I live here in Kill City, where the Snapchat meets the sea (transcript)

Published April 1st, 2017

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Well eep opp ork ahh ahh, how are you, Willy Wonka wombats? What’s the haps, paps? Who goes there? Identify yourselves! We have strict rules for who is allowed in. Extreme vetting, extreme Corvetting down the Pacific Coast Highway with the wind blowing back our weaves. For those who have been taken unawares, I am Michael Phillips and THIS IS NOT A TEST. Come forward, groove to the heavy rockers sound and remove ya Babylon! Remove ya! Have you seen the movie Rockers? Oh lordy, go seek it out and bask in the glory that was 1970s reggae music in Jamaica. It’s a classic movie, and I don’t understand why there isn’t a three or four disc Criterion version. People just don’t recognize genius when they see it.

Did you miss me last month? Man, I almost tried to rally and get something up for you, but I spent so much time horizontal and trying to see through the mucus fog I was trapped in that I just couldn’t do it. It’s the first deadline I’ve missed in 26 or 27 months, so give me a break. I can’t believe I used to do this every week. It was all I did for that year, I tell ya. There wasn’t time for anything else. I know this sounds easy, but that’s just because I’m so incredibly talented. I make everything look easy. Um hmm. So what’s been happening since we last gathered around this campfire?

Well, Snapchat – that ridiculous phone picture app that no one over the age of 24 can figure out – they had their IPO recently and everyone became millionaires or billionaires overnight, and the world keeps spinning as these companies that don’t make anything, including money, continue to be the backbone of our new economy. If it seems odd that unprofitable companies can be valued at billions of dollars, you just aren’t paying attention. It’s the goal of every Internet company to “go public.” To raise money from investors and use that money to build up something they can sell stocks in and hand over to investors. That’s the dream of every dork in khakis clacking away at a keyboard for 16 hours a day in some loft office somewhere. To make it big, to go public, to hit the jackpot.

Which is kind of proof that they don’t make anything of value. If they did, they’d want to hold on to it for as long as they could and keep all the money for themselves. But you see, there is no money in these online businesses, there’s no profit. The money is in taking them public. It’s a weird and backward system that props itself up through delusion and the hope that something will happen in the near future to cause the companies to actually make some money. Most of them don’t, but the people who started them still get rich, and when the companies eventually go bankrupt – or get acquired by Google or Facebook – they just go start another company. And they can get investors for the new company because they managed to take the previous company public. No matter that they have never proven that they can make anything that people want to buy, they were able to make money while creating nothing, and Silicon Valley – or Silicon Beach – values that skill above all others.

Anyway, Snapchat, or Snap Inc., has their top secret offices in Venice, and apparently they are buying up most of the town and alienating everyone who lives there. I heard a story on NPR the other day and the spokesman for some neighborhood anti-Snapchat group was a guy they introduced as having lived in Venice for three years. Really? Three whole years? Can you be angry about interlopers after only three years? It’s a lot of noise as the recent gentrifiers curse the new gentrifiers. The circle of life. Like a wombat eating its own tail. Do wombats have tails? If they don’t, just imagine some animal that does. Go on, imagine it. I’ll wait.

I get why people who live in Venice are creeped out by Snapchat taking over, but Venice changes so frequently that it’s hard to say who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I mean, if one of Snapchat’s most vocal opponents only moved in three years ago – whose side should I be on? Doesn’t seem like there’s a good guy to root for. I lived in two different places in Venice, from the mid-80s to 1992 or so, and back then it was a radically different place. I could smell it changing and you could kind of see, or smell, that it was always going to be changing. But that’s the way with most of Los Angeles, so really, what can you do? Venice is a neighborhood right on the beach, so it’s naturally going to attract people with money.

When I moved to California, the first places I stayed in were crummy weekly-rate motels on the west side, in Venice, Mar Vista, Culver City, Ocean Park. They were consistently shitty and depressing places full of depressing people – myself included, I suppose. But I didn’t have much money, so I bounced from one sticky carpet to another for a few months. Eventually I got a place with two other guys in Venice Beach, a palatial 12 x 12 foot studio apartment at 26 Westmister, about 100 yards from the boardwalk. My personal space in that room was exactly the size of my sleeping bag. I had to hang a couple of shelves on the wall and stick my boom box and little pile of other stuff up there because there was nowhere else for it to go. I was 24 years old and there was no Internet to get rich from yet, so I had to formulate another plan. But there was plenty of time for planning. Tomorrow. Or, you know, just, later. The rent was only $400 split three ways, but we were still always late paying it. I was aggressively and happily unemployed, and lounging around the apartment wasn’t exactly a treat, so I spent a lot of time hanging out on the boardwalk.

To paint a lovely picture for you – well the $400 rent that close to the beach should paint it pretty well – but Venice in the mid-80s was what you might call an inhospitable place. Half of the businesses on the boardwalk – actually, everywhere in Venice – were closed or boarded up. Some of the famous Venice canals were half dry and full of garbage. The neighborhood around the canals was so dangerous that people who lived there said the police wouldn’t come if you called them after dark. What’s now Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which someone in a marketing department somewhere has dubbed, “America’s Coolest Street,” selling $200 brunches and $2000 shoes, was then called West Washington. And I swear, when I’d ride my bike down that street there were maybe two businesses open, and they were both junk shops. Like Sanford and Son kind of junk shops.

The Venice pier, which is now long gone, was rotting and falling into the ocean. The entrance was fenced off but it was easy to go around it and walk on the pier. The Santa Monica pier was rotting too, it was about half the size it is now and empty, except for the boarded up carousel building. If you walked out to the end of it, it just stopped and dropped off into the water. There was nothing to keep you from just taking a step off the edge and going for a cold swim. The area around my apartment was mostly populated with old hippies and members of the V13 gang, Venice 13, and those guys weren’t exactly super welcoming to a white boy from the Midwest. But after they saw me around all the time, I guess they figured I wasn’t going anywhere and eventually they even started to grudgingly nod as I walked past them. That might not seem like a big deal, but those nods made me feel safe, like at least they weren’t going to kill me.

They killed other people though, pretty regularly. One day I woke up and one of my roommates was pacing around the apartment, and I said, “What the hell’s going on, man?” He said, “You’re awake? Come here, check this out…” and we walked out to the fire escape that overlooked the alley, and there in the dumpster that we threw our garbage into was a body. It looked like it had been casually tossed there amongst the empty beer cans and pizza crusts. There was one cop car parked nearby, and the cops were just hanging around talking to each other. I guess they were waiting for someone to come and scoop up the body. A few weeks later I rode my bike past another body that was much more fresh. Just crumpled up on the sidewalk in a pool of warm blood. No cops were anywhere to be seen, but a few people were hanging around talking about what happened. Both of those were probably people who V13 didn’t like for some reason. I don’t have any proof of that, but those guys were no joke.

One day I was sitting in a half burned out pagoda on the edge of the boardwalk waiting for a dread named Firehouse to show up – I’d met him on the boardwalk, and later he got me thrown into LA County jail for three days – but anyway, I was there waiting for him when a V13 cholo wandered up and sat right next to me. He didn’t look at me, just stared straight ahead.

After about a minute he said, “You get the package?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I didn’t think it would be wise to say, “What the fuck are you talking about, man?” so I just said, “No, didn’t get any package.”
That made him mad. “Motherfucker! Reynaldo said he delivered it.”
“Well he didn’t deliver it to me.”
He let out a long curse in Spanish and said, “Motherfucker! Okay man, I’m gonna take this shit to him, but I better not find out you weren’t straight with me, esse.” And while he continued staring straight ahead, in fact he never looked at me at any time during our brief association, but he just stared into the distance and lifted up his t-shirt so I could see his gun, which I assumed was there, so he didn’t really need to show it to me.
“I wouldn’t lie to you, man,” I said, which was very true. Mostly because I didn’t know who the fuck he was, I’d never seen him before, but also because I wouldn’t lie to any of those guys, just as a general not-getting-killed rule.
He got up and walked away, just repeating “Motherfucker!” for as long as I could hear him.

I don’t think I ever saw that guy again. Or at least he didn’t see me, which was probably more important. I never could figure out who the hell he had mistaken me for though. There weren’t a lot of people hanging around the boardwalk all day who looked like me. A scrawny white ragamuffin with his baby dreadlocks stuffed into a red beret. I guess I was just sitting in the wrong spot at the wrong time. But at least he warned me rather than just murdering me or beating the shit out of me to make his point. Either of which could just as easily have happened.

If all of that sounds overly dramatic, maybe it is. It’s just a few little happenstances out of many months of living there. Mostly it was just a lot of hanging around, and a guy from V13 actually helped me get my car started one day when I had the hood up and was just staring at the engine, looking for I-don’t-know-what. Come to think of it, a Rastaman who I didn’t know also helped me start a different broken down car on the street in Venice a few years later. I didn’t ask either of them for help, they just came up and started helping. But that’s the way it goes sometimes in poorer neighborhoods, people tend to watch out for each other. One day I was standing in front of my apartment minding my own business and some crazy dude was passing by and yelled some gibberish at me. A V13 guy came from across the street and said, “Is that guy bothering you?” I said, “No man, he’s just crazy,” and we watched him stumble down the street for a minute, then V13 said, “Hmm…well, don’t let nobody fuck with you holmes!” and he whacked me on the back so hard I almost fell over.

After being in Venice for a few weeks I traded an old Cry Baby wah pedal for a crappy old ex-rental beach cruiser bike, so I finally had wheels and I could expand my horizons. I rode all over Venice and Santa Monica and up past Marina Del Rey on the bike path that runs along about 15 miles of beachfront. The bike got totaled one day though when I was crossing an intersection and a van ran into me. Missed my leg by about an inch, but bent the back wheel and the frame and knocked me onto my ass on a small patch of grass. A lucky landing, but I was banged up and even worse, my wheels were dead. I scratched the license plate number of the van into the bike frame with my apartment key, limped back to my place and called the police, who pretty much told me to get lost. “You should file an insurance claim,” was their advice. Sure, I’ll just call my Allstate agent and get on that.

After legging it for a couple of months I managed to scrape up a few hundred dollars and bought an old yellow Honda Civic out of the Recycler. The Recycler was a weekly classified ad tabloid where you could get everything back then. Cars, lamps, furniture, guitars, band members…everything. And everyone used it, so you could always get what you were looking for. I had to convince the guy to bring the car to me, or I should say I had to beg him to bring it, and he complained and bitched, but he brought it by anyway. I assume because there were no other interested buyers. He dropped it off, I paid him, and got in to park it somewhere, but it was a stick shift, and I’d never driven one of those. I thought, well, how hard can this be, people do it every day, and started jerking and stalling along Westmister, then I turned onto Speedway, the back alley kind of street that runs behind the boardwalk businesses, and just went up and down Speedway for 15 or 20 minutes until I figured out how everything worked. I can’t imagine trying to do that now, with the traffic and crowded streets in Venice. But it was kind of deserted in those days, so I didn’t run anyone over. Later my friend Jeff took a ride with me to give me some pointers, and he was appalled at my lack of basic stick shift driving skills. He said, “Who taught you to drive this?” “Nobody,” I said. “Yeah, I can tell.”

That car is what lead to the three day getaway vacation in the County Jail. When Firehouse saw me getting out of the car one day he said, “Why you nah tell me yuh have wheels, mon?!” Well I didn’t tell him because I knew he’d want me to drive him everywhere. But the next thing I knew I was driving him and couple of other dreads to an Eek-A-Mouse show down in San Diego, but we didn’t even make it out of Venice before the cops pulled us over. Not because I did anything wrong, just because. You know, a car full of dreads was reason enough. It probably still is. One of Firehouse’s bredren in the back seat had a backpack full of herb, as it turned out – and by full I mean full, like stuffed – so we all went for a ride to County. But that’s another story that doesn’t have anything to do with Venice. Actually that could have, or would have, probably happened anywhere in Los Angeles. The LA cops and black people – they have never really seen eye to eye, if you know what I mean.

So it wasn’t all good and it wasn’t all bad, but after a while, Venice just wore me out. The novelty of the Midwestern boy living on the beach in sunny California lost it’s luster, you might say. Nothing good was happening. I came to California to join or start a reggae band, but all the people I was meeting were criminals, wannabe criminals, street performers or losers, so I moved up to Topanga Canyon with one of the guys from the apartment. The other guy stayed behind in Venice and eventually went to Australia where he picked up a junk habit. He came back to Venice a few years later, when I was living there again, and stayed with me for a few weeks, doing all the wonderful things people with a heroin habit do to their friends. You can only take so much of that kind of shit, you know, so I had to kick him out. Send him out into the Venice night to fend for himself. Sounds cold, but hey, I tried. And he knew other people he could go abuse.

What’s funny is when I came back to Venice for the second time, it was to live with a woman I’d met, and we rented a house in the northeastern part of Venice, between the canals and Marina Del Rey, and that Venice wasn’t at all like the boardwalk Venice. It was a neighborhood full of regular people who were determined to stay there, even though the crime from the rougher parts of Venice still overflowed into the area. One morning I went out to my car to drive to work – another old Honda Civic, a white one this time, that I’d spray painted a lovely Rust-Oleum flat black – but I went out and the driver’s side window was smashed out. I don’t know what they were after. The car was old and, you know, spray painted, and there was nothing valuable in it. I’d installed a $15 am/fm radio though, and whoever broke the window took the radio knobs. I guess they got the knobs off and took a good look at it and thought, “What the hell am I wasting my time on this for?” and spilt. But they kept the knobs. Maybe they just needed knobs for their radio.

But yeah, it wasn’t as bad as the boardwalk Venice, but it was around that time, it the early 90s, that you could really see things starting to change. They fixed up the Santa Monica pier, you saw fewer and fewer boarded up buildings, and then one day as I was riding my bike through the old boardwalk area streets I passed a new restaurant. All aluminum on the outside with Bentleys and Maseratis parked in front of it. That was the first sign that I saw of what Venice has become now, which is 25% tourist trap and 75% Beverly Hills West. So I get where the anti-Snapchatters are coming from, but if you don’t own real estate in an area, you kind of have to take gentrification – which is a fancy way of saying white people moving in – you have to take gentrification along with the territory. You can complain that the rents become too high for you to live someplace, but is anyone really owed affordable rent a block from the ocean? Is that some kind of fundamental human right? I don’t know. Pretty sure it’s not.

The same thing happens everywhere, all the time. It happened in St. Paul when I lived there, it happens all over Los Angeles, and even now it’s happening in East Los Angeles, where some Boyle Heights residents recently forced an art gallery out of their neighborhood because they could see where that was going to lead. Not because they hate art, but this wasn’t an art gallery opened by locals, they were out of towners. Gentrifiers. And in Leimert Park, which has been a black part of town since world war II, over there the park is getting a Metro Rail stop, which has the people there wondering how long their neighborhood will retain its culture. Leimert Park is the center of black creative culture in Los Angeles, and everyone there knows how fragile neighborhoods are and how quickly they can change, so they’re on edge. Understandably.

This what we do though, artists and creative types make an area cool, or a neighborhood becomes known as the center of a great and thriving non-white culture, and then suddenly white people with money want to live where the cool stuff is happening. So they buy all the houses and businesses and not-so-gently push all the cool people and brown people out of town. Then they’re stuck there in a place that used to be cool, looking for somewhere else to go. In Los Angeles though, we’re kind of running out of places where you can live with very little money. If they take over East LA, I don’t know what’s left. Where anyone can go and live without a six figure income. Rent is already so high in most of the city that I wonder how anyone can live here. Who the hell are these people who are paying $4000 or $5000 a month in rent?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not nostalgic for the old, decrepit Venice of my youth. It was a shithole, and it’s good that people finally came in and started making it less shitty. It’s just too bad that it was big money that came in to make it less shitty. We kind of skipped a step there, you know, where maybe normal people could have come in and fixed things up a bit and enjoyed the place for a while. I suppose that happened a little bit on the outer edges of Venice, but the beach went from a slum to a wealthy neighborhood without making any stops in between. That’s probably what a lot of people found jarring and irritating, the sudden change of fortunes down there. I know I found it jarring and irritating. But I find most things jarring and irritating, so I’m not a good barometer of awfulness or irritation.

I just don’t think there’s an answer to people with money pushing people with less money off to the side, out of the way. It’s not like people in poor neighborhoods are owners, so they’re at the mercy of “the market.” And when that market is as fucked up as it is here, or in the bay area or Manhattan or – you name it, I sure as hell don’t know how you make it possible for all different kinds of people to live in the same place. That has never worked, historically, so I don’t know how it’s going to work now. And the rich people taking over Venice may be pushing out the people who have lived there for years enjoying relatively affordable rents, but they haven’t yet managed to push out the homeless.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of homeless people in Venice, there are a lot of them all over Los Angeles, but if you have to be homeless, Venice is a better place than San Pedro street downtown, or under a bridge in Pasadena. Mark Ryavec is a guy who just ran for city council in Venice, and lost, and he had a telling comment about homeless people and pretty much everyone else who doesn’t own property in Venice. He said, “We see snowbirds in their RVs and young people from all over treating Venice as the campground of America. I want to provide a bus fare to send them home, because there’s no future for these people here.” Which is pretty funny, considering I’m probably one of the people that he would have wanted to put on a bus heading east if he was around when I landed in Venice 33 years ago. No future. Who the fuck is this guy to predict anyone’s future. He says he’s speaking for locals when he says idiotic shit like that, but I think who he’s really speaking for are the gentrifiers. The wealthy and the businesses who want Venice to themselves.

He’s just like the gentrifiers in San Francisco, or anywhere, really, complaining about homeless people and people who have less money than they do. They’ve shown up to take over and now they’re offended by who and what was there before them. Like the gallerists who got run out of Boyle Heights on a rail, and can’t believe the locals could be against something like an art gallery. “What’s wrong with them? Don’t they appreciate culture?” Yeah they appreciate culture, dumbass, that’s why you want to be there, to suck up their culture! To suck up the vibes and spit out the people. Jesus Christ. I’ll never understand people, I tell ya.

Which is good, I suppose. If I understood people I’d be finished with life. I would have accomplished something that no one else has ever accomplished, and there would be nothing left for me to do but shuffle off into the sunset. Just another snowbird in my RV headed toward Venice Beach. But I haven’t figured anything out, so I have to keep going. At least until Publishers Clearinghouse drops by with cameras and balloons and one of those big cardboard checks with my name on it. Until then, see ya. Or, remove ya!