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Marking its centennial year

A bicyclist pedals down the bike path adjacent to the boardwalk in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles. 
 (The Spokesman-Review)
A bicyclist pedals down the bike path adjacent to the boardwalk in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles. (The Spokesman-Review)
Daisy Nguyen Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – In various incarnations, Venice has been called the Coney Island of the Pacific, ghetto by the sea, and – in a new movie about a group of trailblazing skateboarders – Dogtown.

The movie, “Lords of Dogtown,” tells the true story of local teens whose daring moves revolutionized skateboarding in the 1970s.

But the gritty Venice you see on screen is nothing like Venice today.

This famed seaside community west of central Los Angeles – also known for Muscle Beach and a bodybuilding culture popularized by former resident Arnold Schwarzenegger – marks its centennial this year.

And as the celebration gets under way this summer, local history buffs are looking back much farther than the 1970s – to the original vision of Abbot Kinney, the developer who founded “Venice-of-America” a century ago as a resort town modeled after the legendary Italian city.

“To us, it’s Greenwich Village west,” said Todd Von Hoffman, who came from New York in the 1980s. “When you’re in Venice, you have this amazing sense of place, whereas the rest of Los Angeles is vast and overwhelming.”

Many people who live in L.A.’s coastal neighborhoods like to boast that they seldom venture east of the 405 Freeway – a symbolic dividing line a few miles inland that separates their world from the rest of the city.

But residents of offbeat Venice draw the line even closer to the coast, saying they’re “always west of Lincoln” (Boulevard), within a mile or so of the Pacific Ocean. Some proudly wear T-shirts bearing the acronym “AWOL.”

With its entertaining beach boardwalk and labyrinth of canals and walkways connecting lushly landscaped homes, Venice is one of the most pedestrian-friendly districts of Los Angeles. A visitor can spend an entire weekend on the go without needing a car.

Residents of the community of 40,000 people range from low-income families to bourgeois bohemians. The most famous denizens include actors Dennis Hopper and Anjelica Huston, and her husband, sculptor Robert Graham.

Over the Fourth of July, bodybuilding and swimsuit competitions and various performances will be held along the boardwalk.

Throughout the year, special walking tours offer looks into artists’ studios and notable homes and gardens – many of them on the canals. Most tours end with a street festival and food fair, featuring cuisine from local restaurants.

In September, a music, food and art festival along hip Abbot Kinney Boulevard offers a chance to bask in the sun and enjoy the waning days of summer.

The events will put Venice on display. But it’s the canals and sidewalks that tell the colorful history of the funky beach community founded by Kinney, an asthmatic who left his family’s tobacco business on the East Coast for the milder climate of Southern California.

He hired workers to dig 16 miles of canals along the salty marshland, imported gondolas and commissioned architects to design a business district resembling the famed San Marco square.

Kinney formally introduced Venice-of-America on July 4, 1905. Critics dubbed the project “Kinney’s Folly,” but beachgoers immediately flocked there to swim or stroll on amusement piers called “The Coney Island of the Pacific.”

Camel rides, beauty contests and outlandish stunts drew people to the shore and created a circus atmosphere that remains a part of Venice today.

Kinney died in 1920 at age 70. A month later, a fire destroyed a pier and much of the local economy. By the mid-1920s, Venice could no longer support itself as an independent city and was annexed to Los Angeles.

It fell into disrepair and many of the whimsical canals were drained and filled to accommodate an increasing number of motorists.

In the 1950s, beatniks were drawn by its low rents and reputation as a haven for artists. Hippies followed in the next decade and settled in the area’s Craftsman cottages.

The ‘70s saw the rise of skateboarders and bodybuilders, while the 1980s and early 1990s brought gang violence to some streets. But a real estate boom in recent years has resulted in gentrification.

Today, massive, million-dollar homes stand next to quirky bungalows – a mix of styles reflecting the changes the community has seen over the years.

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