The Venice Boardwalk Lottery System - a paper
Understanding Community Rebellion to the Venice Beach Lottery
Venice is generally defined by the 90291 zip code which had a population just over 30,000 in 2000 occupying 2.4 square miles of land bordered on one side by a 1.25 mile long beach front. (City-data.com) 2/3rds of this population is white, but there is a definite multi-cultural vibe as many of the ‘stakeholders’ in Venice come have varied backgrounds. Venice is not a city, but it is represented by a neighborhood council that reflects the flavor of Venice, the Grass Roots Venice Neighborhood Council (GRVNC). On October 22, 2004, they responded to the proposed plans to regulate the boardwalk by calling a press conference. According to their announcement, “The informal and unique Venice Beach-style conference and gathering will be held to oppose an upcoming proposed L.A. City ordinance that would put in place un-needed and “un-Venice” restrictive Boardwalk policies. Such policies, if passed by the L.A. City Council, would include unfair lotteries, permits, and restrictive areas that would not be in keeping with the ‘Free Speech Zone.’” (http://www.grvnc.org/NewSite/News/News2004/BW_PressRelease.htm) That was my perspective before I started this paper and amongst the average Venice residents that I interviewed, this was a common idea. Specifically, very few people here like the idea of government regulation of what we think of as one of the free-est places on Earth. In the words of Crazy Dave, notorious for weaving through boardwalk traffic backwards with a brown paper bagged beverage in hand, “I always figured it’s been like that for a long time, why fuck with it now?”
However, as I began to talk to the people who are most affected by these changes, I began to realize that there were real reasons for these changes. They may not have been implemented perfectly or with the nuances of the community in mind, but they did address specific issues that needed to be addressed. According to one of the many psychics on the beach, “The system may have worked at one time but what had happened was that it got to the point where thugs were ruling the boardwalk and …. I’ve been here a long time and I’ve seen both sides of everything. There is more freedom now than there was then. I don’t know if this is going to work out, but it wasn’t working before.” Something was indeed broken and city hall was making an attempt to fix it.
The main problem is that there is a limited resource on the Venice Beach boardwalk, space. With the right space on the right day, one can make a lot of money, but there is not an infinite supply. Tourists need space to walk. Emergency vehicles need places to park. Bikers compete with rollerblader on the bike path as well as pedestrians who want to walk even closer to the Ocean. Even on days when there is enough space for everyone, spaces are not created equally. According to one veteran performer, “I need to be in a spot where I can make money. If I’m all the way down at the end, I can’t make any money. Other than people telling me where I can be, I have no problem with the lottery.” When the space was free, there was no way to decide who got the best spaces. Out of this was born the Venice Beach Lottery.
The lottery’s chief advocate has been City Council member Cindy Miscikowski who recently termed out of office. Her plan was to institute a regular lottery (originally monthly, but since changed to every 2 weeks) whereby prospective performers, vendors, and artists would register and be given a chance to officially use one of the 154 20 foot long spaces that had been marked out on the west side of the boardwalk (the east side is filled with a mix of retail, office, and residential buildings). Registration cost $25 and was a one time cost which gave you a picture ID that you have to show in order to be able to accept money. Spaces were divided into ‘general expression’ and ‘street performer’ spaces in order to ensure that performers who are generally considered to be vital to maintaining the beach’s identity, are well represented.
The lottery system was designed to solve problems that were occurring with allocating space in a fair manner. Consider the case of Pearle Davis who has been doing crochet work on her own for 33 years, but recently decided to supplement her income from a part time job by selling some of her creations on the beach. When she first came out, she couldn’t setup because other people had ‘traditionally’ setup there and would not let a newcomer use space. It is worth noting that her hat rack was actually using perhaps a fifth of her 20 foot spot, and it is hard for me to imagine that space cannot be made for her in the vast expanse of the boardwalk. Now, she feels that things are much more organized. Contrary to people who feel that the performers on the west side of the boardwalk are the “soul” of the boardwalk, some residents I interviewed actually felt that the people on the west side were lucky to benefit from all the traffic that the retail merchants on the east side brought them. They were in the minority and I do think the west side’s eclectic mix is objectively more interesting, but it highlights the fact that the west side of the boardwalk has become somewhat clichéd with people buying products from downtown wholesalers and taking up large amounts of space selling them, underselling the retailers on the east side who had to pay rent. Pearle Davis hoped that the new lottery system would bring in some needed fresh blood and she had plans to open up a crocheting school with her excess space, charging $10/hour plus materials. As a veteran boardwalk patron, that struck me as a very unique use of space.
Ms. Davis’s experience was not unique. One veteran psychic, who had been there before the lottery and was participating in it, told me that “Thugs were ruling the boardwalk. It has just barely started and today was only the 2nd lottery and the first time, people were scared to setup because of the bullying. I told a friend that they were wolves in hippies clothing. She liked that a lot. These are the same people that talk about peace, love, and freedom….but only if you agree with them.” I talked to a Brazilian artist who had only been there 2 months so didn’t have a long basis of comparison, but had been there before and after the lottery. Back then, she would get pressure from others to move out of ‘their spot’, but unlike Pearle Davis she would simply refuse to move. I could tell that she was very smooth socially and she said she would always end the encounters by thanking people who tried to intimidate her out of her space for being her new neighbors. She explained that she had a fair amount of setup involved in selling her art and moving was really impractical. Even though she was able to get a spot back then, she likes it better now as it’s a bit more organized even if it is a bit of a pain to go down there 2 Saturdays a month.
For Venice residents that I interviewed, this was amongst the chief concerns. Nobody wanted to see fights or wanted there to be any danger on the boardwalk. One Republican free market oriented resident I interviewed leaned against any regulation of the ‘boardwalk space’ market until informed that there was actual intimidation going on. “The free system would work better if you didn’t have to worry about violence or the threat of violence, but if that’s been the case where you have people threatening other people, then I’d probably have to say that this is probably a pretty fair solution,” in his estimation. As the psychic mentioned, “There is more freedom now than there was then.” “There are certain people who have been in the same spot for years who aren’t going to understand about the newcomers, but here should be an opportunity for newcomers…it’s unfortunate,” explained another resident.
Another issue that the lottery was to address was the amount of space that a particular person could take up. In the old system, people had claimed traditional fiefdoms that could span 60 or even 100 feet. Some of these people were hardly contributing to the overall vibe as they often sold retail products bought from downtown. Incense sellers were the biggest culprits mentioned. I actually interviewed a man named Anhata who I had noticed had always taken up more space than most people. I expected him to chaff against the whole lottery process, but instead he explained that for him, the lottery system was “Great. I’m not part of the lottery. I have more space than before. At least it’s longer…it works out really great because lottery spaces are 20 feet in distance and in between each lottery space is a 4 foot area. So I can setup boards there and I can setup boards in the corners.” Another man then chimed in, “You could set up all the way down.” To which he replied, ”Until you run into idiots who complain.” I got the sense that he had been the target of complaints about taking too much space in the past. With the new system, since he wasn’t soliciting money, just displaying political and philosophical billboards, he didn’t end up taking up less space. But his space ended up being more spread out.
Indeed, there were some very interesting issues regarding how the space was being used as I was doing the interviews. This was a Saturday afternoon, the busiest time of the week in Venice, though this was not during the summer when there would be a lot more people out. I interviewed a man who had been on the beach for 6 years and who did not participate in the lottery and was told by the police to leave, but was taking his time about it. It was odd because there was an empty space next to him and the person whose space he was in was a clown who had a bucket to collect money that took up perhaps 1/8th of the space allotted. There was plenty of room for the man to sell his stuff alongside the clown, yet he was still being told to move. Pearle Davis and the clown and this man could all easily have shared a single space. When told of this, one Venice resident I interviewed explained “It’s a stupid system. You can’t apply a uniform system (for allotting space). It’s like saying that Costco and a random mom and pop shop should have the same space.” It certainly is more equal, but the uniform 20 foot space solution doesn’t seem particularly well suited to the diversity of needs on the boardwalk.
Another uniform solution that seems out of touch with the reality of the situation is the 2 week period that the pass is good for. I did my initial interviews on a Saturday and when I came back the next day, many of the people who had won the right to a spot in the Saturday lottery were no longer there. One Venice resident said, “I don’t want to see any fights and I don’t want empty spaces,” when asked what he wanted from the lottery. Empty spaces detract from the ‘carnival’ atmosphere that Venice tries to project to tourists. Many people appear to come on Saturday, get their space, and perhaps they will return the next Saturday. Their space may go unused for the 12 out of the 14 days that their pass is good for. Meanwhile, someone who sets up in one of those spaces without the proper paperwork is subject to a $1000 fine.
One NBC news report on the lottery quotes one Venice resident as saying "It's gotten so terrible. People are coming out here at 12, 1 or 2 in the morning and sleeping out along this side to claim their territory on that side." (http://www.nbc4.tv/news/4243202/detail.html) As a fellow resident, my advice to him is to move as there will always be noise when one lives in such an eclectic environment. None of the residents that I interviewed mentioned any concern over people sleeping on the boardwalk to claim spaces and in my experience as a resident, it is generally accepted that there are people who live on the beach. There are certainly a lot of people who live in RVs, old vans, and redone school buses and there is no community activism to get rid of them, as there might be in Brentwood. Most people here accept that a certain amount of disorganization is the price we pay for living in a place that feels so ‘free’, and so the quote which NBC picked for their news piece seems very out of place. It might have been appropriate for an article on a lottery to organize the Malibu boardwalk, if there was such a thing. But such concerns are not primary in Venice and if the city council was reacting to such concerns in creating the law, they were likely operating on mistaken assumptions.
Indeed, most resident sentiment regarding the lottery ranged from lack of awareness to concern for the vendors themselves. According to one resident, “What’s more important is that those who sell out there are ok with it because it’s their living. I really don’t have a real opinion, because in the end, my interests are in what works for them.” It’s not that residents don’t care, we do, as people were very interested in talking to me about it once they got started. Instead, it’s an acknowledgement that the people who populate the boardwalk are contributors to our community and we want a system that works for them. There was a predisposition against regulation of something that was perceived to be working fine, but when I shared what I learned from the people who populated the boardwalk, most residents saw the need for a new system, if perhaps one that looked slightly different.
One concern that a resident did bring up was the ability to find a particular artist or performer. Would people have to comb the entire boardwalk to find one’s favorite artist? How would they eventually be able to build a clientele? “Some people are accustomed to seeing certain people in certain spots and that might impact business. I met this guy who takes photographs of Venice with red, yellow, or blue backdrops. He says he is the original. After 5 years, he got a permanent stall. He was able to move up. If this guy could move up, other people could, but the lottery might stop them.” How would others rise through the same path? Pearle Davis expressed an interest in eventually growing her business similarly, but how can she if her space is always moving.
One arts and crafts vendor refused to take part in the lottery on religious grounds. He considered it gambling, and not far from more serious betting-related games such as poker. It is true as some spots are far more desirable than others, getting far more traffic. Some spots at the end of the beach were empty, even on a Saturday afternoon. Did those lottery winners decide their spot wasn’t good enough? Will those spots often end up wasted? A performer I interviewed refused to use the lottery and instead risked the $1000 fine because he couldn’t make a living if he were assigned a spot on the less trafficked end of the boardwalk. Other than that, he had no problem with it. Personally, I often mark my progress down the boardwalk by the marker that is Greg the Sandman, who has been making sand mermaids so long that he is in several tourist guidebooks. For Greg, it is all about the money. Indeed, his first words on the lottery were, “I need money” He can only solicit money if he participates and so he explained “ok, they got me…good job” So even though he is against the lottery, he went down there and though he didn’t like that he had to spend an hour and a half and $25 to get his spot, he did it. If he hadn’t gotten a spot, he would have setup in the 4 foot in between space. There are times he has setup on the grass or on the beach, but nobody makes the trip to see his sand sculptures. He’s totally against the lottery, but he appears to be coping and participating.
A lot of people appear to be making the best of the situation. Mo, who makes arts and crafts, specifically believes in making the best of every situation. He was here before the lottery and he is there after the lottery and he understands that there are pluses and minuses to any situation. Crazy Dave said, “It doesn’t affect many people except the vendors and it’s always been a problem for them. If they weren’t complaining about the lottery, they were complaining about having to get there so early.” The psychic said, “I don’t know if this is going to work out but it wasn’t working before.” There is a certain acknowledgement that the situation is not perfect, but there is a willingness to try things out on the part of some. Others aren’t quite as calm about things.
Food Not Bombs states on their website, “This ordinance creates a lottery and permit system that will destroy the free spirit of the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Venice Beach is one of the few places left in the USA where artists, musicians, religious and political activists can freely express themselves in open spaces. Save the Commons. Stop these ordinances that restrict free expression in public open spaces.” This appears to be the crux of the opposition. Anhata, who displays political billboards, stated that “The lottery has an overt reason for having it and a covert reason and the covert reason probably should be looked at most. The boardwalk in Venice is a mile and a quarter long. It is the most pricey piece of property that is undeveloped compared to what it could be developed, in the world today. Developers are salivating over ripping into the east side of the boardwalk and so hastling the people who are in free expression is just one step in many steps they have conjured up to drive the people who are on the East side out of business so they can suck up the land.” There is a general distrust of government that pervades Venice and so the need for maximum feasible community participation is even greater. Otherwise, it feels like someone is trying to regulate ‘free Venice’ and so the knee jerk reaction of Venice residents (me included) is to oppose it. “I hear a lot of complaints….they are not used to being governed. But I really don’t have an (personal) opinion.” Appears to be a popular resident stance. Much of this reaction appears to be centered on the north end of the Venice Boardwalk where one can find a preponderance of anti-lottery signs. One man who I interviewed there told me that “I want to run the lottery so I can make a lot of money off of it’s corruption before somebody else does.” There was a general hostility there and I couldn’t help but get the impression that some of those people were the ‘wolves in hippie clothing’ that had been mentioned by others. Some were talking about forming a Venice Artists Union that would stand up for their rights. They clearly felt like this was a solution which was being imposed on them from city hall rather than something that they were invested in.
One problem with the process from a Community Psychology perspective is that the councilwoman who championed this solution was not even elected by the people of Venice. Cindy Miscikowski won her seat in the Valley and due to a redistricting effort, was temporarily the representative for Venice. As such, she is not viewed as a member of the community and any effort led by her is bound to be seen as the effort of an outsider to impose outside values. Her support for the controversial Playa Vista project also opens her to people who question whether her loyalties lie. There were meetings where people were given the opportunity to discuss the plans to reform the boardwalk system, but these meetings were viewed as opportunities for protest rather than opportunities to actually change the system. Perhaps if someone had asked the people on the boardwalk to suggest solutions to their own problems, they might have bought into it more. Instead, people see it as someone trying to take away their liberty.
There is much that can be learned from the attempts to solve space issues on the Venice Boardwalk when one looks at events from a community psychology perspective. The importance of framing the issues well towards goals that everybody agrees upon is highlighted. Some boardwalk artists, who cling to their view of Venice as a haven of freedom, feel that the issue, which is trying to be addressed, is one of control. They feel that the homeowner who complained about their non-conformity is being heard by a City Hall, which is salivating at the prospect of an excuse for turning big business loose on the boardwalk. It matters little whether the intentions of Councilmember Miscikowski are noble or not. It is a simple tenet of Community Psychology that people will not trust her as an outsider and that if she wants people to buy into what is an inherently complex and controversial task, she will have to place power with the only people that the stakeholders of Venice will trust, their fellow stakeholders. Instead of positing a solution to some of these problems and inviting comments, she could have asked for help solving these problems from the people who were most affected by them. In doing so, she might have discovered some of the nuances that don’t fit the rather uniform solution we currently have. Some of the boardwalk artists need 20 feet of space and some need 5. Some plan on coming on Saturdays only and some come only on weekdays. Some can survive anywhere and some need to be in certain areas. Some are bullies and require police intervention and some are very accommodating and can be trusted to work things out themselves. It may be the case that this lottery is the best that can be done for now or it may not be, but a more collaborative rather than adversarial process in working with the community would have made it much easier to find out.