Peninsula: Sandy Eden Between Beach and Bay : Housing Is Crowded, Parking Nearly Impossible, but Locals Dearly Love It

Times Staff Writer

Ray Berry does not know just how many times he has heard it.

Now and again one of Berry's neighbors on the Peninsula, a mile-long finger of land separating the calm waters of Alamitos Bay from the Pacific Ocean, will suggest that a gate be erected at the foot of their seaside Shangri-La.

Few people take the idea of a gate very seriously. Still, such suggestions symbolize a feeling shared by many Peninsula residents. To them, the two-block-wide spit of beachfront is a gem on the California coastline--and most residents are determined to see it stay that way.

"I think a lot of people here have a real protective and proprietary feeling about this place," said Berry, a Peninsula resident for more than 14 years.

It is easy to see why. With only one road leading in, the Peninsula is virtually cut off from the rest of Long Beach, giving it an isolated ambiance that is prized by the more than 2,000 inhabitants crowded into the tiny coastal neighborhood.

Surrounded on three sides by water, the area is etched by wide swaths of sand and peppered with apartments and houses that range from tidy cottages to turn-of-the-century clapboard mansions.

Ocean Boulevard, the major thoroughfare that forms the spine of the Peninsula, is divided by lush planter boxes and a red-bricked median; residents maintain verdant gardens at the end of each short cross street.

A boardwalk circles nearly the entire perimeter of the community. Made of wood planks on the seaward side and cement on the bay side, the walkway acts as a social link for residents, who greet one another and trade news or gossip while taking evening strolls.

"The Peninsula is like a small town," said Jeanette Hjelm, who raised her four children in a teal-blue Victorian by the bay. "There are people of all ages, of all types. And there's a real intermix because people tend to get out of their homes to enjoy the environment."

Barbara Poppler, who has lived on the Peninsula for more than 50 years, agreed.

"You can have a millionaire in one house and in the next house is what you'd call ordinary people," she said. "And I think they all just blend in beautifully."

The Peninsula even has its own rituals and traditions, ranging from concerts by the municipal band on Thursday nights during the summer, to the Fourth of July parade around the boardwalk, to annual street basketball tournaments put on by Poppler's sons, to the street dance held each September by the Alamitos Bay Garden Club.

With a strong Neighborhood Watch program, the area has had few problems with crime, other than an occasional bicycle theft or garage burglary.

"Everybody sort of looks after one another around here," said Sally Bates, who rented on the Peninsula during the early 1960s before buying a home with her husband, Gary. "There's a sense of community on the Peninsula that I think many areas don't have."

So strong is the community identity that some residents can be spotted running errands or jogging while outfitted in T-shirts emblazoned simply with the words "The Peninsula."

But most neighbors are willing to admit that their little Eden-by-the-sea does have its drawbacks, chief among them problems with a dearth of on-street parking, litter along the shoreline and the jam-packed housing situation.

In addition, residents have begun to grapple--along with their neighbors in nearby Belmont Shore and Naples--with zoning limitations on new houses or home renovations and additions.

While only a handful of vacant lots remain on the Peninsula, some property owners in recent years have demolished their small cottages and built expansive homes on the tiny, 90-by-30-foot lots that dot the area.

The property owners see reconstruction as a way of taking the fullest advantage of their land. Many of their neighbors, however, have complained that the new, multi-storied homes rob them of their light or views and create an even more congested environment.

Councilwoman Jan Hall has formed a group of citizens to study the issue. The group is expected to make suggestions to the City Council later this year for possible changes in zoning regulations.

"The Peninsula is the head of a pin with everyone trying to get a little cut of it," said Patricia Kempster, a resident of the area since 1923. "Everyone wants to live here, but you can get only so much on it. If we don't watch it, one of these days we're going to sink."

Living Is Close

Crowded conditions are something that Peninsula homeowners and renters traditionally have had to get used to.

"Down here you live so close to your neighbors that if you fight, it's like fighting in your bedroom," Kempster said. "It behooves you to get along."

Battles between homeowners and renters are rare, residents say. Clifford Reiman, a real estate agent and long-time Peninsula resident, said care is taken to put the right renters in the right areas.

"We have some streets where we put the younger, guitar-playing people," he said. "We keep them together."

Parking, however, is another matter. During the summer months, it is nearly impossible to find a parking space on the maze of narrow streets and alleys crisscrossing the area. The situation is especially troublesome for renters because many of the apartment buildings do not provide adequate parking space.

"If you don't have a garage down here, you're dead," Kempster said.

Some, however, see the parking problems as a mixed blessing. While it causes headaches, it does keep the area relatively free of daytime beach-goers and the kind of carnival atmosphere that pervades some coastal communities.

"The only thing that saves us is the lack of parking," said Reiman, 78. "If we had more parking down here, we'd be smothered."

Bates said problems with litter along the beaches have grown worse in recent years. Although city crews rake the sand with tractor-drawn sifting devices, much of the garbage escapes and gathers along the boardwalk seawall, she said.

Those troubles should soon be rectified, however, because residents have prodded city officials to purchase machinery that is better able to collect the trash, Bates said. A new beach-cleaning apparatus is expected to be in operation later this year, she said.

Offshore Airport Plan

City officials have not always been so responsive to requests by the neighborhood.

Through the years, Peninsula residents have had to battle City Hall and other agencies over a variety of issues, ranging from proposals to lay down parking lots on the beach to an ill-fated plan during the mid-1970s to build an airport on landfill just off the Peninsula.

Other struggles have included an effort by some residents to block construction of the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club, which was erected at the Peninsula's end in 1965, and a campaign that thwarted a proposal to dig up the stretch of beach on the bay side so sailboat moorings could be installed.

Recently, residents raised nearly $30,000 to rebuild the boardwalk, which had begun to decay after half a century of use. The fund-raising effort, Councilwoman Hall said, exemplified the spirit of the community.

"Many of these people built their homes 50 years ago when there was no breakwater and no protection from the waves and storms," Hall said. "They have a pioneer spirit, and I don't think it's been lost."

Growth After the War

Although development began on the Peninsula around 1903, the area did not truly begin to grow until after World War II.

Many of the original settlers were Pasadena residents, who spent their summer vacations on the Peninsula and headed inland for the rest of the year.

Early residents like Poppler and Kempster recalled the harsh living conditions during the winter, when storm-whipped waves would rage across the area, tearing into battened-down houses.

"We had surf that hit that boardwalk and went as high as a two-story house," Poppler recalled. "We had many storms that washed away entire homes."

In the 1920s and 1930s, a trolley line ran down Ocean Boulevard and over a trestle to Seal Beach. Later, the trestle was replaced by a bridge for cars driving along the coast, bringing a heavy influx of traffic.

The bridge was demolished in the mid-1950s to make way for development of a marina, and Peninsula traffic was dramatically reduced. Kempster said many residents felt "it was the best day in history."

Family-Oriented Now

The Peninsula continued to grow as a tourist spot through the 1950s, but in recent decades has become more of a family-oriented neighborhood, residents say.

Many of the newer homeowners are former renters or the offspring of long-time residents.

"You'll find people have a very strong attachment for the Peninsula once they've lived here," said Preston Smith, a resident of the area for more than two decades.

Tom Peck, 34, grew up on the Peninsula, but went away to college. Later, Peck was unable to afford the steep home prices.

But he skimped and saved. Last winter, Peck was able to buy a house on Ocean Boulevard, where he now lives with his wife, Kathryn, and their twin baby girls.

"We're back on the beach where we love it," he said. "But our ultimate goal is to some day be on the water."

Long-time residents can understand Peck's desire to return.

"There's something about this area," Kempster said, "that get's into people. And you can't get it out."

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