Violence In Utopia: What the Venice Gang Killings Mean to L.A.

Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, teaches in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at USC. His next volume on the history of California, "The Dream Endures: California Through the Great Depression," will be published by Oxford University Press

What does London think of us? Paris? Tokyo? Mexico City? Indeed, what do most U.S. cities think of us?

For 20 years or so, Los Angeles has been announcing to one and all its arrival on the scene as a leading city. Since Los Angeles correctly believes that it is playing in the big leagues, the opinions of its urban peers around the globe should be a concern.

The question is not being asked because of the O. J. Simpson case, which for all its horror and theatricality can be understood as yet another L.A. mega-media event. No, the question is being prompted by a more significant and terrifying series of events: the apparent black vs. Latino gang warfare under way in the Oakwood section of Venice, in Culver City, in Mar Vista and in Santa Monica.

Thus far, 17 people, many of them innocent bystanders, have lost their lives in this Armageddon; another 50 have been wounded. Most recently, two Dorsey High School students who belonged to no gang were shot and killed near Venice High School in Mar Vista, executed in cold blood as they sat in their automobile. They were killed, as far as the police could determine, strictly because they were Latino.

Behind this incident lies more than a year and a half of executions, drive-by shootings, reprisals and counter-reprisals that have made this section of Los Angeles the social and psychological equivalent of a war zone. What began as a power struggle over crack-cocaine sales has escalated into something that should send a chill down the spine of every Angeleno: The Venice killings threaten the identity of Los Angeles as a city.

The murders threaten to create yet another No Man's Land of abandoned public spaces in Los Angeles. Sadly, we have adjusted to and accommodated the quarantining of vast sections of eastern and south-central Los Angeles, a legacy of racism in our culture. But as bad as this quarantining is, we are now faced, in terms of the sociology and psychology of urban space, with a brand-new prospect: the transformation of the most intrinsically utopian portion of the metropolitan region, the Westside and the beach communities, into a war zone.

For its first 150 years, Los Angeles moved south along its river. In the late 1920s and 1930s, however, it reversed direction and began to run westward to the sea, along the Wilshire corridor. Two turn-of-the-century Angelenos, H. Gaylord Wilshire and Abbot Kinney, played key roles in creating this surge west. Wilshire laid out the boulevard that bears his name. Kinney created Venice as a utopian experience.

In 1892, Kinney acquired a tract of marshy tidelands 15 miles from Downtown Los Angeles, on the site of the old Rancho La Ballona, favored by the city's duck hunters. He intended to create the ideal city, a utopia of high thought and gracious living. In 1900, Kinney's friend, Henry Huntington, ran a trolley line out to the marshlands, and Kinney began the development of Venice as a utopian residential community and theme park. Venice was the first themed development in Southern California.

For Kinney, Venice was a controlling metaphor for the coming of age of Los Angeles as a neo-Mediterranean city. He spent $1.4 million improving the harbor and waterfront. He constructed a 500-foot-long breakwater to protect the Venice piers. He built an elegant hotel, the St. Mark, in the Venetian style, and a 2,500-seat auditorium near the wharf--complete with a great pipe organ and high glass windows with a breathtaking view of the ocean. There, the citizens of Los Angeles might converge for lectures, concerts and other cultural events.

When this ideal proved too elusive, the ever-resilient Kinney turned Venice into Coney Island West. Among other things, he brought to Los Angeles the great Ferris wheel that had delighted visitors to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He opened a skating rink, a dance pavilion, a bowling alley, a shooting gallery, an aquacade and a bathhouse. Venice, in other words, was like the Los Angeles it served as an urban resort: a distinctive blend of high and popular culture, upper-middle-class dreams and popular realities.

The canals never worked, and, in 1912, the state board of health declared them a public menace. They were paved as ordinary streets in 1927, by which time Venice had become incorporated in Los Angeles.

But the point is that Venice never completely lost its utopian impulses. From the 1930s on, it became increasingly the Bohemia of Los Angeles. In contrast to most other districts, its population was an amalgam of white, black, yellow and brown. During the 1950s, it functioned at near-parity with North Beach in San Francisco as a creative matrix of jazz, painting and poetry. Even today, the 72 Market Street Oyster Bar & Grill carries on this tradition, with a program of Saturday afternoon lectures, concerts and poetry readings. Kinney set Venice down as a goal for Los Angeles as it proceeded west to the sea, leapfrogging from Bullock's Wilshire to Beverly Hills to UCLA to Santa Monica.

Do we now measure ourselves against these previous eras: the sincerity of Kinney's Venice, the internationalism of the 1940s, the Beat-bohemia of the 1950s? Shall we allow these urban landscapes, which yet reverberate in the city's collective memory, to have superimposed on them a landscape of social nihilism and murderous intent?

This is not merely a question of culture and identity, or even the opinion of other leading cities, as important as these are.

There is under way a struggle for the soul of Los Angeles itself--for the sealing off of the western shore in fear and terror would do violence to the very nature of Los Angeles. Public value in such a scenario would be abrogated. Already, there are the beginnings of a boycott and suspicions, perhaps justified, that the beach communities are setting up barricades to the seashore, however indirect, intended to seal off the region from outsiders. Sixty-plus years ago, Los Angeles County adopted a master plan that declared these beaches, for all time to come, the public preserve of the region: the one great public park, open to all. Shall we allow the killers to keep us from this legacy as well?

What do the great world cities think of us? What do we think of ourselves?

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