Venicewood

International
Creative Management agent David Unger had just finished an organic brunch with
his fiancée Melissa at Axe (pronounced “AH-shay”) on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in
Venice, Calif. They were crossing Main Street, en route to their $2 million
Steven Ehrlich–designed loft just off the boardwalk, when he saw the sign:
“YUPPIES GO HOME.”

Whatever
beach cred Mr. Unger thought he had acquired by relocating from the Hollywood
Hills to this bohemian beach Mecca vaporized as swiftly as the morning dew on
his black 2005 CLK 500 Mercedes.

“I
was embarrassed—because I’m the
yuppie,” said the baby-faced Mr. Unger, 33, whose actor clients include Val
Kilmer, Mickey Rourke and the allegedly buttocks-grabbing bad boy Christian
Slater. Dressed in his uniform of dark suit and rep tie, the agent was cozily
ensconced in a booth at Chaya Venice, a sibling of Chaya Brasserie, the
industry-heavy eatery in Beverly Hills. (A pioneer in this area 15 years ago, Chaya is now but one of dozens of
upscale Venice dining options, including the Arnold Schwarzenegger–owned
Schatzi on Main, Via Veneto, Beechwood and a sushi place called Wabi Sabi.)

“But
I moved here to get away from them,”
Mr. Unger continued, stabbing at his red snapper. “Now I feel like I’m the
generation that’s corrupting Venice. And that’s heartbreaking to me.”

It’s
suddenly seeming as if this scrappy seaside community is right up there with
Benedict Canyon and Beverly Hills as a status ZIP code for Hollywood movers and
shakers. Two years ago, Julia Roberts made waves when she bought a Venice
bungalow. Nicolas Cage also moved in around the same time. Architect Frank
Gehry, a longtime resident of nearby Santa Monica, is now building for himself
here. Meanwhile, Mr. Unger’s neighbors now include director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) and producer Sam Mercer
(The Sixth Sense). Disney president
Nina Jacobson is renting a place down the street while her Brentwood pad is
being remodeled. Another ICM agent, Ben Smith, has also moved in. Director Rob
Cohen (XXX) bought a house a few
miles inland. Elijah Wood, another newcomer, was spotted on a recent morning at
Starbucks, causing one bystander to mutter: “Hobbit alert.”

Working Out With
Superheroes

It’s
not the first wave of hotshots to settle in the land where Jim Morrison
composed LSD-inspired poetry on the beach, the Z Boys skated the alleys of
Dogtown, and the Crips and the Bloods battled it out. But earlier
arrivistes—Dennis Hopper (a client of Mr. Unger’s), Anjelica Huston and her
husband, the sculptor Robert Graham, and schools of architects and
designers—were artistic-minded folks who had a begrudging, if any, connection
to the “industry. They weren’t regulars in the trades, and they certainly weren’t
the people who made what appears in the trades happen.

“We
always had the upper end, but it was kind of discreet,” said local realtor Jack
Hoffmann, who 20 years ago founded the company Venice Properties. “In 1994 we
had 17 murders in one neighborhood. That tended to quiet the incoming
enthusiasm. Today, people sort of forget about that. Gangs still exist, but
they’re not as flagrant. They sell their drugs, just more peacefully.”

Kindler,
gentler crack dealers have meant that 3,000-square-foot beachfront condos that
a few years ago went for $800,000 now are asking $2.7 million. Craftsman
cottages, those delightful little hovels that populate Venice like wonton
crisps on a Chinese chicken salad, rarely go for under $1 million.

The
Hollywood invasion of Venice is still in its early phases. True, Abbot Kinney,
Venice’s main commercial drag, is lined with valet stations in front of boîtes du jour, like the Otheroom, which
attracts a steady stream of Hummers and Jimmy Choos. There are Japanese sneaker
emporiums, sleek bookstores where original editions of Portnoy’s Complaint go for $75 and boutique gyms that specialize in
“urban rejuvenation.”

But
bohemian bastions like Abbot’s Habit (a coffee shop filled with avuncular
over-the-hill hippies) still exist, stubbornly keeping the old Venice spirit
alive. And there’ll always be the boardwalk, with its carnivalesque parade of
freaks: the fire-tosser in the leopard-print Speedo; the guy in a devil costume
with the dragon lizard splayed on his lap; the amateur stilt-walkers who have a
tough time on windy days; the mildly amusing but mostly annoying mime.

It
makes for some “funny juxtapositions,” as Mr. Unger put it. “There are guys
smoking crack in our alley; meanwhile, I’ve got clients pulling up in their
Aston Martins coming to visit me,” he said.

This
uneasy juxtaposition of freaks and geeks is perhaps thrown into starkest relief
at the original Gold’s Gym: Schwarzenegger’s old shrine, where leathery,
sun-broiled men shaped like upside-down triangles have long traded stories
about the old Muscle Beach in between bench-press sets. Now the triangles have
been joined by the squares. “The Gold’s Gym parking lot now is like Sports Club
L.A.,” Mr. Unger said. “It’s, like, Ferraris and Porsches. And it’s ironic
because the place is a total dump.
It’s disgusting.

“You
know the guy who roller-skates up and down the boardwalk with his electric
guitar? Larry, or whatever his name is?” Mr. Unger went on incredulously. “He
works out there! I work out with that guy!”

Another
nouveau Venice local, Sean O’Keefe, 32, a partner at the film and video game
production company Union Entertainment, is also a card-carrying member of
Gold’s. “It’s fucking awesome,” said Mr. O’Keefe, sitting on the outdoor patio
of his office on Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica. A soft breeze was trailing up
the bluffs from the Pacific Ocean. “I hate gyms. I hate them. But it’s like an old-school gym. It’s not antiseptic.
You’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so repulsive, but you’re so interesting to look
at.’ It’s like working out with superheroes.”

Meanwhile,
troops of spandex-clad, midriff-showing ladies, with Indian-print quills
strapped to their backs, are dutifully tramping up and down Main Street en
route to temples such as Sacred Movement and Yoga Works. “At first I did flow
classes, but I found those to have the sort of people I’d moved away from in
Hollywood,” said Julie Golden, 35, a screenwriter and Ashtanga devotee who came
to Venice from Hollywood two years ago when she fell in love with a surfer (it
didn’t work out with the guy, but she stayed). “There’s blasting music and a
lot of bored, ex-trophy wives from Brentwood, celebrities and celebrity
hangers-on. It’s just a room full of Hollywood sycophants.”

Attack of the Strollers

In
general, though, Ms. Golden is delighted with what she sees as a quasi-escape
from the strictures and social codes of the film business. “I just find the
vibe on ‘the mainland’ kind of depressing,” she said. “There’s no sense of
community. People ask about you in
Venice. Over there, they just ask what you do.”

Ms.
Golden thinks her neighborhood has another thing going for it: better men. “Being a single woman in Venice is waaay better than living in Hollywood,”
she said. “First of all, you just walk down Abbot Kinney and it’s like a social
scene. Everyone’s walking, flirting. Men flirt in Venice! They don’t flirt in
Hollywood. They’re all too busy looking at their own reflections.”

Traditionally,
Venice has not been a destination of choice for upscale showbiz parents: those
whose careers are no longer dependent on drinks at L’Hermitage or attending
three premieres a week, and who want to be within carpool distance of little
Josh and Dylan’s equestrian lessons in the Malibu Mountains and parent-teacher
conferences at the tonily “alt” Crossroads School. They tend to prefer Santa
Monica, Brentwood and the Pacific Palisades. “Santa Monica is the safe, West
Side kind of locale,” said Alex Hertzberg, 30, a manager at Blueprint Artist
Management in the Miracle Mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, who lives off
Abbot Kinney with his girlfriend. “Montana [Avenue] is very big with the
soccer-mom mentality. It’s kind of like Brentwood West. Venice is just a
different thing.”

But
more and more, strollers are making their way up and down Abbot Kinney, getting
parked in front of baby boutiques such as Firefly, and—if it’s a hipster
mommy—Principessa, for a little something to wear once spinning has its way
with that annoying baby flab. A gift for Daddy? How about Hydrolab—where men of
any age can feel like they’re 19 and surf, rather than read bad scripts, for a
living? (Colorful rubber clogs retail for $32.)

And
Venice is also a great place to begin a second childhood, which after all is
practically a prerequisite for the men of Tinseltown.

Two
years ago, Rob Cohen, the director of action films like The Fast and the Furious and this summer’s Stealth, sold his Hollywood Hills manse for a beach house on a
Venice walkway to accommodate his epiphany—at age 54—that “I’m a surfer. I
finally realized I’ve been leading the whole wrong life.”

Mr.
Cohen has a shaved head, a graying goatee and a tiny hoop earring, along with a
tattoo on his right forearm of two rainbow trout swimming around a yoga ohm
sign. On a recent Saturday morning he was sipping a mug of coffee in his
kitchen, while his younger Italian girlfriend Barbara tried to quiet down two
yipping mutts. Behind him was a gigantic framed movie poster for Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Amongst Asian art,
statues of Buddhist goddesses and rare books (Mr. Cohen studied anthropology at
Harvard; before surfing, his main passions were “fly-fishing and Western
exploration”) were stacks of gleaming surfboards that look like unwrapped packs
of Fruit Stripe gum. A psychedelic-patterned board designed by Zephyr Surf Shop
shaper Jeff Ho was suspended above his bed. A classic wooden Dewey Weber—a gift
from producer Todd Garner—hangs above a living-room window. A few feet away is
a Tyler longboard, designed personally for Mr. Cohen by shaper Tyler Hatzikian
and propped up majestically on satin pillows.

“I
lived in the Hollywood Hills for 15 years in a gated, producer mini-estate,”
Mr. Cohen said in his low, gravelly voice. “I bought into that ‘get yourself up
with a view of Hollywood and live behind the gates and have all your life
inside this compound’— which was miserable.”

Now,
when he’s not orchestrating special-effects sequences of cars blowing up or
pilots gunning themselves down, Mr. Cohen spends his time surfing at nearby
Ocean Park, hanging out with people who use the word “gross” as a substitute
for “gnarly,” rather than in relation to the box office. “When we have the
opening for Stealth, my guest list
has gone from 52 agents and 75 producers to, like, 150 surfers,” the director
said.

Predictably,
this has caused for some disconnect between Mr. Cohen and his colleagues on the
studio lot.

“The
things you want to talk about are not things they care about,” he said. “They
don’t care about the shape of the wave that morning or how you are trying to
get to the nose of the board, and you got almost there that morning, and how
exhilarating it was.”

When
he tells studio execs about his longboard victories, he said, “You see them go,
like, ‘Yeah, and what did Bewitched
do last night?’”

The West Coast Brooklyn?

When
Mr. Unger, the ICM agent, was looking to move out of his 1920’s post-and-beam
in the Hollywood Hills four years ago, he says, “I was like: Hollywood or
Brentwood?” When his client Mr. Rourke suggested a loft in Venice, he says, “I
literally didn’t even know how to get to the place. I was scared. It was like
the ghetto.”

He
was won over, however, by the “charm of the architecture, the people and the
culture.” (A species without cell phones growing out of their ears! Who have
funny little ink designs all over their bodies!)

To
get up to speed on his strange new world, Mr. Unger did what any good agent
would do: He got out his Rolodex.

“I
called Dennis [Hopper]. And so I went to visit Dennis, saw his house,” he said
in his rapid-fire patter. “Frank Gehry designed his house. I saw his art
collection. I met Chuck Arnoldi, the artist, who lives a block from me. He’s a
great friend of Dennis …. And suddenly I got indoctrinated to the whole culture
by all these locals, who were here, literally, 40 years before me and got to
see the whole transformation.”

Asked
if he got any ‘tude from the old-timers about having a flashy Young Turk on
their turf, Mr. Unger said, “Yeah, there’s cynicism, I’m sure. But I came here
for the very same reasons they came here. And I appreciate it for the very same
reasons. And I didn’t come here because it was supposedly cool or interesting.
I didn’t know it was cool or interesting. I only found out it was cool and
interesting after the fact.”

Although
Mr. Unger admits he’s no longer the anomalous suit in Venice, most of his
colleagues and clients are canyon dwellers who aren’t necessarily eager to trek
across town for a rendezvous at a restaurant that doesn’t give an agency
discount.

“There
isn’t total acceptance yet,” he said. “People see it as out of the way. I still
have to go to Santa Monica and meet them at Ivy at the Shore, Shutters,
Giorgio’s, Casa del Mar.”

Sometimes
even Santa Monica is too boondocky, and people in this part of town get the
snub treatment familiar to Brooklynites when dealing with precious
Manhattanites who can’t be bothered to cross a bridge.

“People
get lazy,” said Mr. O’Keefe of Union Entertainment. “Sometimes it feels like a
big drive. Like last night, for example. I have a friend in town who’s staying
in Hollywood, and I had dinner beforehand and we were going to get together for
drinks. When dinner was over, we were both like, ‘So, where are we going to
meet? Somewhere in between?’ And within 30 seconds we both realized that we
both only 49 percent wanted to get together. And so we didn’t.”

Mr.
O’Keefe, who moved to L.A. after a brief post-Harvard stint in New York as a
paralegal and rave D.J. (“I was also playing a lot of squash”), moved to the
area five and a half years ago after first landing in Hollywood.

“For
the first two years I was here, I kept looking for New York in L.A.,” he said.
“And it really doesn’t exist. I found a brownstone that looked like the
brownstone that I had lived in New York. It was on Sycamore, half a block south
of Hollywood Boulevard. So there was a lot of pedestrian foot traffic, and
there was an energy on the street, and it seemed like I could make that work.

“But
the reality was, I didn’t like L.A. when I first moved here …. It wasn’t until
I realized I wasn’t going to find a New York experience in L.A., and I gave up
on that, and I actually went surfing for the first time, that things started to
change.”

Mr.
O’Keefe said he moved to the beach because “I just got burned out on Hollywood.
I got tired of it. It was the same thing: parties on the weekend and lots of
traffic and being in a city. It’s irritating.”

Rhapsodizing
about Venice’s charms, he sounded a bit like that holy grail of Hollywood
marketers: a teenage boy. I love the boardwalk, too. I played basketball there
last night. So we’re playing basketball next to the ocean. How fucking lucky
are we? It’s cool. The boardwalk is like the beating heart of America …. You
can be normal; you can be strange. It’s so rad.”

Venicewood