Gentrification: Abbott Kinney in Venice Beach

This past weekend, I went to the 31st Annual Venice Festival on Abbott Kinney Boulevard. For those of you who don't know, Abbott Kinney is one of the fastest changing parts of Los Angeles, gentrifying at such warp speed that it only seems like yesterday when you could buy crack on its litter-strewn streets.

Abbott Kinney is named after a tobacco magnate who engineered a plan to build piers during the free-wheeling flapper era--piers that lured city-bound citizens to the honky tonk pleasures of the beaches during the shimmering summers. These waterworlds were fantastic draws, boardwalk empires of mass entertainment that later burned down and became forgotten.

The surrounding area, Venice, took on a funky flavor--the stomping ground for beatniks and bums who brought with them an artistic vibe that can only flourish in the freedom of a carnival that has evolved into a slum. A number of famous artists emerged from the Abbott Kinney scene: Basquiat and Ruscha, to name just two. Charles and Ray Eames--the visionary architects who revolutionized post-war building methods--planted a studio on the boulevard at the tail end of the forties.

Musicians flocked to the area: There is a mural of Jim Morrison on the famous Venice boardwalk. By the time I was riding my ten speed through the Westside to the beach, Abbott Kinney was the kind of place where you could pass yourself off as just about anybody and nobody gave "two fucks": Perhaps this is why punk bands like Suicidal Tendencies made it a point to play there in the eighties when it became a gangland, a crack zone, a cesspool.

To give you some sense of how forgotten this corner of the city was, all you have to do is realize that one of the few sections of Los Angeles available for blacks to live beachside was in the vicinity. Oakwood--the area set aside for blacks through a process called "redlining"--was a district that arose out of restricted covenants, a practice that meant there were few quality services available to the residents--not schools, not utilities, not libraries.

But chew on this twist in the pretzel that is irony: it is precisely because of the black presence (their hush-hush neglect) that a coral reef of vibrant tropical fish of all stripes and colors came to flourish: a certain kind of counterculture bongo-drumming bohemian began to be associated with Abbott Kinney, a cool cat who wore his shades at night and listened to bebop and channeled the swagger of black rage, found himself drawn by the magnetic pull of this side of town, hypnotized by the laid back laissez-faire vibe of its "negro streets." Is it any wonder that Allan Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac logged time in the coffee shops of the area?

Now all that has changed: Google has opened up a campus nearby and the really beautiful sun-kissed people have made this a place where five hundred dollar jeans are the norm. The surrounding area has been renamed "Silicon Beach" and the corporation has set up a phallanx of security guards--guards who themselves are probably two steps away from the soup kitchen door--to shoo away the transient population who already have both feet planted firmly in the homeless shelter, the free clinic and the food pantry. GQ has conferred upon Abbott Kinney the crown of "coolest block in America" and the civic leaders wear it, like a shimmering diadem, in all the promotional literature.

The transformation is almost complete: Glencrest Barbecue--one of the old black-owned businesses--has been replaced by an artisanal barbecue joint. And in a sad, ironic twist of third-stage gentrification: the recent gentrifiers have become displaced (not without some protests and grumbles) to make way for even richer gentrifiers who can afford the stairway-to-heaven rents. We could see this all around as we walked down the street. The flagship stores sell the knick knacks of the upstart, start-up creative class: retro-looking bicycles, succulent plants and cruelty-free footwear.

I must be honest: I was saddened to see the change in Abbott Kinney--a street I've biked through as a kid on my way to the beach. There are almost no black residents at the street fair. There are Swedish strollers everywhere, like triple decker buses on a diet of carbohydrates and anabolic steriods. There are yuppie-hippies in their finest boho-chic duds, selling food-concoctions that are now touted as vegan and gluten-free and aryuvedic.

One of the vivid signs of this change came in a drum procession that paraded down the boulevard. "Why the fuck is there a drum circle in the middle of this fair?" muttered one of the passer-by's. "They're fucking up the flow of everything." Indeed they were, creating bottle-necks as they paused in the middle of the choked avenue, forcing pedestrians to filter through the holes at the edges of their procession. But truth be told, it wasn't exactly a drum circle: It was a group of 30-odd people who were inspired by Northern Brasil, where a black slave population, manacled to the monoculture of the plantation, developed a practice of resistance in the rituals of everyday life and manifested it in drumming and dancing.

I was lucky enough to spend a month in that region of Brasil once--a region famous for Capoeira, the martial art that features choreographed "foot fighting." Capoeira appeared so much like dancing, it fooled the masters who clamped down on all forms of insurrection but could not see that the martial moves were simply a dress-rehearsal for a much-wished-for uprising where even the body--the sole possession of the downtrodden--could be transformed into a weapon.

Northern Brasil--Salvador de Bahia is the city that anchors the region--is also the zone that produced the synchronized drumming that testifies to an unbroken connection to the African percussive tradition--the same drumming that would be featured in a Michael Jackson video, whose lyrics channeled the rage of barely smoldering black anguish:

All I wanna say is they don't really care about us
All I wanna say is they don't really care about us
All I wanna say is they don't really care about us

This is the chorus the pop star sings in front of black drummers in the streets of Pelourinho. (Pelourinho, the cute diminutive name given to the historic quarter, means Little Pillory; it is where slaves were whipped as part of the spectacle of social order.)

Bahia is also the region that produced the religion of Candomblé--a religion of resistance that fused the Catholic tradition with the religion of Africa: Candomblé focuses on the worship of African deities--Orixas. For each African Orixa, there is a major Catholic saint that corresponds. And in this way, the African religions were allowed to coexist (secretly preserved) without being wiped out.

The drummers wore tank tops that proclaimed they were drumming in praise of almighty Obatalá--the African Orixa who stands above all others as the sky father: the father of all the other Orixas, the figure that gave humans their very bodies. And the drummers were accompanied by women dressed in all-white 19th Century clothing, complete with bustles and turbans, dancing in unison. These would normally be the black women who served as priestesses in the cult of Candomblé, women who could channel the spirit of the Gods and perform miracles of rare device.

But it was telling to me that all the drummers, except one, were white and all the women--women who danced and swirled to the motions of ecstatic possession--were not black: they were a lighter shade of pale. I felt it said something about the way this area, this microcosm of my city, had turned. But I couldn't quite put my finger on it.