The Rise of Silicon Beach

During the first part of the 20th century, the area now commonly referred to as Silicon Beach was known for its eccentrics. Fast forward a few decades, and the region gained a reputation for being unapologetically eclectic. Today, though, Los Angeles’s arguably buzziest area is downright electric.

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Binoculars Building. Photo by Steve Boland | Flickr.

Since Google opened its Venice campus in 2011 across three buildings – including architect Frank Gehry’s iconic “Binoculars Building” on Main Street – the area stretching from Santa Monica’s southern border on the north to Playa Vista on the south has grown to rival the San Francisco Bay Area’s Silicon Valley as the country’s premier tech hub.

On the business front, Playa Vista has attracted high-profile tech tenants such as Microsoft, Yahoo! and Facebook during the past four years, while Snapchat parent Snap Inc. has been gradually taking over space throughout the region since its 2012 launch in Venice.

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In fact, Los Angeles County, largely because of Silicon Beach’s growth, has more high-tech jobs than Boston-Cambridge, Santa Clara County and New York City, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. And contrary to the bookish reputation of such tech companies, Silicon Beach’s growth has fed an influx of residents, businesses and tourists alike looking for that combination of activity, beach vibe and artsiness that’s long been associated with the area.

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As far back as 2012, GQ named a section of Abbot Kinney Boulevard “The Coolest Block in America,” while Main Street and Rose Avenue have also gained more than their share of newer restaurants and up-and-coming retailers. “Abbot Kinney has had an amazing rebirth in popularity over the past few years, and is definitely a hot spot for both business and leisure travelers,” said Cory Abke, L.A. Tourism’s national director of hotel sales in Southern California and Canada. “The same is true for Main Street and Rose Avenue.”

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Venice Beach Skate Park.

Such activity represents a stunning departure from the area’s origins. Modeled after the Italian city of the same name, Venice and its network of canals was built by real estate developer Abbot Kinney as a recreation area in 1905 (most of the canals were paved over in 1929, but a half-dozen remain).

Meanwhile, Howard Hughes built many of his aircraft company’s offices as well as the massive hangar where the Spruce Goose was assembled in the 1940s on the eastern flank of what is now Playa Vista. By the middle of the 20th century, Venice become known for a counterculture movement that was represented by the Beat Poets and gave birth to the iconic L.A. band The Doors. And as the Venice Boardwalk continued to gain notoriety for its funkiness, the area also became know for the “Dogtown and Z-Boys” skateboard and surf movement by the mid-1970s.

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Stroll Abbot Kinney Boulevard or visit a restaurant like the Rose Café or Gjelina on a typical night these days, however, and a visitor will take in a buzz that will match anything in Hollywood, the Westside or any of the more recently dynamic parts of Downtown and offers a stunning contrast to the slightly chaotic beach scene on the Boardwalk or the peaceful sight of the Venice Canals’ famous ducks paddling under century-old bridges.

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Hotel Erwin Exterior. Photo courtesy of Hotel Erwin.

And while Silicon Beach’s hotel inventory remain largely independent – the Hotel Erwin or Pacifica Hotels’ recently upgraded and hippified The Kinney are a far cry from the larger, more standardized and largely chain-operated hotels of Santa Monica and Marina del Rey – Abbot Kinney Boulevard is attracting chainlets such as retailer Shinola, ice creamery Salt & Straw and Blue Bottle Coffee that complement the one-off operations long associated with the street.

And, ever symbolically, Google in 2016 reached an agreement to lease the hangar space at Playa Vista where Hughes built his massive wooden plane. “Silicon Beach is just the next generation of a new Venice and Santa Monica,” said Karen Strgacich, L.A. Tourism’s national director of hotel sales in Southern California and the Southwest. “Playa Vista is a new city altogether and speaks to the generation of progress and a quality lifestyle.”