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Snapchat’s Disappearing Act Leaves Venice Beach Searching for Its Future

Snapchat’s Disappearing Act Leaves Venice Beach Searching for Its Future

LOS ANGELES For a lot of Venice die-hards, the thing that irked them most about Snapchat was the security guards.

When the company behind the disappearing-messages app took over multiple properties on the beach as it expanded, starting in 2012, it also posted guards who would shoo away anyone who wasn’t an employee and who lingered too long near a Snapchat entrance. In an oceanfront community still defined by hippie eccentricity, that didn’t go over well.

“They were not particularly good neighbors,” said Fran Solomon, a raspy-voiced four-decade resident of Venice who was a member of the original Venice community council. “I understand the need for security, but it was not the gestalt of the area, if you know what I mean.”

This counterculture mecca on the Pacific Ocean has always attracted freethinkers and visionaries. Look at Abbot Kinney, the developer who bought much of the area in 1905 to create a “Venice in America.” He transformed a marshy plot of land into a veritable Coney Island of the West Coast, wooing crowds with dance halls, canals, amusement rides and a saltwater plunge.

Market Street in Venice, just steps from the beach, used to be Snap’s headquarters. Today, “For Lease” signs dangle from the rooflines. The security guards are gone. It’s been a year since Snap decamped from its many storefront offices scattered across the area. Seeking to centralize operations, it moved most of its domestic employees (about 2,700) to a corporate campus in Santa Monica.

On Market Street, all that remains of Snap’s former presence are closed-up buildings and glazed-over windows that once shrouded whatever happened inside (plenty of locals say they hated that, too). Homeless encampments have sprouted on the sidewalk.

Ms. Solomon, 70, runs a Venice Beach walking tour business with her husband, Jeff. They have spent the past few years telling tourists, “this used to be … that used to be …,” about Snap’s once-restless physical expansion, she said. But with Snap’s exodus, what comes next?

“This is the people’s beach, so that’s always made it a little weird, even to people who live in L.A.,” Ms. Solomon said on a recent day. “Parts of that will not change. But so much of it is beginning to morph into something else, and we don’t know what that’s going to look like in the end.”

Between 2012 and 2017, Snap Inc. came, saw and conquered Venice’s commercial real estate market. It started at the Blue House at 523 Ocean Front Walk, in December 2012, a year after the company’s founders, Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown, debuted the initial form of Snapchat in mobile app stores. They all met at Stanford.

At first, the laid-back locals were intrigued. Something about this brand felt different, said Bobby Olson, 39, a lawyer and nine-year resident of Venice.

“No one really understood what it was for, or what the tech was about, but they would always just throw parties,” Mr. Olson said. “To be honest, it felt weird. At the same time, it added a sense of security to the neighborhood, in a weird way.”

“Venice can get sketchy, man,” he added.

By 2015, after several rounds of venture funding, Snap’s core group of employees had ballooned into the hundreds, and it needed more room. The company zeroed in on Market Street, between the beach and Pacific Avenue. There, through purchases and leases, it set up shop.

In the process, Snap was blamed for displacing a youth homeless services center and a beloved but crumbling dive called Nikki’s, which closed that June. Venice drinkers were incensed. “It’s just the way it unceremoniously went away, all of a sudden,” Mr. Olson said. “It was one of those things that you don’t miss until it’s gone.”

Soon, Snap took up at the Gingerbread Court, a brick-structure courtyard on the beach with small storefronts. Snap took over an eatery that had been called Sean’s Cafe and — as with Nikki’s bar — turned it into a commissary for employees. Locals would run up and demand free food.

In May 2017, after an 11-year run, the Venice Beach Freakshow was forced out under pressure from its building’s new owners: A holding company called Snapshot bought the place, and then stopped communicating with the freak show, Mr. Ray said. His only goal now, he said, is to bring the show back to the walk. His performers depend on it.

“Three summers have passed,” Mr. Ray said earlier this month. “Some of my workers have had to leave the state. Literally, it’s been devastating.”

Through a spokesman, Snap denied being attached in any way to the sale at 909-913 Ocean Front Walk. But Snap was a tenant there, renting out a unit on the third floor in mid-2015. The building owners have since leased the downstairs space to a Starbucks.

“People are coming here still for the freak show and I have to break hearts and say, ‘Sorry, the freak show is closed,’” said Catherine Schultis, a self-described homeless person who, along with her partner Rick Campbell, sells “solar poetry” burned into fragments of wood on the oceanfront walk.

Ms. Schultis said she “made friends” with several Snap employees when they were around, but the company’s security guards were hostile to homeless people. “They harassed everyone — housed, homeless, it did not matter,” she said. “If companies come here, they need to be willing to integrate.”

A Snap spokesman responded to these and other criticisms by pointing to ae list of Snap’s philanthropic efforts with underserved communities in Venice, work the company has been modest about promoting in the public sphere.

Snap paid for new showers at Safe Place for Youth, a organization that offers services for homeless young people, where Snap employees also volunteer. The company has funded a computer science program at a Venice elementary school, and tech training for women at St. Joseph Center, a longstanding homeless services organization.

“It’s not as simple as a lot of people want to make it,” said Will Hawkins, a founder of the nonprofit group Chamber of Hope, which hasn’t received donations from Snap. Regarding Snap’s legacy, he said: “It was just a matter of time before gentrification started reaching Venice, and I’m kind of shocked it didn’t happen faster.”

Tony Bill, a 45-year tenant on Market Street, also defended Snap’s legacy in town, calling its detractors’ claims “inverted nostalgia.” Mr. Bill, an Academy Award-winning director and producer, owns the building where Nikki’s was located. Before that, it was once a trailblazing restaurant known as 72 Market Street.

Mr. Bill said Nikki’s and its “midnight to 2 a.m.” clientele had “outlived” its lease and its welcome. His next tenant was Snap.

“Whatever residue Snapchat left in terms of neighborhood animosity, it’s kind of ironic that some people are upset that Snapchat moved to Venice, fixed things up, cleaned up things,” and then left, Mr. Bill said.

Protesters were animated, to put it mildly. One headline in the August 2017 issue of The Beachhead asked, in all seriousness, “Would violence push Snap out of Venice?” Badgering Snap employees on the oceanfront walk became a pastime for the die-hards. “We’d all yell at them,” Ms. Schultis said with a chuckle.

Mr. Rago remembered running into Bobby Murphy, the Snap co-founder, one evening, late last year. He owns a multilevel slate-colored home close to Mr. Rago’s rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment.

“I walked up to him, and said, ‘Hey, Bobby, I’m the one who started the protests,’” Mr. Rago recalled. “We talked for about 10 minutes, just on the sidewalk. I said, ‘Look, man, I’m your neighbor, I’ve lived here for 20 years, this is not cool.’”

By then, Snap was well into its plans to leave. In early 2017, the company leased a 300,000-square-foot space at a business park near the Santa Monica airport and announced it would be subleasing roughly half of its space in Venice. Snap’s leadership moved to Santa Monica in June 2018.

“We had just eight employees when we came to Venice,” a company spokesman said in a statement this week. “While headquartered now in Santa Monica, we continue to work closely with Venice schools and local nonprofits to support this community that helped inspire and shape our company.”

The Waterfront bar, which closed in December 2017, was a Venice Beach mainstay. (It reopened under new management in October 2018).

It had sawdust on the floor, and plenty of regulars who seemed to dance on the fringes of homelessness or reality. The grill was no-frills, and for local tastes, just excellent. Today, the Waterfront is repainted and refurbished, and although comfy and clean, it feels a bit washed down.

On a recent Friday, Mr. Rago sat at a beachfront table there, sipping the ends of a lager with a reluctant expression on his face. He was listening to Jake Mathews, one of the new owners, explain how passionately the new Waterfront doesn’t want to displace its old regulars, people like him.

“We all live in Venice, and it doesn’t have to be Snapchat, or this new gentrified version of the world, or stuck in the past,” Mr. Mathews said. “We’ve just been trying to be an example to the fact that it isn’t necessarily a binary.”

To that end, the new Waterfront is hosting community fund-raisers and events for children and parents. It keeps a good relationship with the jam band that plays out front on the walk. The staff, Mr. Mathews said, knows when local legends from the echelons of professional skating or surfing come in, and they are treated accordingly. Some of the employees are formerly unhoused.

“It definitely needed a remodeling, but it’s not the core local spot it used to be,” Mr. Rago said with a frown. “People come to Venice because they love the character and uniqueness of it, and then they change it.”

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