LOS ANGELES >> This city’s boardwalk community of Venice has long celebrated its seediness, accepting — embracing, really — the kind of sensory assaults that would faze more conventional places: beachfront bodybuilders, ragamuffin street vendors, tattoo artists, Hare Krishna chanters, skateboarders, drug dealers, gangs, homeless encampments, rowdy tourists, film crews and, more recently, a colony of medical marijuana dispensaries.
But Venice might have met its match in what many see as its most unsettling threat yet: Google.
“As soon as I walked in, they said, ‘You heard about Google? Why don’t you have your staff look into this?”’ Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor, who began his professional career as a bodybuilder here 44 years ago, related after he emerged from a throng of worried muscle-bound admirers at Gold’s Gym. “It’s this conspiracy theory: ‘Google is coming! They are going to take over and wipe out our bodybuilding.”’
In November, Google moved an army of sales and technology employees into 100,000 square feet in two Venice buildings. It is negotiating leases on another 100,000 square feet, according to real estate agents. That includes the 31,000-square-foot expanse that is Gold’s Gym, the very bodybuilding symbol of Venice, if not the universe, where Schwarzenegger stopped by the other morning.
No matter that Google officials said they had no plans to displace the fabled gym — “We’re not taking over Gold’s,” said Jordan Newman, a spokesman for Google — the company’s reluctance to talk about its long-term ambition for Venice, or why it would want anything to do with the Gold’s building, has stirred a storm of speculation and anxiety.
“They’ll buy it, they’ll kick us out, and we’ll have to relocate,” said Jerry Martin, standing in front of the gym.
Nathanial Moon, bulging with muscles, called it “the ultimate revenge of the nerds, the greatest way of getting back at all the guys that stuffed people from Google into lockers from high school and stole all their prom dates. And you can’t fight against Google, because they’ve got billions of dollars.
“But,” he added, “I love their search engine.”
People are even beginning to refer to Venice — the Venice of movies, surfing and Muscle Beach — as Silicon Beach. That may sound like progress to some, but not along the boardwalk, where Venice can be found in all its gaudy and often grungy glory, where a synagogue shares the same strip of sidewalk with a freak show advertising a two-headed turtle.
“I don’t want to see Venice look like Santa Monica,” said DeAlphria Tarver, 26, selling handmade hats on a boardwalk crammed with vendors, stragglers and skateboarders as homeless people slept on the adjacent grass. Google, she said, will “want it to look a lot more polished, and not hippielike.”
Schwarzenegger said that the community was “freaking out” and that he appreciated why. “Google has bought everything in Venice that is available,” said the former governor, who has been buying and selling buildings here for close to 30 years.
But he welcomes Google as a neighbor, and said fears that it would turn Venice into a sanitized Silicon Valley on the Pacific were exaggerated. “This is the mecca of bodybuilding: They will never leave,” he said.
Schwarzenegger may well be Venice’s biggest fan, as he demonstrated during a two-hour tour of driving, walking and reminiscing about the place that he came to as an aspiring bodybuilder and where he still keeps his office. Unabashedly nostalgic, he pointed out the fading remains of the sign on an old Gold’s Gym building, the wall he built as a bricklayer outside the onetime home of Rudolph Valentino and the outdoor gym at Muscle Beach, where he happily posed for pictures. (“Excuse me, are you the Terminator?” one boy asked nervously.)
Even as governor, Schwarzenegger preferred to greet out-of-town visitors at his private office, arguing that Venice presented a better face of California than, say, Sacramento. And most weekends, when he is not filming, he comes here from his Brentwood estate for a bicycle ride down the boardwalk. Or tries to.
“There are days when we can’t get through,” he said. “It’s wild, because the homeless wake up in the morning when you get there. They are there with their bags. They are coming out of holes and places. And you smell the incense. The touch of the ’60s is all there, and all the street vendors are coming out.
“This place is insane,” he said. “You never have to smoke a joint in Venice. You just go on a bicycle ride in the morning, you just inhale, and you live off everyone else.”
He stopped to point out where he and Jack LaLanne had worked out, as a younger version of the governor whacked a punching bag by the beach. “You can see the way it’s built up,” he said. “The grass. The bathrooms. None of that was here. Some people think it’s lost personality. I don’t think it’s lost personality.”
Venice today is hardly like the place Schwarzenegger found when he first arrived, drawn by a promise of “nice buildings and hotels, kind of like a French Riviera type of look,” he said. “But when I got here, it was totally like a dump. It was dreadful.”
As recently as early 2006, it was still regarded as dangerous. Drug dealers could be found at all hours at Oakwood Park. Prostitutes roamed the surrounding streets, wearing bright-red heels and leopard-print miniskirts. Crack addicts, their faces welted with sores, staggered along sidewalks that were broken or littered with trash.
But a crackdown by the Los Angeles Police Department helped transform Venice, as police officers, aided by helicopters, swept out drug dealers and gangs. Abbot Kinney Boulevard, once just another forlorn Venice street, was this spring named “The Coolest Block in America” by GQ magazine in its Style Bible. There are plans to build a 720-foot-long zip line over the boardwalk.
Google said it had no desire to pick a fight with the bodybuilders. But bodybuilders weren’t buying that.
“If you don’t want the building, leave it alone,” said Big Will Harris.
In truth, Google may not be the only culprit here. The old World Gym at the top of Abbot Kinney, the place that was Schwarzenegger’s gym, has been bought; World is gone, and the space is being transformed into high-end shops and offices. The new owner and future tenant?