WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Bohemia at the Beach : Venice: Human Tide, Spiritual Currents Are Big Draws for Boardwalk Area Residents

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Sitting at a table in her oceanfront apartment, Stephanie Fields takes in a post-sundown Venice Boardwalk, the daytime carnival of street performers and vendors long since departed.

A bearded transient swathed in rags floats by ghostlike on in-line skates, pushing a shopping cart full of bags. Puppies, leashes dragging behind them, frolic amid scattered trash as their owners huddle nearby, smoking and talking. Later, a man wearing sunglasses, a beret and a wool poncho struts jauntily by.

"You can see tonight that there is such a contrast between Saturday afternoons and a Friday night," reflects Fields, a four-year resident of the Charlie Chaplin apartment building on Ocean Front Walk, just south of Westminster Avenue. The boardwalk "is interesting to watch. Forget about taking a nap during the day. But in the midst of it all, there is this sense of community . . . and the ocean."

Tourists flock to the Venice boardwalk to see what many consider quintessential California--the sun worshipers and weightlifters, the musicians and the magicians, the basketball hustlers and the hustled, all mixed amid people-watching throngs.

But little noticed in the hubbub are the people who live in the apartment buildings and bungalows that line Ocean Front Walk, a low-rent alternative to the glitzier Santa Monica and Malibu neighborhoods up the coast.

Ranging from young professionals taking their first job to middle-aged new-agers struggling at second careers, they have in many cases set down roots so deep that not even the boardwalk's noise, congestion and increasing crime will drive them out.

"I lived four blocks from the ocean in Playa del Rey and it's a different kind of energy down there," said Fields, 42, an airline flight attendant and postgraduate student. "I came back to Venice with all the artists. . . . Poor people can live next to rich people. White people can live next to black people. It doesn't matter."

Given the diverse, Bohemian flavor, many residents say, Ocean Front Walk's drawbacks are a small price to pay.

"You open the front door and there's music . . . polka, rap and Indian music. You could be talking to somebody about therapy, then the next thing you're talking about praying to Buddha and then you're at a Baptist revival at the church on Brooks (Avenue)," said Robyn Bernard, 33, who shares a tiny single apartment in the Chaplin with fellow country and gospel musician Bobby Paine, 47.

"Living here for a year, it was like the ultimate Venice experience right out your front door," Paine said. "It's a complete cross-section of L.A. . . . It's the human tide and with it, you take the good and bad."

The tolerance of boardwalk residents, however, is not without limits. Two months ago, four sledgehammer-wielding oceanfront residents destroyed several concrete and marble tables at Westminster Avenue and Ocean Front Walk. The tables had become a late-night gathering place for drug dealers, revelers blaring loud music and transients and youths who often came to blows. The racket enraged sleep-deprived residents, who say they felt under siege by a "virus" of "disaffected youth."

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Since the tables were destroyed, Ocean Front Walk has been relatively quiet after dark. Police investigated the destruction of the tables, which were donated to the city by a restaurant owner, but no arrests have been made. Many residents, meanwhile, display a proud defiance about the affair.

"I was ecstatic that the tables were gone," said Fields, who calls all her friends honey . "I should have opened a bottle of champagne."

Linda Albertano, a 10-year resident of the Ocean Front Walk area, said she has felt liberated from fear since the tables were removed.

"I love Venice," she said. "That was really the first time I thought of moving. There was just this disaffected, angry, lost youth--flotsam and jetsam, getting into fisticuffs right outside my window. I used to have a problem with people (urinating) outside my window. But you don't yell anything because you are afraid of retaliation."

For Albertano, however, the benefits of life on the boardwalk more than make up for the hassles. A self-described "spoken word" artist, she lives in a basement apartment in the 20-unit Morrison building--named for the late rock singer Jim Morrison, who reportedly slept on the roof. Her kitchen is filled with herbs, vitamins, tinctures and teas. In her bedroom stands an antique piano, a violin and a floral cloth-draped bed that doubles as a couch. By day, she works out of her apartment as a nutritional counselor.

Albertano considers Venice an artistic community, despite its commercialization.

"It's like Soho West," she said, donning a black and white vintage floral dress. "This is the last slum on the beach, dare I say it."

Affordability and Venice's reputation as a "colorful place" drew Lou Aguilar, a former video reviewer for the Washington Post and the Washington Times, to the Morrison. Aguilar, who "threw away my journalism fortunes" and moved West to pursue screenwriting, said he found Los Angeles to be "the ugliest city in the world."

So he moved to the beach.

"I got a tiny, like, closet," said Aguilar, who rents a single apartment in the Morrison for $475. "It's like a dorm room. I haven't lived like this since college. I am gonna write the ultimate Venice screenplay. I mean, for a writer it's great, even though you hear gunshots and stuff. It's just, you wanna be tough."

Despite the neighborhood's troubles, Aguilar has grown fond of the mood-elevating qualities of the ocean, a valuable tonic for the hard knocks of the film industry. "It has a gorgeous view, with sea gulls that sit on the windows," Aguilar says over lunch at the nearby Sidewalk Cafe "No matter how depressed I am, I always feel better looking out at the ocean. You never know what ships you'll see, or which one I might jump on. And the sunsets are gorgeous."

For some, the Venice boardwalk appeal comes down to a matter of dollars and cents.

"I just wanted to be by the beach and I couldn't afford Santa Monica," said James Webster, a 26-year-old lawyer from Australia who for just under $1,000 a month gets a 180-degree view of the coast from his rooftop bungalow in the the Waldorf building, an apartment complex at the corner of Westminster Avenue and Ocean Front Walk. "I don't know anyone in the building. I just know who to pay the rent to. That seems to be the way it is in L.A. People seem to be detached."

Webster's opinion, however, is not shared by longtime residents such as Albertano and Fields, who say they enjoy a combination of urban living and small-town familiarity.

"Windward (Avenue) is like a little community," Albertano said. "You can walk to the post office, the greengrocer, the bank . . . you get to know your neighbors. I like knowing the name of my pharmacist because I have been going there for 10 years. And there are elements of European society here with the mix of commercial and residential."

Fields says that sense of familiarity promotes a mutual sense of trust and a concern for others.

"I parked my car on a Tuesday where the street sweepers came and someone yelled up at me, 'Hey, Steph, move your car,' " Fields said. "I had my plumbing break and four of my neighbors came and helped me. . . . I go down to the food court, want something to eat and am short of money and I say 'I'll pay you tomorrow.' Where else can you do that in L.A.?"

Dan Renn, 52, who lives a few floors below Webster in the Waldorf, is a co-founder of Los Angeles Shanti Foundation, a support organization for the terminally ill. He has spent most of the last 10 years working with AIDS patients. He says he moved to Venice from West Hollywood, where he had watched many friends die.

"There is a really spiritual element here," said Renn, a Buddhist who meditates four times a day in front of the seaside window of his sparsely furnished apartment. "There is a freedom from judgment. Not that people don't judge, but there is an honest attempt, you see it in their eyes, demeanor and nature to withhold judgment about lifestyles, attitudes, personalities, the whole gamut of the human experience."

Yet there are some residents who believe the neighborhood has become too accepting. Aguilar worries that Venice is "paying the price of reckless liberalism."

When he first moved to Venice, Aguilar said, "I had kind of expected 'Beach Blanket Bingo,' Frankie and Annette, places for young people to go. But the young people who are out at night are lame. (They) worship stupidity . . (and) are on drugs. Some of them are homeless."

The destruction of the picnic tables last summer is not the only sign that the neighborhood's attitude has hardened. Frank Lutz, manager of the Morrison, has installed huge iron gates on the building's entrance, alarms on all the doors and security cameras throughout the building.

Sgt. Frank Montelongo, the officer in charge of the beach unit that patrols the boardwalk, says crime is clearly a problem in the boardwalk area, though by no means more so than in other parts of Venice.

"It's sort of like a cockroach problem in a supermarket; they're always there and you've just got to stay on top of it," Montelongo said. "Everybody sees money down there."

Even residents who have fallen victim to crime, however, are loathe to live anywhere else.

Earlier this month, Fields and a reporter were robbed at gunpoint at Westminster Avenue and Main Street. The robbers were two youths who appeared to be between 13 and 15 years of age. While the experience stunned Fields, she retains strong devotion to the boardwalk neighborhood.

The robbery "didn't change my mind about Venice," said Fields, who paused to draw on her cigarette. "There is a closeness among people who have been here a long time. I still am not afraid. . . . But I'll be a lot more cautious now."

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