VENICE AMERICA By Stan Mitchell, Part One

By Enyaj Pitchford

Stan Mitchell

I sat down to have a chat with Stan Mitchell, creator of the award winning Venice America film. I was delighted to find Stan to be a great historian and orator about the local history and realized I needed to introduce a chapter of Venice history that has been erased, outside of his documentary gem. So I will present part one of this conversation, focused on the events that inspired the film: a history of Venice that must be told. I will get more into the details of the film, including the many celebrities that supported it, next month. Stan Mitchell will prepare a showing/fundraiser to finish this staggering film, either through zoom or at a live venue, depending on how the Covid situation pans out in the near future. Not to be missed!

Stan began working on his movie in 1995 at Lisa Bonet’s Venice Heart Cultural Center, then located at her home on Milwood ave. in Venice. He wanted people to know the history of what was known locally as “The War”. This was an ongoing violent gang war between the local Black and Latino residents. People who had played in sandboxes together, played on the same baseball and football teams, went to the same schools, suddenly shared a deep seated hatred for one another. It was deemed the ‘gang war’ by the media but was different in that it lasted for nine months without ceasing, except when the Northridge earthquake happened and gave it pause for two weeks. “The earthquake kind of freaked them out.” Stan explains. “ It was the most killing and shooting that the neighborhood had ever experienced in our lifetime, before and since.” This was in a neighborhood now called Oakwood but then was locally known as “Ghost Town,” By the way it was given the name “Oakwood” by the Pacific Division police; they named it after the park where the youth and community hung out to distinguish it from the rest of Venice and to criminalize the area. Oakwood is the area that borders Abbot Kinney blvd. and Lincoln blvd., Rose Ave and California It was originally a neighborhood allocated for the local black servants/ domestic workers of Venice, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades. Stan explains how that expression “the other side of the tracks’ ‘ was born of this area which was on the other side of the tracks going down Electric Avenue, parallel to Abbot Kinney. Brooks becomes Lake street once you cross Lincoln blvd. That was to create a clear boundary as to where the residents of Oakwood were supposed to stay.”

So Oakwood was the “crime area” of Venice. While in reality, there were, and are, crimes all over Venice. Just like many focus on the homeless being on drugs while the whole city is on drugs all day long, Opiates is a crisis because it’s a rich White problem; crack is a criminal offense and dangerous because of the poor and Black that are it’s recipients. Stan Mitchell called his film Venice, America because “Venice is just a microcosm of what is going on all over America”. “Venice has a long history of embracing everyone from all over the world.” Stanley explains. “There are no misfits here. There are gangsters, houseless people. Black, White Asian, Native American, criminal youth, housewives, they fit. You might see a gangster talking to a movie star but they are cool with it because they see each other casually and may even speak to one another because they are part of the same hood.”

Stan Mitchell

The gentrification of Venice started in the 70s. Reagan didn’t want the government affordable apartments to be here. He didn’t want the black people to settle into that area for generations. California was growing fast. The state colleges were free here. The realtors saw that as a great selling point that one could live by the sea and get their children a free education at a quality school. A lot of white America started coming here for that and the weather. Venice was particularly interesting for the real estate market as it was the only “ghetto by the sea”. It was poor, minority owned, so the real estate was cheap. One pocket, the cheaper area, was just black people, Oakwood: to get that area would be a gold mine! Hence the push began. California‘s growing and white people want to live by the beach. Stan says “when he was in school on a football team his coach, way back in 1974, said to the black kids on our team “One day Venice is going to be all white.’We looked at him , and paused, we couldn’t process it at the time and just went back to playing ball. It seemed unimaginable back then. When I was twenty, about ‘83, then I began noticing what he meant; starting with Dennis Hopper. He and his friends would create mansions disguised as apartment buildings so that no one would notice. But we all knew where Dennis Hopper lived back then.” {I actually lived in a van across the street from his place in the nineties and saw that his place had a long hall with rooms on each side of it just as if it were separate apartments.)

Stan continues “When the war hit, the cops allowed us to be killed. During this time, ‘Ghost Town’ was constantly patrolled. The cops were not more than a minute away at any time. So when people were getting shot, there were many instances where the cops wouldn’t show up until after 20 minutes”. He recalls an ambulance being right up the street from the scene of a shooting , with a young black man, an innocent man, lying on the ground bleeding to death. But the ambulance driver said when approached. “We’re not allowed to come without a cop escort” Stan recalls that “ The cops were around the corner but didn’t come for 20 minutes. They let him die. That’s when we knew that the police were working with the developers to take over the neighborhood. They want this real estate. They didn’t care about the bodies piling up. That’s what made me want to do the documentary. They’re killing us; they’re letting us kill each other, all because of the real estate.”
I inquired why the cops behaved like they did; so discriminatory. He had an intelligent response.

“The cops come here with an agenda. They are from a certain kind of people. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black if you’re not from the same kind of people they come from, you’re not their kind of people whom they serve and protect. Before they are cops, they come with their own psychology. You can’t undo their psychology in six months of training.”

I inquired about, how did the hatred between the black and brown come to be? “We have two groups of oppressed people. Like two abused pitbulls sharing the same yard. Eventually, they are going to go at each other.”, (Two dogs fight the third dog gets the bones. The third dog is the wolf, the developers.) But despite this reckoning in the film, Stan stays positive. He goes on to explain that “ our culture of Venice America has a motto called “Culture Heals”. The reason the film was made was that this pathology of violence in America was in Venice and a lot of people didn’t know it was happening. Venice was the biggest tourist attraction next to DisneyLand!. People knew about BayWatch. “ No one knew that a few blocks from the beach was an urban area that was just like any other urban area and was full of violence and people being killed every day. Just like any other inner city, just by the beach.”

I asked him if the Other Venice Film Festival ever saw his work? He says, with a slight smile,”A friend of mine entered it before I felt it was ready. I was surprised to learn that it l won best short. And I had the longest Q and A of any other film. They had to cut it off because people were so curious and asking so many questions. And it was heated because people had strong opinions. Many times the crowd was debating with each other because someone would ask me a question, and someone in the audience would answer it.” He says the crowd was mostly white, with a few black people at the festival, but it was hippie, Asian, Mexican, rich , poor, and conservative. In that way it was mixed. He found it a “very emotional experience!”

He saw that the “people were passionate about it and got something out of it, even though it wasn’t finished. So that was encouraging”.

But in the midst of doing it , there were a lot of trials and tribulations for Stan. It contributed to his breaking up with his first wife. He suddenly had their three kids for the entire first six months until she found a place and they shared them four days on and off. Stan explains that “ For me psychologically it was a big adjustment. It made me more empathetic with women, to mothers, because I never spent that much time and energy on my boys alone before.” He said he began to realize that he was actually depressed, despite enjoying his time with his boys. It wasn’t easy knowing their mother was with another man when she was away. Then he had trouble with the production company he was with, and he felt they were trying to sabotage the film, so he had to pull away from the project. But now he feels ready to move forward. His boy even helped him with the project, so it’s a true family affair and coming back on a high note.


I’ll have more on the film Venice, America next issue. Meanwhile you can see some clips on YouTube at Venice America.

Categories: Crime/Police, Culture, Enyaj Pitchford, Oakwood

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