Old Los Angeles

Venice California: Resort, to Oil Town, To Slum to Resort Again

More than anywhere in SoCal, the landscape of Venice California has changed: from Venice of America, a luxury resort, to oil boom town, to a polluted slum to the funky, vibrant tourist attraction that it is today.

Venice of America was the dream of tobacco Millionaire Abbot Kinney to recreate what he saw in Venice Italy here in Southern California.  In 1905 he converted the beachfront property into a luxury old world residential neighborhood complete with canals, bridges and gondolas… and a popular resort.

The original pier built in 1905 by Abbot Kinney with the Ship Cafe. It was demolished in 1942.

Kinney had built a 1200 foot long amusement pier where the famous Ship Cafe was located pier along with an auditorium, restaurant, dance hall and arcades.  Just to the North was Ocean Parks Pickering Pleasure Pier (demolished in 1974) and Sunset Pier was just to the south.

The area thrived until the Great Depression and the town began to struggle… briefly.  The year 1920 also brought the discovery of oil to Venice.  In December 1929 the Ohio Oil Company built a well just east of Grand Canal that began producing 3000 barrels of oil per day.

Within a year another 50 wells were in operation along a section of coast only 2.5 miles long.  While we may think environmental regulations are too lax today, there were almost none then.  The luxury and beauty of the coastal resort town had changed into an ugly industrial nightmare.  Oil waste flooded lagoons, the beach was so heavily polluted.  Even schools were closed due to concerns of safety for the children.

The environmental problems didn’t slow production. The opposite was true.  By 1931 the Venice Oil Field had over 340 active wells.

Venice beach circa 1930

It was a short lived boom.  By 1932 some of the wells ran dry and were capped, but the oil field continued to produce and by 1942 over 47,000,000 barrels of oil had been extracted.  By 1972 most of the wells had been capped and the field finally ran dry in the 1990’s.

The Venice oil boom brought prosperity to the town during an era when most of the rest of the nation was suffering… but at a steep price to the quality of life and environment for decades to come.  Other than the production of oil, the area was so badly neglected that by the 1950’s Venice was known as the Slum by the Sea.

The low rents in the decaying neighborhood attracted gangs, immigrants, Holocaust survivors, counterculture artists, poets and writers.  In the final irony for Venice, it was the artists that brought the town back more than any efforts by governments or businesses.

The artists turned the seaside town into a canvas.  Soon beautiful murals (not graffiti) began to cover the walls of a very high percentage of buildings in the area.  Street performers took to the boardwalk and along with this came the tourists…. and development.

The development in Venice combined with the artistic vibe of the artists in the community turned it into one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. Unfortunately, this soon became too much of a good thing.  Companies like Google and Snapchat moved in resulting in skyrocketing rents and home prices that have forced many of the people that turned Venice into the vibrant city that it is today out.

The current situation in Venice was best put by an artist that goes by the Instagram name of @GZ.JR that painted a mural of Venice Founder Abbot Kinney holding a tin cup with a sign reading “Need $ For Rent.”  Leave it to an artist to say it like it is.  The founder of Venice most likely could not afford to live in the town he built today!

That said, if you have the chance to travel to Venice California, but all means do so.  There is no other place like it in the world.  Be sure to explore our post on the fun things to do and see in Venice!

All historical photos are in the public domain.  Grateful acknowledgement is given to the University of Southern California Libraries and the California Historical Society for preserving the work and making it available for use.

More photos and pins for your Pinterest Boards after the break…

Mural of Venice Founder Abbot Kinney begging for rent money by artist @gz.jr symbolizing the toll of gentrification on Venice.


The Original Venice pier in 1905 and the one standing today
Oil Drilling in Venice Beach 1930s and how it is today as the famous Venice Beach Boardwalk
Venice Beach during the oil boom days in the thirties, and today
The Venice Beach coastline was once covered with oil derricks.

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