Wealth, Poverty, Anger Live Together in Venice

Times Staff Writers

In the Oakwood section of Venice, two worlds tensely coexist.

One is characterized by stylish glass-and-wood houses with lush gardens that grace the pages of Architectural Digest and Dwell.

The other is marked by small run-down apartment buildings and neglected bungalows with overgrown yards.

On avenues like Indiana, Brooks and Westminster, celebrities such as Dennis Hopper own homes alongside descendants of working-class African Americans who came from the South in the 1920s to find jobs and immigrant Latino families struggling against grinding poverty.

At one edge of the neighborhood runs Abbot Kinney Boulevard, lined with trendy eateries, upscale shops and galleries. Just blocks to the east, police say, Latino and African American gang members deal drugs to customers in BMWs.

In the early 1990s, this enclave was the scene of some of the worst gang violence in Los Angeles history, with nearly two dozen people killed and scores more wounded in battles between black and Latino gang members.

The violence has declined in the last decade, and Venice's hip factor has risen.

The gentrification that began three decades ago around Venice's famous canals has pushed inland into the Oakwood area, as urban professionals and Hollywood types sought that perfect Craftsman to restore or the ideal lot on which to build a designer home.

Monday's shooting death of Agustin Contreras, 17, at Venice High School has brought residents' simmering fears and resentments over this gentrification spewing to the surface.

The next evening, more than 100 residents attended a community forum that had been called to discuss racial tensions in the neighborhood.

The scene soon deteriorated into invective, with blacks alleging that police officers unfairly target them and that whites fear them. Whites in the audience retorted that it was black people who hated them.

Several African American residents angrily berated the community's well-heeled newcomers for desiring the community's beachfront culture while hunkering down in mammoth houses ringed by high security fences.

"Why do they have these fences?" said Stan Muhammad, director of Venice 2000, a gang intervention group. "Is it because of gang violence? No. Is it because of drugs? No, it's not." It is, he said, because of the fear born of guilt.

Although most participants were inclined to view the shooting as a tragic but isolated incident, they said it sharpened their focus on broader problems -- notably a lack of jobs for young men of color and a broken relationship with police, conditions that have given rise to angry and aimless young men who get into trouble.

The shooting occurred at a time when tensions between low-income and high-income residents already were becoming an issue. In fact, the community forum had been called well before Contreras' slaying to address concerns about an inflammatory letter that was distributed in the neighborhood and published last month in a local community newsletter. The letter complained about black "drug dealers, pimps and riff raff" who "never work and always leave the park just like the pig's sty they live in."

At the forum, there was much heated discussion about who wrote the letter. The conversation eventually dissolved into a shouting match.

"This community's problem is all the black people hate the white people!" shouted Wendy Lowe, who is white, after a black woman asserted that Lowe was the letter's author (something Lowe strongly denied).

The meeting reflected the dissension that goes along with Venice's vaunted vitality and diversity, which are particularly evident in the Oakwood area, a roughly one-square-mile area bounded by California Avenue, Lincoln Boulevard, Rose Avenue and Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

Abbot Kinney, an eccentric developer who a century ago dreamed of re-creating Venice, Italy, on the beach, complete with canals and gondoliers, set aside the Oakwood neighborhood for working-class blacks. For a time, "it was the only place that African Americans, Asians and Latinos could live," said Jack V. Hoffmann, a Venice aficionado and real estate broker with Venice Properties.

"It was always the most diverse area and had artistic people and writers and painters and just a lot of cultural and social and community life," added Steve Clare, executive director of the Venice Community Housing Corp., which provides housing for low-income individuals and operates youth development programs. "Venice has been a terrific place to live. What makes it so terrific is this diversity. Very few communities have this economic diversity, which is always enriching."

For decades, this diversity has lured artsy types to the district. In 1970, Yoko Ono and John Lennon participated in primal scream therapy sessions in the neighborhood. In the early 1980s, "Easy Rider" Dennis Hopper was one of the first major celebrities to put down roots in the beachside enclave, buying a loft-style building designed by Frank Gehry and Brian Murphy. He lives there with his wife, actress Victoria Duffy, and their 3-year-old daughter, Galen.

In 2002, Julia Roberts made perhaps the biggest celebrity splash the usually hard-to-impress Venetians had seen. She and her husband, Danny Moder, bought a two-story, $1.3-million home and a lot next door for a pool and cabana on a coveted walk street (just south of the Oakwood section) with tidy Craftsman-style bungalows just off the commercial corridor of Lincoln Boulevard.

For a time, "Julia" sightings elevated heart rates and set tongues to wagging. Roberts and Moder, parents of young twins, are now building a compound in Malibu.

Anjelica Huston and her husband, sculptor Robert Graham, live near the beach. Graham is building an immense studio nearby. Other star-power residents include director Antoine Fuqua, actors Fred Ward, Camryn Manheim and Ron Rifkin, and artist Chuck Arnoldi.

Lauren Hutton recently bought a place for $1.6 million at the edge of the Oakwood area.

That is a far cry from the Venice that greeted Clare on his arrival in 1968, when oil wells dotted the peninsula and the beach, Santa Monica Bay was heavily polluted and biker gangs roared through on a regular basis.

At that time, a small bungalow on a canal could be had for $2,000. Now a buyer in that high-end zone would be lucky to find a residence for less than $1 million; many cost $2.5 million and up.

To people of color, in particular, the disparity has been a source of bitterness and anger. For them, Venice remains a hotbed of economic disenfranchisement, where they are squeezed out of the job market.

Michael Hunt, who grew up in the neighborhood, returned recently after having moved away. The 43-year-old black man found that the neighborhood where his father has long owned a home was no longer a familiar place.

Whatever the neighborhood's problems years ago, he said, it was a community where people struggled together. Now its architectural mishmash -- hulking designer mini-mansions mixed with far more modest California bungalows and Spanish Colonial homes original to the area -- is symbolic of its fractured unity, he said.

The newcomers "are moving in and building those crazy-looking houses and cleaning up other houses," said Dot Green, who is white and has lived in the area since 1944, in a house that she and her late husband bought from their landlord for $7,000. "It cleans up the neighborhood. But a lot of old-timers are gone."

Jataun Valentine, 69, a black woman whose family has lived in the Oakwood section for 91 years, said she and other old-timers have struggled with the changes. "Now you have a lot of new people coming in who don't get to know their neighbors," said Valentine, who lives in a 78-year-old house built by her grandfather.

LAPD detectives are searching for the gunman in the Venice High shooting. They say that a black teen -- possibly an Oakwood gang member -- shot Contreras after he came to the aid of his younger brother, who was involved in a fight with some teens attempting to yank off his cross necklace.

The Oakwood remains the heart of Venice's lucrative drug trade, which is controlled by the Venice Shoreline Crips, an African American gang, and the Venice 13 Latino gang.

But police stress that gang violence has dramatically diminished from a decade ago.

"Gang crime has been dropping," said Capt. Bill Williams, who heads the Pacific Division. "And I just don't want anything to spark it to get it back up."

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