On summer weekends, some 150,000 exhibitionists and gawkers flock to the neighborhood to see and be seen in a Bohemian rhapsody of bongo-bangers, dreadlocked artists and acrobatic gymnasts.
In recent months, though, that freewheeling hippie circus has gotten edgy thanks to a stubbornly sour economy heightening competition for the 200 peddler spaces along the 1.5-mile long asphalt strip bordering the beach.
That has longtime storeowners and artists steamed, and residents in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood clamoring for a clamp down on the increased noise and transients.
“It’s become a real free-for-all, really aggressive,” said Therese Dietlin, who has distributed alternative political literature for nine years on the boardwalk, which is lined with cafes, medical marijuana clinics and souvenir shops.
Recently, she said, a woman selling Buddhas and incense kicked her table across the boardwalk claiming that Dietlin had set up her table in her space. “It never used to be like that,” she said.
The city has responded with new rules to give more people a chance at a space on the strip, but the peak summer season looms more chaotic than ever.
For the first time, the city has been giving out all the vendor spaces in its weekly lotteries. People from as far away as New York and Florida are participating, said Victor Jauregui, senior director of the Venice Beach Recreation Center, which runs the lottery.
The number of performers wanting a spot has jumped by 80 percent over the past year, while the number of vendors has doubled. That’s led to some boisterous raffles.
“They get into it, calling each other all kinds of names,” Jauregui said. “It’s the frustration, especially if you get someone who is truly an artist and they haven’t gotten a space in a few weeks.”
Police say the tension is spilling on to the boardwalk with complaints about illegal selling and even fistfights over spaces.
“It’s been a busy winter. People are trying to make ends meet and they don’t know the rules,” said Los Angeles police Sgt. Marc Reina. “We try to mediate and keep the peace, but it’s crowded and they want to sell. It’s a challenge.”
More officers will be added to patrol the summer pandemonium, he added.
Venice has been known as an enclave of funky free expression since the 1950s when the neighborhood was a hub of soap-box politics and beatnik poets, luring the likes of The Doors’ Jim Morrison.
These days, visitors come for its famed Muscle Beach weightlifting area, a meandering bike path, a new skateboarding park, as well as drum jam sessions and the culture of a tie-dye time warp where the scent of marijuana often wafts on the ocean breeze.
Venice has also gotten increasingly commercial. In 2008, after vendors sued the city over access to the seaside strip, the city adopted a complex set of rules to preserve the area’s artistic bent and cut the hucksterism.
The ordinance says vendors can only sell artwork such as jewelry, photographs, or paintings, or items that are “inextricably intertwined” with a person’s artistic or social message. That would include, for instance, a T-shirt with a slogan advocating a cause. Violators can be ticketed.
Storeowners and artists say the regulations worked for a while, but since the economy nosedived, the boardwalk has gotten out of control with increasing number of vendors selling commercial items, such as computer mouses and incense, crowding out longtime artists selling their work, performers and political advocates.
Vendor Mike Hunt, for example, requests donations for shea butter soap, which he says is part of his “social message” touting the benefits of natural African products and, being African-American, part of his heritage. For a $10 “donation,” Hunt gives a customer a soap and bath salts and a spiel on shea butter’s healing properties.
Police say the social message clause makes enforcing the ordinance against commercial vendors nearly impossible. “It’s very difficult for an officer to decipher what that means,” Reina said. “We’re not going to enforce anything like that.”
Artists and merchants resent vendors’ taking advantage of that loophole to sell items often sold in the stores and take spaces away from artists.
“They’re not paying taxes or business licenses,” said Mike Dolkert, co-owner of Indigenous, which sells Native American items.
Steve Heumann, who runs the busy Sidewalk Cafe, advocates forming a city agency to vet sellers and ferret out the frauds.
Venice’s residents also bristle at the growing unruliness. Although many residents say Venice’s free spirit attracts them to the neighborhood, some admit it can get to be a headache.
Cracking open a beer on the sunny porch of his beachside apartment, Ted Johan said he loves the sideshow, except for a man who blows a birdwhistle outside his window all day.
“You don’t come here for quiet, but people need to be respectful of others,” Johan said. “I wish he would move around.”
Homeowners, particularly a new wave of residents moving into modern multi-million-dollar remodels of modest bungalows, have been pushing for crackdowns on musicians playing into the night and some of Venice’s seedier elements such as transients sleeping on the beach.
Police have responded, recently rounding up 50 homeless people in a sweep and referring them to social services.
Striking a balance between Venice’s Bohemian tradition and residents’ rights, artists and vendors is a constant struggle that’s been magnified with the dour economy, said 15-year resident Mike Newhouse, who heads the Venice Neighborhood Council.
But that push-and-pull may just be part of Venice’s irrepressible nature.
“Venice has got to stay funky or else Venice is no longer Venice,” he said.