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New Swells in Dogtown

Changes at the California Coastal Commission might pose the biggest threat to Venice Beach—and its action sports culture—in years.
February 11, 2016, 6:41pm
Flickr user Marcy Reiford

Venice Beach isn't what it used to be. The surly neighborhood, often called Ghetto Beach by locals, is at the hardscrabble end of a broad swath of California shoreline that starts up in tony Santa Monica and devolves in family income and real estate value as you head south. It was here, in the wreckage of a 1960s amusement park wharf, that a ragtag band of misfits became legendary skaters and surfers, spawning the Southern California action sports movement in the 70s.


The area, and its gritty skateboard culture, was made famous by Stacey Peralta in his award-winning documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. Its gnarliest footage takes place in the so-called Debris by the Sea, where surfers like Alan Sarlo, Jay Adams, Craig Stecyk, and Skip Engblom dodged rotting piers and buried concrete while playing in mediocre waves.

As the zoning board for the entire California coastline for the past 40 years, the California Coastal Commission has preserved that beachfront—and, in turn, the beachfront culture—from developers that wanted to cash in on the increasingly valuable real estate, but now that all seems to be at risk. A zoning change approved last month will allow 15 new condominiums to be built along the Venice Beach Esplanade. Yesterday, the Coastal Commission fired its executive director, Charles Lester, after an all-day public hearing in Morro Bay.

Nearly 1,000 people showed up to support Lester. After more than five hours of testimony and comment, the commission retreated for a closed-door session where it voted 7 to 5 to remove Lester, who had been on the job for four and a half years. Some see his firing as the biggest and most recent threat to the nearby surf and skate spots.

"The vote worked out exactly like we thought it would," said Steve Jones, ocean communications specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting endangered species. "The seven of the most pro-development commissioners voted to oust Lester. The five who didn't were pro-conservation."


Rick Massie has seen the change coming for some time. He grew up in Venice Beach, and in 1985 became the first Mexican-American professional surfer when he signed with Quiksilver at age 18. He still lives in Venice, and has seen firsthand a new demographic move in on the old culture.

"It's all millionaires and actors and businessmen living here; they're the only people who can afford it," Massie said. "I sit out front and bullshit with my friends and family like I did in the old days, and these new folks will walk by and point at me as if they've never seen anyone sitting out on a porch before."

It's a far cry from the neighborhood's original working-class roots, and people like Massie, who has been in the area for 30 years, are nostalgic for the old days—not so much for the gang violence, which Massie says was a daily occurrence at one point, but for the kind of community and the vibe that allowed action sports to emerge there.

"Abbott Kinney, the guy who pretty much owned all of Venice and who created the town's canals based on the Italian city of the same name, needed to house all of the workers who were building the luxury homes on the canals," Massie said. "He built these tiny little one- and two-bedroom houses on pretty big lots. My mom and dad bought one for $27,000 in 1980."

Massie still lives in that house, but he sees fewer skateboards and fewer low riders from his porch these days. Even modest Venice bungalows like his are worth north of $1 million. Gentrification has also given way to a strip of ultra-trendy shops, restaurants, and services that would fit in in places like Bel Air or Malibu.


"I have realtors coming by every week, saying, 'When's your Mom ready to sell? Name your price!'" he said. "They don't understand. We don't wanna sell. This is our family home. My mom's 75, and I look after her, and my two daughters and son go to school here."

The tide of development—all the stronger with the removal of the coastal commission's former head, Charles Lester—is lapping at the birthplace of action sports.

This is the scene at the Coastal Commission hearing to fire the executive director
— Peter Fimrite (@pfimrite) February 10, 2016

In 1995, Bob Carlson, a Santa Monica native, founded Arbor Collective, a boutique brand that sells skateboards, snowboards, and clothing all around the world. The company draws its influence from the Venice area, and has even hired local artists to design some of its board graphics.

Carlson is well aware of the changes that have come to Venice in the past few decades. Where people used to buy boards from hole-in-the-wall alley shops, they now pay upward of $100 for an Arbor board at the company's Venice store. And as the new mixes with the old, the juxtaposition can be uncomfortable.

"You can buy a place on the canals for a couple of million dollars," he said, "and there will be some guy shooting heroin right outside your door, and there's not a lot you can do about it."

Professional longboard surfer Kassia Meador was born and raised just outside Venice. At the tender age of 10 she was bumming rides to the beach with friends who had older siblings. Those were fun times, she says, but her parents would have been mortified if they'd known their daughter was hanging out on Venice Beach. She and her friends were trying to escape the monotony of Agoura Hills, her home, for Venice's curious blend of LA street culture and the hippie beach scene.


"We really liked participating in the drum circle on Sunday nights," she said. Her first skateboard was a Dogtown-inspired Powell Peralta deck festooned with skeletons, which, alas, she admits that she bought at her suburban store and not in some grimy Venice alley shop.

Meador moved from Agoura Hills into Venice as her nascent longboarding career took off. Since employees from Snapchat and Google started moving into the neighborhood, though, rising rents have forced her out. She's taken the change in stride.

"I've moved into the hills near Topanga and definitely get the feeling that I'm over Venice right now—that's OK because nothing stays the same," she said. "There are great restaurants down there and I'll always enjoy seeing the weirdos selling their trinkets on the boardwalk. There's nothing better than waiting for a wave and seeing all of the graffiti art and old hotels and the boardwalk and the mountains in the background. But like most places close to the ocean, it's crowded and expensive."

Those things could soon get worse. Now that the Coastal Commission has removed Lester, the way is paved for developers to move in.

"Everyone has a right to the beach," said Jones of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Overdevelopment and cutting off access has happened all over this country, all over the world. We have something very special in California, and now we're at this pivotal moment where we're going to have to fight for that."