Tuesday, June 3, 2008

History of Venice, California

In our “Postcard History Lessons”, we’ve examined a lot of images, many from the early days of Venice, California.

We will look at several more from that time and place in future posts.
Venice, California probably produced more postcards with gondolas on them than all other American cities combined, including expos and world’s fairs.

One of the "Red Gondolas" seen in front of a large Venice, California roller coaster. To read more about these gondolas, see the post from May 18th, 2008.

It occurred to me that I hadn't yet posted a concise history of Venice, California, as it related to gondolas. My goal with this post is to do so, in order to fill in the empty spaces that surely exist between the various Postcard History Lessons I have put up, and will continue to put up here.

The "Legendary White Gondola" - see post from March 4th, 2008 to learn more.

Last year I was asked to contribute to a unique book that was published in Italy. Unlike most publications, which are produced with individual sales in mind, this book was custom ordered by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, and given as a sort of “company Christmas gift” to special clients.

The theme was “Venice around the world”, and the book mentioned “one hundred Venices” and highlighted many of them with images and print. I was fortunate enough to contribute on Newport Beach, CA, Lake Las Vegas, NV, and Venice, CA.

Here is a synopsis based on my written submission.

In the first few years of the twentieth century, a marshy area west of Los Angeles received a considerable amount of attention from a man named Abbot Kinney.

Mr. Kinney was a multi-millionaire (back in the days when that was rare). He had made his money in tobacco and was now seeking to develop a “Venice of the West”. Sixteen miles of canals were dredged, homes and civic buildings were erected along with a pier and entertainment attractions of all different kinds typical of the era.

In an effort to make his new “Venice” as realistic as possible, Abbot Kinney traveled to the real Venice and hired the services of some thirty-six gondoliers and their gondolas – all of which were loaded onto a steamship and transported to their new home on the American West Coast.

Venice, California was a hit. People came from all over the country to visit or live in its enchanted environs. The gondolas were kept quite busy ferrying passengers of all types: tourists, prospective home buyers, and of course, romantic couples. Anyone who is familiar with the gondola knows that she is a very stable boat, capable of carrying a lot of weight. Modern day gondoliers might be surprised to see old photos of some of the gondolas in Venice, California, taking as many as twelve passengers at a time.

Out of the realm of Venetian law, some of the gondoliers painted their gondolas different colors including red, white and green. As all things change through time, Abbot Kinney’s “Venice of the West” eventually fell victim to a great fire which altered many areas forever. What happened to the canals? Unfortunately, civil engineers of the day didn’t have a full understanding of tidal flow and drainage. The canals became brackish and then worse; they were deemed a public health hazard. Men in bulldozers were dispatched to fill them in. Some people say the bulldozer operators didn’t finish the job out of laziness, others cite a lack of funding, while others claim the last grid of canals was left intact for sentimental reasons.

Today, California’s Venice has six small canals: four running parallel joined by two at each end. The extinct canals can still be seen – in a way. They live on today as streets with names like Canal Street and Grand Boulevard. In Venice, Italy they call a canal that’s been paved over a “rio terra”; any true Venetian knows that it was once a waterway. Venice, California is not the same; most of the locals have no idea that the road they are driving on was once a glistening canal with beautiful boats. It’s not surprising that the filled canals became roads; the homes and businesses had already been built around them. But today, only the very enlightened know the true identity of these thoroughfares.

What happened to the gondolas? No doubt, some of them had been brought over at the end of their expected lives. Some may have simply fallen to disrepair. The rest of the surviving gondolas and their gondoliers quite likely moved on to other canal neighborhoods – ones which had been inspired by Abbot Kinney’s great experiment, ones in Florida and other parts of California. As for the gondoliers, it would seem that only their families can tell us whether they stayed in one of America’s “New Venice’s” or whether they made their way home again, to live out their days in the city that inspired so many imitations.

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