By Mary Lou Johnson

Come on, come all
All you hippies, have a ball!
Now’s the time, today’s the day
Lose your blues, pay no dues
Style your life, discard your shoes.

In the process of a much needed desk cleanup, I came upon the above piece of doggerel jammed in the back of a drawer. Something I’d amused myself writing when I first moved to the canals. Even then it had a faint aura of nostalgia about it. THE CANALS! What emotions those words have evoked in me over the years; curiosity, fear, desire, passion, anger, sorrow.

My first experience of the canals was many years ago when I was in my early twenties. I had picked up (Or allowed myself to be picked up by) this guy in a bar who took me to his place for a night-cap. It’s all a very vague and boozy memory of California moonlight and jasmine, and walking over an incredible bridge and a funky, little house. (Although “funky” was not then a hip word, but a word used by Blacks meaning a bad smell.) And it was all a magical mystery tour that lingered dimly in my memory.

Years later I moved to Venice. I lived in a house trailer (not a mobile home), and I had been politely informed that my presence was no longer desired. This kept happening to me in all the trailer parks in Santa Monica.

For those of you who do not know about trailer parks, they are monuments to conformity and prejudice, and are microcosms of the worst that our society offers. Anyway, here I was in a trailer park in Venice, jumping off spot of the nation. (You would never know by looking at that black elephant, Washington Square, that where it now stands housed at one time a couple hundred happy low-income people in their trailers.)

I had read about Venice – All Bad – and heard from my friends about Venice – All Bad – but, I had no choice. My first impression confirmed all these “all bads.” When I stopped in the Saucy Dog (The Pelican’s Catch to you noveau-arrivees) most of the customers looked like they were waiting for a fix or a trick.

After cowering in my trailer for a couple of weeks, I finally ventured out to Hinano’s for a beer, and met some people who didn’t carry switchblades or brass knuckles, and the fear gradually dissipated, but THE CANALS were something else; Bikers and Dopers and Blacks and Chicanos and Pollution and Poverty, and Knives and aborted babies floating in the water and Dope . . .

Eventually I moved out of the trailer park and lived on Ocean Front Walk. (Just to make you pea-green with envy, I had a perfectly elegant apartment for $125 a month, utilities included!) My daughter was completely happy at Florence Nightingale School (now Anchorage), even though my friends had told me, “You can’t send Johanna to school in Venice.” I considered myself really privileged to live on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Johanna was told not to go to THE CANALS, but one day she came home dripping wet because some kids had pushed her into THE CANALS in a market basket. I was sure typhoid and pelegra were the mildest eventualities to be expected from this excursion, and examined her closely for rashes and open sores for weeks afterwards.

One day a couple of years and moves later, she came home breathless. “Mom! They’re having a big party in the canals, and it’s real neat, Mom, and it’s okay and everyone is invited and please, Mom, come with me. They’ve got music and corn on the cob and watermelon and come on, Mom, it’s real neat!” So I went and it was real neat and that was the first Canal Festival.

By then the pinch, which was later to become a squeeze, was starting to be felt and we were gradually being pushed away from our beloved Pacific. But after that first festival, a sneaky thought had entered my mind. “If all else fails, I can move into THE CANALS.” I wonder how many others who had been even unaware of their existence, or thought about them as a pox on Venice, also entertained this thought – after the hippies hipped us? Sort of like the old song, “Don’t Tell Your Best Friend About Your Old Man.”

Anyway, the day finally came when I had to move again. The pinch became a squeeze became a shove, and through the machinations of some canal friends, I became a resident. My second day here, I was awakened by a loud banging on my door and was told to “get my ass down to the vacant lot at the end of Howland because they’re cutting down the Sapote tree!” “When in Rome” and all that, and I rushed down to see people defying bulldozers and chainsaws, to save some dumb-looking tree. But it was all into the vortex of canal activism. Scarcely a day went by without some community activity – some political, some poofery.

There were campfires and Coastal Commissions; volleyball and Venice Town Council, pot lucks and police confrontations, media and meditations. I raised chickens and rabbits and my monkey roamed free and I was inspired by the belief in self-determination. It was glorious and exhilarating and I really believed our strength and unity and dedication to the common good would have results. Venice was the vanguard and THE CANALS would show the way. Power to the People was there for the taking!

Oh sure, there were troglodytes – Myrtle Wilson and the Dufays and that weird looking one with the short hair – but no one could take them seriously. We were smart and strong and hard working. We had Ron Guenther, as reliable as a priest at Mass, who would be at the Coastal Commission every Monday morning; we had Steve Claire, who was so bright you knew logic must prevail; we had Judy Weiner – “Ms. Ecology” herself; we had gentile, loving people interested not only in their own preservation, but dedicated to sharing with those less privileged. And, we had fun!

Then, one by one, as if planned, these people sold out from under them. Each representative of the Area Council was engaged in a struggle to remain in the area. Energy for political work was diverted into a struggle to survive. People left the canals and new people, who were attracted by the canal’s mystique, tried valiantly to pick up the torch, but to no avail.

BY the eighth year the Canal Festival degenerated into a commercial tourist attraction, with young people coming from Pacific Palisades, playing “hippy for a day” stoned out on downers, pissing on your lettuce! Canal people started closing their doors, and realtors started opening their offices. The stampede was on. Get your little canal fixer-upper, artsy-fartsy, cutesy-pie here! Can’t lose! Bound to increase in value! THE CANALS are IN! . . .

The next year a last gasp effort to raise consciousness was made when the festival was decently laid to rest by the Canal Festival Funeral of 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. The route of the funeral procession was dictated by the permits before the Coastal Commission, for development of some 25 lots in THE CANALS. The police stopped at my house in the morning to get black armbands to wear to the funeral. I was touched. Later that day I found out these same hypocrites has amassed an army of patrol cars and motorcycles.

Provocateurs and collaborators laid siege to the canals; denied citizens their rights, beat people in full view of national T.V. cameras, confronted and menaced children. (Who in the true spirit of Venice kids, managed to pop a few wheelies behind their backs when they were making like the Gestapo.)

I awaken to the sound of Hammers
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom:

(First appeared in the Free Venice Beachhead’s 100th issue April 1978.) b


Categories: Canals, History