Immediately south of Santa Monica via Main Street or the boardwalk, Venice is the eccentric, loopy version of Los Angeles, home to outlandish skaters, brazen bodybuilders, panhandlers, streetballers, buskers and street-side comedians. It’s been this way since the 1950s and 1960s, when the Beats and then bands like the Doors bummed around the beach, and though gentrification has definitely had an impact in recent years, Venice retains an edgy feel in parts, with a gang culture that has never really been eradicated.
It wasn’t always like this. Venice was laid out in the marshlands of Ballona Creek in 1905 by developer Abbot Kinney as a romantic replica of the northern Italian city. His twenty-mile network of canals and waterfront homes never really caught on, although a later remodelling into a low-grade version of Coney Island postponed its demise for a few decades. Windward Avenue is Venice’s main artery, running from the beach into what was the Grand Circle of the canal system – now paved over – and the original Romanesque arcade, around the intersection with Pacific Avenue, is alive with health-food shops, trinket stores and rollerblade rental stands.
Nowhere else does LA parade itself quite so openly as along the wide pathway of Venice Boardwalk, packed year-round at weekends and every day in summer with musicians, street performers, trinket vendors and many others; it’s lively and fun during the day, but strictly to be avoided after dark, when shades of the creepy old Venice appear. South of Windward is Muscle Beach, a legendary outdoor weightlifting centre where serious-looking dudes (and a few muscular women) pump serious iron and budding basketballers hold court on the concrete.