They begin arriving at 10 a.m.
There are bikers, residents of nearby hotels, elderly men with nowhere else to go. Many are retired carnies, who spent most of their lives operating the rides and concessions that once drew customers by the thousands to this Walk of a Thousand Lights, the main walkway through the old Pike amusement park.
Now the area is nearly deserted, an eerie reminder of a livelier era that has long since passed.
They come to the Checkerboard bar, an oasis surrounded by weed-choked vacant lots, because, quite simply, many of them can't remember a time when they didn't come. Sipping coffee or gulping beer, they feed quarters to the jukebox next to the pool table and talk loudly about politics, women and old times. "It's home," said Skip McGee, 63, who's been a regular since the 1940s.
Nick Frudakis would like to keep it that way. But the bar--which Frudakis' mother, Katina, has owned since 1951--is in the path of a billion-dollar redevelopment project, the largest in the city's history.
Project OK'd by Agency
The 10-acre Pike site would be transformed into a teeming complex that would include 500 hotel rooms, 1,000 apartment and condominium units, 200,000 square feet of retail space and 1.5 million square feet of offices. Last week, the project was approved by the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency and the city's Planning Commission. Later this month it is expected to be endorsed by the City Council.
In the meantime the city is negotiating with representatives of the seven owners who still have property at the site, urging them to sell their land voluntarily rather than force the city to invoke eminent domain, a legal process by which it can condemn and take possession of property at fair market value.
Six of the seven negotiators, according to project manager Gail Wasil, are holding out for a better price. But the seventh--Frudakis--is flatly refusing to sell. Like a modern-day David, he says, he is standing up for the rights of the little guy.
"They're putting a gun to my mother's head and saying we're taking you by eminent domain," Frudakis says. "I see no difference in that from what the cowboys did to the Indians."
City officials say that their right to acquire the Checkerboard--a shabby box-like affair that features several pinball machines and serves hot dogs for $1.25--is deeply embedded in state and federal law based on the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number. Simply put, they say, there is greater public benefit in a 3-million-square-foot development project than in a 1,500-square-foot bar.
But Frudakis says the concept of eminent domain is un-American. And to make his point, he recently commissioned a cartoon which he posted prominently in the bar and plans to publish as advertisements in area newspapers. In it, a huge fat man labeled "Long Beach Redevelopment Agency" huffs on a cigar while a bulldozer labeled "eminent domain" prepares to roll over the dinky-looking Checkerboard. "It appears," reads the caption, that "the spirit of liberty isn't welcome on the West Coast yet!!"
Frudakis' maverick opposition to the city's plans stems, among other things, from a passionate devotion to history.
Believed to be the oldest surviving building of the Pike, the Checkerboard--which still lists Walk of a Thousand Lights as its street address--was a bingo parlor before becoming a bar in about 1935, old-timers say. At the Pike's height in the 1940s, they say, the place teemed with customers every day of the week.
Frudakis' grandfather, a Greek immigrant named Nick Pulos, bought the establishment in 1951 and put it in his daughter's name. From then until his death in 1979, Frudakis says, the old man worked there seven days a week.
"My father sweated for this place," said Katina Frudakis, 62. Once, she said, she promised him that she would never sell or close the bar. She brimmed with tears as she recalled that promise. "Why should someone else make money on my father's sweat?" she said, pounding the table for emphasis. "I made a promise and I have to keep it. I'd rather be dead than sign this place away; it means that much to me."
So Nick Frudakis, a short slightly balding 35-year-old, has become a one-man crusade.
He has spoken before the City Council. He has addressed the Redevelopment Agency. He has even traveled to Sacramento to testify before an Assembly committee considering legislation that would outlaw eminent domain for private development. And in the next few weeks, he says, he will be posting cartoons all over the city in an effort to enlist public support for his fight.
"They may take me today," Frudakis says, "but it could be someone else next time. This is every citizen's fight."
In his negotiations with the city, he said, he is asking that developers be required to "build around" the bar, incorporating it into their plans. According to Wasil, however, that is not an option. The city is willing to relocate the Checkerboard, she said. It might even be willing to let the bar remain in the development with the Frudakises as tenants. But allowing Katina Frudakis to retain ownership of the property, she said, is simply not feasible. "The master plan for the project doesn't accommodate that," Wasil said.
Life Goes on as Usual
City officials say they expect to have acquired all the property involved--including the Checkerboard and a handful of buildings near it--within a year to accommodate the beginning of construction sometime next spring.
Life at the bar, meanwhile, goes on pretty much as usual, except that there are fewer and fewer customers.
"After 40 or 50 years at a place," said McGee, reflecting the sense of inevitability that seems to have invaded most patrons, "you feel like it's your whole life. It's as if you were raised in a house and they come and condemn it. They've already taken everything else; now they're taking the last vein."