The purpose of this blog is to evaluate the social, political, symbolic, and personal uses of the public boardwalk in Southern California, looking specifically at the differences between two famous locations: Santa Monica at the original Muscle Beach and Venice Beach, known for its eclectic mixture of constituents and functions. By observing on a Sunday afternoon from sunset into nighttime, I gathered information at both the peak time of activity as well as its calmer side. This stretch of boardwalk is consistently urban with dense mixed- uses from the beach into the heart of both cities. The demographics and atmosphere differ slightly, a reflection of the policies that govern each section and help define a distinct sense of place.

santa monica

Santa Monica is a high-priced area and is more densely urban. Its boardwalk frontage is mostly apartment buildings, hotels, and restaurants, open to those who can afford them. Venice, on the other hand, has a free spirit for street art, murals, sculpture, performers, street vendors, specialty shops, cafes and restaurants, and an even mixture of apartments, hotels, and cheap hostels above the boardwalk. There are a number of recreational spaces in both locales in addition to the expansive beach and the path. The path splits bike and walk users, and alongside are lawns and hard courts for both active and passive uses. In a place where athletic activity plays a large role in most people's lives, users tend to be locals whereas the passive observers can be either visitors or locals, yet the groups rarely mix. Both visitors and locals contribute to the sense of each place, but after observing its users it becomes clear that local policies have a direct effect on the user’s experience.

The first area of observation, the original location of the famous Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, remains an active recreation facility complete with gymnastics rings and other stationary equipment as well as posts for temporal use of slack lines, hammocks, and volleyball nets. But also, a number of passive users, dog-walkers, stationary observers, and informal photographers, are present. The demographics of these groups vary widely because visitors worldwide arrive to walk Southern California beaches. There are a few African-American users among both the active locals and the passive tourists. Continuing down the boardwalk, the intensity dwindles but multiple nodes of action remain along the path towards Venice, with a small but noticeable gap between the cities of Santa Monica and Venice Beach. This in-between area identifies more closely with Santa Monica, for once one arrives on the Venice Boardwalk it is immediately clear. A beautiful mural of the beach adorned with big letters announces your arrival, but even without the mural, performers, street vendors, and panhandlers greet visitors with activity and culture.

Santa Monica pier

Santa Monica pier

Muscle Beach-public athletic equipment

Muscle Beach-public athletic equipment

Venice Beach

The Venice boardwalk is a traditional public space that remains a place for social and political activism and allows passive visitors to integrate easily into a variety of events, intensifying their role in the social fabric. In the middle of the afternoon, the boardwalk abounds with people standing, sitting, walking, running, roller-blading and skateboarding, and biking despite the crowds. Shops, street vendors, panhandlers and performers provide an array of optional uses that many groups gravitate towards. Specialty shops often embody an art form, and of course, the cafes and restaurants vary too, from health conscious organic meals and teas to sports bars with outdoor and indoor performance stages. These activities, although passive in many instances, integrate visitors with locals, making it easy to strike up conversation about street performers or a vendor’s artwork. Not only are the visitor demographics varied, but so are local artists, shop owners, and restaurant staff.

In contrast to Santa Monica, locals perform, vend, or work for minimal wages, and rely almost entirely on the visitors as customers. Although some locals pass through this stretch of boardwalk, it is more commonly used for physical activity, dog-walking, or commuting than it is for shopping, viewing or donating to street performers. In Venice, locals provide exciting events for both visitors and locals; in contrast to the intimidating Muscle Beach, the Venice street market welcomes all passive users to engage with locals.

In each of these iconic Southern California destinations, the experience is shaped by its daily users. These places become tourist destinations over time due to good design and how local policy governs and maintains them. Muscle Beach is a symbol of the athletic culture of modern America. Locals built that culture because they desired an outdoor public space for group, athletic activities. Once Ad-hoc management held events it became an international destination next to the already famous Santa Monica Pier (which has been left out of this analysis because it belongs to another category of public space in California, the extension of main street over the water).

Venice Beach

Venice Beach

The Santa Monica boardwalk is governed by a different set of policies than the pier because the local government has designed it to exclude activist groups and grassroots art vendors. Instead of a traditional public space, it exists more like a public sidewalk through a residential neighborhood. Cafes and restaurants are situated at nodes like a street corner while the beach and recreation equipment represent a public park that allows visitors only passive engagement with local activity. The Venice Beach boardwalk, though, attracts a much wider array of locals because anyone can set up shop to make a living off tourism. Permitting may be required for artists' tents and performers, but it is unlikely that the grassroots rapper and the cookie vendor have permits. Some local groups engage visitors politically, sharing tales of government corruption or activism for current ballot items. The combination of political engagement and street market culture with shops and affordable cafes, restaurants, and bars enlivens the boardwalk. It is symbolic of classic Main Street America. 

Gathering insights from each of these public spaces can assist in design and management of existing and future spaces within cities, even without the beach and the year-round warm weather, the boardwalk could succeed as a place for social, political, personal, and symbolic use. Cities like Detroit that are rebuilding their urban centers to combat suburban sprawl can learn from the boardwalk. Policy that provides residents with zones exclusive to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and that include areas of small-scale commercial activities like art vendors, performers, and farmers' markets can have a huge, positive impact for the locale. These new public places, with smart management and encouragement of a less formal economy for lower-income members to make their living, can develop into vibrant social atmospheres for the locals and only then can evolve into regional and international destinations.

Comment