By Enyaj Pitchford
Gentrification has stolen yet another great Venetian from our hood. Stephen L. Fiske, who lived with his wife and raised three children in the heart of the ghost town, through cop and gang shootings, crack sales, and massive redevelopment, lost his home of forty years, full of dear memories. Gone with the wind is yet another incredibly gentle, cognoscenti, and creative Soul. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to record his tale and share it with my readers.
Stephen, whose great grandmother, was a niece of the poet Longfellow and great grandfather, a Unitarian Minister. His father was an intellectual agnostic who was a writer and publisher, and his mother was an opera singer. He was born in Manhattan on 168th St., the now legendary Washington Heights. It was an apartment with six rooms, high ceilings, and overlooking the Hudson River, just across from the George Washington bridge that led many New Yorkers to their New Jersey country homes; I being one of them. His home was filled with music; with the record player spinning the great composers daily, and his mother giving voice and piano lessons in the living room. She also prepared for the many concerts and events she sang at. As Stephen describes it, he grew up “in the womb of music”. He also, as was a scene I remember from my own childhood, always had a ball in his pocket, ready for stickball, streetball, and stoopball. It’s a New York City I remember well. Where kids rode their bikes all day and found a spot to play ‘street hockey’, on roller skates, and would take over the whole street for their game, only allowing those who lived on the block to drive through. We agreed that this was the norm; people did not get pissed off about the inconvenience, but somehow understood that this is what kids did; it was natural. His particular corner had four sewer covers that represented all four bases; brilliant!
Stephen attended the coveted High School of Performing Arts, where he focused on fine arts since music was just natural to him; plus, he says, he was “too kinetic for music.” Unfortunately, his father passed away when he was only 15. When not doing art, he played basketball every chance he could, in courts all over Manhattan. Upon graduating from HSPA, he avoided the draft by enrolling in the City College of NY to further his studies in art and met his lovely wife, Niki. She was an English Literature major and has just retired from working as an English teacher at the prestigious Franklin Elementary School in Santa Monica.
He graduated from the community City College, with a full ride to NYU on a basketball scholarship, where he continued his studies in fine arts, and played basketball at Madison Square Garden every Thursday night. He was now in the heart of the city, with Washington Square Park as his playground and the Greenwich Village Folk scene exploding all around him. He taught himself guitar, and joined the stage with many legendaries of the time at Gerdie’s Folk City, singing songs of freedom along with the upcoming Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and the beloved Pete Seger. He also played with Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez, at the Bitter End Club He had an opportunity to tour with the New Christy Minstrels but when then his scholarship came in from NYU, he chose that, in order to further avoid the ominous draft hanging over young men’s heads at the time.
Stephen had visited San Francisco, where his sister and her husband were living, in 1967. It was the height of the summer of love, and he was all in. He got to see the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service on stage live, free, at Golden Gate Park. He heard a loud voice from within calling out “I wanna DO that!” So, in 1968 he left the Big Apple with the love of his life and headed for San Francisco. He got a job as a singing waiter at the Red Garter in the city. He had worked as a head waiter for their branch in NYC and had a position waiting for him. Nicky worked there too as a waitress. They stayed a short time at his sister’s place but quickly settled in his own place in Berkeley. He then formed a loud acid rock band with a wall of amplifiers called “Bicycle”. He was the lead singer and his bass player was the sound engineer for the Grateful Dead. Not only did he hang with this band, but he played the Winterland and opened for Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. It was an amazing time, and yet, the war in Viet Nam was still raging and it was the same year that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.
Besides music and art, Stephen also woke up to the peace movement to fuel his ‘songs of freedom’. He walked with and witnessed Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” and was deeply imprinted with the idea of nonviolence and peace. He leaned toward the lefty, progressive thinkers. He read and followed the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Once out of school, he was no longer safe from the draft. He became lucid with the idea of non-violence.
While in Manhattan, he sought out a Catholic priest, a Rabbi, and a Unitarian priest to get established as a conscientious objector. He worked with the American Friends Service Committee and counseled other young men on how to get their conscientious objection status. He also got involved with his lifelong practice of yoga through his guru, the venerable Swami Satchidananda, whom he traveled with. As an Interfaith Minister traveling with Swami Satchidananda, his beliefs coincided with his guru’s teaching that “truth is one, paths are many.” He said that rabbis, hippies, yogis, and different conscious seeking people all converged to seek wisdom from the Swami.
After a couple of years of screaming over the loud music blaring from the stage, Stephan was over it, and ready to move on. The volatile mix of crazy and psychedelics and weed just didn’t last. These were great times and tragic times. Everyone was so high all the time that everywhere he turned the conversation was “I’m coming on”, “I’m flying high” or “I’m coming down.” It just got old, and wasn’t what he nor his wife were looking for. Drugs were destroying people’s lives, including that of his friends of the Grateful Dead. He needed something more, and that’s when he was offered a music contract with the then Tacoma Record company in Santa Monica. It fell through because it just didn’t mesh with his yogic lifestyle; but the idea of settling in a laid-back, creative enclave with low rents called Venice hit his radar. So, by 1973, he arrived and found a flat on Rose Avenue, near the beach. Nicky was pregnant with their first child, and though the landlord was not looking for a family of long-haired hippie disposition to move into their home next door, on Christmas day, in 1974, they handed Stephen and Nicky keys to a two-bedroom home with all the charm of the 20’s style architecture graced with a charming breakfast nook overlooking the big yard for $200 a month. There was never a lease; just a handshake; from a time when one’s word was one’s bond. Mr. and Mrs. Green were WWII riveters, hired by Douglas Aircraft. They took a chance on this young couple, and simply required them to maintain the property and take care of the yard.
They maintained the property and planted the yard and remained for 40 years, raising three children, and continuing their adventure. Even though the rent was raised over time, it was always way below the market rates of today. And until their passing, they were good friends and neighbors with their landlords. They attempted to buy the home when it was affordable, but the Greens insisted on leaving it to their heirs, as they had no children. Their heirs were in Idaho, and never set foot in the place nor Venice, and immediately sold the properties, numbering their days in their beloved home. Thankfully the new landlord, who lives locally, is not rushing them, but they don’t want to move East in the winter months.
Stephen continued his music and art while raising his children. He performed locally at our beloved Come Back Inn, which once graced Washington street, before it became Abbot Kinney, with the most magnificent banyan tree in the yard. (That area has been so demolished and gentrified, that one can’t even fathom a space like that existing in today’s merciless economy.) He did not like the vultures of the music industry and eventually found a way to get paid to speak and perform by traveling the New Age circuit, with yoga conferences, ashrams, retreats, human potential movement, and festivals. His songs were recorded by legendaries like Jose’ Feliciano, Luther Vandross, and the New Christy Minstrels. Besides performing, before COVID, he did voiceovers and enjoyed the benefit of residual checks in the mail. No more passing the hat and competing with background noise! He also coached basketball at local schools like Westminster, SAMOHI and Westside Alternative School. He continued, as he does to this day, with his yoga practice and taught classes at the Church at Ocean Park. He recently published a book of poems called The Art of Peace which he describes as a “poetical philosophical book with drawings”
Abbot Kinney was Washington St. when he arrived here. It was full of small little shops, and laid back. There were oil wells in Venice; canals were dilapidated and polluted and the hood would go through bouts of random gang shootings and various drug sales, like the infamous crack days. The changing and conflicting interests of Venice got him Involved with boardwalk activities and he tried to create the Venice Ambassadors’ Program. It was to be a citizens’ monitoring group to help with the merchants, musicians, artists, then arguing over the spaces, a way to compromise and find peaceful solutions. He worked with then councilman Bill Rosedahl to create a program; Bonin, then an associate of his, also came to the meetings. They’d come together at the Sidewalk Cafe and discuss how to protect the free speech zone and foster artistic expression. This was in the late 70’s. Stephen wanted a memorandum of understanding from the police but the police didn’t want it. It was a plan to work with groups of people managing the boardwalk people’s issues, and fell under the egress of the parks. “Everyone was engaged but no one from the police would work with them; they wouldn’t agree to protect us.” The safety reality of having a management team needed the police’s support. Because of the lack of police support, the project was abandoned but instead he produced the Venice Eco Fest from 1979-1981 There were 150 booths, a petting zoo, yoga, and a parade down the boardwalk. “It took so much energy, especially with the conflicts with the city and parks department. It began to take too much from my creativity and performance. I couldn’t even perform at the Ecofest. I was the MC and had so much administrative work.” Finally, he just had enough of it. ” It took over my entire home, which became one big office. I decided to stay with music, art and writing instead, and kept on it.”
Later down the road, Stephen worked with James Lawson, the Director of the nonprofit ICUJP; a group of artists” Intercommunity United for Justice and Peace”. James Lawson, was a mentor to Congressman John Lewis and a keynote speaker at the John Lewis memorial service. He serves as pastor at Holman Church now, and can be heard each Saturday morning on zoom. He is one of the last relics of the original civil rights movement. He’s been committed to doing service about peace since 9/11.
Stephen’s children flourished under the influence of their parents and the neighborhood and in turn have influenced them. His second daughter, Alana, is a UC Berkeley graduate. She lives in Fort Awesome near the college. She and a group of likeminded people bought a couple of old homes there, and established a largely off the grid community. They make all their decisions by consensus, live cooperatively, have a communal kitchen, solar panels, and gardens. It evolved from the cooperative student living quarters at the college. She works as a fact checker and researcher for film makers, when she’s not conducting or attending the many social gatherings and workshops at the Fort and their neighboring home. A matter of fact she will assist Stephen in his recent project, inspired by his son, Evan Gabriel. A New School of California graduate, plays with a Klezmer band, which is an eclectic mix of Eastern European music. That led to his interest in a Jewish meditation group. Although he was raised in a vegetarian yogi Interfaith family, without any specific religious doctrine, his mom is Jewish. He just got attracted to Judaism, and took the scholarship that was offered to him to Yeshiva in Israel. As his mom predicted, he fell in love with a Jewish girl, a fellow musician, and now has dual citizenship as an Israeli American. He married and now lives there in a community with other musicians. He’s getting his Masters at the Hebrew University there. Stephen emphasizes that “He is not Orthodox.” Stephen has been back and forth about eight times now for he got inspired by his visits and his commitment to peacemaking to make a film about those in Israel, both Palestinian and Jewish, seeking to create peace amongst themselves. He and his filmmaking partner are in production of a film for over five years on the Israel and Palestinian conflict. Showing both sides of the issues; highlighting the grassroot peacemaker both Jewish and Palestinian working together. Stephen decries that “the right wing Orthodox Jews control Israel. It has become a theocracy, particularly since Netanyahu has ruled. The original pluralistic, welcoming, cultural hub of eclectic, cooperative energies that founded the country is all but lost now.” But his film makes him hopeful as he wants his audience to feel. He goes on to state that “within the Israel Palestinian situation, what seems like unmakeable peace, there are people on the grassroot level actively keeping the peace alive; brave, brave people! Courageous peacemakers on the grass roots level that no one hears about.” This is what his film focuses on. “Liberal Israelis are way out of power. (The Orthodox in power) have built a horrible wall!”
His son Evan led him to be a filmmaker. As the political landscape keeps changing, so does the film. Robert Christie is his partner on his “Warriors of the Heart’’ project. It is two stories; one of the organization of women who wage peace; and that of ROOTS, an Orthodox Jewish settler partnering with nonviolent Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awwad. Their partnership builds a communication bridge between Palestinians and Jews. It is a nonviolent peace center in the crossroads of Palestine and Israel. It’s a safe zone where both can come and intermingle in a secure environment. Stephen gets great inspiration from this unique place, which is about “the humanity of being a human being in this world, with a reasonable amount of security and dignity with one another ‘’ The project has had some fundraising support but it’s mostly been an out-of-pocket expenditure. I, for one, can’t wait to see it!
Finally, their youngest Amy is an IT expert in Santa Monica. Stephen worries about her spending 10-12 hours a day in front of a computer screen. She is slated to follow them into their next home, which leads to their next mythic adventure, of owning their own home, built by a dear friend, in Yogaville, Virginia; a town of 100 yogis, built around an ashram started by Swami Satchidananda that is actually on the map now. A four-bedroom home, with a separate one-bedroom apartment awaits them attached and another detached one-bedroom apartment for renting! All while surrounded by yogis and mystics like themselves.
So, as a man who has been in Venice for decades and seen many changes, I asked him how he sees the future of Venice. He speaks as a poet would. “Now the Soul of Venice is being dissipated by gentrification but there is still something here. It’s in the way the sun continues to shine on the place. Venice still has an inspiration, even as the contagious capitalistic venture of Los Angeles continues to spread, it still survives, this unique vision of Abbot Kinney.” And then he speaks of the Venice Beach basketball courts near the pit and the whole scene there. “It’s been an important part of my life; learning to play ball from the parks and the streets.” I’d say this man has scored many points on the scoreboard of the game of life. And while I am sad to lose such a marvelous Soul, I am ever grateful to have made his acquaintance and wish him well on his next adventure. I’m sure we’ll be able to see his film very soon! firstname.lastname@example.org