Fire Set At Historic Black Venice Church, Locals Demand Justice

VENICE, CA — Someone set fire to a historically Black Venice church early Thursday. By the afternoon locals were sitting in a circle at the parking lot across the street from the First Baptist Church of Venice, calling on the Los Angeles City Council to protect the neighborhood and preserve the church.

The fire happened about 1 a.m. at 685 Westminster Ave., near Oakwood Avenue, and reached the second floor of the building, according to SaveVenice, a community news and action group.

It's unclear who or what caused the fire. Patch reached out to Los Angeles Fire Department for more information about the investigation.

The church is more than 100 years old and was recently featured on NatGeo about the ongoing fight to save the church from gentrification and destruction.

But the legal battle to save the landmark is far from over.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement, the church and community have continued to gather and push for racial and social equality.

First Baptist Church of Venice
People have gathered outside the First Baptist Church of Venice and calling for justice. Nicole Charky/Patch

From locals to influencers and activists — even actor Ben Affleck — have shown support in recent months as the community continues to face a rising homeless and housing crisis in the wake of the pandemic.

Tribute to lives slain and Black Lives Matter Movement
A neighbor leaves a tribute to honor those shot and killed by police. Nicole Charky/Patch

It's where people have gathered to honor and fight for Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake. For people in the community, it's a reminder that the fight for justice is not over.

Down the street from the church, Brooks Avenue was renamed Rayshard Brooks after the Black father of four slain by Atlanta cops just weeks after George Floyd's death.

Brooks Avenue In Venice Renamed Rayshard Brooks
Brooks Avenue in Venice was renamed Rayshard Brooks. Nicole Charky/Patch

The church property was fraudulently sold by Bishop Horace Allen in January 2017, the last month the church was open to the public. Allen sold it to media mogul Jay Penske of Penske Media Corporation and son of automotive billionaire Roger Penske, and his wife, former supermodel Elaine Irwin. They also own a championship race car team.

Real estate broker Chris Quintal represented both the buyer and the seller in the transaction. No signs went up. No one knew it was for sale. People lost their church overnight.

Ronnie McCowan shook his head at the church steps hours after the fire. He told Patch that the community must share and work together to improve the space.

"If it's good for you it better be good for them," McCowan told Patch. "If it's only good for you, then guess what? It's a lost cause."

The First Baptist Church of Venice has been home to generations of Black and Latino people living in a neighborhood known as Oakwood.

It's no secret that Venice has a long history rooted in segregation in its current gentrification reckoning. In the early days of Venice, Black people were not allowed to ride the gondolas along the historic canals. They could not own homes along the canals, which were reserved for white families. Even though they helped build Venice, they were not welcome to all parts of it.

By the 1920s Black people were pushed into Oakwood, near Brooks and Electric avenues, just blocks from where real estate developer Abbot Kinney built his European-imagined empire in the swampy marshlands that became Venice Beach. And although Kinney was known as progressive, leaving his home to his longtime friend Irving Tabor, a Black man who left Louisiana for Los Angeles in 1910, segregation still remained.

As gentrification crept into the neighborhood, and a wave of homelessness hit the region, rents around Oakwood started to climb and the divide among rich and poor grew even greater. As writer Beth Miller described on a drive around the neighborhood in 1988 "it seems to me that there really are two Venices in sight here."

Fires have increased across Venice in recent weeks, including at homeless camps along the boardwalk and outside the Penmar Golf Club on Rose Avenue. Venice resident Alex Poe created an online petition to call attention to what happened and ask for a town hall with Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin. More than 1,735 people have signed it as of Thursday.

"It’s really not my place to fully identify a cause for these things, but it is reasonable to ask your councilperson what is going on and what can be done to make it safe for the unhoused and for the housed," Poe told Patch.

"The number of fires in Venice lately has been ridiculous," Poe said. "There have been regular fires in encampments and there was a fire in an abandoned house blocks from the church several days ago. This is not normal around here. We need the city to step up and make this neighborhood safe for everyone."

This month, LAPD Chief Michel Moore voiced his concern about an increase in violence around the city, which he said could be related to the pandemic and the increased stress placed on community members.

At a news conference in front of the LAPD's Southeast Station, Moore described "a spasm of violence" in various neighborhoods, "with 39 additional homicides as a city versus last year; 101 additional shooting victims from a year ago."

"This is a pace of shooting and violence that we've not seen in years, and it has grown from an effort that began (and) issues that we saw in June and July, and now has continued to accelerate," Moore said.

Residents have voiced their concerns and frustration after a rise in fires and recent shooting near the pier. In September, a woman was sexually assaulted and seriously injured near the Venice Fishing Pier.

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This article originally appeared on the Venice-Mar Vista Patch