Ask A Native Angeleno: Which Venice Came First, Italy's or L.A.'s?
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Dear Native Angeleno,
One time when I was waiting for a table at Gjelina I went for a long walk and found these really cool canals in Venice that kind of looked like all the canals in Madonna's "Like A Virgin" video, and also all the pictures people were Instagramming during the Venice Film Festival, which I know is in Italy and not Los Angeles. Which came first, the Venice canals in L.A., or the Venice canals in Italy? Are one set of canals based on the other or is it just a coincidence that both places are called Venice and also have canals?
Perplexed in Park La Brea
Is this a real question? I honestly don't know, but you asked so I shall answer. The very short answer is that the canals in Venice, California are based on—and far predated by—the canals in Venice, Italy. Our local Venice canals were built in 1905; whereas over in Italy, Venice's Grand Canal was, according to The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, already serving as the city's main commercial corridor in 1200 AD. For context, 1200 AD was a solid three centuries before Christopher Columbus "discovered" America.
L.A.'s own Venice canal district was imagined into being by a guy from New Jersey just after the turn of the century. Entrepreneur and conservationist Abbot Kinney created "Venice of America," an elaborate network of canals along with a colorful beachfront theme park and resort between 1904 and 1911 (it officially opened on July 4, 1905). At the time, the area was part of the then-independent city of Ocean Park. Kinney, a figure so crucial to Venice's early history that the region's flags were flown at half mast when he died in 1920, commandeered cityhood for Venice itself in 1911, though residents voted to merge into Los Angeles in 1925.
Abbot Kinney, circa 1900. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Another thing (besides the obvious centuries of history and 6,000-some miles) that separates Venice, Italy and Venice, California are the motives each area had for developing its canal system. Venice 1.0's canal system was developed out of necessity: the northeastern Italian city is made up of 117 small islands that are separated by canals and linked by bridges. Venice 2.0's man-made canals, like many an L.A. landmark, were dredged out of former saltwater marshlands as part of a plan to promote the area and sell real estate lots in the surrounding development.
Interestingly, both Venice, Italy and Venice, California were considered backwaters when they started to be developed (the first Venetians were fleeing German and Hun invaders in the fifth century and the settlers likely chose the swamp because of the anti-invader protection that its lagoons provided). The waterways of Kinney's original "Venice of America" canal system were far bigger than they are today. According to local historian Nathan Masters, the o.g. waterways of Venice 2.0 spanned nearly two miles, which is three to four times the size of the current canal system. All of Kinney's original canals are now paved roads. They were filled in for a number of reasons, including the fact that they had gone out of fashion during L.A.'s transition into full-fledged autopia. The creation—and destruction—of Kinney's "Venice of America" in its initial form encapsulates two of the most prevalent themes in Los Angeles history: a civic landmark that was primarily created to help sell real estate (and the city) into being, and the paving over (sometimes metaphorical, but in this case quite literal) of a perfectly great feature to make way for cars and/or because it had gone out of fashion. Little-known fact: the Venice waterways that exist today were actually once part of a rival real estate development, according to Masters.
Flyer promoting canals as "America's most unique attraction" (Via Wikimedia Commons)
Kinney is also believed to be indirectly responsible for the advent of surfing in Southern California. There were numerous opportunities to swim around Venice, and Kinney felt that professional lifeguarding was needed. Kinney hired a man named George Freeth to serve as a lifeguard, as well as to perform "surfing shows to attract crowds to the coast and Abbot Kinney's real estate" according to the Venice Historical Society. Freeth brought a surfboard from his native Hawaii, and the rest, as they say, is history. Freeth was actually a bit Zelig-like in his role with early-ish Southern California history: railroad magnate Henry Huntington also hired him to perform similar duties in Redondo Beach, Huntington's own resort town.
But what the heck drew Mr. Kinney (a man who spoke six languages, had already made a small fortune in tobacco, and loved to travel the world for "business and pleasure") out west to our then-fledgling frontier town in first place? Well—and wait for it, we're about to hit on a third major L.A. history theme—Kinney was plagued by chronic health problems, particularly asthma, and so, like many an early Southern California emigré, he made his way to L.A. in the hope of harnessing the city's much-promoted curative powers.
Venice 2.0 has seen a great deal of change in the last century, as it's fallen in and out (and in, again) of fashion. After decades of neglect, the city finished overhauling the canals in 1993, finalizing a restoration campaign that began in the 1960s. Today, the once-funky bungalows along the once-funky canals rarely retail for less than a million dollars (if not a good bit more). Everyone who claims to be an artist and lives on the canals either bought their house a very long time ago or is supported by their parents (looking at you, Amy).
And, for the record, the indoor canals at The Venetian in Las Vegas were built in 1999.
A brief visual tour through the history of the canals of Venice, California: