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.
Or consider the beatniks and hippies. The postwar anything-goes vibe in Venice (there was briefly a section that tolerated nudity) eventually gave birth to skate and surf cultures, producing worldwide legends in those crafts, including the skater Stacy Peralta and the surfer Jeff Ho.
Or, for that matter, look at the guys who invented Snapchat. Bit by bit, Snap Inc., as the company is now known, was built into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, resulting in the biggest I.P.O. in Los Angeles history, right here in Venice.
The story of its rise was the toast of “Silicon Beach” in Los Angeles. The city is now the third largest tech hub on the West Coast after San Francisco and Seattle, with, according to a report by the real estate firm CBRE, nearly 140,000 people working in tech. Along the way, Google, BuzzFeed, Vice and other tech and media companies planted flags in Venice.
But none made a bigger imprint here than Snap, which championed an independent narrative by persistently fighting off acquisition attempts.
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.
Then the security guards showed up. Corporate vehicles started shuttling executives and employees between buildings. Complaints about parking and traffic followed.
At its peak, Snap took up 305,000 square feet of office space in Venice, mostly on Market Street, Ocean Front Walk and Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Activists mapped Snap’s properties and said the company took up 41 addresses in total, but the company said that it held “roughly 30 leases” in the area.
As Snap, Google and other tech brands grew into Venice, homeowners saw rising property values — by more than 80 percent since 2000 in some tracts, according to data compiled by Governing magazine.
“As a homeowner, sure, I’ve gained, but I feel I’ve also lost. I’ve seen my community grow less diverse,” said Robert Lopez, 61, a journalist and Venice resident of 25 years.
Last year, Mr. Lopez wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times lamenting the loss, in particular, of the historic First Baptist Church in Oakwood, which is the historically African-American section of Venice. (It was originally segregated that way.)
Between 2000 and 2016, the Oakwood tract lost as many as 1,400 low-income residents, according to the Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School.
“I’m not railing against these guys,” Mr. Lopez said, referring to Snap. “But the loss of diversity, especially as it affected the black community and the Latino community, is really the tragedy of all of this.”
For Venice at large, a tipping point came with the loss of the Venice Beach Freakshow. It wasn’t Snap’s fault. But activists saw an easy culprit in the company anyway.
A circus-style ragtag production that beckoned visitors on 909-913 Ocean Front Walk — it’s concrete, so not a “boardwalk” because there is no wood, Ms. Solomon insisted on noting — the Freakshow featured among its many attractions a sword-swallower, a “little lady” and a “werewolf” man from Mexico who grew hair all over his face.
Fans appreciated the show’s inclusive attitude, said Todd Ray, the founder and director, who started it in 2006. He never charged more than $5 for admission. The show even inspired an unscripted television series on AMC.
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.
Still, for people like Mark Rago, a film distributor who moved to Venice in 1999, seeing a Starbucks on Ocean Front Walk was akin to stepping into an alternative universe. “It was a slap in the face to the community, especially after what it’s been through in the past few years,” he said.
He is one of several defenders of old-school Venice who figured they had no choice but to get organized, get angry and try to get Snap out.
The Anti-Snap Resistance
In early 2017, Mr. Spiegel and Mr. Murphy took their company public. The two were worth billions before either hit the age of 30. Around the same time, rowdy crowds began gathering outside Snap-identified buildings in Venice, chanting “Say no to I.P.O.!”
“They just had an arrogance about them,” said Mr. Rago, 47, who lives a few paces away from the beach. He helped form the Venice Dogz, one of several community groups that aimed their ire at Snap for the changes happening in Venice. Their activism was faithfully covered in the monthly Venice community newspaper, The Beachhead, and inspired all forms of rambunctious protest art.
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.”
In many respects, the damage, as the Venice Dogz saw it, was already done. “I do give them a lot of credit for moving out,” Mr. Rago said. “I think we played a small part — not a big one — but we definitely woke up a lot of people.”
For now, Market Street is “a ghost town,” Mr. Rago said approvingly. But the darkness and quiet at night has left other concerned locals feeling like it’s the 1980s all over again. Several properties on Market Street remain unleased.
“I walked down there the other night, it’s like ‘Mad-Max Thunderdome,’” said Mr. Hawkins, the former neighborhood council member. “I think a lot of companies saw how Snapchat was treated by the protesters, and they don’t want to see the same thing.”
In the meantime, the local commercial real estate market is holding its breath, expecting, at some point, for other start-ups to snatch up the post-Snap spaces.
“It may not be a Snap, Amazon, Google or Facebook that comes in,” said Jeff Pion, a vice chairman at CBRE based in Los Angeles. But whoever it is, he said, “it will be a community that will continue to foster growth from the creatives.”
What Is Old Is New Again
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.”