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Monday, March 26, 2018

Southern California Vol. 16 - The Lost Canals of Venice

When I first moved out to California on my own, I’d heard of Venice Beach but never visited before.  While I was in the military, I was generally stuck in Long Beach with no transportation and to be honest, SoCal’s public transit system is one of the worst.  So imagine my surprise when a fellow bandmate took me there for the first time and I discovered that it was exactly like I pictured a crazy California beach scene should be.

There were firebreathers putting on shows, jugglers, fortune tellers, dance skaters, weightlifters pumping iron right next to the sand and you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting someone playing a guitar, drum or even a full sized piano.  Hell, there were (and still are) weekend drum circles every Saturday and Sunday! It was (and still is) an amazing place.  Sure, it’s seedy in places and can feel a little dangerous, but all of the best places are, aren’t they?

My only disappointment these days is that the Venice Beach Freakshow closed down in April of last year.  If you don’t know about it, check out Freakshow on AMC.  

It’s available on Hulu and is a reality show that lasted a couple of seasons and focused on the lives of the performers who worked there.  It was one of our favorite places on the boardwalk and I can tell you first hand that not only are the Ray’s lovely people but the performers were all amazing to hang out with.  Keep your fingers crossed that they find a new location nearby soon.

However, I’m not writing about Venice Beach to talk about the boardwalk area.  I want to talk about the original vision for the place which is much different than what it turned out to be.  Venice was originally founded as a beach resort.  It was the brainchild of a millionaire named Abbot Kinney.  He’d made his fortune in Tobacco and in 1904, he started building what he called “Venice of America”.  

A year later, he opened it on July 4.  By that time, he had dug literally miles of canals in order to drain the marshes that made up most of the land.  All of the architecture had a Venetian theme.  When he opened the doors to the public, there was a 1,200 foot long pier (with attractions), a dance hall, an auditorium and even a restaurant on a ship connected to the pier.  Within five years, the pier (named Kinney Pier) had become more amusement oriented with rides and attractions like an aquarium, rides and games.  Many people came for the beach though.  It’s still one of the best around and Kinney supplied cottages for those looking to rent for a long weekend. 

The most interesting thing about Venice Beach to me though is still the canals.  As I mentioned above, Kinney had dug literally miles of canals in order to bolster the Venice, Italy theme.  Visitors could take gondola rides through them and it was one of the bigger draws of its day.  However in 1926, all that changed.  Venice was officially annexed by Los Angeles and the city decided that rather than keep things as they were, Venice needed to modernize some.  Therefore, they declared their intention to do away with many of the canals and pave over them to create more streets and thoroughfares. 

By this time, there were permanent residents who had purchased homes along the canals.  The last thing they wanted were streets when they were living in the “Venice of America”.  The whole thing was settled after a three year court battle and guess who won?

Well, the City of Los Angeles of course.  A small area of canals remain and since they were renovated in the early 1990’s, they’ve become a tourist attraction again.  You can walk along the sidewalks, cross the footbridges and generally enjoy the scenery, even though there are no longer gondolas to take you around.

As for those canals that were filled in, the next time you’re in Venice take a look at your phone map and imagine the way it used to be.  To give you an idea, here’s a list from Wikipedia of the former canals and their new street names.

Coral Canal – now Main St.
Cabrillo Canal – now Cabrillo Ave.
Venus Canal – now San Juan Ave.
Lion Canal – now Windward Ave.
Altair Canal – now Altair St.
Aldebaren Canal – now Market St.
Grand Canal – now Grand Blvd.

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