By Beth Miller (exerted from Beachhead of July, 1988)
Last December I was put in touch with Regina Hyman by a long-time Venice resident and friend who inspired me to move here a couple of years ago. I wanted to get to know all parts of the community, the way I once knew Berkeley.
It is hard for me to write about Oakwood, as it is hard for me to write about the homeless, because of my fear that anything I say will be interpreted as the arrogant musings of a middle-class radical. Still, I was fascinated by Oakwood because of all the scary cliches (I have two friends who live on Brooks who never notice any drug traffic.) People talk about gangs and crime and drugs.
In the 1920’s a small Black (now called “Negro”) community that was centered north of Electric Avenue between Westminster and San Juan Avenues, mainly employees of Abbot Kinney, was established in Venice and grew with its expansion. So there is a historic Negro section of Venice, the most striking monument of which may be the Abbot Kinney residence itself. It was moved from its original site on an acre of land to its present location at 1310 Sixth Avenue in the block adjoining the public library in the late twenties. Kinney bequeathed this house to Irvin Tabor, his long-time trusted chauffeur and personal assistant. Mr.and Mrs. Tabor lived at that address for over forty years,and the house is still a lovely and gracious residence. In short, I had a particular interest and was grateful to Regina for showing me Oakwood from her point of view.
One sunny winter afternoon, I picked up Regina Hyman at her building near Broadway and Sixth. As we drove around, John Haag, another long-time Venice resident, at the wheel, we passed what is known as “the Reverend Holmes’ Church” several times, the First Baptist Church. We also passed the Friendship Baptist Church, located across from the Oakwood Wesley House on Broadway ( a place where help is offered to the homeless in the form of food and shelter). In addition to the Reverend Holmes’ church (the church Regina attends), the Body of Christ Church, the Second Community Baptist Church,and the Bethel Church of God and Christ. Quite a few churches for such a small area.
We pass up and down streets with small houses, many owner-occupied for many years, many of the owners Black. Regina identifies the apartment buildings which are or were Black-owned and informs me of the history of the government buildings put up by HUD in 1971 for low-income residents.
When Regina first came to Oakwood a decade ago, roosters crowed every morning, an acoustical treat she had never experienced in New York City. One of her neighbors used to keep chickens in his back yard. Another old gentleman on Seventh and Vernon fixes cars and teaches young man from the area how to fix cars too. Indeed on his block, I counted thirteen Hispanic boys working on cars. The pleasant house has fruit trees standing on the corner, you think you’re in a small town.
The small town is gradually disappearing as a small town. the place where a nursery school used to be is now one of many sites under construction. A sign on the structure of the future apartment building says ”Beverly Hills Construction Company.”
I see the spot where the only grocery store in the Oakwood area used to be, fallen to a zoning change. Now people have to walk quite a distance to buy a carton of milk or a package of cigarettes. I notice buildings recently repainted and some apartment buildings rehabbed. Regina points out a fancy building where a one-bedroom apartment costs $900, just a few doors away from a dilapidated house. Venetian diversity prevails in Oakwood.
She also delights in showing me some of the newer esthetic oddities in the district, such as the unusual building on San Juan Avenue near the corner of Sixth, created by a German artist as both a dwelling place and studio. He hired unemployed neighbors to work on the construction, but sculptures in the front yard are his own work.
Sunset is a pleasant, quiet street with many single-family houses. One big apartment building has greetings of the season in Spanish spray-painted in white snowy stuff on all the windows facing the street.The building seems clean and well-kept-up.There are people looking out the windows smiling. I find it radiates a happy atmosphere. In any case, it seems to me that the Hispanic ethnicity of Oakwood is on the rise, certainly it is visible in the small commerce, such as shoe repair and small appliance repair shops on Lincoln and food wagons on Rose. But there was a Black community here before there was a Hispanic one.
Abbot Kinney employed Blacks on the staff of the Kinney Amusement Company and a small Negro ghetto, centered north of Electric Avenue between Westminster and San Juan Avenues, began in the 1920s.
Kinney for years retained Arthur Reese,one of the earliest Negro settlers in Venice, as his interior decorator. It was Reese who decorated the famous Venice Dance Pavilion as an indoor garden and designed the huge revolving ball with bits of mirror on its surface, the kind of ball you see in movies of the period, with colored spotlights turning the ball into a magical predecessor of rock-n’-roll high-tech light shows.
Two hours pass and we still haven’t exhausted the subject of community spirit or visited Melvin Haywood, the man who tutors children for free at the old Venice Library on California and Electric. I promise to return to chat with him.
We drive west on Rose Avenue, which is recently being referred to as the ”Rose Corridor,” and notice the increase on the chicness scale as you approach Main Street. There are a bunch of Latinos buying tacos at the Isla Bonita across from the Rose Cafe, and it seems to me that there really are two Venices in sight here.
The contrast between rich and poor is no less apparent in Venice than in Rio de Janiero. As I regard the street from the Rose Cafe, the mixture of people passing by reminds me of crowds in Ipanema. You can sit and have a beer at a cafe and watch the rich tourists mingling with boutique shoppers, bohemians, and the homeless. We lament that certain groups have been trying to move the Venice Free Clinic and Saint Joseph’s away from Rose because, in their view, these establishments “attract a bad element” to Venice. I don’t know exactly what the bad element is that they’re referring to, perhaps the transients. As most Venice residents know, for many years the Venice Free Clinic has been doing an admirable job despite severe space limitations, as has Saint Joseph’s.
Still, we are all aware that there are real estate investors, agents, and developers who have vested interests in the gentrification and “development” of our city.
For the operators and entrepreneurs, the historical preservation of Venice and of the community spirit of Oakwood are minor considerations in their pursuit of personal fortunes.