Category Archives: Venice Beach People

These posts include video and written interviews with the people who make Venice Beach California interesting!

La Fiesta Brava: Venice’s Poster-Child For Gentrification

The future of La Fiesta Brava at 423 Rose Ave. is uncertain with the landlord in the early stages of bringing a new development to the site.
The future of La Fiesta Brava at 423 Rose Ave. is uncertain with the landlord in the early stages of bringing a new development to the site.

It is Venice’s own tale of David and Goliath, a small family-owned business fighting for survival against a wave of change that washes through the Venice streets. The buzzword is gentrification and La Fiesta Brava, Venice’s beloved Mexican hole-in-the-wall, is fast becoming a poster-child for those against the inundation of new, up-market developments and restaurants in Venice.

The Camarena family own and operate La Fiesta Brava and have done for more than 20 years, after moving to Los Angeles from Mexico. They now face having to find a new location for their restaurant, currently at 423 Rose Ave. in Venice, as a new development is being proposed for the property.

The Venice Ranch Market was also part of the property. The market, which was operated by property owner Miriam Zlotolow, has already shut its doors.

“My Dad built this place. He came here 22 years ago,” said Jasmin Camarena, the eldest Camarena daughter. “People have watched me grow up here, a lot of our customers, they’ve known me since I was 5 or 6 years old. To me they’re like family. We’d love to stay. We know that sometimes change is inevitable but it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Camarena tells of how just five years ago the family were struck a devastating blow when her father was killed in a car accident in Mexico.

“He’d gone back to surprise my Grandmother for her birthday and the car he was in was hit by another car,” Camarena said. “We got the call saying he’d been killed.”

Camarena, the eldest in the family of five children, and her mother were forced to take over running the business side of the family’s restaurant. Something that before had been her Father’s domain.
Jason Smith, a Venice resident who works in a surf store on the Boardwalk, said of La Fiesta Brava, “It’s a go to place for my friends and I.”

Of the restaurant’s possible closing he said, “It’s a sad story, especially after everything the mother and daughter went through to keep the place going after the dad died.”

Camarena explained the family was given no warning from Zlotolow other than a notice for a change in permit use posted on the door.
“I saw the sign and went up and talked to Miriam,” Camarena said. “I asked what it was about and she said ‘Don’t worry about it’ and I said ‘What do you mean don’t worry about it? You guys are applying for a permit to change from a restaurant and market to a big restaurant.’ She was like ‘Oh yeah, yeah it’s a deal that we made. It may happen, it may not happen. If it doesn’t happen, business as usual but if it happens then, you know…’ and I was like ‘You mean you’re going to kick us out’ and she said ‘Yeah, I’m sorry.’ At this point I was ready to cry, I didn’t cry but it was, you know, a sensitive matter. She said ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s all she could say. They didn’t tell us anything. No warning before, no nothing. Just a sign on the door and that’s it. It’s been a rough ride.”

Bruce Horwitz, who has been responsible for some of Venice’s favorite restaurants like Wabi Sabi and Tasting Kitchen on Abbot Kinney, is spearheading the new development and he wants it to be clear, “I am not kicking them out, the landowner (Zlotolow) wanted to realize the market rent of the property.”

“Being a landlord is not a public service, you take a great risk and on the flip side if there was a crash, community members would not be stepping in to help a landlord pay their mortgage when their space is empty and their store front is boarded up,” Horwitz said. “It’s a risk and there’s no safety net.”

Camarena said she thought her family had had a good relationship with the landlord.

“We were here before the landlord even owned the property and Miriam, the owner of the property and my Dad, they got along really, really well. My Dad loved Miriam and we just never thought we’d be in this situation,” Camarena said.

Camarena said that her father’s business relationship with property owner Miriam Zlotolow was more of a friendship. Today the family has no formal lease agreements with Zlotolow, which leaves them in a vulnerable position.

“It’s sad,” Horwitz said. “But if you have a restaurant you have a long-term lease. It’s a bad business decision not too. We all have leases, pay our rents, and when the leases are up we open our wallets and hope for the best. Hospitality is a difficult game. This is a tough business for all of us.”

Horwitz said one of his own restaurants, Wabi Sabi on Abbot Kinney, is no longer profitable and for now he bears the cost of keeping it running and keeping staff employed until the new project gets off the ground.

The tough business of running a restaurant is something Horwitz and Camarena agree upon.

“I grew up seeing my Dad build this restaurant, my cousins have worked here, my aunts and uncles have all worked here, and as we got older we started working here,” Camarena said. “It’s not easy having a restaurant, especially one you’re actually working yourselves. It’s demoralizing watching it be crushed down by someone who has more money than you. It sucks.”

Horwitz signed his lease with Zlotolow a year ago and while the lengthy permit and approval process for the new development is underway, he said he and Zlotolow have been happy to continue to accommodate La Fiesta Brava.

Horowitz even offered to help the Camarenas move their restaurant into a new space in the old Brickhouse Restaurant at 826 Hampton Dr., Venice.

The Brickhouse lease offered to the Camarena family was $10,000 a month, not unreasonable for a commercial property in Venice in today’s market, but a huge jump compared to the amount the family currently pays for the La Fiesta Brava space.

“We’re going to look for other locations and hopefully stay in this community that we love,” Camarena said. “But, hopefully if we don’t stay in Venice people will come visit us wherever we end up.”
As for a plan for the new 2,700 square foot building?

Horwitz said he’d like to create something that becomes part of the neighborhood.

“It’s not going to be fancy and expensive,” Horwitz said. “It’ll be more Rose than Abbot Kinney, a place you can wear your flip-flops.”
It’s a vision that seems to be more in line with what locals in the area want.

Ben Knox is a regular at La Fiesta Brava sometimes eating at the restaurant as many as five times a week.

“Me and my friends always come for dinner,” Knox said. “It’s really low key; it’s obviously family run, it’s really inexpensive and just obviously really good food and a great place to be with your friends.”
Knox, who is a Venice resident, has signed a petition in support of La Fiesta Brava.

Knox lives just off Oakwood Park, a couple of blocks in from Rose Ave. and said that in the four years he has lived in Venice he has noticed big changes along Rose.

“Definitely in the last month or two months it seems that a lot of restaurants, old staples, are having to shut their doors and move on. It’s not good,” Knox said. “If they could support small businesses like this staying, upgrading, advancing their ways a little bit, partnering on that front, it’d be cool.”

On April 23 there was a zoning hearing at the West Los Angeles Municipal Building regarding plans for the La Fiesta Brava location.

Representatives for applicant Horwitz requested a change of use from the existing market and deli to a restaurant with a covered patio and outdoor dining area. This new restaurant would serve a full line of alcoholic beverages within the 8 am to midnight hours of operation.

A purpose the hearing was to gauge public opinion and many stood up to speak against the development. The Camarena family presented a petition with more 1,000 signatures showing support for their restaurant. As a result, Assistant Zoning Administrator Lourdes Green granted a 60-day extension. LUPC, Venice’s Land Use and Planning Commission, has added the project to its May 26 agenda.

A big issue for locals in the area is parking. Many of the old Venice homes on the streets that run off Rose Ave. do not have their own parking spaces and more and more residents are finding themselves competing with restaurant goers for street parking.

The new restaurant development at the La Fiesta Brava location would be required to provide a total of 18 parking spaces on the site. At the hearing on April 23, those speaking in support of the project presented an alternate parking layout of 11 spaces, another four spaces credited as non-conforming, and to make up the final four required spaces, an alternative of 16 bicycle stalls was requested to be considered instead.

Another issue residents are concerned about is the effect of the City approving another liquor license in an area that is already over saturated by planning standards.

“A lot of bigger restaurants won’t operate unless they get the liquor license,” Camarena said. “We’re small enough that we don’t need the liquor license.”

James Allan of Coldwell Banker said he feels even though the gentrification of Venice as a whole and now also Rose Ave. has been a positive thing to the economy of Venice, he would love to see more of the local community, long time residents, and business owners sharing in the booming growth.

“It’s a shame to see many establishments disappear that have helped mold the character and charm that makes Venice so unique,” Allan said. “This is off course is harsh reality of capitalism and the evolution of communities as a whole and would encourage the locals of Venice giving as many of the local businesses the support they need to maintain their business in Venice.”

Horwitz said there’s an idea that if its project fails to get approvals for the new development that La Fiesta Brava will get to stay, but the landlord will lease to whoever pays the most.

“The landlord just wants the market rent for their property,” Horwitz said. “What if it was a Starbucks? There are plenty who want to get a foothold in the next Abbot Kinney.”

Camarena is upset their wasn’t more open communication.
“They’re telling people if it wasn’t them it’d be someone else but may be it wouldn’t be someone else,” Camarena said. “Maybe we’d be able to come to an agreement. It’s the fact that there was never the opportunity is what hurts the most.

“It’s got to the point where people are coming to Venice because they liked how Venice was but they’re changing everything about Venice, what it was about, what it stood for.”

Camarena said a lot of their customers are artists and they’re coming in and saying, “I’m living out of my car right now, they kicked me out of my studio.”

“People don’t realize, they think, it’s only a restaurant it’s not going to effect anybody, but it has a trickle down effect,” she said. “It effects everyone who lives here and they might not see it first hand because they may not interact with the people we interact with but it’s really sad. We have customers and sometimes I’ll give them their meal for free because they’re counting their pennies out on the table. Because of everything that’s happened they can’t afford anything. It breaks my heart.”

Camarena continues, “But now that we’re here, we love the support.”
“We didn’t think we’d have this much support but the fact that we do is very motivating in a way that helps us push through,” she said. “Because honestly, it’s a depressing situation to be in. I’m the eldest of five kids and it’s just my Mom and the restaurant’s our only source of income. How are we going to pay the house and my brothers’ and sisters’ educations? It’s just a devastating blow, especially after everything we’ve been through. It feels amazing that the community backs us up so much. I knew they liked the food, I just never knew they liked it this much.”

Wylie Wilson Aims To Give Hope That Real Venice Is Alive On Abbot Kinney

While many Venetians mourn the loss of the businesses along Abbot Kinney that made up the old guard of Venice, like Bountiful and Hal’s, and as these old favorites close their doors to make way for a slew of high-end chain stores, one woman, Australian actress Peta Wilson, is holding her own on the street as an individual business owner.

Wilson is an artist first and her brand Wylie Wilson gives hope that the real Venice is still very much alive on Abbot Kinney.

Wilson, who played the lead in the 90’s TV series La Femme Nikita turned to lingerie as a way of mending a broken heart.

“I knew I had to get back out there but I couldn’t find any lingerie that I felt sexy in, I don’t fit the standard cookie-cutter sizes, so I made my own,” Wilson said.

One day a woman came into the Wylie Wilson store with a friend. Wilson noticed that unlike her friend, the woman was not trying on bras.

“It turned out she’d recently fought breast cancer and had undergone a mastectomy,” Wilson said. “She’d really lost a lot of confidence.”

Wilson offered to make a custom bra.

“The day she came back to try on her bra, the look on her face when she realized how beautiful she was regardless, and more so because of what she’d been through, that was when it clicked,” she said. “That’s when I knew for sure that I was on the right track.”

Wilson ended up giving the woman the bra as a gift.

Being able to give is something that has always motivated Wilson. Today, Wylie Wilson donates 40 percent of profits to the Pegasus Liberty Foundation. The Foundation supports local and international organizations working on the front line around the world to free and rehabilitate slaves.

To date, Wylie Wilson has helped free 1,002 people from slavery.
“Today there are 43 million slaves all over the world and it only takes $525 to save a life, to remove someone from slavery in a mine in India, and to give them an education, that’s what makes me get out of bed at five o’clock in the morning and scrub the floors and get the store ready for the day,” she said.

Wilson has found designing lingerie not only to be a satisfying creative outlet but also a way she can support herself and her son outside of show business.

“It was important my son grew up away from all of that,” she said.
The name Wylie is a play on words – Wilson merged “why” and “lie” to come up with the name for her brand.

The idea being that a woman is most attractive when she is comfortable in her own skin, no matter what her shape, size, or style.

“I don’t look like other girls,” she said. “I like to see every single style, for every single shape. All women are different. You’ve got to have some underwear on that if you go on a hot date and you think he might be okay for a show, at about 11:30 pm at night if he’s fun, and the right Rolling Stones song comes on.

“I think a woman’s sensuality comes from nature; if men can understand the weather and roll with the beauty of the weather, that one day there’s a frightening hurricane and there’s destruction and the next day it’s beautiful. Women are more like the weather than we are anything else.

“A lot of underwear companies you can go and buy five bras, like a halter-neck bra or a cross-back bra, but you want something you can wear with a backless dress. I just made one bra that does it all. They’re beautifully made here in Venice, just up the road from the store.”

When designing the lingerie it was important for Wilson that it be comfortable as well as beautiful.

“I was trying to make bras but I didn’t like underwire,” she said. “I needed to find something that was supportive but still comfortable and flexible, I needed to ‘stack the rack.’ I asked my Dad, who is an ex-soldier in the Australian Army, my brother was a soldier too in the SAS (Australia’s equivalent of the Navy Seals), and Dad said, ‘Well my Army pants never fell down and neither did your brother’s, look at what the U.S. Marines use.’ So I did. I bought a second hand pair of pants from a U.S. Marine uniform, I cut them open, and worked out the elastic they used. You can’t see it, but the Americans are holding everything up.”

While lingerie was the beginning of the Wylie Wilson brand, in its new location on Abbot Kinney Blvd. it has expanded to encompass a broader range.

Bags, dresses, home-wears, and art all designed or curated by fellow artists who work under the Wylie umbrella.

“I’m encouraging other painters and actors and musicians to do small capsule collections,” she said.

Inspiring the Wylie Wilson store was the idea it be more of a creative space than a store, in fact Wilson will correct you if you call it a store.

“It’s not a store, it’s a salon, darling,” she said, her voice smooth yet husky like a rock star. “Think Gertrude Stein’s Parisian Salon where the artists come and get together and they conspire, they act, and they write. We welcome anyone to come in, not just to shop but to bring in a coffee, sit down, and hang out with their laptops and get inspired in the salon. It’s a great place for artists to just come and hang out, may be to write or draw. That’s the sort of thing we like to encourage here.”

Wylie Wilson is located on the corner of Abbot Kinney Blvd. and Santa Clara Ave., Venice.

Actor, First-Time Director Creates Love Letter To Venice

Featured Image: Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her husband George (director Chris Messina) have marital troubles in the beginning of “Alex of Venice.” Once George decides he’s not up to the task of being a stay-at-home parent, he leaves the household and leads Alex on a path to vulnerability and eventual self-discovery.
Featured Image: Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her husband George (director Chris Messina) have marital troubles in the beginning of “Alex of Venice.”

By Mariella Rudi

“Hey, want to be in a movie?” a production assistant asked me two summers ago while on Windward Ave.

I curiously agreed because of the person I recognized behind the camera: actor Chris Messina (“The Mindy Project,” “The Newsroom,” “Ruby Sparks,” “Argo,” et al.).

He’s one of those nameless actors seemingly in everything. All agog to see such a familiar face, I started walking when the PA gave me the cue, passed a dark-haired woman strutting in a tight dress and never looked back (literally, the PA told me not to turn my head at the camera).

For the next few years I remained quietly intrigued by the untitled Chris Messina project. Apparently, my experience, though Messina graciously thanked me for sharing in, wasn’t all that unique.

“We did that quite a bit,” Messina said of capturing real people while filming in Venice. He was speaking from his Santa Monica home last weekend.

“Everybody said it’d be really hard to film in Venice … people were pretty adamant that the community wouldn’t be up for it but it was the total opposite,” he said. “Everybody was super inviting, super cool; it was exactly was like how I thought it would have gone.”

The dark-haired, tight-dress woman was Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”), who stars as the title role of “Alex of Venice,” Messina’s directorial debut and indie darling of the film festival circuit last year.

Alex Vedder is a hard-pressed environmental lawyer whose home life is capsized when her husband (Messina) suddenly decided that he can’t be her “housewife” anymore and leaves her with her father George (Don Johnson) and their 10-year-old son Dakota (Sklar Gaertner). In the midst of Alex’s most demanding case of her career and her father’s health issues, her wayward sister Lily (co-writer Katie Nehra) flies in from New York to send more shocks to the family’s fragmentation.

Like Venice, a quiet beach neighborhood constantly at odds with tourism and gentrification, Alex is in a state of transition. But to Messina, who has always escaped to Venice from anxieties of Los Angeles, the beauty of both characters (Venice and Alex) is in their authenticity.

“It’s always been a place where I would go to exhale and like catch my breath,” Messina said. “It’s great people watching and amazing characters and there’s lots of light in Venice ­– that was really important to me, that I try to capture that golden lighting.”

Golden hour scenes frame familiar Venice landmarks, like the skate park, the canals and Windward Ave., and they’re all very much intentional for a film that was shot in just 20 days.

This is Messina’s love letter to the maverick beach community, which he describes as “Brooklyn-by-the-sea.”

He likened his vision for the film to movies he grew up loving from the 70s, like what Woody Allen (whom Messina worked with on “Vicky Christina Barcelona”) did with “Manhattan.”

“I keep thinking of how epic it was and he would go from these wide shots then kicked into the details of it. That was definitely an inspiration,” Messina said. “I really wanted to make a character-driven movie that would be a real playground for actors.”

Because to Messina, it was just as important for the actors to smell the ocean while filming inside the house, as it was for the characters’ lives rooted in Venice.

Messina, who grew up in Northport, Long Island (“very much like a New England fishing town”) said he was naturally attracted to that small town feel that Venice gives off, townies and whatnot.

The film weaves themes of identity tied to land, stewardship and feminine and childhood subjectivity, often with episodes and experiences of what it’s like to live and learn in Venice.

“There are people who have lived in Venice their whole lives and grown up in Venice and kind of [have] generations in one house or the neighborhood, and that was all really inspiring to me,” Messina said.

“Alex of Venice” is rated R and opens in Los Angeles and on-demand April 17. For more information about “Alex of Venice,” visit facebook.com/alexofvenice.

Venice Graffiti Artist Paints New Life After Time In Jail

Graffiti artist Narrator was recently hired to paint a mural at Great Western Steak and Hoagie Company (pictured above) at 1720 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. The mural is not his first nor will it be his last, but it wasn’t always the case that his art has been a welcome commission in the City of Los Angeles.

In 2009 while studying fine arts at Santa Monica College, Narrator was offered a place in a mentorship program and was planning to transfer to another college. However, an early morning painting session on a wall of the 405 Freeway changed all that.

“It was 3 am and me and one of my crew were just finishing up covering a 20 foot wall on the 405,” he said. “We had done this huge block letter piece. Next thing, we saw lights flashing. We knew it was the cops so we took off up the embankment. Then the helicopter was coming down on us.”

By the time Narrator and his accomplice had made it back to their car the police had them surrounded.

“There was about six to eight squad cars, maybe 30 cops, and they had Tasers pointed at us so we kind of had to surrender,” he said. “I missed my first art show because I was in jail.”

After jail, with a felony against his name, Narrator could no longer qualify for financial aid and could not afford to continue college.

He also had debts to pay.

“I copped a hefty fine and was locked up in the same cell as murderers,” he said. “It changed my perspective. I decided it was better to get paid instead of having to pay to do what I wanted to do because I was doing it illegally.”

This is when he began holding his own art shows and doing art direction for music videos – this led to private commissions for murals.

His murals are now all around Los Angeles, at 5418 West Adams Blvd. across from Delicious Pizza, in downtown Los Angeles at a recycling center, and at recording studios in Marina del Rey and Miracle Mile.

As tough as it was doing time for his art, jail was not the worst graffiti connected incident for Narrator.

“You’re drawing on walls and you’re in these neighborhoods and they’re supposedly some gang’s territory and if these gangs see your stuff up, sometimes they’ll hunt for you,” he said. “For instance they saw one of my homies and then randomly at a party they shot him for graffiti, he claimed his crew and his name, and they just shot him point blank.”

Narrator feels graffiti artists today are akin to rappers, and the poets that came before them.

“In the beginning people don’t really like it because they don’t understand it, then in the end everybody loves it,” he said.

The artist said his works have evolved into something more positive over the years.

“Now I get a thrill and a rush when I’m doing a huge wall for the community; it’s a bigger thing,” he said. “It’s not just about me, it’s for everyone else now.”

Busking in Venice Beach

With 14 million tourists gawking through our inviting free speech zone of Venice Beach each year, we are a magnet for buskers – aka street performers – looking to reach new audiences and make a few bucks with their talents. But just because all of the world is a stage doesn’t mean you should be on it!

There are only a small handful of tolerable musicians on the boardwalk, and fewer that deserve mention.

The Piano Man, as I call him, is a soulful musician with a savant’ style. Each morning he wheels out a grand piano from his apartment and sets up shop in front of The Sidewalk Cafe.

He elicits standing ovations and tears from the crowd with his folkloric renditions, such as Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” That song being performed, on that boardwalk, by those guys, it is so grimy and raw. It’s about as real as it gets.

Local Love: We have performers in the neighborhood that are major assets to the community, like Vinnie Caggiano, eclectic guitarist and local Venetian for 20 plus years. His electro classical remixes of songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” will put one into a surreal, OMG! I live in the coolest place on the planet kinda’ mood.

Vinnie Caggiano, a Venetian of more than 20 years, says he would rather busk outside a café on Westminster for less money than deal with the craziness of the Boardwalk. Photos by Gabrielle Lee
Vinnie Caggiano, a Venetian of more than 20 years, says he would rather busk outside a café on Westminster for less money than deal with the craziness of the Boardwalk. Photos by Gabrielle Lee

“I’m not a mercenary,” says Vinnie. “I sat here yesterday and made $10 when I could have made $80 on the Boardwalk! There is no way I’m gonna put my self through that!”

Instead, he plays outside side of a jumpin’ cafe on Westminster. With CDs for sale and his business cards on a little table, it’s a way to promote himself as a teacher and performer. He gave me a mini lesson on the spot. His eyes lit up from behind red sunglasses as his soul oozed love of guitar, teaching and sharing his gift. This is what its all about!

Exceptional talent like Vinnie would be the rule if the Venice Beach community were to have our way.

“I’d really like to see the caliber of the talent on the boardwalk go up,” says Vinnie. “I laughed thinking back to earlier in the week when I was speaking with some non-local street performers who were trying to hustle up a quick buck.”

Talent Pit Stop: “Am I in the right spot? What time do the crowds come?” The un-initiated have a steep learning curve. The Venice Boardwalk just chews them up and spits them right out. It is an intense river of energy that can be daunting for non-local and unsuspecting visitor who is more likely to have their valuables ripped off than they are to make bank while here…and that can happen within their first five minutes of setting up!

I met Andre, a 20-year-old guitarist, on Rose Ave. earlier this week.

Amidst his homelessness, Andre toggles back and forth between St. Joes shelter at night and the Boardwalk during the day.

“You either play for God or money,” Andre says. “I play for God.”

However, when asked if I could take his picture for Yo! Venice, he wanted money.

In my opinion, performers like Andre are not assets, just ass wipes. This city has to take you in, not you force yourself on us!

Email Gabrielle at yo@yovenice.com.