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A Piece of Italy in Los Angeles

Photos By : Dustin Klemann

Hidden among the bustling streets of Los Angeles, a series of canals guides gondolas and small boats through narrow channels of water along homes in California’s Venice Beach neighborhood. What remains of the historic Venice Canals system today, which is less than half the original blueprint of a century ago, offers a glimpse into another world and a different time.

At the turn of the 20th century, long before tourists clamored to the beach to watch people breakdance or dogs skateboard, the now high-priced vacation destination was once an uninhabitable swampland where whales spawned, called Ocean Park.

“There was a land developer named Abbot Kinney whose family made millions in the tobacco industry,” Venice Beach Historian Sonya Reese Greenland says. “He and some other developers drew straws to buy land and he won first pick. Everyone was shocked that he picked the swamp.”

Unlike the others, Abbot imagined a solution to the challenging terrain that would not only allow him to build but also would enable him to replicate the Venetian canals of Italy, his favorite place on Earth.

And halfway across the country in New Orleans, a young Black man boarded a westbound train nearly two decades before the Great Migration for the opportunity to work for a man he’d learned was building a “Venice of America.”

“Arthur Reese came out west in 1903 to work as a janitor for Abbot Kinney,” Sonya says, recalling her grandfather’s pilgrimage.

With the canal construction taken care of, Arthur was also asked to help with decorations when it was time to bring Abbot’s dream of a flamboyant amusement park to fruition. The Venice Beach Pier was dotted with concessions such as the opera house, an aquarium, two saltwater plunges, a carnival and more. The burgeoning new attraction was hailed by many as the “Coney Island of the West,” according to historians and news reports from the time.

“Venice was accommodating of all people,” Sonya says. “It employed people of all races and celebrated holidays from different countries, like Girls’ Day in Japan or Mardi Gras from Arthur’s home town.”

The immigrants drawn to the area for work settled in the new town, creating what Sonya calls a “multicultural, diverse neighborhood of all kinds of people.” Despite the more accepting attitude of the West, Black people were still subject to racism and so, even though he designed the gondola that passed through the Venice Canals, Arthur could not ride in one himself.

“I never felt (racism), myself,” Sonya says. “Venice was, for me, a very welcoming place. In Venice, you could just be a human being, not Black or poor. Throughout my life, I haven’t felt that way anywhere else outside of Europe.”

Sonya, who is now in her 80s, recalls her early travels outside the States, where she was surprised to learn people abroad had heard of this European confection in California.

“When I was in Senegal, they knew about it, in Africa!” Sonya recalls.

Venice of America drew tourists from across the country and around the world during a time when globalized travel was not yet commonplace. The success of the attraction inspired others to build and competition motivated Abbot to expand.

“Arthur was getting a lot of work decorating, and really made a name for himself,” Sonya says. “He was in the Masons of Santa Monica, created the first Black tennis club here and helped establish the first Black church of Venice.”

This mighty rush of development eventually sputtered to a stop after Abbot died in 1920, just one month before a large fire broke out on the pier and caused extensive damage. By the end of that decade, the town went bankrupt and was forced to annex into the City of Los Angeles, which filled in most of the canals after they were deemed too expensive to maintain.

“There are a few of the original cottages there with the canals, today,” Sonya says.

Though they once housed poor, single mothers, the now refurbished cottages that line the peculiar canals are currently appraised in the millions of dollars. Homes showcasing wildly different architectural styles line a walking path frequented by as many as 10 million visitors per year, according to the Venice Beach tourism department.

The tourists don’t bother Ken Brunt, who lays comfortably shirtless and reclined in his lawn chair. As he sips his carbonated drink, a handful of camera-clad tourists speaking various languages pass by his canal-facing yard. “I don’t mind them; it’s actually pretty quiet in here,” says Ken, who moved here in 2016. “It’s still kind of a secret place. I know people who have lived in L.A. for 50 years and didn’t know this was here.”

 

Ken occasionally takes his paddle board out on the canals and says he enjoys a sense of community here that he never felt living on London’s buzzing Electric Avenue for 15 years. Though he can appreciate the oddity of this place he now calls home, Ken says the Venice Canals don’t exactly feel like Italy.

“I’ve been to Venice, Italy and this is different,” Ken says. “This feels uniquely American to me.”

A mix of gondolas, canoes, kayaks and even a large, pink swan-shaped boat are tied up along the shoreline. The canals are an oddity of cultures mashed up and shaken out in curious display. And that includes the famed Venice Beach, where casual restaurants, marijuana shops and a skate park now stand in place of the former opera house and carnival.

Scenes from Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

About two blocks away from Ken’s home, Abbot Kinney and Arthur Reese live on in a pair of namesake roads that run through the district. Along Abbot Kinney Boulevard, you’ll find high-end clothing shops, art galleries and restaurants with menus featuring global fare.

 A dog park sits near Reese Court, which runs parallel to the throughway named after Arthur’s employer.

“Growing up in Venice and living here all my life prepared me for traveling the world,” Sonya says. “It was and is the center of culture.”

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