Monday, March 29, 2010

As economy sours, vendors crowd Venice Beach

LOS ANGELES - Sand and surf are the least of the attractions making Venice Beach one of Los Angeles' top tourist draws.

On summer weekends, some 150,000 exhibitionists and gawkers flock to the neighborhood to see and be seen in a Bohemian rhapsody of bongo-bangers, dreadlocked artists and acrobatic gymnasts.

In recent months, though, that freewheeling hippie circus has gotten edgy thanks to a stubbornly sour economy heightening competition for the 200 peddler spaces along the 1.5-mile long asphalt strip bordering the beach.

That has longtime storeowners and artists steamed, and residents in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood clamoring for a clamp down on the increased noise and transients.

"It's become a real free-for-all, really aggressive," said Therese Dietlin, who has distributed alternative political literature for nine years on the boardwalk, which is lined with cafes, medical marijuana clinics and souvenir shops.

Recently, she said, a woman selling Buddhas and incense kicked her table across the boardwalk claiming that Dietlin had set up her table in her space. "It never used to be like that," she said.

The city has responded with new rules to give more people a chance at a space on the strip, but the peak summer season looms more chaotic than ever.

For the first time, the city has been giving out all the vendor spaces in its weekly lotteries. People from as far away as New York and Florida are participating, said Victor Jauregui, senior director of the Venice Beach Recreation Center, which runs the lottery.

The number of performers wanting a spot has jumped by 80 percent over the past year, while the number of vendors has doubled. That's led to some boisterous raffles.

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