When residents of Venice say they are AWOL, they’re not talking about their military whereabouts. In their case AWOL stands for Always West of Lincoln, meaning Lincoln Boulevard, the street that divides this bohemian neighborhood from the rest of Los Angeles’s urban sprawl. In the past few years another thoroughfare, Abbot Kinney Boulevard—one of L.A.’s only “walking” streets—has become a destination for shoppers in search of unique fashion and home décor finds. Early adopters, including dress designer Pamela Barish and botanical perfumer Alexandra Balahoutis of Strange Invisible Perfumes, chose the location because of the strong sense of community. These days you can find Jack Spade (enjoy a game of Ping-Pong in the front yard) and another New York City import, Steven Alan, along with vintage-inspired shops such as Aviator Nation, Bazar, and Bountiful.
What you won’t find are mass-market brands. Thanks to Venice Unchained, a local community group, chain stores have been discouraged from hanging their shingles here. Several years ago a branch of the popular yogurt shop Pinkberry opened but quickly lost most of its business after the arrival of N’iceCream, a family-owned gelato shop next door.
When fine jeweler Liseanne Frankfurt set up shop in 2007, pioneers such as Hal’s restaurant and the Brig, a popular neighborhood bar, were drawing regulars, but the rest of the 1 1/2-mile stretch between Venice Boulevard and Main Street was a shopper’s wasteland. “People thought I was insane to open here,” Frankfurt says. “But my jewelry is very under the radar, and so I wanted to be in a part of town that was under the radar.” A few weeks later A+R home design arrived across the street, followed by, more recently, Mona Moore, which stocks hot-off-the-runway Martin Margiela pumps and Ann Demeulemeester mesh jewelry. Handbag designer Kendall Conrad, a former Venice resident, chose to launch her namesake boutique here a year ago because Abbot Kinney is one of the few Los Angeles streets where shoppers can park easily and walk.
Historically, Venice has always been a destination, dating to the turn of the last century when Abbot Kinney, a Renaissance man from Morristown, New Jersey, who was fascinated by the social and cultural heritage of Venice, Italy, purchased a vast tract of marshland south of Santa Monica to build what he called the “Venice of America.” The result was the Pleasure Pier, with an auditorium, a miniature railroad, a lagoon, and several canal waterways. The crowds soon followed and Ocean Front Walk promenade was officially on the map. The neighborhood’s bohemian roots can be traced to the Beats of the 1950’s and the hippies of the 1960’s. The roller-skating scene took over—along with drug dealers and gangs—in the 1970’s. But by the 1990’s Venice was fast becoming a haven for artists and Hollywood heavy hitters such as Julia Roberts. Abbot Kinney Boulevard, originally called West Washington, was renamed in 1992, and palm trees were planted to improve the streetscape—and property values.
These days Abbot Kinney is also attracting chefs such as Gjelina ’s Travis Lett, who serves up lamb-sausage pizza or roasted artichokes with burrata until late into the evening. At the newer Tasting Kitchen, Casey Lane offers such fare as house-cured meats and local organic vegetables. There’s also plenty of casual cuisine: Abbot’s Habit, an early pioneer, has great sandwiches, and on the first Friday of every month food trucks—Kogi BBQ’s Korean tacos are a favorite—converge on the street. Local art galleries keep their doors open after hours, too.
Most Abbot Kinney residents agree that the street’s newfound popularity has strengthened the community. “I’ve been here long enough that I’ve met couples walking their dogs past the store, then made engagement and wedding rings for them,” Frankfurt says. “And now I’ll see them pushing a stroller around the neighborhood. I love that.”
Kate Betts is the author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style.