Sunday, July 24, 2011

Venice Community Garden - An Urban Oasis

I had just about had it with urban problems this last month. I thought I was actually going crazy from chopper noise that one night that they hovered right over my house for four (plus) hours, just to get some Best Buy robbers (you've got to wonder what the resources wasted for HOURS cost vs. the electronics swiped. Really.). Two days later I went to the beach for some peace and quiet, only to be hovered over by choppers, for again, four hours. I was beginning to think it was me they were after, but I've been pretty good lately.

OVER it, I pedaled for home, and for some reason (likely less noise) I took another route that day. As I sped down Mildred, I burned rubber skidding to a halt, when BEHOLD, right in front of my face was the most glorious, abundant garden with a big cheerful sign reading "Venice Community Garden"! How this had gone on unknown by me (for almost a year!) I don't know, but there it was, bursting with life - and produce. I've been yearning for a simple balcony - anything! - to grow stuff on, so this was like the end of the rainbow for me to chance upon.

I got online when I got home to track down the story of the place, and a few days later, I was sitting at the sunny patio table in the middle of the VCG, talking with its founder and director, Kip Wood. I have all sorts of garden questions, and he knows what he's talking about, having completed the Master Gardening program. He and his family had a little garden at their Venice home, but builders came and put up yet another square box living complex next door to them, which took away all of their sunlight. You need sun to grow things. Talking about the need for a community garden with friends became Kip walking the streets and really looking for a space.

Kip came upon a "For Rent" sign at the Garden's current site on Mildred, then just a scrubby, overgrown plot of land that had nothing on it. He called the number and reached Donald Novack - the owner of Hal's (my last month's Beachhead subject - synchronicity!), who also owned this plot of land. As the real estate market was/is struggling, Donald agreed to rent the land to Kip and his fellow gardeners at a low cost, as a benefit to the community (and maybe some excess produce to use in the kitchen at Hal's).

Now they had a site for a Garden, but that was just the beginning. The land needed to be cleared, the soil needed to be tested, gardeners needed to be recruited, and it was on. It seems to be a charmed project, as just when anything has been needed, help has come. The LACC (Los Angeles Conservation Corps) provided land clearing equipment and labor - for free. A Construction company took away all the old dirt and refuse. Venice Youth Build kids came and did volunteer work. All systems were go, but then they found out that the soil had arsenic in it from when Mildred was an old railway line. Not good for growing edibles. 100 tons of undesirable soil was taken out, new soil was put in, and wooden beds were built to elevate the individual plots up off the ground. The word was put out, and pretty much since they've been up and growing, there has been a waiting list for the 54 plots of around 150 names (much to my dismay).

You can see why instantly. It's so completely great to just step inside the fence into this green paradise of growth. As Kip said, "Things just WANT to grow here." We are blessed with a wonderful climate for gardening, and everything just goes bezerk - including weeds, so it's a constant job to stay ahead of it all. "But it's the best kind of work", said Kip. "When I'm trimming plants, my mind is quiet, I'm relaxed, I'm grateful, you just feel good about it." At $25 a month for a plot, with so many fruits (vegetables, herbs, flowers, etc..) of your labor, you can feel good about your grocery store savings too.

While I was visiting, different gardeners came and went, checking on their crops, watering their plots, picking some FRESH produce for dinner, or even just to stop in and chat at the table. All of them were so clearly thrilled and grateful to have their plot (I get it), they were pretty much beaming as they went about their business. One guy (thanks, Ross!) shared his pineapple mint with us ... PINEAPPLE mint?! I'd never even heard of it. Kip pointed out that benefit to gardening as well, that stores can only carry so many varieties of things, but one look at a seed catalog and it's a whole new gigantic world of possibilities. PAGES of crazy potatoes alone.

The Venice Community Garden really is about Community too. There are fruit trees and herb pots planted for all to share. They have lectures, classes, art, dinners, "Crop Swaps", a Squash Hunt for the kids at Easter time ... all kinds of fun, educational stuff is always going on. We started talking about how everyone's lives would be so much better if we could switch to a barter/trade system vs. capitalist b.s. ... but that's a longer conversation for another day. One lady that was watering her plot while I was there said she was away for a month and had her co-gardening friend send her weekly photos of the plot, as she missed it so. Again, I get it.

I didn't want to just sit and chat with Kip as his time in the garden was limited, so we talked while I helped him fill up the compost bin things (and learned about them), which goes right back to fertilizing the garden. I got a good old fashioned splinter, and immediately was transported in my mind back to youthful days of helping my Grandma Olson in her majestic garden when I would visit her. Gardening not only made her the tannest Norwegian you'd ever encounter, but made her beloved and kind of famous in LaCrosse, Wisconsin for how very green her thumbs were. I was telling Kip about her, and he stopped me and asked, "Would you say she was happy?" My eyes well up at just the memory of my answer, "Yes. One of the happiest people I've ever known, until her very last day." Kip just nodded, and his point was made.

As my day was made. I went home with a bunch of freshly picked beans (from Kip and His Giant Beanstalk), two kinds of mint, and a wish that I'd brought something to carry more home in. But more than that, I went home inspired, impressed, and grateful that Venice has these pockets of magic that make you (almost) forget all about police choppers and such b.s. There was a tangible love of the space, a shared love that when you stop and think about it, should really apply to our Community as a whole. So let's knock off the robbing, the police chasing, the bike stealing, the hating of any ilk, and put those wasted efforts toward things that will grow, thrive, and make us all the better for it.


And if you have or know of any open spaces in Venice that could be donated for a while or forever, that would help the Venice Community Garden expand (or relocate if need be one day). Then I could have a plot and grow things and make you a delicious pie or something in gratitude. Please contact Kip Wood at if that sounds good to you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


There are times when Venice feels very small town ... and I love them. Waves to your neighbors as you zoom by on your bike. Friends leaving fun things on your doorstep. Shop keepers knowing you'd like something and putting it aside for you. Cool favors without being asked. You know what I mean. My around the corner neighbors went away for the Summer (I miss them!), and their lovely garden is going bonkers with no one to tend to it. Check these artichokes gone to neon purple flower:

The natural world is my favorite artist, that's it. What profound use of color, and profoundly intricate sculpting! I stopped in my tracks - what the very best art provokes, no?

The other sacred morning I was on my way to the sand and sea in the SUN of Summer 2011 so far (!) and I skidded to a halt to bump hands with one of my favorite Rastas at the beach. We both happily tripped on the fact that we've already had waaaaay more of a Summer than all of last year (which didn't exist at all in Venice), and he said, eruditely, "Mother Nature is smiling at you ... Smile back!"

And that's all I did the rest of that day.

Yes I.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Leftover Cuties Charm Up The Casa Del Mar

A couple years back I was waiting in a long line at Christmas time at LAX to head home for the holidays. In front of me was a cute couple lugging their stuff along the line. After some time passed, the guy took out a ukulele and started strumming it cheerfully. Now, I have a weakness for the ukulele ever since I had a stint living on the Big Island of Hawai'i in Hilo back in the 20th Century (that remains fun to say). So you can imagine my delight in a dragass airport line to have the charming plinks of the little instrument perk up both my ears and spirits in one second. I introduced myself to them and it turned out the guy plays in a band called Leftover Cuties, whom I had almost just seen (longer story) right before this trip. Random funny life! The whole line was happier as a result of this ukulele and fun couple, Austin and Kate.

So then we were immediately friends for life (they were going to Minnesota too, and that's how we are), and I for sure went to see the band right after the new year, as they are Venice people too! Synchronicity. Again. Great times, every time, these Leftover Cuties bring.

So it was last weekend, that when I did not get my brooding self into the Wiltern (poor planning I'll rue all my days) to see Eddie Vedder play in support of Ukulele Songs (my Summer 2011 Soundtrack favorite thus far), I decided to grab a gang and go hear the ukulele anyway, played with the darling Leftover Cuties just up the bike path at Casa Del Mar.

We pedaled along to a gorgeous sunset, locked up the bikes, and walked through the front doors of the swank Casa Del Mar, directly into another, more carefree, era.

As luck would have it, the Cuties were set up by the big fireplace in the timelessly gorgeous hotel lounge, and many patrons were still over looking out the beach side windows at the sunset, so we were able to snag a big leather couch right by the piano - with waitress service. Drinks were ordered, the band returned for their second set, and we settled in for the sounds of lush tunes with a slew of instruments, featuring our small friend, the uke. It all felt extra-civilized, and I felt my freak out stress level of the day shrink by the nano-second.

Shirli McAllen is the sultry lead vocalist of the Cuties, and her striking throwback looks and Billie Holiday-like voice (and I would never say that lightly) in front of that old school microphone make you sit up and listen from the start. She is backed up by Austin Nicholsen (my airport friend) on that ukulele and vocals; Mike Bolger transporting you back in time on horns (muted trumpet stand up solo at the piano rules), piano and accordion; Ryan Feves on upright bass; and normally Stuart Johnson on drums, but he's off touring with Tim Robbins right now.

The Leftover Cuties have a sublime new album out, Places To Go, and played a good mix of their own tunes from that, as well as golden oldie standards (plus a Lady Gaga "Pokerface" cover to boot!), so that anyone in the very diverse tourist/local/foreign/young/old/casual beach/dressy hotel crowd would have something to snap their fingers along too.

From their own "Sometimes", "Everything I Got", and my personal favorite "Sunnyside" (so cheerful you are simply forced to get a spring in your step), to classics like "At Last", "Georgia On My Mind", and "All Of Me", they all blended together so well that the untrained ear would think they were all standards, so well written and executed are their originals. You can't say that very often these days, I tell you. One older gentleman was doing an abstract hula at the edge of the crowd, so into it and feeling fine was he. It was a treat to watch someone be so free, especially in a posh hotel scene. He inspired others too, as at one point (old time-y version of "Pokerface") the entire see/be seen audience was clapping along. In a hotel bar in L.A.! So excellent.

It got torch song dark for a moment when they did a DARK version of "You Are My Sunshine", during which I whispered to my friend, "DARK You Are My Sunshine? That's punk rock." That one featured the muted trumpet solo by Mr. Bolger, as well as a turn on the Freedom (ok, French) Horn. I noticed they had a bunch of fans that really sang along, and learned that the Cuties have their song "Game Of Life" featured as the theme song to the Showtime show, The Big C. During a break an older woman gushed up to Austin to tell him that that was HER jam, and she just loved them, and what a great song, and on and on and awesome.

That's the feelings they invoke when they play though, and how great is that? I glanced around the room at one point and absolutely everyone in the place was just smiling and toe-tapping along - at least. So it was perfectly apt for them to close that set with the almost over the top happy dance-along "When You're Smiling". This one girl was up and dancing so profusely in front of her refusing to budge boyfriend that you had to laugh. But once she stopped trying to get him to join her, she let go and danced freely, just like the gray haired guy across the room. Everyone watching and listening smiled with her, sharing the same sense of fun and "Man, what a good time" as we all applauded together at song's end. At least that was my groove on it, and I started out the night feeling aggro, remember, so I'm a pretty good barometer.

Trust me on this, if you for sure want to charm the socks off anyone at all ... date, out of town friend visiting, Grandma ... take them (preferably by bike) to see The Leftover Cuties Friday nights at Casa del Mar. With the Santa Monica Pier flashing right outside, waves crashing, it's all just great. You will give them a truly gorgeous memory, whoever they are. But see them whenever they play, because it's always a genuine delight.

Now the last splashes of color in the sky had given up their spotlight to the Leftover Cuties, and the room had heavily tilted back over to the fireplace side. We went and said our hellos, got our new cd's, and headed back out into the indigo night air to cycle our way back down the path.

Different Era. Same Moon. All Good.

*pics courtesy Jennifer Everhart.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Waste Land - A Movie Night You Won't Soon Forget

Yeah, I still use Netflix, and I'm glad I do because of the little section called "Local Favorites for Venice, California". My fellow Venetians never let me down, and one I saw there that somehow escaped me when it was in theaters was the stupendous documentary, Waste Land. I actually don't even really want you to finish reading this, just go watch it right now.

Or read a little more, up to you. It's a story (directed movingly by Lucy Walker) about how Brazilian born fine artist, Vik Muniz, (what a cool guy) decides to do a new project about the Catadores (garbage pickers) of the biggest landfill (Jardin Gramacho) in the world, just outside Rio de Janeiro. Having previously found success with a series of portraits of sugar workers' children in St. Kitts (done in sugar), he wanted to do another social justice project in his own homeland.

He travels to the landfill and meets a series of characters among the catadores who he (and we) gets to know and care about as he chooses the people he is going to do portraits of - out of the very garbage they are picking through. Jardin Gramacho is the sketchiest place alive, it seems, with filth for miles and miles. It is not uncommon for the workers to come across horror shows like dead babies among the trash, while they are looking for the recyclable materials that earn them their livings among the mountains of debris. It is an atrocious life, and makes you instantly beyond grateful for ANY work you're doing ... and yet somehow they can all smile, have fun, and make the best of it, every day, for years.

I cried the entire way through, from the sheer volume of disgusting waste (both garbage and lives) that we humans toss away without a care, to the hard HARD existences these dear people toil away through. The PRIDE they have in their work! Recycling - helping the future of our world! - to the sheer triumphant joy of these subjects seeing themselves in a new - and unbelievably beautiful - light. That they MATTER. That they not only posed, but placed the garbage along the lines of their faces themselves. That there is something else, an entire other world/s out there for them beyond the favelas, to dream about, to strive for, and to celebrate.

Life is so precious, and so luck of the draw, man. Like any one of us could have been born into a drastically different scenario, and that's that, for life. Or is it? I took so much away from this magnificent documentary, (and I've been talking about it non-stop, my friends can attest) but above all the different sociological aspects of it all that we could yammer on for days about, was just an overwhelming feeling of intense and sincere gratitude. Which we can all use more of, every single minute of our lucky lives.

Please watch Waste Land ... but better yet, FEEL it.