Silicon Hollywood: Emergency Guide to ‘Venaissance’

MAY 2, 2012 NOTE: The May issue of the Beachhead features a condensed, less scolding version of my “Guide” entitled Free Venice Where Art Thou. The following contains more specifics; but I was still a little pissed off when I wrote it.
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How will Venice Beach’s future be effected by the influx of wealth and technology that is primed to take place over the next few years? That is the question and the subject of a recent neighborhood meeting…

Only in LA would you enter a town hall event and find that there is a catered spread, corporate sponsorship and an after party. Arriving around 6:30 pm, on Thursday, April 12th, for the Impact of Silicon Beach Town Hall, it was like walking into a Trade Show or a Job’s Fair. There was plenty of time to eat good food, peruse trade booths and pick up goodies like notepads, pens and magnets, while waiting for the Venice Town Hall discussion to begin.

So many tech and/or startup companies were on display in the Westminster Elementary School Auditorium that a map of stations was provided. Twenty five companies were represented including Wemo Media, StackSocial, NextSpace, JibJab, Nexon, Demand Media, Sparkwave Media, Mogreet, G-Tech, Amplify and, of course, Google. It is worth noting that in addition to goodies and basic literature, Google’s display included two booklets aimed at addressing diversity: The Black Community at Google and The LGBT Community at Google.

Unlike a city such as Santa Monica (or pretty much any other city in the rest of the country), where the outreach would be straight to your homeowners and business people; in Venice, there was an attempt to appeal to the creative community. This was smart. The creative community may very well be the swing crowd in determining what happens to the poor and homeless over the next decade.

In the past regime of Art for Art’s Sake, you could more often count on writers, artists and musicians to align themselves with the Venice disenfranchised. It was a badge of honor to walk among transients and drug dealers. Exposure to harsh realities under the sweet California sunshine, the hustler’s culture in the midst of all the natural beauty, surfer boys, skateboarders, junkies, poets, freedom, drugs, conflict, the lost and desperate, the extremes – were why so many artists and musicians were drawn to Venice. It is real. You are not shielded from life.

Many current trends in the young Venice artistic community do not follow the same general bent. The appeal of Silicon Hollywood is great. The appeal of economic prosperity is great. The appeal of a playground of shops, galleries, restaurants and ocean is great. The appeal of fame and bumping elbows with the entertainment industry is great. The appeal of creating a world stage in Venice Beach to display all this talent and attract serious collectors and investors is great. The appeal of uniting with the tech industry to open up an exponentially larger audience is great. But is this all exclusive of the homeless and the poor?

We are at a crossroads. We stand to gain tremendous benefit in the form of money and expertise sweeping into Venice. We stand to gain jobs and better resources for our children.We must make an important and difficult decision. What we do about the homeless and the economically challenged is going to be what defines our soul as a community.

Do we put our foot down and tell the tech people we would love to have the industry here, but they will have to get themselves and their employees up to speed on how to interact with a large homeless population? Or, do we now see the homeless as too great a burden to the long term economic prosperity and stability of the community and push them aside for the greater good? What about our ever dwindling Black Community which was grossly underrepresented by the large crowd at the Town Hall? What about the threat of our Poor (where much of our true diversity lies), being property taxed and rent increased out of their homes when they have maintained decade long commitments to this neighborhood?

The moralities are complex. There is no clear battle between good and evil. There is only deciding who we are that will set our course for decades to come.

COURTSHIP

With Councilman Bill Rosendahl moderating, the discussion group was comprised of members of the new business community in Venice. The all male panel was interesting and informative, even humorous at times. Unfortunately, Councilman Rosendahl’s obvious passion to sell this influx of the tech industry, combined with a long standing, pervasive culture of individualism within the Venice public, undermined getting to the inconvenient heart of serious community concerns.

Shortly before the Town Hall began, Venice Neighborhood Council members, Chamber of Commerce people and local politicians took advantage of photo opportunities. There were lots of happy shiny, smiley faces and shaking hands up on the stage as the large crowd talked among itself.

Kicking off the meeting, the VNC President, Linda Lucks, passively attempted to wrangle the capacity crowd’s attention. Depsite her laughable and adorable timidity in this regard, the throngs were focused and the meeting began. We soon learned that “the future is now” and that several companies, from Whole Foods to Hal’s Bar and Grill, had sponsored the event. Lifestyle Furniture provided the lovely “set” to be featured in the live broadcast. There was going to be an after party, hosted by Venice Ale House. In the meantime, Ms. Lucks wanted to challenge our panel to consider the unique “fabric of our community.”

There were a few more thank yous and self congratulatory type posturing until Master of Ceremonies, Councilman Bill Rosendahl, took the control and we were off. Charismatic and energetic, he pulled in the crowd of which he noted he had never seen the like at a meeting such as this. I was grateful that his coining of the word “Venassiance” produced not only laughter, but audible groans. He took it in stride. He then informed us that the meeting was being broadcast to 750,00 people throughout LA and would be re-shown on Channel 35 several more times.

Then our panel was introduced: Tom Williamson from Google, James Citron with Mogreet, Jeff Solomon representing Amplify, and JJ Aguhob from Viddy.

Transitioning into the panel discussion, we got a brief reminder of the wonders of technology and how social media played such an important role from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement. That certainly gives lip service to the community’s political activism and sympathy for revolution in general. James Citron was also excited to inform us that, wherever there was an insertion of a 10% increase in cell phones into a developing market, the GDP raised 3%. That is impressive. There was also an implication to hire local in the opening remarks, though not a promise. Although in the case of security and hiring caterers, some were already doing this to a small extent. Also, it is important to note that a number of these new companies, specifically Google, offer portions of their facilities for public use.

Even during the introductory phase, the unabashed wooing of the artistic community was underway. We were told how creative and wonderful and unique we are. Unique Unique Unique. We know. We know. We know. We celebrate uniqueness ad nauseum. But yes, do that dance, blow smoke up our asses and let’s get on with it. That said, money does not partner where it does not genuinely see a benefit. So, I think we can assume, though laid on thick, the idea was sincere. There is genuine belief in the high level and quantity of creative talent in this community.

Specifically, our fabulousness as a community allowed the panel to hit some general themes regarding why each had chosen Venice as the location of their company: 1) Ready and available talent; 2) Venice is a cultural icon and known throughout the world. Essentially it is a brand in and of itself; 3) They want an enjoyable environment for both themselves and their employees in which to live and work; and, 4) The proximity to the Entertainment Industry, which was explained as having to do with premium internet content production.

Once we got through how great Venice and all its people are, we learned how important bike paths are to tech folks. Apparently, bike paths are more important than indoor toilets to those cyber wizards. I bike for my job and think they are great too, but it also makes for easy political posturing. Papa Rosendahl did his little proud dance and all but admitted that he became determined to get more bike paths [CORRECTION: lanes] on Main Street, when he learned how many Google employees bike to work.

Rosendahl also took the opportunity to pat himself on the back regarding the Venice Post Office protests. Though not terribly personal to me, I know the potential closing of our local post office is extremely important to much of the community. Of course, I understand the historical significance of the Biberman Work. May I just quickly point out, however, that a mural to your life is not your life. Be careful…

As the discussion continued and we moved to more substantive issues, some key divides within the panel emerged. These divides seemed to fall along the lines of Old v. Young, which is a divide we are going to find mirrored throughout the community. The two main issues were the value of the Entertainment Industry and an understanding of the Free Venice Culture.

Your three young startup guys – Citron, Solomon and Aguhob – are all hungry for Hollywood to merge with Tech. There was talk of premium content, bringing in your experienced filmmakers, camera guys, etc. to produce a high level product for the internet as they would have previously done for TV or Film. That kind of production would be centered in Venice Beach where, theoretically, almost all the resources already exist from eclectic scenic backgrounds to top level talent to the latest technology to hip locations.

Tom Williamson from Google inserted himself into this discussion with a different point of view. He maintained that most of the top viewed internet content was generated by average users. He didn’t feel the need to marry Tech and the Entertainment Industry. In fact, he seemed as though he didn’t much care for the notion.

I felt a little tension in the crowd as the idea of preserving the Old Venice Culture was briefly skated upon when Bill Rosendahl asked about the loss of diversity. Of the young guys, Citron and Solomon in particular, attempted to appear accepting. They basically said, sure, if someone wants to “be weird” they didn’t mind. They welcomed the strange guy walking down the street in the big “pink hat.”

That is an oversimplified and condescending characterization of the Free Venice Movement to say the least. But these are young entrepreneurs that are further removed from the 60s. If you could’ve seen the look in James Citron’s eyes when he said, “when you see a 3 or 4 year old pick up an iPhone for the first time…” it was like he was talking about a child’s first words or watching a toddler boogie to Led Zeppilin for the first time. This aspect of the younger generation doesn’t have a connection to the ideas of discovering your body and doing what you wanted to do with your body, because it was not only a cosmic principal, it is a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America. It is about freedom of expression, not about “being weird.”

Tom Williamson, who also is about ten to fifteen years older than the others, jumped in and redirected the issue more respectfully. “They [tech industry] didn’t move to San Francisco necessarily because they wanted to appreciate San Francisco for what it was. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening here now. But, they moved to change it into something they liked or something they wanted. So, I think we have to be careful about the things that make Venice special here and that the people we hire respect those things and want them to preserve.” To be honest, I came in with a little hostility about Google and left with a lot of respect for Tom Williamson.

In all this talk, there was not, however, any discussion about the racial divide in the community and the history of racial tensions that possibly contributed to the, already mentioned, low black turn out at the Town Hall. I wondered, although the event was publicized pretty well on the internet, were posters or information sent to the local churches and community centers? I saw something in the Beachhead, but I don’t know what kinds of outreach were done.

More notably, we somehow got around the issue of what happens when wealth sweeps into a community, bumping up property taxes and the cost of living for that community; thereby, the poor and middle class begin to find themselves property taxed out of homes and rent increased out of apartments.

Again, with the youthful disconnect, Jeff Solomon aligned himself with the middle class pointing out that startup company owners are not rich guys. He didn’t want to see rents go up himself. But it is not as if he were an elderly person on a fixed income, or someone collecting recycling everyday to help make rent. An increase in rents and property values would be a burden, but it would not push him out of the neighborhood, as it would other more marginal folks.

To sell themselves, some of our panelists appealed to the legendary Venetian Acceptance. Supposedly, we are a community who welcomes anyone and anything. They pointed out that they are just a new thing coming into the community like so many new things have come in over the years. They were simply one more face of Venice in an eclectic sea of faces. They made this claim as a panel of all men – four white and three young.

Q&A: CULTURE OF INDIVIDUALISM VS. COMMUNITY

There was not a single person who stepped up to the microphone during the Q&A who put their community issue before himself or herself. In many cases, there was no community issue at all. Several of the community members never bothered to ask a question, using the time to pontificate about some personal philosophy. Rosendahl requested before the Q&A began, to please ask questions and not just go up to the microphone to talk. He anticipated some typical Venice Beach behavior and he got it. This narrow minded individualism provided a way for him to skirt around important issues.

Reading between the lines, underneath all the self promotion or narrow and misguided agendas, there were a number of self centered questions that moderator, Bill Rosendahl, could’ve translated into a community issue, but did not. In a couple of those cases, I think that choice was active, as we were broaching uncomfortable topics. That is the problem when your moderator is NOT objective. THIS CANNOT HAPPEN AGAIN! We need a third party moderator at these things, who has no stake in the outcome. That should have been obvious and protested weeks in advance.

Instead of opening the mic to anyone and everyone who was willing to run up faster than anyone else to ask their questions, we should have had some local organizers, maybe the Beachhead, formulate intelligent, focused, community based questions in advance so there is no excuse to dismiss uneasy subjects. The free for all, borderline freak show, filled with long winded pitches was not helpful.

Following are some examples of what we got from the community as far as concerns. These are not necessarily in the order in which the citizens appeared before the mic.

A Guy came up who wanted to put SIRUS discs around Venice for better free wi-fi access to all. He had one in tow as a prop. Jeff Solomon, I believe, said he’d put one up. There was no real question, but free wi-fi for all would be nice.

Some Kiss Ass who worked for one of the panel guys got up and did some ass kissing. He asked no question.

Representing a Non Profit, a lovely middle aged woman inquired about what resources the panel could give back to the community. I think this is what she was asking anyway. Again, she spent more time telling us about who she is and what she did than getting to her inquiry.

A semi-Confrontational Lady took the opportunity to challenge Google on censorship, but only very specifically as it related to her friend’s blog. The response was of a customer service nature explaining security settings that are controlled by the end user. She tried to shame Google about something wholly personal and got a short lecture on filters.

A Musician pressed the panel on hiring local and pointed how he and so many other Venice musicians were out of work. He was basically introducing himself and asking for a job. Perhaps he should have asked if they had any ideas for how local musicians could make themselves the most marketable to this influx of production that may be heading our way? Thinking forward, what if local musicians come together and approach some of these startups about creating a database, specifically designed to interface local talent with production companies looking to staff projects? What is the plan for marrying our local creative talent with the work?

There was another Man, who flat out asked for a job. I can’t remember what field he was in.

A Spiritual Woman took the microphone and talked of Venice being about love and harmony with the earth. She had no question.  Perhaps, she should have sought out and aligned with other spiritual leaders and inquired of the panel about their ethics and honor in business. Is your office green? What is your carbon footprint? Will any of you be joining a church or other spiritual community in Venice?

There was a Woman Property Owner who got tripped up by both her own meandering and the entrance of Betsy Butler. It was a shame, because she was trying to ask a question about our loss of diversity and how increasing property values will adversely affect our cultural makeup. Rosendahl used her inability to clearly phrase her question and the distraction of a state politician’s arrival to avoid dealing with the issue. An unbiased moderator could’ve easily translated this one.

For shits and giggles, a question that was not asked: How do you feel about the pervasive 420 culture in Venice Beach? With the prevalence of the medical marijuana industry, are you concerned about yourself and your employees being absorbed in this aspect of our community? Will you treat medical marijuana consumption as a private health matter or as recreational drug use?

Semi-joking aside, the most serious question that was almost asked came from a Young Woman who was a musician and volunteer with the homeless. She talked too much about herself and who she was, like everyone did. And then, she got so caught up in trying to shame Rosendahl about the recent “cleanup” of 3rd Street that she failed to ask a clear question. Rosendahl used her meandering and overly emotional, muddy way of delivering her message as an opportunity to brush through an answer that did not even begin to address the real issue, though he knows what it is…

If only she had simply said: Recently there has been a hard push to remove the Homeless from Ocean Front Walk and 3rd Street. There is the perception by the community that this is being done in order to make Venice more appealing to the tech industry, specifically Google. Councilman Rosendahl, are you in fact trying to drive away the homeless for the sake of this new wealth? And to the tech panel, how do you feel about that? How do you deal with the perception that our homeless are being abused and run off in your honor?

My request to each member of the community going forward is to sit down and think hard about just three ideas or aspects of COMMUNITY that you absolutely must see exist in Venice going forward. Find people who share one, two or all three of your priorities. Work together on those priorities and DO NOT TALK ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE! Of course, talk about your day, your family, the weather, but don’t allow less important, personal agendas to create divides and to muddy your message.

Venice has a long history of celebrating the individual that can make it very difficult to tap into a True Spirit of Unity. Having said that, I agree with the panel: THE FUTURE IS NOW. We must come together.

THE HOMELESS: A COMMUNITY MUST DECIDE

Even though there was a substantial amount of time devoted to the homeless issue, the panelists rightly concluded that it was not their problem to solve. They can be a part of the solution, of course, but they are not the solution. To his credit, Rosendahl expressed genuine frustration when initially broaching the subject. I believe he is truly challenged, but has been tempted to take the low road. Homelessness is very complicated, especially within the Culture of Venice Beach.

Some of the panel, particularly Google, would be willing to assist with the problem, but only through established organizations that specialize in dealing with the homeless. Of course, the panel offered resources to those who want to transition out of homelessness. That will help some, but not the homeless by choice; or, good luck trying to get a mentally ill or drug addicted vagabond to sit down and check his e-mail. Let’s not kid ourselves. We are not going to solve the homeless problem or the low income problem by hiring everyone into tech jobs. Just because we are about to have a boom of the tech industry in our community, does not mean we all have to work in that industry in order to be valid members of the community. That standard applies to the poor and homeless as well.

I also don’t think that the panel may have clearly understood the true demographic of our homeless population. Sure, we have the old bums who have wondered our streets for decades, but so many of our homeless are young. Venice Beach is a great attractor of the nation’s transient youth for the same reason it is attractive to our youthful startups: In addition to the great weather, you are surrounded by creativity, natural beauty and outrageousness; at the same time, you are so near the dream of Hollywood. As it turns out, kids are kids…

I believe it is a bit condescending to the tech industry to systematically remove the homeless in order for the industry to invest in our community. Of course, it is a great thing to present a community where our most economically challenged are at least in homes. That is a lovely vision, but it has to be done right.

If the community wants to save this aspect of its heritage, it must work together. The COMMUNITY must provide well thought out solutions to Bill Rosendahl and, more importantly, long term commitments to those solutions. To many Venetians, sweeping the homeless out of our communities is karmic blood we do not want on our hands. With that in mind, go to this new money, the tech industry, who claims that they have come here because there is no where else in the world like Venice Beach; and, convince them that our homeless are essential to the Venice Beach Brand. They are as much a part of it as music, art, surfing and breath. They are the opportunity everyday to choose soul.

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