California: The View from Venice Beach
California is bigger than a lot of countries, and like a lot of countries it's in a state of undeclared war.
San Franciscans despise Los Angelinos, and to the extent that Los Angelinos can feel passion about anything they hate their neighbors to the north. (Alright…a slight exaggeration; it's more of a smoldering dislike.)
When San Franciscans go out at night, they dress for dinner (partly because they want to be elegant, and partly because the weather sucks); at a fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills, the guy in the torn T-shirt at the next table is Steven Spielberg.
San Francisco is a city; L.A. is a collection of suburbs that have very little in common with one another. Move from the west side of L.A. to the Valley, and you have to set your clock back two years. (Sacramento, like all capital cities, is to be avoided.)
The one place in the Golden State where everybody gets along is Venice Beach; even the bums there are happy. When Venice was founded a hundred and nine years ago, it was its own municipality, with a city hall and a jail.
Those were the days when if you had made a lot of dough you could do what you wanted with it. It was 1905 and Abbot Kinney was rich. He manufactured a brand of cigarette called Sweet Caporal. Each pack contained a baseball card you could collect. It was a popular hobby. So was smoking. Kinney took a trip to Italy, saw Venice and said, "I want one." He came home to southern California and bought up a lot of land along the beach.
There was no way to get there from L.A. except by horseback, so Abbot Kinney he bribed the city into extending trolly car tracks all the way to the coast. He dredged a lagoon and a network of canals and imported gondolas and gondoliers. He erected the largest roller coaster west of the Mississippi and announced the opening of "Venice of America.”
People flocked; it was fun and affordable. You could rent a tent for a buck a week. There were camel rides and trips up and down the beach on a narrow gauge railway and smiling girls in bathing suits and, of course, swimming.
Most municipalities grow up around commerce; there's a harbor, or the train stops there. Venice, CA was founded for fun.
And so it has remained. People are drawn here. The boardwalk, left over from Abbot Kinney's dream, is a tourist attraction second only to Disneyland. People from Ohio stroll up and down gaping at other people from Ohio. Korean entrepreneurs sell sun glasses and T-shirts. The T-shirts are displayed on large boards. (My favorite says: "I'm not a gynecologist but I'll take a look.”)
Ad agencies and film makers set up shop here. My son Max Bean (he introduced my daughter to his best friend Andrew Breitbart, who married her) has opened a store front, with his partner, on Venice Blvd. where aspiring young writers can rent a space, set up their laptops and knock out the next great American movie or cable series. A fancy new hotel is opening on Abbot Kinney Blvd and another one is coming on Main Street. Venice is the new restaurant capital of southern California. James Beach sells its famous fish tacos. Hal's is packed every night and up the street, Joe's place peddles fine cuisine. People stand on the sidewalk waiting to get in.
They don't mind; they're in Venice.