The now-famous CicLAvia cycling street party is back this year with pair of events that expand its reach westward along two of the city’s greatest corridors: Venice and Wilshire boulevards. Starting with this Sunday, when cyclists and streetscape enthusiasts alike will enjoy free run of Venice between Downtown and the beach. From 10am to 3pm.our most pervasive public space will be returned to two-wheeled travelers and pedestrians and allow us to explore the layered histories in the physical environment that make Los Angeles so unique. We’ll be there and hope to see you there too! Next up in June: Wilshire!
Venice Boulevard: it’s one of the iconic (if overlooked) corridors that played a key role in the historic development of Los Angeles. Linking the once-independent City of Venice (incorporated in 1911 by real estate developer and attraction promoter Abbot Kinney) with the epicenter of commerce and transportation Downtown, this boulevard is not only a key southwestern thoroughfare for Angelenos, it stands as a reminder of how our region has changed.
Foremost, it’s a story about mass transit and how it shaped our area’s physical and cultural history in the Post-European era. But it also shows how cultural and physical change continues in turn to shape our urban environment today. Venice Boulevard is a produce of the forces that shaped our entire region, and a sign of how change exacts a toll on the communities in which we work, live and play today.
Long before cars predominated, mass transit was the means of moving Angelenos across the vast Southland basin and into the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. Light rail ruled! So extensive was the network – and so pervasive was its influence on settlement – that the corridors around which we organize our lives today were literally put on the map more than a century ago by myriad private operators who competed to claim an operating rail franchise.
Venice was one of the key corridors. The Western division that served Santa Monica Boulevard (with a station in Beverly Hills) emerged from a tunnel on Downtown’s north side. Traveling along Sunset, it turned west on Santa Monica Boulevard (with a branch along Hollywood Blvd.) and passed the VA and eventually reached Santa Monica – then an incorporated city.
The Venice line, in contrast, headed south on Hill Street (no tunnel) to turn west on Venice. Not only did it serve these near southern precincts of the city, a bit west it established an important juncture at Pico, which today is a locus of renewed development activity. From there a second line (up San Vicente) reached Beverly Hills.
But the Venice branch continued southwest to anchor neighborhoods in West Los Angeles, Mar Vista, and Marina. It also opened them – and Abbot Kinney’s new developments – to settlement.
That was part of Abbot Kinney’s plan, of course. The developer of the fanciful Venice colonnade near the boardwalk, not to mention those legendary (now largely filled) canals off the boulevard of his name, needed a means of access from the city’s population centers. The streetcar was the transportation lifeline.
Turn of the century Los Angeles was mostly a tabula rasa: unincorporated settlements and independent cities (of which Venice was one – incorporated in 1911) were first pulled into regional coherence by the rail lines. We take for granted the patterns of mobility etched into the region today, but these are a product of decisions taken more than a century ago by wildcatters looking to secure a rail franchise. Back then, competing transit investors/operators duked it out for markets and profit when Los Angeles was only ninety square miles. And behind it all was real estate speculation.
(That land-grab parallels the organization of the virtual world today, doesn’t it? We may take for granted the pathways that have been created to access information in the virtual world, but like rail franchises and private easements made the real world physically accessible a century ago, today the virtual world is ordered by private investment in online properties and means of access. And the parallel doesn’t end there. The process of creation is very much analogous too. Both eras reflect hyper-competitive land grabs as firms emerged, consolidated, and folded at a rapid rate – that’s the ‘creative destruction’ characteristic of capitalism.)
That seat-of-the-pants business decision-making not only rewarded firms and shareholders that were early movers in the region, it also shaped our experience of the city for decades to come. Fin de siècle transportation planning in Los Angeles was less a function of forethought and efficiency than it was a product of good timing, cutthroat business practices, and not least, venture capital chasing easy money. Planning was largely by private initiative in the days before elaborate general plans and plodding infrastructure investment.
Venice Boulevard is very much the creation of the streetcar. Along the line, commercial blocks were erected and businesses were established. Around stops, land was speculated and sold, homes were built, and neighborhoods were created. Schools and factories completed the civic infrastructure. That earlier era was locally-defined, and location advantage was often indexed to the distance from the streetcar stop.
Just look at this map to see once stand-alone communities that live on only as mere place names on Los Angeles map of today. Post-consolidation, postwar Los Angeles operates at a different scale!
We can see the old bones of these communities along the Venice Boulevard of today. The one-story ‘taxpayer’ shops that line much of the corridor, often in disrepair, tell the story of once-prosperous communities but also suggest the changed fortunes of these neighborhoods. We refer to them in approximate fashion as ‘Los Angeles.’ And the corridor itself is just a fast track to Downtown or the beach or some intermediate destination. Yes, traveling the boulevard at auto speed makes the blocks pass like television cartoon backgrounds and we forget the history.
But CicLAvia begs us to look more closely. See it from the perspective of the saddle at the speed of the bike. The ornamentation on those lovely stone and brick structures telegraphs the middle-class wealth and aspiration that once characterized these places. We were a manufacturing city and, later, a hub of aerospace innovation, and that good fortune found its way into the structures and cultures of the neighborhoods along the streetcar.
But the small markets, corner grocers, and faded terrazzo entryways of long-gone retailers also suggest the plotline of proto-noir urban decline: of wealth fled, of community disinterest, and negligent civic institutions that let it slide. The Venice corridor at once reaffirms our city’s history of local community – the hub literally built around the streetcar stop! – while reminding us that we live a life scaled up today. We see the region but overlook the hyper-local treasures.
This Sunday from 10am to 3pm you’ll get your taste when you ride as part of CicLAvia. Take a few hours to enjoy the city of old; the city of Abbot Kinney and his contemporaries that extended streetcar lines and platted subdivisions. Revisit the century-ago land speculators and the artisans who built our city in the early-twentieth century.
Oh sure, you’ll have to use some imagination. Bad land use decisions tend to put a damper on the romance. But squint and you’ll see what the city once looked like. CicLAvia we celebrate you!