Artists, Entertainers in Venice Fear Vendor Plan Will Steal Their ‘Stage’
The fortunetellers, healers, roller-skating musicians and open-air vendors who give Venice its free-spirited flavor are fighting to keep their place on the sand as officials look for ways to sprinkle a dash of order along the beach’s Ocean Front Walkway.
The entertainers, artists and other funky folk who for years have plied their trades and talents on the beachfront promenade may soon be restricted to designated areas under one of several plans being studied by the city’s Recreation and Parks Department.
City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents the Venice area, says a plan is necessary to guarantee space for artists and activists while assuring safe passage for the thousands of people who regularly visit the milelong strip.
At the same time, Galanter wants to crack down on the burgeoning number of sidewalk vendors along Ocean Front Walk who hawk merchandise ranging from T-shirts and jewelry to incense and body oils. Under a law proposed by Galanter earlier this month, no new permits would be issued to allow property owners to rent out spaces to the vendors.
“The concern is that we are rapidly approaching saturation,” she said.
Galanter said that no one’s constitutional rights would be hurt but that there must be a way to accommodate those who want to perform at the beach and those who “simply wish to enjoy the sand, water and sunsets.”
But many of the street performers fear the proposed measures will cramp their style and rob Venice of much of its carnival-like charm.
The controversy highlights a wider struggle over how the scarce space along Venice’s oceanfront should be used, as developers fight to erect commercial projects and residents fight for parking spaces.
It also raises the question of whether order can be imposed on a place like Venice, a place that revels in sustaining a form of artistic anarchy.
“Let’s keep Venice the way it is,” said Harry Perry, a guitar-strumming singer who has been putting on a white turban-and-sun visor headdress and skating up and down Ocean Front Walk for 14 years, serenading tourists and locals alike.
“People come here to see this happening, to see the performers,” he said. “This is the only place left where you can just come down and sing or be a juggler or be a comic . . . without all the red tape.”
Margarita Rojas, reader of Tarot cards and “spiritual adviser” who hails from the Peruvian city of Nazca, said that if zones are set aside, they should be well-located so performers could still attract crowds.
“I want to know where, where are they going to put us,” Rojas, who also reads crystals, said. “We are many who work here, only trying to make a living.”
Jerry Rubin, a local activist who for years has pitched political causes from an Ocean Front soapbox, has vowed to fight restrictions on the artists and others. He formed a loose-knit organization called Save the Healers, Artists, Politicos and Entertainers (SHAPE) that has been seeking support from community groups.
“These people are always portrayed as weirdos. It’s not true. These are loving, talented people. (The walk) would be pretty empty without these special people,” Rubin said. His group is sponsoring a candlelight vigil Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Healing Pagoda on Venice beach to draw attention to their cause.
Members of the group are being represented by attorney Richard C. Solomon, a volunteer from the American Civil Liberties Union. Solomon said he is waiting to see how much space the city offers to set aside before he decides what to do.
“I don’t know whether to be nervous yet because I don’t know what (the city) will do,” Solomon said. “If they squeeze (performers and artists) into small areas, then we have a problem.”
In a letter to Galanter, Solomon said the performers and others would agree to fixed hours and would avoid blocking paths to the beach. But he said prohibiting their activities would be “politically and economically unwise, as well as possibly unconstitutional.”
Galanter and her aides insist that they are not trying to restrict the artists but are trying to make room for everybody and to provide for more orderly crowd control and pedestrian traffic.
"(The entertainers) are what Venice is all about,” said Galanter aide Rick Ruiz. “Removing them would be like ripping out the soul of Venice. It would radically alter the ambiance of Venice.”
Galanter also said police have warned that overcrowding of the beach and the recent appearance of “large numbers of gang members” have caused a “potentially dangerous situation.”
The entertainers and artists, a separate group from the vendors, operate primarily on public land on the west side of Ocean Front Walk. No selling is allowed in that area, though nonprofit groups are allowed to accept donations.
Over the years, police have conducted sweeps to weed out bogus groups that allegedly solicited money fraudulently. Last year, dozens of entertainers and other unlicensed boardwalk denizens were driven from the beach, at least temporarily, after a police crackdown.
This summer, police issued about 10 citations to people for selling jewelry or other trinkets without a permit and arrested one man. But those who are using the beach for fund raising are generally being left alone, according to Sgt. James Williams, head of the beach detail.
The estimated 200 to 250 licensed open-air vendors, on the other hand, line the east side of the walk on what is mostly private land. They pay $900 to $2,500 a month for their space and must obtain city and county permits.
In 1983, the city began enforcing regulations requiring property owners to obtain conditional-use permits if they wanted to lease space to vendors. Officials at the time were dismayed to see T-shirt and sunglass peddlers rapidly displacing traditional artisans and craftsmen.
‘Linear Swap Meet’
Galanter said that rather than provide artisans with retail outlets, the open-air vending has ultimately created a “linear swap meet” along Ocean Front Walk.
The proposed law she is sponsoring would ban future permits for outdoor vending and deny renewals of permits that are already granted until a permanent Local Coastal Plan for the Venice area--now under review--is adopted.
Galanter’s motion asking that the law be written was unanimously passed by the City Council on Sept. 9 and is expected to go before the council in a final form next month.
Many of the vendors are not happy with the cutback, saying they, like the entertainers, are part of Venice’s character.
“This is popular demand. People want the vending here or they wouldn’t come,” said Patrick Liberty, a thin man with a long beard who sells red, green and bright blue T-shirts for $6 each.
Liberty, pausing during a sale to two Pepperdine University sorority sisters, credited his new-found business with saving him from life on the streets. He could not afford to set up shop in a storefront, he said.
Although merchants say the entertainers and open-air peddlers are good for business and good for tourism, many residents complain that Venice is becoming too commercial.
“I want people to come here for the ocean, not to buy T-shirts,” said Mary Ann Hutchison, a member of the Venice Town Council who lives only a few blocks from the beach.
“We feel the city has opened its arms to visitors and is not elitist. But how many more people can you put on the Ocean Front boardwalk on a Sunday?”
Steve Schlein, a lawyer who lives on Ocean Front Walk and who is fighting a developer’s proposal to put more stores and fast-food restaurants a few doors away, concurred.
“They’ve made the boardwalk a shopping mall,” he said.
Whatever action is finally taken for the vendors and for the artists and entertainers, it may be a difficult task to regulate activities on the boardwalk.
“It’s not the kind of thing you can put in a box,” said Jingles, a self-described concert-promoter-turned-healer who uses acupressure, Japanese massage techniques and crystal quartz to “balance people out.”
“Venice is not Marina del Rey or Beverly Hills. It’s Bohemian, spontaneous, happening. To try to put all that in a box would be chaos.”