VENICE BEACH has always been a carnival of humanity. For decades its two-mile Ocean Front Walk has retained the allure of the midway - jugglers, jivers, singers, hawkers, rappers. The counterculture, the avant-garde, the self-consciously hip, the unselfconsciously unhip all join in daily ritual: a two-way parade of come-as-you-are, let-it-all-hang-out individualism. The beach is a steady stream of bulldogs wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and owners lugging ``boom boxes,'' all dodging the fumes of Nick's polish sausage with fried onion. The Beach Boys are still ``in'' here. So is Led Zeppelin. Rock to punk, disco to soul, country to Julio Iglesias.
The office of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley says the 250,000 people who come to witness it all on weekends make Venice Beach the city's largest attraction. The reputation stretches worldwide, listed in the same compendium of Americana that includes Hollywood and Disneyland.
In many ways Venice Beach is a teen-ager that doesn't want to grow up; nevertheless, it's slowly being forced to relinquish some of its wild ways. Residents say it is the yuppie influence pushing at both ends of the beach with upscale condominiums and bringing a different clientele to the shores. Police say it's the changing times, the end of the counterculture '60s and the sexual revolution.
Consider the encroachment of that once-evil empire, The Establishment. The hordes of stands for handmade jewelry, potions, perfume, and incense have mysteriously been given over to electronics and consumer items from Japan and South Korea. It's the rents that did it, vendors say. The proprietor of a makeshift tent on one corner has to shell out $2,500 a month for the right to sell sunglasses at $5 a pair, T-shirts, 4 for $10.
Then there's The Law. In the '60s, police maintained a token presence here; the atmosphere was freer - and more dangerous, say some residents. Today there is more frequent monitoring by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department beach patrol - albeit in shorts and riding bicycles and all-terrain vehicles.
Muscle Beach, once removed from neighboring Santa Monica because of the unsavory element it attracted, is back as a legitimate entity. One famous bikers' bar frequented by members of Hell's Angels has closed, and bikers have taken their once-frequent brawls elsewhere. The main recreational activities here are paddle tennis, weight-lifting, gymnastics, and swimming.
Still, those activities are, for many, just a pretext for coming here. Despite its maturing, Venice Beach remains the last bastion of Californian - some say American - nonconformity. Every kind of fad and philosophy from the '50s to the '80s is alive here: massage, phrenology, acupuncture.
There's Kama the Kosmic Krusader, ``missionary for the infinite,'' skating backward in his full-length white garb and a turban wrapped high enough to conceal a ``conehead'' from ``Saturday Night Live.'' He'll sing you a song that's part Indian mysticism, part Nashville country. There's ``Mr. Animation'' in a black-leather jacket with enough studs to rivet a small skyscraper. With black bandanna, he shucks and jives to his recorded music, attracting a crowd with a series of robot dances. There's the one-man ``Cedric Stokes Band,'' introducing the players: ``We have Left Toe on bass, Elbow on drums...'' and there's Robert Taylor, thrilling kids with his self-propelled'' mercy seat'' - a box on wheels that he pushes to the screeching sounds of race cars recorded at the Monaco Grand Prix.
There's much more, of course. Bikinied roller skaters practice high-speed slalom-runs around paper cups instead of ski flags. Others practice acrobatic dances. And there are fire-eaters and comedians everywhere. (``I'm not black, this is a birthmark,'' says one.)
What is true about a tan is true about everything else the masses wear to Venice. They don't come here to get it; they come to display it. Leather to silk, minis to maxis, tie-dye to cellophane, paisley to madras. Nothing is ``out'' here. Nothing is merely normal. Except sunglasses.
All this plays out against a backdrop of vendors and food shacks, boutiques and eateries, the sights and sounds sifting together beneath the sound of pounding surf. On weekends the ritual reaches a crescendo - a constantly tapping kaleidoscope of pageantry and paradox.
Of course not everyone is enamored of this freewheeling Bohemianism, the sun worship and self-worship. There is the gritty realism of street people and gawkers, and the increased incidence of gang violence among the omnipresent crowds.
There is the undercurrent of drug deals made in the fringes and alcoholic brawls, and the sad reality of the ubiquitous homeless.
Of late, residents have begun to stand back and take a look at how the community - technically, part of one of L.A.'s 15 districts - is developing. They note that in recent years, Venice has become known as an area of chic galleries and restaurants. The Venice Action Committee was formed 18 months ago to oversee development and lobby the City Council to pour more of Venice's own money back into the community of 40,000.
``Venice is growing up,'' says Donald Feinstein, an 11-year resident and executive director of the 110-member committee. ``We're no longer a vestige of the hippie era, where everyone goes to do nothing. We're a responsible, functional community.''
In coming years, he says, expect lights on the boardwalk, a renovated pavilion for theater and music, shuttle service to avoid massive traffic jams, renovated storefronts, a library, and a citizens' war on crime.
The community's motto: ``A safer, cleaner, more beautiful Venice.''