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Venice Festival at
Fox Venice Theater

Reviews of
Call Someplace
Paradise

Kinney's Folly

Spirit of Truth (fiction)

Pat Hartman

A Venice Wedding

30 Years Ago
in Venice

Topics in
Ghost Town

The File Cabinet:
available writings

Michael Ventura:
an appreciation

Murder of
Sarai Ribicoff

Visions of Venice

To See Venice
Is To Live

Venice's True Sister City

 

 

 

Ghost Town:
a Venice California Life

This book is about Oakwood. Not the Venice of the boardwalk, visited by 150,000 tourists each weekend, Oakwood is the other Venice, a community within a community, separate from yet an integral part of Venice. The Oakwood of 1978 through 1984 is a fascinating and frightening place. (Film director Barbet Schroeder, who lived there during the same time period, told an interviewer it was "the best year of my life so far." Writer Ruth Francisco calls it "a nasty hive of evil surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in California.")

Said to have the second highest crime rate in LA and perceived by outsiders as a Black-Hispanic battleground, Oakwood is actually packed with ethnic variety. It presents a challenge to the liberal Sixties belief, nourished by such as Saul Alinsky, that shared neighborhoods would end racial disharmony. Other sociologists have theorized that Los Angeles is such a violent place because of the wide gap between rich and poor neighborhoods. Match up Brentwood against Compton, sure, the difference is huge. But Oakwood has both rich and poor - and plenty of violence.

Crime isn't only high-speed chases and mega-tonnage cocaine busts. Most of it is just the plain old banality of evil. It's dull, it's repetitive, and there are things to be observed and known and said about it that aren't evident in TV dramas.

Mike Davis says Abbot Kinney "crusaded for...AngloSaxon racial purity through eugenics." Yet the quaint seaside town he created evolved into one of the most racially mixed environments in the land. Venice has experienced many different eras - the wholesome playground days; the mobsters and molls period; the years of ruin and abandonment; the beat era; the Sixties; the art mecca epoch. In each of these incarnations it was essentially a different place. In the period discussed here, Venice attracts people so wrapped up in causes, artistic obsessions, spiritual quests, etc., that race is automatically at the bottom of their priority list. Still there are widespread minor racial tensions and frequent major confrontations.

There is a book genre described by Russ Rymer as "inspecting America's racial trauma through the lens of private experience, as it plays out in the daily difficulties of particular persons in one or another microcosmic place." Ghost Town belongs to this genre. The particular persons are a white single mother and her half-black daughter, along with a stellar cast of roommates, boyfriends, and neighbors. When we moved to Oakwood, Carla was eleven and I was thirty.

In certain moods I see my life as a social sciences laboratory. The experiment: place a well-educated Anglo woman with Sixties sensibilities, and a mixed-race girl child well on her way to adulthood, into the seething cauldron of diversity and danger called by its own inhabitants Ghost Town, and note the results.

It's a psychological adventure story. Oakwood is the kind of place where many people would never consider trying to live. Much has been said and written about racial dynamics by people who, however well-informed and well-intentioned, may talk the talk but haven't walked the walk. Whether by lack of inclination or of opportunity, many experts on race relations have never actually lived in a racially mixed neighborhood, let alone in one where their own group is a minority. This wasn't any short-term dip of the toe, either, but six years of total immersion. In an environment that forces you to think about race issues every single day, it's a different world.

Unfortunately the subject of race will probably continue to be relevant through this millennium and beyond, provided that the human race as a whole is still around that long. How are attitudes about race formed? Why is it that even the most willing participants of the melting pot sometimes can't take the heat? These and a thousand other questions are precisely as relevant now as they were at the time. If universal brotherhood can't work in Venice it doesn't have a chance anywhere else. So why doesn't it?

What our household had to contend with was not only the straightforward hostility directed against us, but the anxiety of being caught in the crossfire between Black and Chicano neighbors.

Along with everything else, another layer of complication was added when I became the de facto manager of two rental units. The owner of the property wasn't a true absentee landlord but aspired to that status, preferring to stay down in Orange County.

In Oakwood a lot of my mental furniture got rearranged. My time there was a political coming-of-age story. On arrival I was your basic bleeding-heart knee-jerk liberal. I turned into some species of libertarian, a progression I consider sane and evolutionary.

One person said, "Why would anyone care to read your autobiography?" Good point, up to a point. If I were a journalist assigned to write about landlord-tenant problems in Venice, I'd round up a typical Venice tenant and interview her. Well, I cut out the middlewoman and interviewed my damn self. Likewise, I didn't need to cultivate contacts who would introduce me to a typical mugging victim. I just went out and got mugged.

Venice is about people and there are hundreds of them in this account. I considered including an index of characters, to indicate which ones recur, so nobody would waste their brain juice keeping track of names that aren't going to show up again.

There's a lot of other stuff too. Like the diary of Samuel Pepys in London, like Alexander King's memoirs of Greenwich Village, Ghost Town is a record of a unique urban environment through the eyes of an articulate and meticulous observer. No one can know what will be of interest to scholars in the future. Two hundred years ago some little girl might have noted in her diary every sighting of a bird from her window. Ho hum. Yet a present-day ecologist would find it fascinating. God is in the details.

 

 

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