Rodica Carroll, a fiery Romanian with bleached-blond hair, was born to parents who survived the Holocaust. She grew up in Israel, where she attended college and served in the Israeli Army during the first Gulf War. Now she sits on the Venice Boardwalk behind a fold-up table, selling jewelry and furry animal hats for kids. She's also a poet, but, as she points out, “You can't feed a family by selling poems.”
A single mother raising three children, Carroll says she makes $20 in profit on the boardwalk “on a good day.” Soon she won't even make that — her handcrafted jewelry and her furry hats will be banned as of Jan. 20 under a law passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“I'm trying to do something productive and they're taking it out of my hands,” she says bitterly. “This is another door that you're closing for people who have already had all the doors close.”
The ordinance drastically limits what vendors on the east side of Venice Boardwalk can sell, banning all art that is not created by the vendor, as well as anything that has a purpose beyond pure, constitutionally protected, artistic expression. No more jewelry. No incense. No T-shirts. (But henna tattoos will be permitted — the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals says they are free expression.)
Millions of tourists visit Venice Beach every year, not for the sun and the surf but for the people: the freaks, the roller skaters, the junkies, the bodybuilders, the madmen, the street performers and the artists.
“This is a human stage,” says Stephen Fiske, a musician and founder of Friends of the Boardwalk. “It's a stage of expression more than a mile long. And any stage needs management.”
Stage management has been touch-and-go for 25 years. The L.A. City Council has passed no fewer than five ordinances (including this latest one) regulating street performance and vending. Various courts have found parts of the previous four laws unconstitutional, leaving the boardwalk hawkers unregulated since October 2010.
Since then, “The boardwalk has become the Wild West,” Fiske says. “It's descended into a low-grade swap meet.”
So Venice Beach is awash with mass-produced tchotchkes — knit hats, beaded bracelets, Day of the Dead skulls. Much of this future garage-sale garbage is said to have been purchased wholesale somewhere else, then marked up and sold to tourists hoping to take home a little piece of the famous beach.
Today's hawkers aren't the hippies of old, with their often handcrafted goods. Daily competition for dozens of rent-free sales tables is so intense that, in the summer, vendors sometimes pay homeless people to hold boardwalk spots overnight.
Like drug corners on HBO's The Wire, the jostling for real estate can turn violent.
“There's money to be made,” says Capt. Jon Peters of the Los Angeles Police Department. “Being paid to watch spaces for vendors overnight, being paid to fight people — to be strong-arms for people.”
Fights have broken out, sometimes with baseball bats and knives.
Peters laments a “general sense of lawlessness” since the city's last ordinance restricting vendors was struck down in court 15 months ago. “If you listen to business folks and residents, they'll say it's not the same place.”
Shopkeepers in the small stores edging the boardwalk, who must pay taxes and beachfront rents and abide by regulations, say the vendors unfairly compete and often sell T-shirts, sunglasses and posters similar to theirs.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose staff helped draft the new ordinance with City Attorney Carmen Trutanich's office, says the new law hinges upon a “nominal-use” provision, which bans anything that may have a use other than pure, First Amendment–protected expression.
City officials had two goals: to eliminate unfair competition against the shopkeepers, and to finally have a boardwalk vending law that stands up in court.
“That's been the goal since day one,” Rosendahl says, “to draw a line so we can be successful constitutionally.”
Think again, says Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer who in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals represented Michael Hunt, an infamous provocateur who sold shea butter on the boardwalk, claiming it had healing qualities.
The court sided with Rohde and Hunt, affirming a lower court's decision that struck down parts of a 2004 Los Angeles ordinance crafted under then–City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.
Rohde, past president of the ACLU of Southern California, says the new Venice Boardwalk law from Trutanich and Rosendahl fails just as miserably.
“The city disfavors beading, stitching and weaving,” he says, citing the language of the new law, “and it privileges painting and sculpture. That kind of distinction is irrational — and would not pass muster when examined under the First Amendment.”
Rosendahl sees things differently, saying, “You can put five lawyers in a room and get 10 opinions of what free expression is.”
The law is almost certain to be challenged in court. When the 2004 boardwalk ordinance was thrown out, the city had to pay $264,000 in damages to Michael Hunt and another $207,000 in attorney's fees. A separate suit over the 2008 law, filed by a number of plaintiffs, including Los Angeles City Hall blogger Zuma Dogg, is pending.
Hundreds of cities require sidewalk vendors to obtain special permits. In San Francisco, people can sell arts and crafts in designated areas, including Fisherman's Wharf, Union Square and Market Street.
But first they must go before a screening committee at the San Francisco Arts Commission, where they display the crafts or art they intend to sell on the street (in some cases they are allowed to show the committee their wares via video). Once approved, the vendors may sell only what they themselves make.
When Howard Lazar, director of the San Francisco Street Artists Program, hears about the latest law in L.A., he laughs.
“They're heading for a lawsuit,” he says. “That is such an infringement on the First Amendment.”
So why not copy San Francisco and not risk another tangled lawsuit? The short answer is, because L.A.'s leaders want to do something unique. Councilman Rosendahl and others consider Venice Beach completely sui generis, a city park with a tradition of being wild and untamed.
“Venice Beach attracts those kinds of people,” Rosendahl says. “I just want to see that energy come back.”
But instead of the screening committee and permit system adopted in San Francisco, in Los Angeles the police will be expected to decide whether items such as neon-colored skulls are mass-produced, or crafted by the person peddling them.
“Eventually,” Rohde says, “police officers [will] have to make on-the-spot artistic judgments, as well as political and ideological judgments about the nature of this material, and figure out if artistic expression predominates.”
Rosendahl admits that only “time will tell. The hope is that we'll catch those who have created mass-produced stuff that competes with the other side” — the Venice Beach shops that pay rent and taxes. He says the city will allow frequent crafts fairs on Venice Beach to mollify newly banned vendors such as jewelry peddlers and makers.
Already, vendors are bracing for change. A cardboard sign on Tom Crossland's table reads, “Going Out of Business.” Crossland, a middle-aged man with a Lakers cap and salt-and-pepper beard, sells crystals, each representing a different aspiration. There are crystals for healing, balance, love, etc.
“Some believe that it's a pathway to enlightenment,” says Crossland, who plans to transition to selling art in the coming weeks. “That ideology is considered of no value to L.A. City Council.”
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.