almost as valuable as winning the Loffel [Loffelstein, a type of retaining block that was used] because she was so dedicated.”
Another heartwarming memory is the gentleman in a wheelchair who told Mark he had never been able to bring his chair on the canals.
“That day I realized how important the restoration was,” he says.
Mark has always acknowledged that other people helped him with this project.
“There were many before me that handed me the baton and I took it to the finish line,” he says.
“People in the past needed to forge forward with a sword to make any progress,” he says. “When they cleared a path, then it was much easier for someone like myself to come along and carry on.”
There were also those who helped Mark carry the baton the distance, including the founding members of the Venice Canal Association.
Mark had a “best right-hand man,” Rob Trask, an attorney.
“I don’t think Rob got thanked enough,” he says. “He went to a lot of meetings with me and was a great help in focusing in the right direction.”
Last, but not least, Mark acknowledges the property owners who were not only willing to pay for the restoration, but were also willing to spend the time and energy in helping to make it happen.
“People who have moved here have no concept of what was involved and what the canals were like before,” says Mark. “They have no understanding of the battles, not just the ones we had, but the ones that came before.”
Mark got really burned out.
“It took me many years to recover from this whole experience,” he says.
The canals have held up well over the last 13 years. Through a maintenance contract, the City of Los Angeles maintains the canals as a public asset, aided by the efforts of the Venice Canals Association.
The canals association continues to replace missing and dead wetland vegetation, paint and repair the public bridges, educate residents and the public about the municipal laws governing the canals, provide public signage and perform annual cleanups and tree plantings.
The Venice Canals are a Los Angeles and California Historic-Cultural Monument and on the National Register of Historic Places.
Aren’t we lucky to have them as part of our community.