Ghost Town: A Venice Community Play
Last night I had the great fortune of seeing Cornerstone Theater Company’s Ghost Town: A Venice Community Play. Cornerstone is an incredible company that develops original shows through rigorous and all-inclusive community conversations. Ghost Town featured over 40 actors and community members giving voice to the hidden history of race, class, and economic development in Venice. The play successfully resists dogma or easy answers, and instead leaves audiences to contend with open controversial questions.
I attended the show with my wife, who is the Associate Director at Venice Arts, a nonprofit that teaches film and photography to low income kids in the Venice community, and whose students have photos exhibited in conjunction with the production of Ghost Town.
From Venice Arts on Lincoln Blvd, my wife and I walked to the show at Oakwood Park. Heading due west, I experienced for the first time one of Venice’s famed “Walk Streets,” idyllic pedestrian-only passageways through hundreds of gorgeous single family homes nestled together in close community. Edenic yet chic, lush yet manicured, the Walk Streets gave me a visceral experience of precisely the controversies Cornerstone is grappling with in Ghost Town.
The play features as a character Abbot Kinney, who designed the Walk Streets at the turn of the century as part of his vision for an Italian-inspired Venice in America. It also features Arthur Reese and Irving Tabor as two African Americans representative of the larger effort by African Americans to build out Kinney’s vision. Oakwood itself is one of the first neighborhoods in which African Americans could own property in the United States.
Walking through the Venice Walk Streets today in 2016, there is a visceral tension between the clear intention of community, and the blatant desire for exclusivity as evidenced by the astronomical home values (not to mention the distinctive fences articulating the boundaries of each property). The houses along the Walk Streets currently stand in the 1 – 3 million dollar range.
It could have been the angle of the afternoon light… it could have been the chickens I saw feeding under rows of vegetation in one of the proximate yards… but moving through the Walk Street, I had a momentary flash of feeling I was in a different country. Costa Rica? Mexico? Until I heard the conversation floating from the very white women lounging on the very geometric architectural straight-out-of-Dwell-magazine sundeck raised slightly off the ground a few yards from the roaming chickens. “Well he’s not the only equity investor of course.” “No yeah totally of course want some more iced herbal tea?”
As disturbed as I was by the exclusionary affluence, I was perhaps more disturbed by the way my mouth involuntarily wattered at the suggestion of the herbal tea. Mmmm… I want some of that.
Before the show, my wife and I enjoyed a pear-arugula-burrata pizza on Abbot Kinney, and after the show we enjoyed black olive brittle ice cream in a homemade waffle cone from Salt & Straw. In between these epicurean adventures, we bore witness to caricatures of parts of ourselves on stage, as embodied by the gentrifying hipsters in Cornerstone’s provocative play. And it wasn’t necessarily pretty.
Other parts of ourselves were embodied in Cornerstone’s play as well. My wife and I are part of the rapidly shrinking middle class in this country. Though we traverse in burrata pizzas and Intelligencia espressos, such indulgences are felt by our budget. We don’t live in Venice, nor could we if we wanted. We live in a very modest apartment, and we wonder if we will ever be able to afford a house in Los Angeles. Perhaps more importantly, though, we wonder about how we may or may not be implicated in the rising tide of gentrification and hyper-inflation.
Cornerstone’s Ghost Town asks us to consider the historical and sociological costs of such gentrification and hyper-inflation. With real community members on stage, the experience of the show is direct. As a viewer, I was compelled to feel the reality of market forces on the real lives of actual human beings in the community.