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Vexit: Venice secession movement stalled, but not dead

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The effort has stalled—but the dream isn’t dead

Venice residents who favor cityhood say the beach community has “clearly been neglected” by the city of Los Angeles.
melissamn / Shutterstock.com

Marcus Ruiz Evans doesn’t live in Venice, but on Thursday night inside the gymnasium of Venice Animo Charter High School, he’s giving a pep talk to a group of roughly 60 Venice residents about what makes their neighborhood so unique. If it were up to him, Venice would be more than just one of the nearly 300 different neighborhoods in Los Angeles: It would be its own city.

“We are really upset about losing [tax] money, and we definitely don’t feel that we’re Angelenos,” says Evans, proposing a script for audience members to follow if they’re serious about pursuing secession from Los Angeles. “You need to be pissed off. Then people will pay attention.”

Evans, a political activist from Fresno who has hosted conservative-leaning talk radio shows, knows how to get attention.

His fringe secessionist group, Yes California, garnered international headlines last year for a radical proposal to break California away from the United States and incorporate it into its own country. Nicknamed “Calexit,” the controversial 2018 ballot initiative was scrapped after its founder revealed he was living in Russia; activists are working to put it on the ballot in 2020.

Even before Calexit engulfed the cultural zeitgeist, flamed by a resistance to the election of President Donald Trump and as a response to California’s booming economy, locals in Venice dreamed of achieving cultural and fiscal independence through secession from the city of Los Angeles.

Some argue that the nation’s second-largest city, home to more than 4 million people, is too big and bureaucratic to effectively govern the idiosyncratic beach community of some 40,000.

“There was one place where you could express yourself and that was Venice,” says Evans, who was chosen as a panelist by the Venice Neighborhood Council, which has not taken a position on Vexit, for the town hall it organized to discuss secession.

His appeal to Venice’s history as a bastion of counterculture, from beat poetry to skateboarding, drew cheers. But his next statement was booed: “You have a historical culture of being free… that’s why the tech sector is here.”

The range of reactions represents a conflict for many Venetians who value their individuality and their independence, but also recognize that the tech industry is changing the character of the neighborhood, pushing out longtime residents who are disproportionately low income and people of color.

The idea of secession, informally known as “Vexit,” gained steam in 2016 when the Venice Neighborhood Council created an ad hoc committee to research its viability.

The effort has stalled in the two years since—proponents recognize that it’s a long shot that would require years of lobbying and fundraising—but the dream isn’t dead. Now it’s stoking tensions about housing, wealth inequality, and gentrification in the increasingly unaffordable neighborhood.

Gentrification Sparks Culture Clash In Venice Beach
A skater passes a van where a homeless person is sleeping in Venice.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Community activist and former neighborhood Councilmember Mike Bravo says the panel, though billed as an informational meeting, felt like a pitch in favor of cityhood.

“Until they start to acknowledge us, people of color, native Venetians, we’re not going to let [Vexit] happen,” he says, pointing out that the panel was made up almost entirely of white men and that the moderator did not allow questions or comments from the audience.

Dede Audet, a 97-year-old Venice resident who has lived here since 1957, managed to grab the microphone and voice her disappointment during the meeting.

“What I heard tonight is mainly a bunch of pencil pushers!” she exclaimed, walking to the front of the room and leaving her walker at her chair. “But Venice is about feelings! That’s what it is.”

Like Bravo, she says she felt ambushed by the pro-Vexit message of the meeting.

“I recognized it as a set-up. It was for cityhood,” she says. “All ideas have value. This one, I believe, as far as I’m concerned, has a negative value.”

Proponents of secession, like James “Jim” Murez, a town hall panelist who has been running the Venice Farmers Market for more than three decades, argue that Venice has “clearly been neglected” by the city of Los Angeles, from its eroding sidewalks to its untrimmed trees to its escalating traffic.

These frustrations are shared in neighborhoods across the city, but because Venice was once its own city—from 1905 to 1926—some residents say self-governance makes more sense here than it does in other places.

Nick Antonicello, a New Jersey native who has lived in Venice for the last quarter century, says the city of Los Angeles can’t effectively prioritize the needs of a tight-knit, increasingly wealthy enclave.

“If you had a mayor of Venice, for example, and he lived in Venice, the odds of running into him at the supermarket or seeing him at some event and having actual access to the mayor, I think is a positive,” he says. “The mayor of the second-largest city in the United States doesn’t have the time.”

The other factor undeniably driving the Vexit bid is money, thanks in part to tech companies like Snapchat, which has since left the neighborhood for Santa Monica following years of community protests that attributed its presence to rampant gentrification and displacement.

But proving that Venice would be economically viable as its own city is just one hurdle among many, if supporters were to file an application for cityhood to the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission.

Even if everyone in Venice voted in favor of the bid, it would then need to win a majority of votes from residents across the city of Los Angeles, which is incredibly difficult to do—it’s the reason why the San Fernando Valley’s bid for secession failed in 2002.

The last cities to successfully incorporate in Los Angeles County were Calabasas and Malibu in 1991, and neither were previously part of the city of Los Angeles, only the unincorporated county.

And even if the city did somehow vote for Venice’s secession, Los Angeles still has the power to veto the vote, says LAFCO’s Paul Novak. A separate, more radical yet streamlined option would be for a state legislator to sponsor a bill for Venice’s secession and lobby the governor of California sign it into law.

Lisa Leeman, a documentary filmmaker and 23-year Venice resident who teaches at the University of Southern California, isn’t so sure any of this is a good idea.

She says she attended the town hall with an open mind, but has serious concerns about the repercussions of incorporating Venice into its own city.

“I find myself asking, ‘What if a number of well resourced communities all moved to secede from Los Angeles, what’s left?’” says Leeman. “What happens to the underrepresented communities?

“Where is this impulse really coming from?”