A Canadian ex-pat, I have been living in Venice Beach, California and I’ll say this: Yes, the weather really is as good as they say it is.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Venice Beach, Venice was plagued with some pretty serious gang violence, but it has always been an incredible space for art, surf culture, and diversity. Don’t get me wrong I love the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market just as much as the next person, but Venice has maintained a certain quality that has attracted, for lack of a better word, the wonderfully weird. In a city like Los Angeles that feels more like a collection of suburbs connected by highways, Venice has this community feeling that immediately makes you feel like you are part of something good. This feeling has been so integral to making Los Angeles feel like my home. I have lived here for such a small fraction of time, and yet I already feel love and protection for this place that is home to so many wonderful discoveries, people and establishments.
There has been a massive influx of wealth and business in Venice, with Google and Snapchat opening up major offices in the relatively small neighborhood, bringing with it with the Silicon Beach moniker. Venice has changed (so I’ve been told) and I write this as a conscious newcomer, and admit to being part of this change. My landlord told me, upon approving my credit score, that he never thought he’d be renting these apartments for what he is now. I am part of the gentrification. I am part of the rents rising to astronomical heights. I am part of the opening of Whole Foods, Intelligentsia, Kit & Ace, and the closing of Roosterfish, the best (and only) gay bar on Abbott Kinney. I understand that to a certain extent, and yet I am also part of the Venice community that volunteered for the dog shelter, shops local, attends community events, and buys lunch for the homeless. Venice has one of the highest levels of homelessness in all of Los Angeles. You only have to visit the Venice boardwalk, frequent some of the high-end restaurants on Rose Street, or go to the 99 Cent store on Lincoln to notice it.
I frequent a small coffee shop in the Venice neighborhood. I love this coffee shop for so many reasons. It’s walking distance, they make absolutely delicious lattes, the décor is a mixture of beautiful wood and vinyl records, and it’s right next to the boardwalk, so I can head down to the beach to suck down its deliciousness. One day I was waiting in line to purchase two lattes, when the barista asked if anyone would like the coffee that he had accidentally poured. Nobody took him up on the offer, so I told him I still wanted the two lattes, but that I was headed to the bank, and I was sure I could find someone there that would like a coffee. I took my three coffees and headed down the street. I’d walked maybe 10 steps when I asked a homeless man if he’d like a coffee this morning.
“Oh my gosh that would be amazing. Thank you”
I continued on my way to the bank, feeling honestly good about the coffee shop, feeling good about thinking to give it to the homeless man, and feeling good because I was caffeinated.
A week later my partner and I went back to the coffee shop. He waited outside while I got in line. Once again, the same barista had made the wrong coffee, and was offering it to everyone in the shop for free. I waited until everyone had said no, and then I told the barista what I had done the week before.
“Last week you gave me an extra coffee, and I gave it to a homeless man down the street. He was so thankful, I would be happy to do the same thing for you again.”
The barista said, “We’ve actually been discouraging people from giving coffee to the homeless because they bother our patrons.”
A man leaving with his coffees laughed, “they get too addicted to the coffee!”
I was honestly shocked, and had difficulty coming up with the words to explain my disappointment. The barista took the coffee in question, and poured it down the drain in front of me.
I waited for the lattes I had ordered already, and debated just leaving, but I wasn’t finished. I had to somehow say something more. That couldn’t be the end of it. I rather timidly said to the barista as he was handing me my lattes,
“I understand you want to protect your business, but you guys are right next to the boardwalk, I would urge you to not shun that community.”
The barista replied, “We don’t shun the community. We just had someone shot outside our doorstop last week.”
In actuality a man was killed by law enforcement outside of a bar that neighbors the coffee shop. What this had to do with the homeless population, I wasn’t sure.
The women behind me bristled, “lots of people do plenty for the homeless here in Venice”.
There was a long line of people behind me that needed their caffeination, so I left, reeling from the experience. I still kick myself today for not just purchasing the coffee. They couldn’t stop me from buying it and giving it away, but I didn’t think fast enough, a combination of my dull Sunday morning brain, with my shock from the interaction.
This is where it gets difficult. I get it, I pay $6 for an almond milk latte, and the beautiful décor, and the proximity to the beach, and I love it. I understand that as business owners they want to protect their business, and create this bubble around the people that pay their $6 for a coffee. However, I also don’t believe that you can open up shop on the Venice Boardwalk and then complain that homeless people are your neighbors. I also don’t believe that the people that go to the boardwalk, live in Venice, and buy their coffee from a place that is next door to where a shooting just happened, are going to be deterred from a few homeless dudes hanging around. When did we get to a point where in order for us to enjoy simple pleasures, we must somehow shelter ourselves from the people who cannot?
We are seeing this most prominently in Silicon Valley, the home of rental prices that rival Manhattan. News broke the other week that San Jose public officials were tearing down a homeless tent city, known as “The Jungle”, throwing out tents and sleeping bags, literally taking from the people who have the least. All within a stone’s throw of Yahoo, Apple, Adobe, and Google. Disgusting TechBro Justin Keller complained in an open letter to the Mayor that he had to be forced to come in to contact with the “riff raff” population of SF, and that they should all be forced out.
It’s easy to dismiss Keller as an outlier, but these are sentiments increasingly felt by everyday Americans, who fear that those “below” them will somehow infringe on what little luxuries they have.
When I take the dog for a walk I almost always pass by a man who worked for a veterinarian for 15 years, before he broke he back and couldn’t work. He told me people don’t like to stop and let him play with their dogs, but he loves animals. He likes living in Venice, and hopes they don’t push him out like the “all the other guys around here”. I met another man who kindly asked if I had any spare change on Abbott Kinney. He had just moved here from Michigan, and wondered if I knew of any reasonably priced apartments, I racked my brain, knowing there is an increasing loss of low-income housing available in Venice. Even my partner and I share our apartment with a roommate to keep costs low.
We laugh, but when the hipsters, and upper middle class move into a gentrifying neighborhood, they bring big business, financial investment, and a higher level of scrutiny of government and police (Venice is by far the first place for this to happen *cough* Brooklyn anyone?). This scrutiny slowly pushes out everything and everyone that made that place so appealing to begin with. So is this what we should expect in Venice? Is this what we should expect from ourselves?
If I pay $6 for a coffee, I shouldn’t have to see people who can’t afford to, because it ruins the experience? It’s like demanding we change the channel when we see something that makes us uncomfortable about our own wealth or privilege, except instead of click Off on our TVs, we’re turning away from the people that live beside us. I’m not saying I know the right answer, or that I’m prepared to leave Venice anytime soon, but I will continue to question why so many feel it is necessary to shield ourselves from even just seeing something that might make us uncomfortable. We don’t know their stories, why they’re homeless, or what series of events brought them to this point, but anyone who spends a night on the streets, deserves a coffee in my book.