Photographer Robert Lang is documenting the rise against the infiltration of tech companies on the iconic beach and the #deletesnapchat movement
In 2013, Snapchat moved into Venice Beach, taking over an old American Apparel store and setting up shop. The arrival of the social media giant has heightened growing tensions between techies and the enclave’s beautifully weird community and Venice Beach street dwellers now face an uncertain future as gentrification skyrockets the cost of living, escalating homelessness and subsequently, mental health issues on the streets. Over the past couple of years alone, Venice has become one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in LA, being the seventh most pricey neighbourhood to buy a house, just behind the Hollywood Hills.
For the community, Snapchat’s infiltration is a totemic symbol of a grave issue. After moving their headquarters to the boardwalk four years ago, Snapchat’s property sprawl has taken over spaces such as the aforementioned American Apparel store and spaces once occupied by local businesses, including Teen Project – a not-for-profit that helps homeless teens.
But Venice Beach isn’t going down without a fight. Protests have sprung up across the city and #keepveniceweird, #snapoutofit and #deletesnapchat posters adorn the windows of the houses. It’s this resistance that pushed photographer Robert Lang to spend the past seven years documenting the effects of gentrification on Venice’s community. His recently released zine, 11:11, documents the beach’s boardwalk and its local characters who are fighting the forthcoming technology companies threatening to turn Venice into Silicon Beach. Here, we speak to the photographer.
What are the biggest changes you've noticed in Venice Beach over the past seven years?
Robert Lang: The beach itself has pretty much stayed the same and will always be a feast for odd characters roaming around being weird and wonderful. Street stalls selling all sorts of curiosities or self-made art by the vendors on the beach now sit adjacent to Snapchat which has taken a visual presence on the beach, with its headquarters prominent on the beach cottage-style house on the boardwalk. They have even bought out the old American Apparel store at the beginning of the year where they sell their Snapchat Spectacles. There is definitely more homeless living on the beach and off the beach around Rose Avenue, and Hampton has turned into tent city. The homeless have set up camp along Rose Avenue right outside the Google expanded headquarters. Police cars roll by at 6am in the morning shining lights onto them telling them to wake up and take down their tents and sanitary trucks come by every few weeks to clean the sidewalk which is strewn with litter. They keep getting moved around and majority are living in camps on the beach now.
“You will sometimes hear a local shout at a tourist or someone on a hoverboard: ‘you are the reason Venice has gone to shit’” – Robert Lang
How has gentrification affected the people of Venice beach?
Robert Lang: The main issue is the increase in rent. Residents are being shifted out and buildings are being bought that are meant for residential but are being used as commercial or business property. It’s causing hostility on the beach and you will sometimes hear a local shout at a tourist or someone on a hoverboard: “you are the reason Venice has gone to shit.” They are concerned that the creative diversity which keeps Venice unique will be destroyed by big company land grabs. Even restaurants have been taken over and are specifically for Snapchat employees.
When exactly did Snapchat move in and what was the community's immediate reaction?
Robert Lang: The company's original headquarters opened in 2013 on the boardwalk which displayed its ghost logo proudly in front of the building, which has been removed since protests on March 2 by locals this year when Snap.inc went public on the New York stock exchange. They have even increased security around the building since then and they are now patrolling the area, making locals nervous. I don't think people really knew what it was about when it started, most apps these days start off as a fad and then phase out, but Snapchat surpassed this. That became apparent when small businesses started being told that rent would be increased – with this comes questions. In 2016, homemade posters would appear in the windows of residents protesting against the gentrification and how Snapchat was destroying the essence of Venice Beach. These signs are everywhere and you cannot miss them now with slogans like #keepveniceweird, #snapoutofit and #deletesnapchat.
“Even restaurants have been taken over and are specifically for Snapchat employees.” – Robert Lang
What was the Venice Beach Freak Show and why was it forced to stop?
Robert Lang: The Venice Beach Freak Show was a classic circus carnival sideshow act where you could peer at a five legged dog, two-headed turtles and watch rotating performances of sword swallowing and other bizare unique performances. The establishment was sold and Todd Ray, a hip-hop Grammy-winning producer who founded it in 2006 was told that the lease would not be renewed by new landlord who had bought up the property. He was paying rent to Snapshot Partners LLC and believes Snapchat was disguising itself under a different name to avoid bad press.
What do you hope to achieve with 11:11?
Robert Lang: 11:11 has been an ongoing project documenting Venice Beach and whenever there is a cultural shift in a location it becomes important that everyone works together no matter how, in order to draw attention to a situation. In this case it’s the corporate takeover by wealthy companies who are driving out the small businesses that make Venice interesting. If the beach had to turn into another shopping mall it would kill the soul that is Venice. I’m always carrying a camera and have always taken candid photos of people or documenting a cultural area as I did with my exhibition and book Filthy Gorgeous Camden Town which I exhibited last year. I was personally drawn to it as it reminds me of a Camden Town-on-Sea.
Why is it important to visually document gentrification?
Robert Lang: Venice is such a unique suburb of Los Angeles in a vapid city obsessed with fame and wealth. I am not personally against gentrification because it can uplift an area if it’s done well and when developers work with the community but when it’s done with greed and pushing out local business and residents, then it has to be addressed. No-one wants phoney chain stores anymore and that is what will happen if Snapchat continues to invade the seaside.
You can follow Robert Lang on Instagram here