Return to Venice: Lured by Cleo, a mean-as-I-get view of the lifescape is restructured

"I hope," wrote Cleo Baldon, "you will take another opportunity to come back to Ocean Front Walk, Venice."

I had written of a recent visit to Venice, and of my dismay at finding it "one continuous display of tawdry merchandise, utterly without charm."

That's about as mean as I get.

"Walk a little farther," Baldon urged me, "look a little deeper. There is a young merchant who comes to us every summer from Africa to bring us wonderful buys in trading beads and amber and little brass figures. . . . There are remarkable kites, nice watercolors of the local scene, funny clothes and great clothes, and remarkable jewelry. And some craftsmen sit in the sun working before your eyes.

"You sense the camaraderie among the merchants. You hear the banter between them and with the lookers, not at all as it would be if they were all working for the same company store. I look forward to my daily walk to the pizza stand. I am in love with merchandise. . . . "

She said she was with Galper/Baldon Associates, landscape architects, which has its offices on the walk and has thrust "a greenhouse-like window" over the walk so they can see up and down it.

"We view it as a live, exciting place to be. . . . We would give our professional credentials to have planned something that works this well. . . . "

All right. I could be wrong. I telephoned Cleo Baldon and asked her to have lunch with me at the Sidewalk Cafe.

Once again I parked free, being a senior citizen, in the public parking lot at the end of Venice Boulevard. A plus.

I walked toward the Galper/Baldon office at Ocean Front and Park. It was overcast. Many of the merchants were just opening up for the day. Some of them had stores in converted houses; some brought their merchandise in vans and laid it out in little shops that were nothing more than steel frames, or tables in the open air. They were side by side, dozens of them, using every available space. Their wares were T-shirts, jewelry, shoes, hats, dresses, sandals, posters, radios, pants, luggage, bathing suits and sunglasses, and anything that could be eaten on the hoof--pizzas, hot dogs, ice cream, yogurt.

Baldon had said there was one enterprise with a frontage of no more than three feet. I found it: a jewelry shop set up on a plywood table-top supported by sawhorses. It was three feet wide and maybe 16 feet deep.

Being early, I sat on a covered bench on the beach to watch the people go by. As I said before, they were wonderful:

"People in gaudy T-shirts, tank shirts and no shirts; people riding skateboards, feeding on pizzas and hot dogs and slurping sodas; girls in skimpy bikinis going in sexy phalanxes; loners lost in the sound of their earphones; iron-pumpers showing off their muscles. . . . "

Baldon saw me through her window and came down to lead me up to her office. It was built around an atrium through which a ficus tree grew up to a skylight. There was a great photomural of Venice, circa 1921, and framed engravings of Venice, Italy. Plants were all about, and a sign said, "Please don't smoke; plants are breathing."

"This used to be synagogue," she told me. "But the congregation became so small they couldn't get the minimum 10 men they need for prayers. A Roman Catholic used to come from across the street to help out."

We headed for the Sidewalk Cafe. "Everyone comes from somewhere else to look at the people here," she said.

When her company bought the synagogue, some people were outraged. "They wanted us to build a community center. They felt sad about the old synagogue going. They didn't want anything commercial."

Who were they , I wondered.

"Venice is subliminal," she said. "I don't know who they are."

We passed an enormous new three-story brick building with Italianate columns. A sign said it was a replica of the old Venice Bath House. Its stores and office were for rent, but there had been no takers.

Was that the way the street was going? Or was it another white elephant, like the eyesore concrete pavilion on the sand?

A man in jeans and a striped T-shirt approached us. "What would you put in that?" he asked, meaning the new building.

"A desk," Baldon said, "and a chair."

"This place is OK in the daytime," the man said. "But at night it's pretty hairy. It's not uncommon to find a body in the alley."

He said he had lived on the street in a nearby hotel for three years. I wondered if he was one of them .

We passed the old Lafayette Cafe, recently forced to close by rising rent. Through its windows we could see its emptiness.

"It was always a dump," Baldon said. "That's what people liked about it."

At the Sidewalk Cafe a man on roller skates showed us to a sidewalk table and we ordered wine and Chinese chicken salad.

"Venice is subliminal," Baldon repeated. "You see buildings that look as if they ought to be condemned--carcasses, like what the dragonfly left behind. Inside, there's a lot of whitewashed space, and artists live in them, doing wonderful things."

The sun was coming out and the tempo of life on the walk was speeding up. After lunch I bought three T-shirts with Venice logos and a pair of $3 earrings for my wife.

It is, after all, a fascinating street; and it's alive.

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