The once weird, now wealthy neighborhood is seriously considering secession
In the mid-aughts, yuppies began trickling into Venice as part of a nationwide trend of gentrification. The city requested and received a gang injunction for parts of the neighborhood, leading to increased attention from the LAPD, which helped to make the neighborhood safe enough for new arrivals attracted by the area’s artistic history, relatively cheap rents, and location between the ocean and the offices of the Westside. The yuppies were followed by zeitgeisty companies like Snapchat, Vice, and Google, drawn by those same features, plus lobbying and tax breaks from a city government eager to create “Silicon Beach.”
As in all the other urban neighborhoods that have been colonized, the new arrivals have caused major changes and deep divisions over shared and public spaces. Black residents of Venice’s Oakwood area complained in 2015 that the aging gang injunction was being used as an excuse for police harassment. Those who see the desirability of Venice as a product of its bohemianness and its acceptance of aberrant behavior are infuriated. Venice Neighborhood Council members characterize the conflicts that have arisen as toxic, emotional, and in dire need of a unifying force, before it bubbles over into all out war.
In an effort to galvanize the community, the VNC recently passed two resolutions initiating the first steps towards creating an independent city of Venice. Venice was once its own municipality, founded in 1905 as an entertainment-focused resort town, but it allowed itself to be annexed by the city of Los Angeles in 1926 due to financial problems. Today, exploring a return to independence seems to be one of the few things the community’s warring factions can agree on. The second of the two resolutions, passed in July, approved the formation of an ad hoc committee to investigate the feasibility of a “Vexit.”
One side supports the upward financial trajectory of the area—the arrival of tech companies, the proliferation of high-end retail, the skyrocketing of property values and rents—and accepts the risks of whitewashing and cultural destruction that come with it. Those on the other side see themselves as the colonized.
“When it comes to issues of gentrification and homelessness, there is a lot of bad blood,” says Nick Antonicello, the VNC member who sparked the secession push. Antonicello, an executive at a small magazine, grew up in New Jersey, but has lived in Venice for 24 years. Surprisingly, both of his secession-related resolutions passed with an overwhelming majority, an increasingly rare occurrence at neighborhood council meetings. “With the council 50-50 split pro- and anti-gentrification, we still came together almost unanimously on this. This shows that no matter which side you’re on, everyone can agree that we’re not getting the city services we deserve.”
Many Los Angeles neighborhoods have caught bouts of secession fever over the years, and they always revolve around this singular complaint: they are giving the city more than they are getting in return.
Despite the city’s obvious excitement about Silicon Beach, the belief that Venice is being neglected is extremely common amongst Venetians, both new and old. It is mostly newer residents, however, who describe the areas near the boardwalk as “embarrassing” and “disgusting,” and who lament the abundance of trash and human waste. Older residents, it would seem, are a little more comfortable with the grime as part of Venice’s identity.
“The homelessness problem is honestly disgraceful. The last thing I want to see is those people get pushed out, but the current way the city handles it is dangerous,” says Kate Dowd, a television executive and Venice resident for two years. “I’ve been accosted at my car, in my garage, on the street, and outside bars and restaurants.”
But many Venetians, particularly those in the anti-change camp, worry about homeless residents being criminalized. Venice’s identity is, after all, distinctly antiestablishment, and its homeless population has always been a part of that.
Is the Los Angeles City Council likely to let Venice, the second most visited tourist destination in Southern California, go without a veto? Doubtful.
In 2014, the LAPD increased bicycle patrols along the Venice boardwalk in response to similar complaints from new residents. According to the LAPD, the patrols were supposed to be part of a move toward community policing, designed to create an even greater sense of order and safety on the boardwalk. However, the pro-change camp is also unhappy with these patrols, because they say they have had no apparent effect.
Another fixture of Venice’s identity is art, and some allege that the city’s inability to regulate the boardwalk has eroded authentic artists’ ability to access it. Artists do not need a specific permit to sell their wares there (they do need a general sales permit), which should help to attract fine artists from all over the city, yet the stalls are dominated mostly by unoriginal tchotchkes and redundant tourist crap. This is in part because some Venice vendors are known to be territorial to the point of violence. Community policing is supposed to help with this sort of strongarming, but some say there is no evidence that it has.
“[The boardwalk is] being prevented from thriving in an actual way,” says Diner. “True artists and true performers are scared to get out there. You can’t have a whole cart full of bike parts and call that art.”
Most Venetians are unhappy with the increased LAPD presence and the way the city handles the boardwalk and homelessness. The fact that neither side sees cityhood as a threat is an illustration of the uniting potential of secession.
“It doesn’t matter what your agenda is,” says Diner, “cityhood gives you more direct access to it.”
Due to the complex way in which the county and the city handle budgeting, it is unclear if Venice actually does provide more than its fair share of the city budget. The county collects the property taxes, takes its cut, then hands the rest off to the city, which distributes them to the neighborhoods as it sees fit. Neither entity shares specific information with the VNC, and both claim that they do not even keep such specific records. For all the VNC knows, Venice could be broke.
But that’s unlikely. Venice has one of the top 10 highest property value averages in Los Angeles County, one of only four L.A. city neighborhoods on the list. The transformation of Abbot Kinney Boulevard into a high-end shopping destination is bulletproof evidence of a thriving retail economy. Venice must defer to the discretion of the city and the state as to how its sales tax revenues are spent (cities get back about 1.5 percent of their sales taxes from the state), and must fork over all of its property taxes to the county. If it were its own city, Venice would get to keep a portion of its sales taxes and, while it would still have to tangle with the county over its property tax revenues, it would almost certainly keep a much larger share.
That said, Venice City would also have to replace the services that it gets from Los Angeles, which could be very expensive. Most small cities subcontract with the city or the county to provide public safety services like police and fire departments. Thus, Venice could essentially end up paying the LAPD for the same police it has now, only with more officers and more local control, which would likely cost a lot. The city also provides road and sidewalk maintenance, sanitation services, and parking enforcement; the local school district is operated by the city of Los Angeles, with the oversight of the county, and a new, much smaller school district agreement would have to be reached with the county. Beach maintenance in Venice is undertaken via a special agreement with the county, and it is unclear whether that agreement would need to be renegotiated if Venice achieves cityhood. In any case, as a smaller municipality, Venice would have to pay a higher price for services that Los Angeles provides at a cheaper bulk rate due to its size.
The point in all this is that all roads lead to the city of L.A. … I don’t want to speak for the city, but I can’t see any advantage in them allowing Venice to leave.
It also turns out that seceding from Los Angeles is extremely difficult, if not borderline impossible. This is for good reason. If every wealthy neighborhood simply cut and run, Los Angeles would quickly be destroyed and its many poorer residents would suffer.
“You would not want a city bankrupted by the wealthy areas detaching,” says Paul Novak, the executive director of Los Angeles’s Local Agency Formation Commission, the institution responsible for handling secession attempts. “You have a city that’s working. If you take away all the good areas and all the revenues, then you could have an untenable situation.”
Secession advocates must tangle with both lawmakers and voters—and the lawmakers have been stacking the deck. “The secession laws are a reflection of past attempts to secede,” says Novak. “New laws were written to make it very hard for that to happen.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Los Angeles faced a rash of secession movements. In 2002, the Harbor Area, a territory in San Pedro that partially connects the city to the Port of Los Angeles, petitioned LAFCO for secession, but was rejected due to concerns about its potential financial viability. The same year, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley both fought for secession, making it past LAFCO’s economic stress test and getting referendums put on the ballot. Both failed to convince the majority of city voters to allow secession, and the movements died.
That was the Valley’s second attempt to secede from Los Angeles, and the closest any neighborhood has ever gotten. (With the exception of a street or two being annexed by an adjacent neighborhood, e.g. tiny bits of Century City turning over to Beverly Hills, no neighborhood has ever seceded from Los Angeles.) The push came out of a decades-old movement reacting to demographic changes in the historically white San Fernando Valley that had made the area both poorer and more diverse. Then-Mayor James Hahn battled Valley cityhood head on, initiating a $5 million anti-secession campaign called “One Los Angeles” that alleged that Valley City would actually be poorer and more bureaucratic without city support. Many Latino and African American Valley residents were suspicious of the movement anyway, as they had been spurned time and again by local power—the homeowners’ associations and neighborhood councils that had worked historically to exclude them. Ultimately, even with significant Latino support, the resolution barely passed in the Valley—only 50.7 percent voted yes—and it failed citywide in a landslide, receiving only about a third of the vote.
There are two initial approaches that Venice could take toward independence. The first option is to petition LAFCO for a “detachment,” which means that the neighborhood would leave Los Angeles and become an unincorporated territory governed by Los Angeles County (like Marina del Rey, Topanga, Altadena, East Los Angeles, and many other areas throughout the county).
If Venice were unincorporated, it is likely that it would get more out of its tax base than it does now. However, it is extremely unlikely that Venice would go this route, for two reasons. First, a major part of the Vexit movement is about self-determination and a more accessible local government.
“Getting [Los Angeles Mayor Eric] Garcetti on the phone is like getting the president on the phone,” says Antonicello. “If you have a small government, you can get local officials on the phone. If you have a direct link, that’s far more customer service friendly than being a part of a city of three million people.”
(While getting the mayor on the phone may be a tall order, Venice’s L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin has been at least somewhat responsive to the neighborhood’s cry for city attention. In April, he unveiled a set of proposals that would provide access to public bathrooms for homeless residents and open up space for them to store their belongings, among other measures, in response to the growing number of homeless encampments in Venice.)
Unincorporated entities do not have local governments, but rather are controlled by the Los Angeles County government. Thus, for Venice, unincorporation would mean simply exchanging one Downtown-based overlord for another.
Second, even if LAFCO accepts a detachment petition, a special rule allows the Los Angeles City Council to easily kill it by passing a resolution within 60 days. Is the city council likely to let Venice, the second most visited tourist destination in Southern California, go without a veto? Doubtful. So this option is most likely off the table.
The second, veto-proof route is the same one taken by the Valley in 2002 and is called a “special reorganization.” In this case, a neighborhood must file a petition with LAFCO with signatures of either 25 percent of the registered voters in the area or 25 percent of registered landowners, based on assessed value. Thus, if Snapchat owned 25 percent of the land by value in Venice (don’t worry, they probably only rent that much), its signature would be equal to 25 percent of the Venice voting population, at least as far as starting the secession process goes.
After that, LAFCO conducts a financial analysis evaluating whether the new city would be economically viable for at least three years. When East Los Angeles petitioned LAFCO for cityhood (not secession, because East L.A. is already unincorporated) in 2012, its fourth such attempt, it was turned down due to lack of fiscal feasibility. “We looked 10 years ahead, and realized that East L.A. would be upside down,” says Novak. “Unless LAFCO is comfortable from an economic perspective, then it won’t be approved.”
It is impossible to know whether Venice, a relatively small community at around 40,000 people, would be economically viable without actually conducting the analysis, especially since the county and the city both say they don’t keep records of how much Venice specifically pays in taxes. While it is certainly wealthy on a per capita basis, it could be that there aren’t enough property-owning residents to make independence work.
You have a city that’s working. If you take away all the good areas and all the revenues, then you could have an untenable situation.
Both Novak of LAFCO and Jason Tajima of the L.A. County Chief Executive’s Office say it is probably safe to assume, however, that Venice is quite the opposite, that it is quite wealthy, and that it would be economically viable on its own. After all, if the Valley can get past LAFCO, surely the Venice of 2016 can too.
But that’s just the easy part. After passing LAFCO, secession would appear as a ballot measure in a June or November election. In order to pass, the measure would have to be approved by a “dual majority,” both a majority of Venetians and a majority of Angelenos minus the Venetian vote. Convincing voters to say goodbye to one of their most wealthy and iconic neighborhoods would be a challenge, particularly considering how hard Garcetti would probably fight against it.
“The point in all this is that all roads lead to the city of L.A.,” says Novak, “I don’t want to speak for the city, but I can’t see any advantage in them allowing Venice to leave.”
It’s also unclear if a majority of Venetians would support the measure. Like in the Valley, some non-white residents have a contentious relationship with local power brokers, like the VNC, who would probably be in control after a secession. One group of “black, brown, unhoused, and traditional residents” boycotted the 10th Annual Venice Community Picnic in July because of a comment made at a VNC meeting in June—a white speaker said that “everyone hated” the historically black Oakwood at the time the picnic was founded.
The Community Picnic is organized every year by the VNC. At this year’s event in Oakwood Park, the tension was palpable. On one end of the park, near the stage and the food tents, a multicultural, but singularly eccentric, audience was serenaded with showtunes by a singer with pink hair. This well-manicured area was majority white (with an overabundance of beards), but included people of all races. About 50 yards away, in the outfield of a small baseball diamond, a group of tattooed Latino men presided over a line of glistening lowriders, watching the action from afar. Adjacent to them, at a cluster of picnic tables, a group of middle-aged black people were embroiled in games of dominoes. The space between the three groups was obvious, even embarrassing, yet few seemed keen on crossing boundaries.
Sal, one of the Latino men, is staunchly against secession.
“If it’s going to raise my property taxes, then no. And it would. This is the ghetto by the sea. It’s always been that way. Don’t make it worse,” Sal says, pointing over to the stage area. “These people over here, they don’t know. They didn’t grow up here.”
Other people who might have been anti-secession no longer live in Venice. Most of the domino players at the far end of the park have been chased out by high rents, though they still come back to gather with friends.
“Everybody that used to stay here don’t stay here no more,” says one man, who declines to give his name. “But you already know that.”
If Venice can’t convince both its own citizens and Angelenos to vote for its secession, there are a few Hail Mary options. One of these would be to ask to be annexed by neighboring Santa Monica. With the force of Santa Monica’s wealthy local government behind it, maybe it could scare Los Angeles into supporting secession. Yet this possibility concerns even secession proponents, as it would surely trigger the anti-gentrification camp’s primary concern: becoming just as bland, white, and uncool as Santa Monica.
“Then it’s like we are becoming Santa Monica literally,” says Diner. “I think people would have mixed views about that.”
In any case, annexation would most likely still require a detachment, which could be easily vetoed by the L.A. City Council. So that option is probably out.
While secession from Los Angeles would be extremely difficult, it could be the only way to save the neighborhood from becoming its worst nightmare: Santa Monica.
Another way would be to sue for independence, though this would be unprecedented. LAFCO has been sued for rejecting an incorporation petition (then-unincorporated Calabasas was rejected for lack of economic viability in 1988), but it has never seen a neighborhood sue for secession. Novak believes that such litigation would not likely be effective. “You can’t just walk into court and say ‘we want to be a city’,” he says.
There is one final path. LAFCO gets its authority from the California State Legislature. If Venice could somehow convince a state legislator to sponsor a special bill freeing Venice from Los Angeles, that would be a fast lane towards secession. This is Venice’s best bet, according to Novak. If it wants to take this path, it would make sense for Venetian secessionists to cuddle up to their resident global heavyweights, Snapchat and Google, who have the power to influence state legislation. So far, however, Silicon Beach seems agnostic towards secession. Snapchat declined to comment for this story, citing unfamiliarity with the cityhood proposal.
The Venice Neighborhood Council realizes that it faces an incredible challenge, but it remains fastidious in its drive to at least investigate the option. Antonicello has been placed in charge of the ad hoc committee that will begin investigating secession next month. He is now accepting volunteers.
“Everyone is going in with eyes wide open,” says Antonicello. “I’m not saying that cityhood would definitely be better, just that it’s worth investigating. Ultimately, it’s about doing what’s best for the community.”
Without the city resources they believe they deserve, some powerful Venetians are reacting in a different way—by taking matters into their own hands. In April, a group of Venice commercial property owners formed what’s known as a “business improvement district,” or a BID. A group of local business or property owners can organize a BID in partnership with the city, in which they pay a special tax in order to enhance public spaces “above and beyond” what the city provides. The goals of the Venice BID are to increase public safety, sanitation, and aesthetic appeal, all of which are tied to homelessness, and the BID will probably engage private security forces to carry out these goals. These security forces, controlled by some of Venice’s wealthiest, will be employed to wage war against its poorest.
It would seem, then, that the wealthy elements in Venice are going to have their way no matter what. Homeless people and other rule breakers will likely be removed, whether tech companies pressure the city into doing it or property owners pay for it themselves. The reason why secession is appealing to both pro-change and preservationist VNC members is that it would give interested residents of all socioeconomic statuses a chance to access the machinations of power—a similar motive to those in favor of the recent successful Brexit movement in the UK. A small local government has a lot more transparency than a combination of astronomically wealthy landowners, even wealthier tech companies, and a city of three million. While secession from Los Angeles would be extremely difficult, it could be the only way to save the neighborhood from becoming its worst nightmare: Santa Monica.
Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler