On Venice Boulevard
Downtown to the Sea
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ONE OF MANY STUCCO-WALLED, ASPHALT-FLOORED corridors crisscrossing Los Angeles, Venice Boulevard is both a typical and extraordinary street. As the most direct route between Downtown Los Angeles and the coast at Venice Beach, it is a uniquely coherent transect for measuring the city—from the dense and conflicted urban core, to what, for many, is the ultimate American destination: the sun setting over the beaches of the Pacific Ocean.
 
Los Angeles is largely a product of the jet-fueled electronic revolution of the 20th century, with much of the city’s bulk appearing in the latter half; though the clusters of structures that make up the city were hung on the skeleton of transportation corridors set in the first half of the century. These corridors, and patterns of the urban fabric, were based on an original network of railways, not highways. 
 
Venice Boulevard began as a dirt track along the side of the railroad tracks laid down in 1902, which became part of Huntington’s sprawling Pacific Electric interurban network in 1906, with the infamous Red (and less famous Yellow) Cars. Known as the Venice Short Line, the route left Downtown LA at 16th Street, passed through the rail junction at the Vineland Station in Mid-City, then curved to the southwest near Fairfax Avenue, rounding the Baldwin Hills, into its final and straight six-mile run to the coast. 
 
The first major stop along this straightaway was at Culver Junction, where two other railroad lines met the Venice Short Line: the Playa del Rey Line, which went down what is now Culver Boulevard to the coast, then south to Redondo Beach; and the Santa Monica Air Line, which connected Exposition Park, near Downtown LA, with Santa Monica. Though it ceased running in 1953, the Air Line corridor was preserved, and in 2016 became the Exposition Line of Los Angeles’ light rail system, once again connecting the Downtown Los Angeles area to Santa Monica, by rail.
 
Culver Junction, marking a temporal and physical intersection between the old and new interurban railways of Los Angeles, is next to what is now downtown Culver City, a place that was born out of this junction too. Its founder and developer, Harry Culver, put his downtown Main Street here, in 1913, because of this rail junction, half way between Downtown Los Angeles, and the coast at Venice. “All roads lead to Culver City,” his advertisements of the day said. All roads also must then depart from here, too, so let’s begin the journey southwestward down Venice Boulevard, starting here at Culver Junction, and heading to the coast, over the last five miles of the continent.
 
6369 View, looking northeast, of Venice Boulevard at Bagley/Main Street, ca. 1955. The wide former railway median is being used to park cars for a dealership. Image from USC Libraries, Los Angeles Examiner Collection
Culver City Toward the Sea
Culver City’s Main Street is directly across Venice Boulevard from the offices of the CLUI, as is the Ivy Substation, once the source of electrical power for this stretch of the Venice Short Line. Culver City was incorporated as an independent municipality in 1917, and grew to cover nearly five square miles by the 1960s, through more than 40 annexations, creating a city with an irregular shape. It started here, at the one-block-long Main Street, laid out by Harry Culver in 1913. The city line between Los Angeles and Culver City runs through the north end of the street, making it actually more like three-fifths of a block long, and is thus referred to as “the shortest Main Street in America.” North of the city line is the Palms district of Los Angeles, an area generally bounded by the 10 Freeway, Venice Boulevard, and the 405 Freeway.
 
Palms has been a distinct neighborhood named on maps since the late 1800s, though its recognition as such has been limited, compared with other more centered and promoted places. Like other communities in the region, it defended its territory from Culver City’s expansionist grasp, which continued into the 1960s. The closest thing to a downtown commercial core of Palms is the area around the intersection of National Boulevard and Motor Avenue, several blocks north of Venice Boulevard. Palms’ southern front is along Venice Boulevard, where it pushes into Culver City territory on the opposite side of the street, sometimes by only a hundred feet or less. 
 
The city line of Culver City, though, finally reaches Venice Boulevard itself west of Overland Boulevard. In 1950, a new commercial center was built at this point, taking advantage of Venice Boulevard as a well-traveled thoroughfare. Built on the site of a former boxing arena, it was called Culver Center, and was a drive-in shopping environment, more tuned to car culture, and among the first modern shopping centers in Southern California. The dry goods, dime stores, and soda fountains there have since given way to big box stores and chains, like Best Buy, Sit ’n Sleep, and Panda Express, and more parking lots. The classic Googie-style Ships Restaurant building was replaced by a blocky modernist retail mini-cluster with a Subway, Coffee Bean, and a smoothie joint. 
 
Culver City’s terrain on the south side of Venice Boulevard continues west past the 405 Freeway, which is mostly elevated as it crosses through the area, and spans Venice Boulevard on a bridge. The 405 was finished in 1964, and is called the San Diego Freeway, though it does not go to San Diego. It is an auxiliary bypass route for Interstate 5, disconnecting from the 5 in the San Fernando Valley, and reconnecting to it in Irvine. The 405 is the principal interstate serving the west side of Los Angeles, and is often ranked as the busiest interstate in the nation. On the north side of Venice Boulevard, the neighborhood changes from Palms to Mar Vista at the 405. Across the street, Culver City continues for another two blocks west on Venice, before giving way to Mar Vista.
 
6370 This mini mall at the corner of Venice and Sawtelle was built in the early 1980s, and is home to Jelly Donuts and Fatburger. Many mini malls are found on corner lots like this one, as these sites were often former gas stations, as this one was. The oil crisis of the 1970s, followed by the trend towards larger stations with more pumps, led to the closure of many small independent gas stations, whose property, with buried gas tanks and other contamination issues, often sold for very little. The resulting proliferation of mini malls in the 1970s and 80s was so rapid that the City of Los Angeles passed an ordinance against them in 1988. Mini malls provide inexpensive store frontage for local businesses, and collectively house a wide variety of restaurants and services. CLUI photo
Mar Vista: Sea in Sight
Mar Vista started off as a separate community within Los Angeles County, until it voted to become part of the City of Los Angeles in 1926. As its name suggests, it is near, but not at, the ocean. Venice Boulevard passes over what remains of Mar Vista Creek at McLaughlin Avenue, where an open concrete channel disappears under the road. The channel is part of the Sawtelle-Westwood Channel system, which replaced all of Mar Vista Creek by 1956, and collects runoff from street drains for much of Mar Vista, Palms, Westdale, and other west side communities. The channel re-emerges from underneath McLaughlin Avenue at Washington Boulevard, and drains into the Ballona Creek Channel at the Mar Vista Village Apartments, a few blocks west of the 405. Ballona Creek is the principal drainage outlet for the west side of Los Angeles, collecting water from 130 square miles. The creek emerges from underground at the intersection of Venice Boulevard and Cochran, a mile east of Culver City, and continues along the base of the Baldwin Hills as an open channel growing wider with tributaries like the Sawtelle-Westwood Channel, until meeting the ocean at Playa del Rey. 
 
The west side of McLaughlin Avenue at Venice Boulevard is the corner of an early development known as the Oval, which was built on a 137-acre former ranch in 1912, and then known as Palm Place. It was designed by landscape architect Wilbur David Cook, who once worked with Olmsted’s firm designing the 1893 Exposition in Chicago. Cook came to LA in 1907, and worked on important developments like Exposition Park, downtown Beverly Hills, and the LA Civic Center. Palm Place was to be a “new aristocratic suburb,” and had an elliptical road pattern with large lots, to accommodate country estates. Little was built, however. By 1920 the large lots and large pretentions were downsized, and by 1927 there were 50 more modest houses. It was built out by the 1970s, with around 200 houses. 
 
6371 When it opened in 1961, the Mar Vista Bowl became a landmark on Venice Boulevard, on the east end of downtown Mar Vista. The bowling alley was designed by Armet and Davis, the firm behind other Googie landmarks in Los Angeles, like Johnie’s Coffee Shop at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, and Norm’s Diner on La Cienega. Unfortunately much of the Mar Vista Bowl’s distinctive features have been stripped away, inside and out, including its original tiki cocktail lounge. CLUI photo
Venice Boulevard meets the west side of the Oval at Inglewood Boulevard. In 1912, from this point west, Venice Boulevard was paved all the way to Venice. East of here Venice Boulevard remained unpaved in places until 1938, and it continued to be dominated by the active Venice Short Line tracks. In 1924 the road, on either side of the tracks, was widened to as much as 60 feet, adding lanes to help relieve increasing car traffic on Washington Boulevard, which had long been the main auto road from Downtown Los Angeles to Venice. 
 
This part of Venice Boulevard was paved early on, as it was developing into the downtown commercial center for Mar Vista, especially the block between Grand View and Centinela. This block was built out between 1924 and 1960, and most of the old storefronts on the south side remain. There was a stop for the Red Car here, too, until 1950, when the Venice Short Line stopped running, and the tracks were removed a year later. The 60-foot-wide median left from the railway was a chaotic space, used for parking. In 1966 the road was widened into three lanes in each direction, with parking along the curb. The median remained to divide the eastbound and westbound lanes, but was narrowed to less than a car’s width in most places. Stores in downtown Mar Vista claimed there was a 25% drop in business when the central parking area went away. As part of beautification efforts in the late 1960s, especially in these retail parts of Mar Vista, power lines were put underground, trees were planted, street lamps installed, and sidewalks were widened.
 
A four-block-wide part of downtown Mar Vista between Centinela and Stewart Street is a region known as Mormon Hill, where many of the shops were originally built to serve the Mormon settlement extending north from Venice Boulevard to Windward. The tract, known as Mar Vista Park, was settled by Mormons starting in the 1920s, and is centered on Wasatch Street, a reference to the mountains looming behind Salt Lake City. The community is still anchored by a Mormon church at the corner of Windward and Centinela.
 
Despite the temperance of the Mormons in the area, downtown Mar Vista has had a boisterous past, that continues to some degree in the present, amidst the quirky gentrification that has come to town in recent times. Along Venice are a number of beer halls, bars, tattoo parlors, and seven liquor stores, at last count. At Beethoven Street, on the west end of the commercial strip, is the 12800 block of Venice Boulevard. The block was mostly built out in the 1950s, and has two small liquor stores. On the north side of the street is the former Ven-Mar liquor store, notable for being the second liquor store in Mar Vista to be robbed, in 1950. Next to it is the El Charro Mexican restaurant, which was featured in a scene in the 2005 film Crash, the Academy Award winning movie about racial tensions in Los Angeles. Across the street is another liquor store, next to a windowless storefront that was a men’s spa for many years. 
 
6372 Venice High’s logo, which appears on the sign in front of the school, depicts a gondola and gondolier in front of an outline of Venice, Italy, along with the school’s motto: “rowing not drifting.” A sculpture in front of the main entrance shows a woman gesturing up to the sky with one arm, and towards the ground with the other. The model for this sculpture, unveiled in 1922, was a student who grew up to become the actress Myrna Loy. By 2000, the sculpture had deteriorated and was removed, and was later replaced with a replica. CLUI photo
One block further west on Venice Boulevard is Venice High School. The first Venice High School at this site was built in 1914, on land that was in Los Angeles, not Venice, though it was annexed to Venice two years later. A large and ornate campus, especially for a compulsory school, it was so badly damaged in the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake that it was torn down. Two years later the new Art Deco campus that is still there today opened. As a film location, it has been cast as various fictional versions of high schools in films that include Grease and Heathers, and many alumni were featured in films too, including Myrna Loy, Beau Bridges, and Crispin Glover. In the old days the school had its own stop on the Venice Short Line, and served students from Palms and other communities.
 
Venice’s Backcountry
Walgrove Avenue, west of the school, is the eastern boundary of the community of Venice (with the exception of the annexed land under Venice High School). Entering Venice, the address numbering system changes from five-digit addresses ascending, to four-digit addresses descending, counting down to the coast. Venice was founded in 1905, and was an independent city until 1925. It was envisioned and developed by Abbot Kinney, who created the community on land he purchased. His vision was an American version of Venice, Italy, and included a St. Marks Plaza-like space, and a network of canals. Though much was constructed, including a popular coastal resort destination, serviced by the Venice Short Line, the housing developments lagged. These and other reasons, including water shortages, prompted the 1925 vote to be annexed by Los Angeles, which was flush with water from the Owens Valley. Venice, though, still remains a distinct community.
 
6378 A black granite obelisk at the northwest corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Venice Boulevard commemorates this as the location where, in 1942, more than a thousand local residents of Japanese ancestry were processed and loaded onto buses that took them to the Manzanar War Relocation Center. They were among the 10,000 Japanese Americans sent to the camp, three hours north in the Owens Valley, which itself was one of ten camps holding 110,000 Japanese Americans for as long as three years during the war. The internees reported to locations like this across the western USA, bringing just what they could carry, and many lost what they had to leave behind, including their homes. This monument was erected here, in front of the corner’s car wash, in 2017. CLUI photo
The first major intersection on Venice in Venice is Lincoln Boulevard. This street is State Route 1, the famous coastal highway running for more than 650 miles from Orange to Mendocino County. It was designated as Route 1 when the state renumbered the highway system in 1964. At the same time a portion of Venice Boulevard, starting at this intersection, became a State Route (CA 187) and officially part of the National Highway System, which provides federal funds for its maintenance, as it’s considered critical to national defense needs. From here CA 187 heads east on Venice, connecting CA 1 to Interstate 10 at La Cienega Boulevard. In 1966 much of this stretch was widened into three lanes in each direction, befitting an urban street that is also a highway.
 
Venice, an independent city from 1905 to 1925, was administered out of its city hall on Venice Boulevard, a few blocks west of Lincoln, a Mission Revival-style building that was finished in 1907, when Abbot Kinney’s Venice was growing quickly. After Venice joined Los Angeles in 1925, its city hall was obsolete. For the past several decades the building has been the home of Beyond Baroque, a literary arts center and performance space. 
 
6377 Beyond Baroque, occupying the former Venice City Hall, has been an important creative hub and venue for local artists, musicians, poets, and writers, including some who later rose to national fame. CLUI photo
Venice City Hall was on a stop on the Venice Short Line known as Tokio Station, located at a junction with the Inglewood Line, an older railroad line that connected Inglewood with Santa Monica. Tokio Station was named for the Japanese-inspired architecture of the small station building, which was relocated nearby after the Short Line stopped running in 1950. The Inglewood Line, originally a steam locomotive freight line dating back to 1892, closed in 1922; however, its tracks, running down what is now Electric Avenue, had already established the line between Abbot Kinney’s Venice and the “backcountry,” on the other side of the tracks.
 
Abbot Kinney Boulevard intersects Venice Boulevard just west of the Tokio Station site. Formerly a stretch of West Washington Boulevard, this portion was renamed after the founder and developer of Venice in 1990. Abbot Kinney started amassing land here with partners in 1891. In 1904 he began building his vision for an American Venice, inspired not just by Venice, Italy, but also in part by the lagoons at the Chicago World’s Fair. Building a network of canals, by digging watery pits and making buildable flattened piles, was also a good way to develop the swampy land he owned behind the dunes. Abbot Kinney may have imagined a place of European erudition, and a new American renaissance, but it became a west coast Coney Island instead. Kinney died in 1920, and what remained of his dream disappeared over the years that followed. After it was renamed Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the street north of Venice Boulevard evolved into an upscale retail corridor at the heart of gentrified Venice.
 
West of its intersection with Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice Boulevard’s median widens further, splitting into two separate streets, North Venice Boulevard and South Venice Boulevard. The median between the two has been developed in interesting ways, starting at the wedge-shaped split, and the Venice of America Centennial Park. The park was established in 2005, the centennial of the founding of Venice, and is located at the point where the original Venice Canals met Venice Boulevard, at what is now Grand Boulevard (named after the Grand Canal that the road sits on top of now). The canals were filled with dirt in the years following Venice’s 1925 consolidation with Los Angeles, and turned into roads at grade with the surrounding housing lots. The park has some stylized commemorative Red Car tracks, and a Venice history museum is planned for the site, as well as a replica of the Tokio Station building. 
 
6373 The tracks of the Venice Short Line have returned, at least as a memorial sculpture, in the median strip that divides North Venice Boulevard and South Venice Boulevard, part of the Venice of America Centennial Park. CLUI photo
Venice by the Sea
West of the park, the median becomes one-block-wide, and continues in this way almost to the beach. This space, between North Venice Boulevard and South Venice Boulevard, has several buildings in it, including a public library, apartment buildings, and some old and new houses. Much of the median, though, is open lots, used for parking. The largest lot covers 2.7 acres, and is known as LADOT Lot 731. It is owned by the City of Los Angeles, and is one of the main parking areas for visitors coming to Venice Beach, which is one block further west. A proposal to build a structure covering the entire lot, with 140 apartments for low-income and transitional residents (meaning people who are currently homeless) is far along on the design stage, and is currently being reviewed, and debated. The structure, called the Reese Davidson Community, is a dramatic-looking structure, designed by the post-post-modernist architect Eric Owen Moss, who developed his craft in the 1980s and 1990s transforming many buildings in the Hayden Tract of Culver City. The project here has been referred to by opponents as the Monster on the Median. There are at least 1,200 people who are unhoused in Venice, many of whom already live near the beach.
 
6374 The northern limit of the Grand Canal, looking north. In the foreground is a catamaran turned into a raft, next to a boat ramp. North Venice Boulevard travels east/west past the wall at the end of the canal. Underneath it the canal turns into a narrow underground drainage culvert as it continues north under Canal Street, which used to be a canal, not a street. CLUI photo
The lot is divided by a stub of the Grand Canal, the northernmost part of the remaining Venice canals. While the more famous and photogenic Abbot Kinney Canals north of Venice Boulevard were filled and paved over in the late 1920s, this second cluster of canals south of Venice Boulevard, remained. Known as the Short Line Beach Canal District, it has four residential canals and a long feeder canal connecting them to Ballona Lagoon. Although the canals were completed in 1906, only half of the lots were developed by the 1920s, and they became stagnant pools in what became a derelict part of Venice, even into the 1970s. By the 1990s an effective water circulation system was completed, and the canals, now fully built out, were preserved, and are a treasured landmark.
 
At the west end of the parking lot is Pacific Avenue, the last major road intersecting Venice Boulevard. Before Venice was created, what is now Pacific Avenue was known as Trolleyway, a rail corridor for the Lagoon Line, that ran on the back side of the dunes, between the beach and the swamp. The line went south from Santa Monica to Clubhouse Avenue (now at Westminster Park), establishing the node that later became Venice. By 1905 the line had extended south to Playa del Rey, and the Venice Short Line, bringing people from downtown Los Angeles, turned north towards Santa Monica on Trolleyway, stopping next at the station at Windward, the heart of the new Venice of America. From there, at a colonnade evoking St. Marks Plaza, visitors could head to the canals, on gondolas or a rideable miniature railroad circling them, or to the pier with its other attractions.
 
The last block of Venice Boulevard, between Pacific Avenue and Speedway, is split by the one-block-long road called Center Street. The street runs between North Venice Boulevard and South Venice Boulevard, and is more like an alley, with the garages and parking areas at the back of properties whose fronts are on North and South Venice Boulevards, one block from the beach. On the adjacent block of North Venice is the LA Louver Gallery, a commercial contemporary art gallery established in 1976, which represents some of the artists who participated in the creative swirl of the run-down and cheap Venice of the late 1950s to 1970s, among them Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Ed Moses, Ken Price, Don Suggs, and Terry Allen (some of whom were also swirling around the notorious Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard, which operated from 1957 to 1966).
 
6375 One Venice, the first/last building on Venice Boulevard, faces the ocean, and overlooks the parking lot at the end of America. CLUI photo
Center Street ends at Speedway, the westernmost street of Venice, and this part of the continent. It was established as a service corridor for the homes and businesses facing the ocean along Ocean Front Walk, and is very narrow and slow, despite its zippy-sounding name. The large structure blocking Center Street’s path to the beach is an apartment building called One Venice. One Venice is both the name and the address of this cinderblock pile, located in the space between North Venice Boulevard and South Venice Boulevard. It is either the last or the first building on Venice Boulevard, depending on if you are coming or going. Built in 1980, it has 50 small apartments. It is a federal HUD building, built for low-income seniors, and is supported by the federal Section 8 program, where the government pays some percentage of the rent for the tenants, based on their income. For some of the fortunate retirees here, this home at the heart of Venice Beach comes with a balcony, facing the ocean.
 
Between the balconies and the beach is another parking lot and Ocean Front Walk, a pedestrian path along the beach. A few blocks north is the Venice Boardwalk, Muscle Beach, and Windward Avenue. The Walk is part of a continuous path along the beach that extends south to the wide mouth of Ballona Creek. North of Venice, the path continues for more than five miles, going under the Santa Monica Pier, and ending at the Bel-Air Bay Club, a members only country club on the north end of Will Rogers State Beach. North of that the beach disappears, and the coast becomes a wall of boulders protecting the Pacific Coast Highway.
 
North Venice Boulevard and South Venice Boulevard end as the entrance and exit, respectively, of a large parking lot at the beach. It is perhaps fitting, since what ultimately led to the end of Abbot Kinney’s visionary version of Venice was, more than anything, cars. His Venice was a pedestrian city, of over 10,000 people by 1920, regionally connected by electric trolleys. With the growth of cars as the way for people to get around, visitors—and residents—found Venice’s narrow streets and high density unaccommodating. Compounded by the loss of revenue during prohibition, the Depression, and a general decline in resources and infrastructure after Venice joined LA in 1925, Venice morphed into an extension of that sprawling metropolis. In 1929, the year the canals were turned into streets, oil was discovered at the beach, and hundreds of oil wells soon lined the shore and the inland coastal landscape. In 1950 the Red Cars along Venice Boulevard were replaced by buses, and the rails of the Venice Short Line were removed. The end of the road became a parking lot at the end of the American continent, and once you get there, all you can do—after a bit of surfing, perhaps—is turn around and look back. ♦ 
 
6376 The end of the road. Venice Beach, along with the rest of the beachfront of Santa Monica Bay, has been an engineered construction since at least the 1940s, when millions of cubic feet of sand from coastal construction projects, like the power plant at El Segundo, were dumped on the beaches, making them 150 to 500 feet wider than they used to be. Regular deposits of sand from elsewhere are now required to maintain the beachfront at its current size. CLUI photo