Artists Protest Commercial Vending on Ocean Front Walk

By Barbara Ransom

I attended the Venice Beach Boardwalk Lottery, July 21, as an observer.

A fascinating eclectic mix of people stood around chatting, drinking coffee, and waiting, waiting for their chance to claim a ten by ten spot on the Venice Boardwalk for the coming week or weekend. Each person put their seller’s card into a green tumbler and, precisely at 8:30 am, the drawing for the weekend began.

As the official from Parks and Recreation drew the cards from the tumbler fifteen at a time, talking would hush as he announced the vendors’ names through a speaker system.

The chosen vendors would then go sign up for the available spaces. There are 100 “I zone” spots and 100 “P zone” spots on the boardwalk, each zone with different vending rules, and each with a separate lottery.

About 300 people were gathered for the “I zone” lottery and perhaps 200 for the “P zone” – seemingly, not very good chances for either one. But, at least everyone has a fair chance. Just like Abbot Kinney, back in 1902, when he won his half of the city of Ocean Park that we now call Venice with a coin toss.

But as time went on, the rumblings of frustra-tion began in the crowd. I walked around and listened in. Many of the vendors are disheartened with the lottery process for two main reasons.

First, apparently, there are people cheating to get a spot. Some people are supposedly getting their family members seller’s permits and then entering all of them in the lottery to improve their chances of getting a spot. The rumor is that there are families of ten doing this and people are even getting cards for their children. And then there are apparently people who don’t plan on selling anything on the boardwalk who enter cards into the lottery. When they get a spot, they then sell their spots to others for cash.

But, most frustrating to many, is the commercial vending. Anyone, as they walk down the boardwalk, can see the large amount of commercial vending. In one block, there are several different spots selling the same mass produced made-in-china necklaces, bracelets, or plastic encased insects. These items are obviously inexpensive, easy to get, and sell well. They are a quick and simple way to gain income in a down economy. So, what’s wrong with that?

According to a group of local artists, it is not only against the ordinances of the boardwalk to sell these items, but it is also offensive to the “spirit” of Venice. They feel that the boardwalk is becoming a “flea market” or “swap meet” instead of the free speech zone it was intended to be. They’d like to see local artists with handmade items get priority in the lottery over the commercial vendors. They would like to see the ordinances enforced by someone, and they would like to see those who “cheat” in the lottery banned. Local artist Joel Harris said, “We want to see the free speech zone protected by local authorities because without this, commercial vending will keep growing.” So, what can they do?

When the lottery ended, and this group of about eight artists had not received spots for the upcoming weekend, they formulated a “Painters Protest” for Saturday July 25th. They gathered at 8am in the Rose Avenue parking lot, and set up their booths west of the bike path – in the sand. It was a classy display of well made, unique, beautiful artwork by about twelve local artists. They had a few protest signs and one black banner that simply said “Painters Protest.” It was a nice set up – much nicer and more interesting than some of what was set up on the boardwalk just in front of them.

Of course, the police showed up around 12:30 pm on a complaint. There was a small meeting of the group of artists and the five officers. Two artists took down their work as the officers tried to decide if any laws were being broken, or if any permits were needed. The artists were merely showing their artwork, and not selling anything; selling being the main offense the police could unquestionably cite on the beach.

After about three hours of discussion, and close observation by the police that truly nothing was being sold, a captain from the beach patrol was called out. He didn’t have any answers as he wasn’t able to access the ordinance book since it was a weekend. So instead he took pictures of the event with his phone so he could consult with Los Angeles County Beaches on Monday in regards to the displays.

The police left, and the remaining artists packed up around 4:30, pleased with their protest. They hoped they were able to bring more attention to the boardwalk problems, and that they showed the shoppers along the boardwalk the quality of work they were missing by supporting commercial vending.

The vendors hoped the protest effectively passed along their vision, “To have a community of artists, free speech advocates, performers, and musicians who can depend on the Venice free speech zone to share their message and talent with the public.” They haven’t planned a repeat protest, nor do they feel setting up on the beach is a permanent solution.

So, what is the solution here? Ask any Venetian, or vendor, or tourist, and each will have a different idea: more enforcement, less enforcement, petitions, marches, protests, walk outs, meetings, law suits, letters, a new system for selecting vendors. But how about a cultural revolution instead? How about, instead of division, or instead of sinking to the level of selling bugs to feed your family, or instead of arresting those who do, find your own spirit of Venice.

If you are lucky enough to get a boardwalk spot, access your own creativity and inspiration and become an artist. Inspire us! Everyone can create and it is about time for another Renaissance. Put Venice back on the map for culture instead of crap. Maybe we will produce the next Michelangelo right here in Venice.

Categories: Art, Ocean Front Walk