Google's job recruiting webpage for its L.A. office reads, "Who needs Silicon Valley when you can have Silicon Beach?" The company opened an office in Los Angeles' Venice Beach last year, leading a wave of tech and media companies setting up shop there. But as the tech boom grows, some longtime residents are wondering if Silicon Beach will wipe out the rough edges that they say make Venice unique.
On a Thursday afternoon, the Venice boardwalk is buzzing. Guys in green scrubs hawk medical marijuana to tourists. Homeless drummers keep the beat next to a rack of wooden bird mobiles spinning in the breeze. There's a pitbull towing a skateboarder, and a guy standing on his head in the sand.
The boardwalk is a bit of a circus. But, says resident Jamie Virostko, that's always been part of the spirit of the place.
"Venice was open for everyone to be what they wanted to be," she says.
Virostko has lived in Venice for seven years. She's a writer and a musician.
"If you wanted to live on the beach, fine," Virostko says. "If you wanted to make art anywhere, you could, if you wanted to stand on a corner and play your music you know, you did that, it's just all about being able to express yourself in any way you wanted to at any time."
Since the 1960s, that free spirit has drawn waves of newcomers, and gentrification, to this historically poor, diverse neighborhood. But the latest wave has taken residents by surprise.
"I though wow, Google, that's really going to change things fast," Virostko says. "And I would talk to people in the community, and they would go, 'well, it's always changing here, it's always changing here.' I was like, ah, 'but this is different.'"
Venice is a small community of about 40,000 people. In the last two years, it's grown to include not just Google and its 500 employees, but more than 40 new tech startups, media companies, consulting firms and investors. They've come to be close to Hollywood, and to hitch a ride on Venice's rising star.
Oren Katzeff started out with Yahoo, in Silicon Valley. He joined ZEFR, a Venice startup, six months ago
"A lot of tech companies pride themselves on being creative, outside the box. Venice just has that creative vibe," Katzeff says. "We think about some of the attributes that make Venice so cool. And I think some of those transfer over to what we're trying to do at ZEFR."
ZEFR leases more than 20,000 square feet on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the street that GQ magazine this year dubbed the "Coolest Block in America." Inside the company, 150 people sit in front of Apple monitors, packaging movie content for the web. They just hit one billion monthly views on YouTube.
"There's a pretty good chunk of people who live close by," Katzeff says, "so they get to experience the live in Venice, or in West L.A., work in Venice feel. It's pretty cool."
As tech companies move in, they bring money and buzz with them. That increases demand, and demand increases prices. Earlier this year, the average home price here hit a million dollars, up more than 10 percent from the year before. Local real estate agents say the tech boom is driving the market. The market is making Venice whiter and more affluent, faster than ever before. But where some see Venice disappearing, others see a rebirth.
"You're seeing Lincoln Boulevard, which for many years was just kind of a mini-freeway, with a lot of tattoo parlors, and kind of you know broken down places," Katzeff explains. "Now there's coffee shops that are popping up, there's nice restaurants, there's a lot of things popping up where the community itself is sort of turning into this bustling young town."
Through her day job as a dog walker, Jamie Virostko sees that transformation every day.
"This is a fairly recent home," Virostko explains. "So you see you have these big homes next to what used to be all these tiny beach cottages."
Oren Katzeff lives on this street.
"Change doesn't have to be bad," he says. "What is it about Venice today, about the prices going up, about the new businesses, about all these things coming to the community? What is truly bothering them other than this overarching feeling of, change might be bad?"
"If you want to come to Venice, why would you want to change it?" counters Linda Lucks. "You must come here because you like it."
Lucks heads the Venice Neighborhood Council. Venice is technically part of Los Angeles, so this is the closest thing the neighborhood has to its own government.
"There's a danger of losing the soul of Venice, a lot of us feel," Lucks explains, "which is the diversity, the multiculturalism, which is the tolerance for people who aren't just like you."
In elections in October, ZEFR's Oren Katzeff won a seat on the Neighborhood Council -- one sign, perhaps, that tech is here to stay. He says Venice is going to have to get used to the changes.
"Change at times is inevitable," Katzeff says. "You can take the position of, it's going to happen, but how can I influence it in a way that's positive for change and for myself?"
In some way, artist Jamie Virostko agrees.
"I think people have to adapt to what's going on or else Google, you know, in five, 10 years, this is going to be a very different place," Virostko says, "and you may lose that spirit of Venice. And we'll have our murals up, 'oh, there's the pictures of what it used to be like,' and a little on the boardwalk for the tourists, but how much really of the substance of the community will be here, I don't know."
Last month, Silicon Beach welcomed another big-name newcomer -- Microsoft.
"We cannot wait to learn more about this unique community and get to know our new neighbors better," the company said in a statement.