Naples Island

Having spent the last six years in Long Beach’s “community of swimmers,” Naples has been a locale that I have frequently visited, whether it was for open water races through the canals, summer swims around the island, or prom pictures at Naples Fountain, but I always had questions about this tiny island located a short swim away from the mainland. I was unsure of how and came to be and why on Earth people would want to live on an island.

This island did not always exist, for it is a man-made island designed by the architectural firm Mayberry & Parker and constructed in 1903. Its purpose was purely recreational, for its canals and bridges were modeled after those of Venice, Italy and intended to be used for scenic gondola rides on pleasant afternoons.

Considering the cultural history of Southern California, it is puzzling to see why a region settled by Native Americans, Mexicans, and Spanish would construct a shrine to the Italian culture; however, Carey McWilliams addresses and clearly answers this question in his book, Southern California: An Island on the Land. He states that as a middle class began to rise in the early twentieth century, so did a longing to seek adventure. This desire was however stifled by apprehension about crossing the Atlantic; therefore, people sought “an Italy nearer home – an Italy without the Italians, an Italy in which they could feel at home, an Italy in which, perhaps, they might settle and live out their days in the sun” (p. 96). It is therefore fitting that this little taste of Italy sprang up in the Los Angeles suburbs during this time period. This man-made island with its canals and picturesque view was meant to offer visitors an escape from the mundane, a vacation from their everyday lives, a chance to capture the essence of Italy that they so desperately sought.

-Kirsten Miller

4 Comments

    • Kirsten Miller

      After following the above link and reading about Kinney’s Venice, I found one point of the article particularly interesting: the date in which Venice of America opened. July 4, 1905, this was a mere two years after the creation of Naples Island. The undertaking and success of of these two, very similar, projects further enforces the idea that Americans were searching for a taste of European culture in their own backyards during this time period. While Venice was clearly a much larger project than Naples, featuring two sets of canals compared to Naples’ total of three canals, it sadly did not withstand the test of time as Naples did. Today, Naples remains in its original glory with its beautiful waterways and La Bella Fontana di Napoli, but Venice of America was tampered with. Starting in 1929, 90,000 cubic yards of materials were deposited to fill in all but six of the Venice canals which were eventually paved over and built upon. And while we can observe that Venice of America is still a larger version of Naples in Long Beach, we must lament the partial destruction of the piece of Southern California history, for there are no eminent plans of restoring Venice to its original glory.

  1. William Godbey

    After reading your post, the name of the island is much more clear to me. It is interesting to read about this microcosm of Italian design, and whether or not it was built out of reverence for other cultures, or laziness to travel to it’s country of origin, or perhaps some of both! Having only the name, I will keep the idea of Italian design and style the next time I go to Naples Island.

    – Will G

  2. Kirsten Miller

    My original blog posts stated that Naples Island was created to be an Italy away from Italy, but the question of “Why?” came up in class today. Why would California want to create a replica of Italy? Why would we want to piggy-back off of another culture rather than highlighting our own? And if we were going to mimic a European culture, why did we choose the Italian culture to feature in not one, but two, major projects (Naples Island and Kinney’s Venice)?

    The simple answer to the question of “why not highlight our own cultural history?” is we didn’t have one. Compared to the rest of the world, America was a very young country and California was even younger. We didn’t have a Parthenon, a Colosseum, or Pyramids to revere. The earliest settlers of the land were Native Americans, and while they established a culture and created a history, we refused to acknowledge it. We wanted to glamorize our history and emphasize our “superior” European roots, and admitting to the fact that our culture was built by Native Americans and Mexicans was simply out of the question. Doing so would mean that we grew from “savages,” an “inferior” breed of people, people who could not be our equals, for if they were, we would have been wrong in abusing them. We abused them because they refused to assimilate to our “civilized” ways. Therefore, admitting that they established a history and highlighting that history today would entail taking full responsibility for our ugly past.

    Now the question of “Why Italy?” is raised. The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle in large amounts on the lands of Southern California, so if we wanted to emphasize our “European roots,” why were we building shrines to the Italian culture and not the Spanish culture. In constructing these canal projects, we were selling California. We were attracting tourists and glamorizing the atmosphere in hopes that they would settle. As far as the land itself goes, California did not have a lot to offer. Pushing real estate in California meant selling the climate and giving the land (McWilliams), and California had a somewhat Mediterranean climate to sell. It had the warm sunshine, cool breezes, and salty sea air without the insufferable humidity or health threats known as mosquitos; therefore, an Italian get-away was compatible with the region and a profitable sale to tourists.

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