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2003 – Venice Canals … A Ten-Year Celebration

ls venice sign at night

Newcomers to Venice aren’t aware of what went into making the Venice Canals the wonder that the area is today. They probably stroll along the banks and think to themselves, “What a fabulous place”, not knowing that it wasn’t always this way. As a matter of fact, it has been only the last ten years this month that the canals were worthy of being praised.

The Venice Canals as we know them … Sherman, Howland, Linnie, Carroll, Eastern and Grand … were started in 1905, a little after the construction of Abbot Kinney’s Venice-of-America canals, on land owned by the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad and called the “Short Line Venice Canal Subdivision Number 1”. Due to high maintenance costs and the advent of the automobile, Kinney’s waterways were filled in when they were deeded to Los Angeles after the Venice annexation. Not so with the Short Line Canals.

There is little information in Venice history books about the Short Line Canals, whereas there are numerous photographs and many postcards from that time depicting Kinney’s canals. What we do know, according to some history books, is that when the Short Line Canals were constructed, they were planned to be as attractive as the Venice-of-America canals, but no such improvements came about. Purchasers of lots waited in vain for landscaping and even safety measures. Material and workmanship turned out to be inferior. Lots sold poorly because the area was an eyesore and gas, electric and sewer lines were not initially available. In 1929, the canals were only partially developed and the residents could not afford the city assessment for fill-in costs. As Venice declined in the 30s and 40s, this neighborhood became more neglected. In the 40s, the canals were officially removed from public access due to crumbling banks, sewage pollution and a backup of oil brine from drilling operations. By the late 60s, the canals had deteriorated into stagnant, murky pools. At that time, the area became a haven for hippies and other counterculture enthusiasts because of its location, uniqueness and cheap rent.

Then came the 70s. The Venice Canal Association was formed in 1978. Founding members were Henry Coleman, Murray and Maxine Leral and Bonnie Felix. One of its objectives was to restore the canals. Although there had been previous attempts, they all failed. As with almost any project in Venice, discussions weren’t without differences of opinion and opposite factions. Would it work this time?

Let’s fast forward to 1983. Mark Galanty bought a home on a canal and became active in the association. “I could see the direction being taken resulted more in disharmony than positive efforts,” he says. His background in politics, producing television and radio spots for propositions and candidates provided a good starting point in gathering consensus. “I never did grass roots work where you actually deal with people,” he says. “I thought this would be an interesting approach.”

Mark’s political expertise came to the forefront when Ruth Galanter became councilperson. “One of my memories,” he says, “was when Pat Russell was still councilwoman and I went to a meeting and I said, ‘I hear through the grapevine that Pat may not make the election.’ The great quote was ‘Ruth is the anti-Christ. She’ll destroy the project’.” Mark recognized the need to “come to grips” with Ruth being elected and having to deal with it. It was at that time that he really started to get involved. “The more I got involved, the more I took on,” he says. “I don’t know if it was forced upon me or I took over.” Mark became chair for the restoration committee before becoming president of the association.

“One of my roles,” says Mark, “was to change the reputation of the association. The VCA, because we wanted to restore the canals, was considered ‘pro-development’ and ‘anti-environment’. My job was to show what we were all about. We just wanted to restore the canals.”

Initially Ruth wanted the restoration done “her way or no way.” “That was in the early days before she knew how to be a politician,” says Mark. Later on, she became a proponent of compromise. What she wanted was to keep the cost down, retain historical aspects, keep it safe and make it environmentally friendly. The one issue missing was aesthetics. “That was really a debate,” says Mark. “She was eventually willing to take it on but we basically had to come up with an alternative.”

“Compromise” and “alternative” became the buzzwords. What can be done and how can it be done to get the restoration through? First came the City’s “Vertical Wall Plan.” A resounding “no”, said the canal community. And, of course, you may remember the controversy regarding the least tern. Then came the California State Coastal Conservancy’s “Armorflex Plan”. It featured a 23-degree slope, material laid in large sheets and more property encroachment because the sidewalk was closer to the property line. Again, the canal community majority said, “no”. They decided to devise their own plan. Andy Shores saw Loffelstein in a magazine and brought the idea to the association board. It became the ultimate selection of the residents. The “Loffel Block Plan” featured a 55-degree slope, individual interlocking materials and less property encroachment with the sidewalk closer to the canal bank.

In addition, test sites showed that the Loffel Block was better to protect, preserve and enhance the wetland vegetation that was a major concern and, in general, the community felt it was more aesthetically pleasing. The Loffel manufacturer was asked to do something they had never done before. They were requested to cut a hole in the bottom of each concrete block to allow the plant roots to grow deeper. “The Loffel grew, the Amorflex did not,” says Mark. “There were a lot of theories … that we sabotaged it. The City did a soil test to determine there was no poison. That’s how heated this thing was.”

Now who was going to pay for this restoration? In 1982, out of frustration after trying for forty years or more to get the canals cleaned up, a group of residents got together to establish an assessment district. Property owners paid approximately 80% or over $2.7 million of the costs spread over 10 years. They were assessed the cost of redoing the sidewalks, realigning the banks and providing public areas. The City paid for the restoration of the bridges, the wetland vegetation, handicapped access, the small historic section on Grand Canal near Venice Blvd. and the canal dredging. “It was fascinating to me,” says Mark, “this concept that you could have an assessment and get something restored like this that was such a great historical part of the community.” Although many people were opposed to paying the assessment, Mark remembers the assessment officer who had been in his job for many years commenting that, “of all the assessments that I’ve seen, it was the best assessment per dollar for the value.” The assessment was just another compromise to get the project done.

Finally, after all the other issues … environmental, safety, historical … were ironed out, the big day came for the Coastal Commission hearing. “The most magical moment,” says Mark, “was seeing Maxine with tears in her eyes. It was a great sight to see. It was almost as valuable as winning the Loffel because she was so dedicated.” Another heartwarming memory is the gentleman in a wheelchair who told Mark he had never been able to bring his chair on the canals. “That day I realized how important the restoration was,” he says.

From the time that I met Mark in the late 1980s he has always acknowledged that other people helped him with this project. “There were many before me that handed me the baton and I took it to the finish line,” he says. First, not to be forgotten, are the ones who came before. “People in the past needed to forge forward with a sword to make any progress,” he says. “When they cleared a path, then it was much easier for someone like myself to come along and carry on.” There were also those who helped Mark carry the baton the distance: the founding members of the Venice Canal Association … Henry Coleman, Murray and Maxine Leral and Bonnie Felix. Mark had a “best righthand man”, Rob Trask, an attorney. “I don’t think Rob got thanked enough,” he says. “He went to a lot of meetings with me and was a great help in focusing in the right direction.” Last, but not least, Mark acknowledges the property owners who were not only willing to pay for the restoration but were also willing to spend the time and energy in helping to make it happen.

“People who have moved here have no concept of what was involved and what the canals were like before,” says Mark. “They have no understanding of the battles, not just the ones we had, but the ones that came before.” Mark got really burned out. “It took me many years to recover from this whole experience,” he says.

Points to ponder: Who owned the canals when they were deeded to the City of Los Angeles and should the project be called a rehabilitation or a restoration? Many of Venice’s early records were destroyed or lost when it became part of Los Angeles. There is no record showing who owned the canals and when they were deeded. Ten years ago, the project was called a rehabilitation. Today, Mark calls it a restoration. What did the canals really look like when they were first constructed?

The canals have held up well over the last ten years. Through a maintenance contract, the City of Los Angeles maintains the canals as a public asset, aided by the efforts of the Venice Canals Association. The VCA continues to replace missing and dead wetland vegetation, paint and repair the public bridges, educate residents and the public about the municipal laws of the canals, provide public signage and perform annual clean ups and tree plantings.

The Venice Canals are a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument and on the National Register of Historic Places. Aren’t we lucky to have them as part of our community!