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Southern California has certain similarities to Mediterranean Europe. It’s at about the same latitude; and a similar combination of ocean, coastal mountains, and abundant sunshine keeps the weather mild and pleasant much of the time. That encourages real estate developers to invoke Mediterranean locales in promoting their projects. Palos Verdes Estates started out as an upscale imitation of Italian hill towns, complete with red tile roofs. Santa Barbara proclaims itself “the American Riviera.” And at the beginning of the 20th century, two unrelated Los Angeles-area developers pondered tracts of swampland— one south of Santa Monica, the other in Long Beach— and had visions of Venice.
Abbott Kinney broke ground on his “Venice of America” beach resort in 1905. The Kinney family had made a fortune in the tobacco business, so Abbott received an appropriately upper-crust education in Europe that included a walking tour of Italy. Thanks to a lengthy stop in Venice, he envisioned a piece of swampland near Santa Monica as his own Venetian theme park community, complete with a lagoon, bridges, gondolas, and a main street with a “Venetian Renaissance” facade.
By 1910, Venice was a successful and popular combination of Disneyland and Coney island, with a 366-meter pleasure pier and a continuous beachside carnival. Kinney was effectively the Doge of his Venice, completely dominating the city’s politics after incorporating it. By 1920, Venice had a professional baseball franchise, a miniature railroad, an aerial police force, and numerous speakeasies (underground drinking establishments that widely flouted Prohibition). The population was over 10,000. Unfortunately, that was just when the Kinney family business claimed Abbott as one of its casualties. He died of lung cancer in November 1920.
Without its Doge, the Venice City Council proved unable to either govern or maintain the city’s infrastructure. In 1925, residents voted to annex their city into into Los Angeles. The Los Angeles City Council had no interest in decadent entertainment. And those absurd canals needed to be filled in to make way for roads, as the automobile was well on its way to dominating the Southern California landscape. The City quickly shut down the amusement park accouterments, but residents stubbornly resisted the demolition of their canals. After lengthy litigation, the City finally prevailed in 1929. But by then oil had been discovered in the area, and the drilling operations had fouled the canals.
Between 1929 and the 1980s, Venice suffered from neglect by Los Angeles officials. I suspect they might have harbored lingering institutional antipathy toward Abbott Kinney’s freewheeling creation. The Depression and World War II took their toll as well. Venice became a decrepit haven for the Beat Generation in the 1950s, and for Hippies in the 1960s. Then it became a blighted slum.
In the 1980s, beach cities responded to the fitness boom and the
popularity of in-line skates by building the skating and biking path
that runs along the beach from Torrance to Santa Monica. That spurred
improvements to Venice Beach, and the “gentrification” of the canal
district as an enclave of distinctive and astronomically-priced homes.
Today, Venice Beach is a popular weekend destination with a street-fair
atmosphere that echoes the Abbott Kinney era. Behind the beach, the
revived canal district retains vestiges of its Venetian character. On a
weekday morning it’s a pleasant, tidy, and decidedly serene place for
walking, reflection, and communing with the ducks that make the canals
Arthur M. Parsons founded Southern California’s other Venetian-inspired community. His family wasn’t wealthy, so I don’t know if he ever visited Venice. But he did help William Frederick Cody organize the Buffalo Bill Wild West show, developed real estate in Los Angeles, and wrote several popular novels. In 1903, Parsons was a salesman for a real estate company that was developing the Alamitos Peninsula. The peninsula forms the west side of Alamitos Bay, at the southwest corner of Long Beach. Across the bay was some rather unappealing muddy swampland, considered useless because it flooded at every high tide.
By 1905, with a healthy bank balance from his own investment in the Alamitos Peninsula, Parsons was considering other land in the area to develop. One day he looked across the bay at the mud flats, and had a vision of a certain serene city on the Adriatic that also happened to be built on swampland. He took an envelope from his pocket and sketched an island surrounded by a circular canal with arched bridges and the obligatory gondolas. He commissioned a surreptitious test that found buildable land buried underneath a few centimeters of mud. Parsons then convinced the skeptical Bixby family to sell him this piece of their Rancho Los Alamitos holdings, and began the process of subdividing his own version of Venice.
But Parsons couldn’t call it Venice, since Abbott Kinney’s project was already well underway. So as part of the publicity for the new development, Parsons announced a contest to name it. Out of several thousand submissions, Naples was the winning entry. Although the real Naples is more famous for pizza and the Vesuvius volcano than for any canals or bridges (which it lacks), it is situated on a scenic bay. That apparently struck Parsons as just the right branding.
Parsons shrewdly invited Henry Huntington to become president of the company that would develop Naples. Huntington owned the Pacific Electric Railway. By providing extensive and reliable mass transit, the Pacific Electric Railway’s red streetcars catalyzed the metastatic conurbation of Los Angeles well before the automobile that supplanted them. Huntington’s involvement assured easy streetcar access to Naples, which Parsons exploited by offering daily promotional tours. Over a free picnic lunch, Parsons and his salesmen touted the advantages of bayside living and offered easy financing of 9-by-12-meter lots that cost between $900 and $4,000 (equivalent to around $20,000 to $90,000 in 2007 dollars).
Unlike Abbott Kinney’s wild and crazy Venice, Parsons apparently never intended Naples to be anything other than an upscale residential community. Aside from one hotel that was briefly open from 1929 to 1931, there were (and are) no accommodations for visitors. Parsons also had no political ambitions. That’s probably why Naples looks pretty much as he sketched it on that envelope in 1905.
Parsons gave everything on the island the names of Italian cities and landmarks. The main circular canal is the Rivo Alto, the old name— meaning “high bank”— for the historical civic center of Venice, better known by its streamlined modern name, Rialto. Unlike the shallow, decorative canals of Abbott Kinney’s Venice, the Rivo Alto canal in Naples leads directly to Alamitos Bay, on the ocean. The lucky (and wealthy) owners of the prime real estate on the canal have private docks for a flotilla of boats.
Parsons’ original design had one inexplicable omission. He seems to have forgotten that no Italian town can be complete without a piazza (the main town square) surrounding a fountain. Residents finally corrected that deficiency in 1971 with La Bella Fontana di Napoli, the three-tiered “beautiful fountain of Naples.” The piazza was originally a mini-park built around a vent for a septic tank.
A visit to Naples usually includes a stroll along the canals, and possibly a gondola cruise (which wasn’t operating on the Tuesday afternoon when I took these pictures). But it’s worth venturing “inland” from the canals. Wandering among the narrow alleyways, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in Europe. Parsons laid out the streets and alleys— officially designated as “walks”— without regard to the automobile, which was then a novelty. Parking difficulties are exacerbated by the presence of many SUVs that also spoil the Old World illusion. Backing my car out of one very narrow blind alley was a déjà vu flashback to similarly challenging maneuvers in Provence, France.
During the 20th century, residential real estate development in Southern California became synonymous with sprawling tracts of cookie-cutter houses or condominiums. Some of those developments grant “homeowners associations” the totalitarian power to enforce strictly regimented uniformity. But Venice and Naples reflect an earlier era, when developers sold only land and left buyers to build homes pretty much as they pleased. Even though most homes have been replaced since the days of Kinney and Parsons, they still display distinctly individual character. It’s reflected in the architecture, and often in quirky decoration. Even if they aren’t accurate copies of “the Most Serene jewel of the Adriatic,” Naples and the Venice canal district are distinctive oases in a desert of urban sprawl.