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PICTURE

LIFE'S A BEACH!

Date: Wednesday, November 10, 1999

Section: FEATURES - ACCENT & ARTS

Page: 01E

Illustration: Photo

Byline: Mike Harden

Source: Dispatch Columnist

Series: AMERICAN PORTRAITS


Columnist Mike Harden and Photographer Doral Chenoweth III recently traveled the western United States, intent on finding out who we are as a nation before the dawn of a new century.

Once-famous bohemian scene has lost its offbeat luster

VENICE BEACH, Calif. -- These are not halcyon days in southern California's bohemia on the boardwalk.

The daredevil who once entertained tourists by juggling chain saws -- working chain saws -- has folded his tent.

The dime-a-joke material of the comic who calls himself the "World's Greatest Wino" has become as flat as day-old champagne.

Beach-side psychic Luann "Luna" Hughes is convinced that a conspiracy of developers is about to gentrify what always has been one of the nation's best free floor shows: Venice Beach.

"This will no longer be a poor man's holiday," groused Hughes of the stretch of Pacific beach that is part arcade, part tourist trap and part municipal headache.

Steve Mozena, an activist and the area's unofficial "mayor," believes Hughes is overreacting about gentrification. Yet he is too busy to worry about the accuracy of a beach psychic's powers of divination. He has bigger fish to fry.

"Our boardwalk looks like a minefield," Mozena grumbled. I went before the Los Angeles city council a year-and-a-half ago and said, 'This place looks like the city dump." Because it was an election year, they appeased me by trimming about 100 palm trees."

However, officials did nothing about the blacktop promenade.

PICTURE

"They have a fund, a trip-and-fall fund. It is actually cheaper to let people trip, fall and then settle with them, than it is to repave the boardwalk," Mozena said of the official stance on the matter.

He runs his own academic publishing house. He has taken to embarrassing the city for treating Venice Beach like an unwanted stepchild. Since 1994, Los Angeles has been sitting on the lion's share of $10 million set aside for beachfront improvements.

Mozena became so infuriated with what he regarded as city government's shucking and stalling that, in July 1998, he spent $5,000 on a beautification project.

"I bought the paint and supplies," he recalled. "I hired the homeless to do the work at $6 an hour. I fed them breakfast and lunch. They painted park benches, picnic tables, swing sets. They painted out graffiti on fixtures all along the Venice Boardwalk."

This year, Mozena has been waging "The Great Toilet Paper War" with city fathers.

The toilet paper supply the city provides for public restrooms at the beach, he said, is woefully inadequate for an area that hosts up to 250,000 visitors on summer weekends.

"Why I had to become contentious for the right to get toilet paper is ludicrous," he complained. "I'm seriously contemplating running for mayor of Los Angeles, a mayor who listen to the needs of the citizens rather than ignore them."

Part of Venice Beach's problem is that it is a maze of overlapping jurisdictions.

Beach vendor Bill Greenslade explained, "The blacktop is city of Los Angeles. The concrete is Parks and Recreation. Beyond that is the county, and somewhere between the bike path and the beach it becomes the state's."

On top of that, observers say, area and facility improvements at the nearby city of Santa Monica and its Pier (which bracket Venice and to the north) have sent Venice Beach's star falling.

Venice simply isn't what it was when Arnold Schwarzenegger pumped iron there.

Mozena says though "Venice will be back!"

"But Venice had its heyday in the '80s," Mozena said. "It waned at the end of the '80s, and limped along into the '90s through earthquakes, riots and everything else."

Critics claim Venice Beach is overrun by less desirable members of society and that it has become a sprawling, unlocked psychiatric ward whose patients supply their own medications. Some critics believe that gentrification might be precisely what the area needs.

"They want it to be Atlantic City," complained psychic Hughes of the developers she sees lurking somewhere in the distant, murky future. Mozena disagrees. "I don't think there is a worry such as that the psychic has -- about Venice losing its bohemian feel."

He conceded jokingly, "If she is a psychic, she should know."

Mozena would be happy if the place simply could keep itself in toilet paper.

Caption: (1) Doral Chenoweth III / Dispatch photos Above: Known as the Kama Kosmic Krusader, Harry Parry plays for tips along the boardwalk.
(2) Right: Long, natural nails are a trademark for Luann "Luna" Hughes, who does psychic counseling and reads palms and tarot cards.
(3) Astrologer Dennis Reid uses a computer to predict the future at Venice Beach, Calif.
(4) Steve Mozena is leading a one-man crusade to revitalize the community.
(5) Doral Chenoweth III / Dispatch Pricilla Aceves, 11, holds her sister Joslyne, 6, as they blow bubbles on the Santa Monica Pier. Editorial License used by Mozena. See dispatch for actual article.

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