When Venice Canals resident Luis Rivas steps into his garlanded gondola, families of geese and ducks accompany him on a cruise along the tranquil waterways that border his backyard.
"Living in Venice Canals is like living outdoors," Rivas said. "This is one of the last spots in Los Angeles where you are in touch with nature."
Although just a few minutes east of Venice's crowded boardwalks, the community's six canals (Grand and Eastern canals run north-south; Carroll, Linnie, Howland and Sherman stretch east-west) are a serene sanctuary.
Accessible by car on just one road, Venice Canals offers secluded island-like living away from congested streets and traffic noise. The community features turn-of-the-century cottages with offbeat gardens of herbs and palm trees, pallazo-style villas and stylish contemporary homes.
Rivas, 53, and partner Lynn Miller, 55, moved to Venice Canals with their two dogs, Chelsea and Bubbles, in July, 1992. Rivas, an employment benefits broker, and Miller, a travel agent, sold their homes in Encino and Culver City, looked for a place with character close to the ocean and found their dream house in Venice Canals.
They paid $660,000 for a three-bedroom contemporary home. The peach-colored house was built in 1977 at the junction of Eastern and Howland canals. "I fell in love with it immediately. The view over the canals is breathtaking," Miller said. "We spend most of our evenings out on the deck enjoying the stunning nature."
Venice Canals is a small neighborhood of 351 homes. It is bounded by South Venice Boulevard on the north, by Washington Street on the south, by Ocean Avenue on the east and Pacific Avenue on the west. The 1,200 residents of the middle- to upper-middle class community are primarily Anglo, with Latinos as the second largest group.
The area is best known for its two miles of inland waterways accentuated by picturesque bridges that make it a favorite tourist attraction. In June, 1993, the community made the news when animal lovers unsuccessfully tried to prevent state wildlife officials from killing Venice ducks infected with a deadly virus.
Ducks have been part of Venice's charm since 1905 when tobacco tycoon Abbot Kinney recreated the idyllic waterways of Italy's ancient city of canals on what was then a tract of swamp and sand. Kinney, a broadly educated romanticist, envisioned the beach community as starting point of an American Renaissance that would begin on Californian shores.
The once-worthless salt marshes, drained by 40-foot-wide, 5-foot-deep canals, featured column-lined arcaded streets, luxury hotels, upscale shops and lavishly decorated restaurants. Even before the official opening of Kinney's Venice of America in 1905, most of the 592 residential lots had sold for as much as $2,700 each.
Some eight decades later, in 1985, Connie Blackwell paid $150,000 for a 30-foot-by-95-foot lot at the junction of Eastern and Howland canals.
"I knew immediately that Venice Canals was the perfect neighborhood for me. The moment you get into the community, it feels like the countryside," Blackwell said. "At the same time you are close to beach and airport."
Two years and $250,000 later, Blackwell, 46, moved into her 3,500-square-foot dream house. "I wanted to create a real homey atmosphere, especially for the kids I planned to adopt," the owner of a school for insurance agents said.
Today Blackwell's daughters Katie, 6, and Molly, 5, whom she saved from a Romanian orphanage in 1991, roam her house. They leave the quaintness of the community only for school, (both attend the private Waldorf School in Santa Monica and for such necessities as trips to the mall or visits with friends.) "With the water and the wildlife, Venice Canals is a wonderful place for my girls to grow up in," she said.
Visitors to the community often point to Blackwell's unique home as one of the canals' architectural highlights. It features such rarities as wooden ornaments, antique stained glass windows and a pre-Civil War fence from New Orleans, all collected from salvage yards in Louisiana by Blackwell.
The famed canals have long attracted people searching for a life off the beaten path. "Every house has a different feel to it," said Gail England, realtor with Jon Douglas Co. "Most people who buy here choose the location first and the house second."
Home prices range from $300,000 for a charming 750- square-foot Craftsman bungalow from the 1920s to $850,000 for a sun-splashed contemporary villa with prime island location. An average single-family home sells for about $500,000.
Although the diversity in architectural styles attracts people from all walks of life, Venice Canals residents share the preservation of their lifestyle as a common goal.
After most of Kinney's original canals were filled in 1929, the remaining canals deteriorated. Crumbling sidewalks, rotten footbridges and algae-green water caused the city to close the canals to the public in 1942.
After 50 years of fighting between residents and city officials and 18 months of restoration, the Venice Canals area was reopened in October, 1993. With residents' input and labor, the $6-million overhaul replaced sidewalks and bridges, lined the canal walls with concrete blocks and removed tons of junk from the canals' bottom.
"This is an amazingly conscientious community," said Maxine Leral, who is a member of the Venice Canals Assn. "We were involved in the restoration from day one, proposed concrete blocks for the canal banks and planted wetland vegetation."
Twice a year Venice Canals residents join together for a workday to clean their beloved bridges of graffiti, a continuing problem in the community.
As for other crime problems, Officer Lori Taylor of the Los Angeles Police Department said: "It's still Venice, but the crime rate in the Canals is relatively low in comparison to the surrounding neighborhoods."
Leral, 55, and her husband, Murray, 63, bought a lot on Grand Canal in 1959 as an investment for $5,000. The original plan to sell the lot was soon thrown overboard when they fell in love with the romantic ambience of the Canals. Murray, a builder, started designing their home, and in 1979 they moved into the 1,800-square-foot Spanish-style home with big windows. "We wanted to let the outside in," said Leral. "We wanted to be as close to nature as you can possibly be."
The community's picturesque scenery was discovered as movie settings early on. For silent pictures, Harold Lloyd leaped from canal bridges and Mary Pickford was rowed down Grand Canal. More recently, the arched bridges served as background for television series such as "Simon & Simon" and "Baywatch."
Venice Canals is also a source of inspiration for singer Ann White, who paid $32,500 for a 1,200-square-foot Hansel and Gretel-style home on Howland Canal in 1964.
"After my house in Beverly Glen Canyon had burnt down I wanted something close to the water," White said. "When the broker showed me the house, I bought it on the spot." White is a former member of the folk group the New Christy Minstrels who works as background singer for Burt Bacharach and recently sang on the soundtrack for Oliver Stone's moviec"Heaven and Earth."
When White, 55, and husband Michel DeMers, 50, a writer, remodeled their two-story home in 1990, they added 600 square feet of floor space and larger windows but kept the fairy tale aura intact. "We changed windows and walls but not the character. This is here to stay," White said.
The same is true for Anita Henkens, 69. She's lived in Venice Canals since 1948, when she and her husband, Robert, moved into a one-bedroom, $10-a-month apartment on Carroll Canal. For her 10th wedding anniversary Henkens' father, who owned the one-story 1924 building, gave her the keys to the two adjacent units.
"We tore down walls, demolished two kitchens and walled up doors," Henkens said, to create a long, narrow Craftsman bungalow.
Like Henkens' home, the community also has undergone massive changes. "First came the beatniks, then the hippies, then the flower children and today it's the yuppies," said Henkens. "Venice Canals and I, we have seen some rough times.
"Venice Canals is not like anywhere else. Nobody tells you what to do, but at the same time we are a close-knit community.
"I can't even imagine living anywhere else. After all those years I still love it here."
At a Glance
Population 1994 estimate: 1,704 1990-94 change: -3.6%
Annual income Per capita: 41,541 Median household: 49,375
Household distribution Less than $30,000: 12.1% $30,000 - $60,000: 20.6% $60,000 - $100,000: 29.1% $100,000 - $150,000: 26.5% $150,000 +: 11.1%
Venice Canals Home Sale Data
Sample Size (for 10-year period): 315 Ave. home size (square feet): 1,249 Ave. Year Built: 1943 Ave. No. Bedrms: 2.36 Ave. No. Baths: 1.45 View homes: 18% Central air: 2% Waterfront: 13% Floodzone: 40% Price Range (1993-94): $212,000-785,000 Predominant Value: $751,000 Age Range: 7-88 years Predominant Age: 43 years
AVERAGE SALES DATA
Year Total $ per Median Sales sq. ft. price 1994* 2 $265.35 $785,000 1993 9 $239.30 $275,000 1992 7 $267.82 $397,500 1991 22 $277.81 $413,000 1990 11 $303.54 $312,000 1989 30 $272.08 $365,000 1988 55 $248.08 $244,500 1987 69 $214.12 $210,000 1986 54 $160.00 $160,000 1985 56 $160.17 $155,000
* 1994 data current through February.
Source: TRW Redi Property Data, Riverside