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Sore Spots on a Split Venice Boardwalk

Times Staff Writer

The Venice Beach boardwalk has a split personality. On the east side, merchants in stalls and shops pay rent, wages and taxes for the privilege of selling sunglasses, flip-flops, T-shirts and incense.

On the west side, pretty much anything goes -- and nobody pays a dime to set up shop or put on a show.

Take Shabba, the Robot Man, who one recent afternoon sported feathery white angel wings and flexed his oiled chest and biceps as he posed with grinning tourists.

Or Louis Garza, the self-styled Mayor of Venice, who early on Saturday mornings can be seen in dark pants, vest and fedora, holding aloft a golf club as he trots alongside runners training for the marathon.

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Or George French, 72, also known as Mad George, the Wizard of Venice, whose Gandalfian locks and beard flutter in the breeze as he zooms along in his wheelchair to where Horizon Avenue meets the boardwalk. He has read palms on the boardwalk for 26 years, 19 of them at that same spot.

These days, however, French fears for his bare-bones existence.

The Los Angeles City Council plans to vote Wednesday on an ordinance that would require the painters, free speakers, musicians and others who peddle their talents and wares on the west side of the boardwalk to buy a $25 lifetime permit and participate in a monthly lottery that would determine who would get space, and where.

“It would suck the life out of Venice,” said Rishikavi “Ra” Raghudas, a goateed yoga teacher, Tarot card reader, astrologer and -- this being Los Angeles -- screenwriter. “This may be the freest place in America. Nobody wants to see artists in captivity.”

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Opponents of the ordinance contend that it is an unnecessary intrusion on 1st Amendment rights in what is a designated free-speech zone known worldwide for its eclectic denizens, freewheeling performers and unfettered public expression.

City officials counter that the ordinance aims to improve a situation that has gotten out of hand. Their goal, they say, is to cut down on the complaints from disgruntled residents and merchants who say the west side has deteriorated into a swap meet where vendors show up as early as 4 a.m. during summer months and fight, often noisily, for space.

Even among some of the west-side vendors, verbal disputes and physical altercations have prompted a few individuals to seek restraining orders against their al fresco neighbors.

“There has to be some fair and balanced way to give people spaces,” said Gita Isagholian, the city attorney’s neighborhood prosecutor assigned to the Pacific Division. “We have to control it in some way.”

At stake, both sides say, is the future of one of Southern California’s most popular tourist attractions. On holiday weekends, this carnival without rides can easily attract more than 1 million visitors.

When skies are sunny, hundreds of vendors jam the beach side of the boardwalk, offering henna tattoos and items as varied as framed photos of the Hollywood sign, Rastafarian-inspired beach towels, artfully squashed soda cans with beach landscapes painted on the bottoms, leather masks -- not to mention puppies and kittens.

Tourists and locals have been drawn to Venice Beach’s boardwalk since developer Abbot Kinney created the community a century ago out of a degraded marshland. The wealthy tobacco mogul and world traveler, envisioning a “Coney Island of the Pacific,” launched his dream with a pier, the saltwater Ocean Park Plunge and, of course, canals and architecture patterned after the Renaissance Italian city. The community had its grand opening July 4, 1905, and quickly became a hit.

“There were always vendors ... but most sold postcards, popcorn and hot dogs,” said Elayne Alexander, the Venice Historical Society’s historian and archivist. “There wasn’t the weirdness that we have now.”

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One woman’s weird, of course, is another’s wonderfully wacky. But it’s safe to say that those early 20th century visitors would be agog at much of what the boardwalk offers these days. City officials, vendors and property owners have struggled for years to develop a system that works for everyone, and devotees can recount a history of ordinances, lawsuits and debate.

The Wizard of Venice says he believes the current arrangement works. What would happen to his livelihood, French asked, if he were to be aced out of a lottery spot for months on end?

“It’s unconstitutional, and we’ll fight it tooth and nail,” French said of the ordinance.

“The 1st Amendment does not give you a right to have a permanent space on the boardwalk,” countered Sandy Kievman, senior field deputy for City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who has helped lead the ordinance effort.

Kievman said the ordinance would aid police in their effort to enforce existing rules that prohibit the sale of commercial merchandise on the boardwalk’s west side.

On the boardwalk’s east side, property owners charge vendors steep rents for space. But the west side is controlled by the city, and until now vendors have been free to peddle their wares on a first-come, first-served basis.

The rules allow the west-side vendors to sell products if a philosophical or religious belief is “inextricably intertwined” with the goods for sale.

The current code “has a lot of ambiguity to it,” said Sgt. David Burrus, the L.A. police officer in charge of the Venice Beach detail. And vendors have spotted loopholes, he said, citing those who make candles and “melt a small gold cross in the bottom.”

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In recent years, the sale of such merchandise has angered east-side merchants.

“I’m getting hurt really badly,” said Vicky Shanan, owner of Venice Crystals. “People come in and say, ‘Ah, he’s selling it for less on the other side.’ ”

Vivianne Robinson, a 10-year boardwalk veteran, can see the situation from both sides.

As a free artist on the west side, she paints patrons’ names on grains of rice in a 30-foot-long space that also features two space alien figures and her artwork. On the east side, she pays more than $3,000 in monthly rent ($4,500 in summer) for two stalls, where she sells socks and other commercial goods. At one point, she added etched crystal figures to her east-side inventory, but then began spotting the same merchandise in the free spaces on the beach side, where it sold for much less.

“It seems impossible to organize,” Robinson said. “It’s just a war zone, so in some ways it would be good to regulate.”

Joel Shields, who rents an apartment on the east side of Ocean Front Walk, has long complained about the clatter. During the summer, he said, vendors begin congregating at 5 a.m. or earlier, with metal chairs, carts and supplies -- often staking out spots by laying down pipes and other paraphernalia along the east side. A few minutes before 9, he said, there is a mad rush to the free side.

The ordinance would eliminate the need for the predawn jockeying, he said. Under rules drafted by the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, the number of spaces along the west side would be limited to 106.

“I don’t want a sterile environment,” Shields said. “But I don’t want to wake up to a flea market at 5 a.m.”


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