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The price of loving Venice

Times Staff Writer

THE confrontation took place just inside the front entrance of the dream house in Venice that Jack Hoffmann had been painstakingly renovating for three years.

A homeless man, strong from bodybuilding, whipped out a knife and thrust it twice into Hoffmann’s chest. Then he sliced across Hoffmann’s throat. When Hoffmann raised his arm defensively, the man cut across it as well. Then he speared Hoffmann’s back with the knife, nicking his liver.

Hoffmann wondered: Is this it?

And then: I haven’t even finished the house.

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He chuckled softly at the memory. “I thought, yeah, I’m not ready to go.”

Hoffmann is the owner of the Venice Properties real estate brokerage, a purveyor of cutting-edge lofts, houses and studio and commercial spaces that sell for millions. And he is part of the cast of characters that has made Venice the colorful mix he has loved so much -- and still loves, despite his violent encounter.

Hoffmann represented architect Frank Gehry when he bought Venice land for his own dream house; he counts artists among his friends and collects their pieces for his home; and he presided over the Venice Action Committee in the early 1990s when the group of local business owners and residents wanted to beautify Venice and lobby for better services from the city of Los Angeles.

“It’s like he’s the mayor of Venice or something,” his friend artist Chuck Arnoldi said.

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But it’s a town with rough edges where diversity among residents means artists and entrepreneurs rub elbows with hard-toiling renters, gang members and troubled, sometimes drug-addled, street people.

Hoffmann’s attack rattled friends and neighbors accustomed to convenient, even self-conscious, relationships with the homeless who frequent the streets and alleys of Venice, often acting as informal security for homes and businesses. The incident was a raw reminder that Venice’s gritty street chic sometimes gives way to violent crime.

Tall and muscular at 51, Hoffmann bears a faint white line of a diagonal scar across the front of his neck, a reminder of the attack on July 20, 2005.

“It was just this close to the jugular,” he said of the throat wound. “But yet I have very fond memories of it in a way.”

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His words are startling, even more so because he utters them so matter of factly. He’s talking not about the experience of having a knife pushed through internal organs by a crazed man but about the sense of life in the moment when it might be taken away.

“It was just so intense and so clarifying and so real. I see why guys end up hanging around Elks clubs and VFW centers after wars, because what they face brings them to such a deep awareness of the human experience that there’s almost no one else they can relate to.”

According to Hoffmann’s friends, the attack did not change him. He remains the philosopher-real estate broker that he’s been for years, usually clad in neat-fitting T-shirts, casual slacks and gym shoes.

On this day, he stood in the airy, art-filled office of his real estate brokerage, pointing out landmarks on an aerial map of the community. He seemed to possess an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge about Venice and can tick off a list of who lives where and how long they’ve been there and who has left.

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In his mind, he doesn’t merely sell property. “I want to sell people foundations that propel them into life, rather than roofs to shelter them from it,” he said.

SOME of the community activists who have done battle over the years with high-end developers moving into Venice are a little more prosaic about Hoffmann than he is about himself. “He’s a real estate agent. What can I say?” Carol Berman said, laughing. The 70-year-old longtime Venice resident, who lives in a government-subsidized apartment, has been on opposite sides of issues from Hoffmann. But she also calls him “a decent guy” who helped her out with nuisance problems in the neighborhood.

Hoffmann’s involvement in the community may be what keeps the activists from reviling him. That, and his ability to talk to just about everyone.

“One of the things that’s a pain about working out with him at the gym is he’s always talking to people,” said Arnoldi, Hoffmann’s workout partner at Gold’s Gym. “I tell him, ‘We’re not here to sell condos; we’re here to work out.’ ”

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But Hoffmann is voracious about conversation. “Jack just has a great sense of what’s going on in the neighborhood,” said his friend Tony Bill, a director and producer who bought his house through the broker.

Hoffmann may be one of the best-known real estate brokers in Venice, but he’s not trying to be the biggest.

Hoffmann said he turns away clients he doesn’t feel simpatico with and regularly dictates to the ones he agrees to take on.

Indeed, Hoffmann has been something of a real estate counselor to rising artists over the years, urging them to buy properties they might have second thoughts about.

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“He has been a conscience with real estate,” said artist Guy Dill. “He’s not just gathering up a property and dumping it to the first bidder. He gathers it up and finds an artist who will advance the property.”

Hoffmann has also helped the Venice Community Housing Corp., which provides affordable housing to lower-income residents, to acquire property and has contributed financially to the organization.

Nonetheless, Hoffmann has a Darwinian view of real estate. He calls the lament that Venice is no longer affordable to the artists and people who give it its character “an old song.”

“When houses were $6,000 down here, some people couldn’t afford them. Nothing is new. That’s the standard. Does it shift people around? Yes. That’s the nature of a capitalistic system.”

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He hasn’t convinced the passionate contingent of longtime residents who fight the sprouting of multimillion-dollar condos.

“His blind spot is he loves Venice and he loves the -- quote -- character of Venice,” said Berman, who has sparred with him over development. “But I don’t think he realizes he’s instrumental in taking away the very thing he supposedly loves about Venice.”

Tibby Rothman, editor and publisher of VenicePaper, said she personally likes and respects Hoffmann -- she said he has given her moral support in addition to buying ads -- but her editorial page doesn’t always agree with him. “You don’t interfere with the flow; that’s what he believes,” Rothman said. “Do I think that’s what’s best for Venice? No. Does Jack support a newspaper that has an editorial page that occasionally disagrees with him? Yes.”

HOFFMANN discovered Venice as a boy, surfing its waves. It was always an escape. More than two decades ago, he made it his home.

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At the age of 30, his first marriage over, Hoffmann moved into a tiny $500-a-month oceanfront apartment. He was broke, fleeing a soulless sales job and getting sober after a drug and alcohol problem. Always intrigued by buildings, he began to learn about architecture and the real estate business -- and Venice.

“It was a magnetic draw,” he said. “It fit in so many ways.”

When his young daughters visited, he turned their walks around Venice into adventures. (One is now a writer in L.A.; the other is a lawyer in the Bay Area.) “We went to the seediest coffee shops because I wanted them to see the homeless, that they were real people who were doing things differently. The homeless down here to me were an extension of the beatniks and the bikers.”

But it’s been a long time since the homeless were just “beatniks and bikers.”

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According to Hoffmann, the man who attacked him arrived in the U.S. from Cuba on the 1980 Mariel boatlift and had spent time in prison in this country. When they met, Hoffmann was overseeing the renovation of the dream house on Market Street, a vast expanse with brick walls that he bought in 2000 for $420,000.

Hoffmann says his attacker “was kind of loopy,” full of talk about Jupiter, but he was also effective at scaring off would-be vandals. When he adopted the back of Hoffmann’s property as a home, Hoffmann let him stay. He even agreed to pay for the man’s badly needed dental work if he could get himself to a dental clinic. But when the man began to menace the neighbors and get agitated with Hoffmann, the broker told him he couldn’t stay there any longer.

In four seconds, Hoffmann had six knife wounds and was cornered, his back to the front door, which his attacker had locked. Suddenly, a worker on scaffolding above the roofless building peered down and yelled the man’s name. Hoffmann’s attacker looked up, stunned. “And I just took off running as fast as I could,” Hoffmann said. He got out the back door into the alley.

The man Hoffmann identified as his attacker -- Aurelio Mesa, now 48 -- has been jailed since he was arrested shortly after the attack and charged with attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. According to Deputy Dist. Atty. Belle Chen, Mesa has entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and awaits trial.

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Hoffmann spent five days in the hospital after the attack. His doctor, marveling at his patient’s luck in avoiding life-altering injury, told him, “The first thing you have to do when you get out of here is go to Vegas.”

Instead, he went straight back to the house to check on its progress. “It was important for me to complete what I started that day,” he said.

Hoffmann, whose brief second marriage ended a few years ago, plans to move into the house with his current girlfriend, Laura Meckling, 34, an agent at Venice Properties. He hopes the renovations will be completed this summer.

ON the brick wall near the back entrance where Hoffmann fled, there is a splash of reddish brown color. It is Hoffmann’s blood. He instructed his workers not to wash it off.

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“It changed the community here,” Dill said of the attack on Hoffmann. “We’ve all tried to use the people who were on the street -- ‘Can you watch this? Here’s 20 bucks.’ Not any more.... There isn’t that willingness to be open. We were so frightened for Jack. It was a wake-up call.”

Hoffmann acknowledged that the experience changed at least one thing about him: He won’t give money to homeless people. The handouts, he theorized, do nothing to help people improve their lot. “The guy who stabbed me -- I had given him money, freedom, latitude,” he said, smiling ruefully.

But the broker said it never occurred to him to give up his house on Market Street after he was attacked there. “What’s a little incident?” he quipped. His house, he said, “actually, I think, means more” now.

His irreverent take on the attack can be surprising, but he explained it this way: “People talk about putting their blood, sweat and tears into a project. I really did shed blood over it.”

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carla.hall@latimes.com


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