Pulling Dullsville Out of the Drink : A Gleaming New Long Beach Sheds Its Cornfed Iowa Image

Dick Wagner, a Times sportswriter, lives in Long Beach.

A lifeguard had died, and in Long Beach that is a very special reason to mourn because the beach has always been the city's heart, open to all who need to bask in its comforts.

So on a Sunday afternoon late last December, more than 300 people gathered for a memorial service below the bluffs at Cherry Avenue, next to Roy (Dutch) Miller's red chair in the sand, and let saltwater flow from their eyes.

Miller, who was 84, was the man who built the lifeguard system that was needed to protect all those Midwestern farmers who came to warm themselves in a sun they had never dreamed could be so pleasant, and also to save a few locals, who challenged the sea in its nastier days, before the breakwater was built.

In the distance, lifeguard rescue boats--which were one of Miller's innovations--made swirls in the ocean as a final tribute. And when Miller was eulogized as an "iron man," the people shouted, "Hip, hip, hooray."

The essence of Long Beach was in the misty air that afternoon, and it had nothing to do with downtown redevelopment or the Queen Mary or the Spruce Goose or the Grand Prix. These were vital people, many of them former lifeguards, honoring one of their own for making their city a better place to live, dispelling the persistent notion that people in Long Beach were transplants from Iowa who did nothing but sit with blankets across their laps and reminisce about tall corn.

And indeed, Dutch Miller had come to Long Beach from Iowa.

That essence is one that few outsiders believe exists, because Long Beach still has to work to battle its reputation as one of the dullest places on earth, the Podunk of Southern California. That reputation had already formed as early as 1882, the year Long Beach was founded by William E. Willmore. And the reputation was earned. In 1900, all liquor licenses in the city were revoked, and a 1902 souvenir booklet boasted, "There is no saloon!"

Long Beach has been obscured in the shadow of Los Angeles for so long that it's easy to forget that it's a separate city of 381,760, the second biggest in the county, the fifth largest in the state. But the people who have spent a lifetime in Long Beach defend it with loyalty and love.

Del Walker, 72, who coaches the men's golf team at Cal State Long Beach, has lived for 45 years in a house near the lush and hilly Virginia Country Club. He sits back and lets memories of his city wash over him.

"One of the great places to grow up," says Walker, whose face has been permanently tanned by years on the fairways. "It's beautiful, and has great recreational facilities and good schools. It's ideal for raising a family. I wouldn't trade living here for anyplace in the world, and I've been to a lot of countries."

Images of Long Beach have varied as it has grown, depending on who was living in the city and what brought them there.

Oil was discovered in 1921. That event changed Signal Hill into a forest of derricks, and, three years later, into an incorporated town surrounded by Long Beach. And it turned Long Beach into something besides a seaside resort.

Then, from the 1920s to the '40s, the Midwest reference developed. Long Beach came to be sneered at as "Iowa's only seaport" or the "country's largest retirement community" or, the most scathing, "Dullsville by the Drink."

But many Midwesterners came to Long Beach to start careers, not to retire. One of them was Orian Landreth, 81, who had been a wheat farmer in Kansas. Landreth was an inspiration to many young men at Poly High School, where he coached football in the '20s and '30s.

Poly still wins sports championships, and most of its stars are talented young blacks from the inner city.

"In 1932 I had my first black player," Landreth says. "I had four in all the time I was there."

The racial composition of Long Beach has changed strikingly. A city that was 93% white in 1960 is now 61% white. Signs in Spanish predominate in some neighborhoods, and its large Indochinese population has earned the city the moniker "Little Phnom Penh."

The transplanted Iowans were awakened during World War II when the Navy arrived, bringing with it a wild streak.

"You'd go downtown and every seventh or eighth person would be a sailor," Walker remembers. "The harbor was full of Navy ships."

And downtown quickly became full of bars, porno theaters, curio shops and tattoo parlors. In the '50s and '60s, mothers would tell their sons that downtown was off limits and warn their daughters that sailors were people to fear.

And, of course, the sons would sneak downtown anyway with their dates on Saturday nights, and even stick their heads in tattoo parlors for an astounding glimpse at needles decorating a man's arm with the likeness of a naked woman or a snake.

The big attraction downtown--so big that Long Beach became known as the Coney Island of the West--was the Pike, an amusement park on the waterfront, where waves would sometimes flood the pylons of the Cyclone Racer roller coaster.

Walker remembers the Pike's Merry-Go-Round restaurant, where the food revolved and you took off what you wanted, maybe paying 40 cents for a blue-plate special. Hamburgers were a nickel.

The Pike is gone now, and condominiums are planned for where the midway once stood. The new downtown attraction is Shoreline Village, which draws the city's young and trendy. It has bars and restaurants that offer pleasant views of white yachts and blue water.

The Navy pulled out in 1973, and the porno shows and tattoo parlors are now mostly memories, wiped out by demolition. But the tourists have returned. Now there is the Queen Mary and the Spruce Goose, whose bright white dome can be seen far out to sea, and the 120-store Long Beach Plaza that dominates downtown. High-rise hotels and office buildings of gleaming glass stick up in the sky to greet motorists driving south on the Long Beach Freeway. And this summer construction will begin on the $319-million World Trade Center, which will tower 40 stories over the busiest port on the West Coast.

The Navy has returned, and the sailors are back on the streets. But the people mothers tell their children to avoid now are the transients, who mutter obscenities as they roam downtown, unimpressed by the renaissance going on around them, intent on holding out until the last shabby hotel has been razed.

Away from downtown and the inner city, Long Beach residents seem content in their neighborhoods--affluent Belmont Heights and Bixby Knolls; the somewhat worn Westside, Wrigley District and North Long Beach; the suburbia of East Long Beach. Many seem to be constantly in the midst of home-beautification projects. Sprinklers peep out of the earth like mushrooms and stay on well into the night in the hope that lawns will turn even greener.

"Everybody used to go downtown, now they go to the shopping centers," Walker says. "That's one of the big changes."

Belmont Shore is a magnet for singles and young professionals, who play volleyball on the beach and then crowd into bars and stay there until the weekend runs out. It offers Westwood-style shops and restaurants, and a hip life style that has kept many young people in Long Beach and brought back some who left because they thought it too conservative.

But an unassuming ruralness about the city remains, typified in a baseball park called Blair Field at 10th Street and Park Avenue, where many major-league players first tasted glory.

On lazy afternoons, old men lounge in the grandstand, which smells of hot dogs and ocean air, and talk about the longest home runs they've seen there, or the time a pheasant found its way onto the field, ran into the wall and killed itself.

For boys, the little stadium, like the beach, is a great place to grow up, and for the men, a great place to grow old.

But Long Beach prefers not to dwell on its bucolic qualities. Instead, it likes to boast of the new downtown or the industrial development near the increasingly busy airport. The image it wants is big city.

Says Stephen Horn, president of Cal State Long Beach: "A friend of mine says Long Beach is the last undiscovered city on the West Coast. Well, people are starting to discover it and talk about it."

Horn says he has a sure method of hooking visitors on Long Beach.

"I take them to the Queen Mary. They look out at the shoreline and say, 'Now I know why you won't move out of here.' "

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