VENICE, CALIF. — One man juggles chain saws while eating an apple. Another bellows with an echo effect at startled passersby. A third holds a sign: "Ninjas killed my family. Need money for Kung Fu lessons."
For decades, the two-mile Ocean Front Walk of Venice Beach has been a gathering place for the bohemian and the bikinied; the cosmic, the comical, and the countercultural. Its reputation for street performers, artists, musicians, and free-speech activists reaches into travel agencies from Sydney, Australia, to Seoul, South Korea.
Now, after decades of minor crackdowns, the city is taking steps that many say will do irreparable harm. The issue: a new ordinance (LAMC 42.15) requiring the ubiquitous peddlers to buy a $25 permit and participate in a twice-monthly lottery in order to claim a spot.
The permit rules were voted in by city councilors, who say that increased infighting over space has made greater order necessary along the strip. But activists say the new rules are "unfair, unnecessary, possibly unconstitutional, and definitely 'un-Venice-like' " - an imposition by the monied interests who want performers and artisans shunted aside.
"Venice beach is the last great bastion of free speech in the world and it should be promoted, not demoted to pig stalls," says Arhata Osho, an 11-year veteran of the boardwalk. On boards he calls "The World's Largest Free-Speech Display," Mr. Osho shows off about a dozen essays on subjects ranging from dictatorship to smoking to yoga.
To him, the flap boils down to "people who do their crafts on the boardwalk [being] ostracized ... when in fact most are very talented individuals."
Many, apparently, are walking away from the lottery system as well. On a recent Tuesday, an activist and veteran performer here who calls himself "Jingles" counted 104 of the 300 newly painted boardwalk spaces empty - perhaps because of those protesting the new law, perhaps because some who have won designated spaces only plan to use them certain days.
"Within no time, this new system has changed the cultural ecology of Venice Beach," says Tom Drucker, a management consultant who has lived near the beach since the 1960s. "Nearly half of the activity that made this area the wonderfully unique place that it is, is now gone."
Jingles suspects that merchants and other residents are hiring proxies to enter the lottery and win spaces - then leave them empty - just to keep the areas across from their own stores or residences open. "We are highly suspicious of the city council's motives and acts on this," says Jingles. "We think there is a lot of Tricky Dick Nixon stuff going on behind the scenes."
Until the new ordinance took effect two weeks ago, the Venice boardwalk was formally divided into halves. On the east side, merchants and restaurateurs paid rent, wages, and taxes for shops selling everything from books to T-shirts to electronics. On the west side, pretty much anybody could set up tables and chairs for anything from phrenology to acupuncture, Tarot reading to massage - as long as they accepted only contributions and did no "commercial vending," a term which has long been a separate point of contention.
But in recent years, the situation has gotten out of hand, say city officials, as the "free speech" west side has been infiltrated by more vendors less interested in self-expression than in peddling manufactured knickknacks - including machine-made clothes and ceramics. Such vendors began showing up before dawn - lining up to stake out the spaces usually occupied by "free expressionists." The increasingly popular strategy, and the shift in atmosphere, brought stress and confrontation, according to proponents of the new law.
"The whole place was turning into a swap meet where people were getting there as early as 4 a.m. to get a space," says Sandy Kievman, spokeswoman for City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski who sponsored the law. "They were physically beating each other up and hurling verbal abuse to [the point] where we constantly had to call in the police. We got lots of complaints from residents and business people."
That point is disputed by many regulars here. They say the police did not enforce the previous "no vending" rule as much as they should have, allowing more and more outsiders to encroach on areas already staked out by Venice regulars over the years. They say the claims of conflict are overstated.
"The previous ordinance stated that it was first come, first served, but there was no entity set up to be out there to monitor the problems," says Samuel Brantley, Los Angeles city commissioner of art, music & culture. He says reform was needed, but not as a lottery.
The lottery was decided on without input from those most affected, he says, and threatens Venice's trademark appeal. "What makes the Venice Beach experience unique and attractive worldwide is the spirit of complete openness where people are totally free to cultivate their individualism and meet on a stage with others to do the same," says Mr. Brantley.
The Venice Free Speech Zone Association, which opposes the new law is meeting weekly to hone its strategy, which includes lottery boycotts. They recently staged a funeral for free speech on the boardwalk, complete with a coffin. An official in Ms. Miscikowski's office says her administration will monitor the new rules to see if they are having the intended effects.
But many say that the short- and long-term dangers to Venice's free spirit are real, because the livelihood of many of the performers is at risk.
"Part of the crime of this ... is they are treating this like a big experiment, but it's an experiment with people's lives," says Bill Greenslade, who runs a small group called SOS Critters of the Sea. "I don't think the city quite recognizes the international fame of this boardwalk. They think because it's local that it's just some little thing on the beach. But it's known all over the world."