I grew up in Syracuse, New York, a town known better for its canal (the Erie Canal, that is) than even its salt.
I would spend hours as a child staring at old postcards of Downtown Syracuse, marveling at how the canal used to run right through the middle of it, right in front of the clock tower where I sang Christmas carols at the city treelighting. I couldn't imagine how it had been dug in the first place, much less then filled back in. And whenever I cruised down Erie Boulevard, I always thought about how I was riding on top of that old canal.
When I moved to LA and started working in Venice, the canals didn't really occur to me. I couldn't look much beyond the hippies and the homeless that littered my way to the Whole Foods.
I kind of hated Venice back then. It took me four months in - and one month after being laid off - to even figure out where the existing canals still are.
It didn't really occur to me that the whole thing used to be canals.
This weekend, as a precursor to CicLAvia (for which we were going to use Venice as our starting point), Edith and I took a walking tour of present-day Venice, with its modern architecture - but seen through the lens of the Venice that once was. Edith pointed out United States Island to me, with its century-old palm trees and tiny vacation rental houses, each named after a different U.S. state.
"What do you mean, 'island'?" I asked, puzzled.
She pointed to the triangle between Windward Avenue, Altair Place, and Cabrillo Avenue - an intersection completely unfamiliar to me - and said, "That used to be an island."
"What do you mean?!"
"Um, these streets were all canals."
Our walk led us down Windward Avenue (the old Lion Canal) to Windward Circle, a modern day traffic circle that used to be the swimming lagoon of the recreational area that bordered the amusement park and the "Race Thru the Clouds" rollercoaster, a behemoth that was demolished in 1923, two years before the City of Venice became part of the City of Los Angeles, and six years before the canals were filled in.
Now, in modern day Windward Circle, there are a trio of structures built in the late 80s that are meant to evoke the original lagoon and rollercoaster, including the "Race Through the Clouds" building...
...the Arts Building (which evokes the old Hotel Antler)...
...and the Ace Market Place, reminiscent of the dredging machines that dug the original Venice of America canals.
But you really have to look at them to know.
As you walk atop those filled-in canals, you can find some original structures...
...like The Architecture Gallery on San Juan Avenue, a brick building built in 1914 which once stood on the banks of the Venus Canal and - we think - was used to store boats.
It's got a bright sea blue coat of paint, but you can still see some of the original brick facing the street.
Dating back to 1912, a brick warehouse on Abbot Kinney Boulevard (named, of course, after the founder of Venice whose vision gave rise to the canals) still stands...
...after having been used for over 40 years as the offices for Charles and Ray Eames.
Inside, the warehouse has been modernized to house its current occupant (Continuum, a design consultancy), but the wood beams and skylights have been preserved.
Newer construction in Venice is baffling as the community itself.
Frank Gehry designed another trio of buildings on Indiana Avenue, the Arnoldi Triplex, each as an artist's studio with its own theme...
...the first theme being "stairs"...
...which can be seen even from the green-stained exterior from the entryway.
Gehry also designed the Chiat-Day building, a roadside attraction for its giant binoculars (which Gehry himself didn't actually design) facing Main Street (formerly Coral Canal).
I always wondered where this building was.
Its address was so close to my old office, yet I never saw it.
When I finally found it, I realized I had walked by it, a few times in fact, but had never looked up to really see it.
I don't know how I could've missed its huge and bizarre facade. But I wasn't looking for it.
A block away from Main Street, after Electric Avenue (where the Pacific Electric used to run) turns into Hampton Drive which turns into 2nd Street, we also found an old Edison electrical plant built in 1910...
...having been converted into the Powerhouse Theatre for live stage performances...
...and now pending another renovation into a restaurant.
In many ways, Venice remains true to its roots as an artist community and a seaside recreational destination, but long gone are the trains that took you there, and the boats that got you around.
Now we drive, bike, and walk our way through the city which lost its incorporation and got gobbled up by Los Angeles.
This is what Venice is without its canals.
Photo Essay: Venice (Beach) Canals
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