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A Tale of Two Venices: Before There Was Dogtown, There Was Oakwood

A story about the African-American history of the Ghetto by the beach.

“My great grandfather owned a gas and car mechanic station on that corner in the 1940s and ‘50s,” I said to this lady who looked on while I took a photo of what is now Friendship Baptist Church on the corner of Broadway and 6th in the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice, California. Amazed that my great-grandfather operated a gas and mechanic station on that corner, she went on to tell me that she lived in the neighborhood for a few years but only knew a bit about the neighborhood’s Black history.

Before there was Dogtown, there was Oakwood, a historical community and a prominent African-American subsection in Venice.

The history of Oakwood plays a crucial role in defining Venice’s social history and its character, making it the creative enclave it is today. It is a history of property ownership, community, family, and the entrepreneurial spirit of early Los Angeles.

In the early 1900s, real estate developer, Abbot Kinney, hired African-Americans to construct the canals and named the district the Venice of California. In the 1920s, a small black community, mainly employees of Abbot Kinney, was centered north of Electric Avenue, between Westminster and San Juan Avenues. This area would become Oakwood, an African-American neighborhood, separated, but geographically centered in the middle of a white community. In the 1940s and ‘50s, during World War II, the population of African-Americans would triple. This was when my great-grandfather moved to Venice from Arkansas as a part of the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the south.

Oakwood was segregated by covenant and sectioned as the only area in Venice where African-Americans could own property. My grandfather explains, “There was only a nine square mile area that they fenced off so black people could buy homes.”

It was an era of restrictive covenants and when the Ku Klux Klan was highly active in political and institutional leadership in West Los Angeles. Consequently, the early Black residents of Venice could not live anywhere else under the KKK threat. They also didn’t venture too far past Washington, which is now Abbot Kinney Boulevard, and they weren’t allowed east of Lincoln Boulevard, my grandfather tells me.

Although redlining restricted Blacks to Oakwood as the only place they could live in Venice, it was also a small, diverse neighborhood of working-class people.

The small, diverse community was limited to space but found ways to sustain self-sufficiency. It was a neighborhood where neighbors fed each other, “There were white folk, Italians, Blacks, and Mexicans. My father would frequently give his Italian neighbor wine in return for homebrew,” my grandfather told me.

The Oakwood community was remarkable for the time.

Going on bike rides has been my escape during this quarantine. When biking through Venice, I’ve made it a point to go through the Oakwood neighborhood because of my family’s connection.

There’s a special feeling when I bike through Oakwood. The streets feel familiar even though I didn’t grow up in them. In some way, there’s still that connection. Like the generations of African-Americans before me, who knew the narrow alleys and canal ways like the back of their hands, when I bike through the alleyways, it’s as if spirit is guiding me.

I always stop on that corner on Broadway and 6th Ave., where my great-grandfather’s gas and car mechanic station once operated. It is a piece of my family’s history. Across the street from where it once stood is an abandoned house, a remnant of the past and symbol of what was. On the other side of the abandoned house are modern-renovated condos, a view of what is.

Credit: Jeremy Divinity

Neighborhoods across the country are redefining themselves, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Venice. Where the working-class community of color is right beside affluent enclaves.

Gentrification has done its part in displacing the community that once called Venice home and made it the ghetto by the beach. As tech bros flock to Venice, it has now become a tale of two Venices.

The fight over First Baptist Church is the symbolism of the battle against gentrification in Venice. The church has been in the community since 1910, but developers want to build condos in replacement. The church sits on the next street over from where my great-grandfather’s gas station was, and it is also the church they attended. Its disappearance will be another example of the transformation of what was a working-class community of color to now an elite enclave for millionaires and tech companies.

When I bike through Venice now, the scene is movie star homes butted up against a small embattled black and Hispanic community. However, for every seven or eight renovated homes, there is still a reminder of the community that once was.

My grandfather now gets lost when he drives through Venice because the neighborhood has changed so much. He tells me, “Now they built them big ole houses with 12 feet walls, and palm trees as tall as the damn telephone pole with white folks walking their dogs at night, that shit didn’t happen when I was a kid.”

It makes you think of generations of lost wealth and opportunity. How discriminatory policies over time have put the disadvantaged in positions of disenfranchisement. It makes you think about zoning changes and how low-income tenants have been displaced by new development. The residents of Oakwood are now faced with displacement, marginalization, and the destruction of rent-stabilized housing.

Slowly, but surely, developers are erasing the community from the neighborhood. Black and brown people are being exponentially displaced. The contrast between rich and poor is no less apparent than in Venice, where prosperity and poverty are neighbors.

First Baptist Church (Credit: Jeremy Divinity)

It’s crazy how the passing of time can change an area. From its inhabitants, the culture, and gentrification in the form of remodeled homes. But it’s the history of a place that is what makes it what it is today. History follows us, and that’s true from the history of the city’s neighborhoods.

My mom grew up in neighboring Santa Monica in the 1960s and ’70s. She didn’t spend much time in Venice, or when she did, it is because my grandfather would sneak her and my aunt off, but they had to promise not to tell my grandmother. She recently stayed in an Airbnb in Venice. She also felt a strong connection to the area, “I never knew or gave it much thought, but walking around the area was a great feeling, like connecting with our ancestors.”

As African-Americans, Africa will always be our motherland. Still, we don’t have a direct connection to the continent and were stripped of our people’s history. But what we do know is right there next to the beach. It’s all we have. In a way, our motherland is Oakwood based on family history or knowledge of what we have to hold onto.

Even though things have changed, there’s a lot of history in the streets of Oakwood.

Every time I’m there, I still feel an almost generational connection. It’s something special.

Our family’s story isn’t just ours, but it is a story shared by thousands of other families. Some still reside in the area, and others are driven to suburbs and inner cities across southern California.

The African-American pioneers of Venice came to work, live, and raise children in an area that was pretty much swampland and forced to live because of redlining and discriminatory practices. They took what they had and made the most of it — built or purchased homes, owned or operated stores, work hard for Abbot Kinney, and built churches such as First Baptist that were a refuge from the threats that reminded them that they never left the Jim Crow South — such as my grandfather’s native state of Arkansas.

That day, I and that lady probably both needed and craved some type of human interaction. But we each took something from what turned into a 20-minute conversation. She was able to learn more about the African-American presence in the area, as it trickles away. I was able to tell my family’s history and also realize the uniqueness of it all.

It gets strange going through Venice, the ghetto by the beach.

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