A man lights a cigarette and leans against the wall of a bar called the USS Someplace. There is almost no one else on the broad sidewalks of Long Beach Boulevard. Every 10 minutes a sleek Blue Line train glides past, and even the businesses that are not run down or boarded up seem shabby by comparison.
Long Beach is counting on the light rail to deliver thousands of tourists to its reviving downtown shoreline of fancy restaurants and pretty hotels. But the transit route that takes them there is a boulevard of neglect--a sad strip of dying car dealerships, an epidemic of fast-food restaurants, several tire stores, a string of auto repair shops, a liquor store with barred windows and a funeral parlor.
Now the city, driven in part by the Blue Line's revealing spotlight, is planning to make the granddaddy of all its streets whole again with one of the biggest redevelopment projects ever put together by City Hall.
"Their first sight of Long Beach is not as pretty as we would like. It should be like a nice entry into a beautiful home," said Mayor Ernie Kell, whose clearest memory of the boulevard is Nov. 22, 1950, when he stood on one of its busy corners waiting for a train, a draft notice in his hip pocket. "We need to dress up the boulevard and make her look the way she was."
What city officials envision is something akin to New York's Park Avenue or Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, an urban nerve center of apartments, tree-lined sidewalks, beauty salons, markets and other amenities, all a short walk from one of the most modern light rail systems running today.
The revival would run a jagged four-mile course from the San Diego Freeway to the ocean, taking in Pacific and Elm avenues, and several adjacent streets.
A moratorium bans at least until next April the construction of any more fast-food restaurants or shopping centers, and workmen are already planting towering palm trees along the boulevard's tired sidewalks.
It could be a year before it is officially declared a redevelopment area--a designation that gives the city expanded power to move boundaries, create designs and exclude businesses and buildings it deems undesirable.
It could be 35 years before the revival is finished. But in the end, city officials muse, it will be a sort of resurrection, restoring dignity to a stretch of road once so revered it was chosen to bear the city's name.
"The cars abandoned Long Beach Boulevard for the freeway. Now the freeways are jammed and people are coming back to Long Beach Boulevard to ride the light rail," Councilman Ray Grabinski said. "She's rising up out of the ashes."
It was known as American Avenue until May 1, 1959, when the city gave its name to the widest boulevard in town. In its heyday in the 1940s and '50s, Long Beach Boulevard was the gateway to this city, studded with car dealerships, auto body paint stores and repair shops that brimmed with business as Southern California fell in love with the automobile.
Osborne's barbershop gave some of the best flattops around. Down the center ran the Red Car, packed with sailors and tourists heading for the ocean and the famed Pike amusement park.
"When I came here at 13, Long Beach was the most exciting city I'd ever seen," Grabinski remembered. "The boulevard was sprawling and full of excitement. And at the end of it was the Pike--the epitome of what you asked God for when you went to bed at night."
Then the state built the Long Beach Freeway and the boulevard was dethroned as the city's grand entryway. The Red Car took its final ride in 1961. The Pike decayed and finally closed in the late 1970s.
The boulevard was looking tattered. Fast-food outlets and strip shopping malls sprouted and merchants struggled against graffiti. The advent of the auto mall--a veritable supermarket of automobiles--sprang up in nearby cities like Cerritos, and the once thriving Long Beach dealerships began to suffer.
The last decade has brought to the boulevard mostly uncertainty and confusion. Talk of building a new light rail line where the old Red Car had run frightened some merchants who thought that years of messy construction would be their demise.
They went to court to block construction and lost. Two years of dust and disruption began. Some stores pulled out and the ones that stayed had little incentive to spruce up, merchants and city officials said.
Now the few auto dealers that remain are leaving for the auto malls and the city's grand dame is looking anything but stately.
But it is the boulevard's very death that is giving city officials visions of new life. It is the perfect time, they say, to wield municipal powers to reshape lots and design the boulevard of their dreams.
Already, the Planning Commission and City Council have approved preliminary boundaries to declare Long Beach Boulevard and its environs a redevelopment area even larger than the ambitious downtown renaissance, said Community Development Director Susan Shick.
Such a declaration involves complex legalities that could take 10 months to meet, including the creation of a "project area committee," elected by residents affected by the project to represent local interests.
"Redevelopment is a graphic statement that change is in the air and that it is controversial," Shick said. "It's hard to do something deliberately controversial and know it, but in this case I don't see any other way."
Debate already has begun over whether the project should begin at all. The boulevard's shallow lots will have to be expanded to accommodate the kinds of businesses and condominiums city officials have in mind, meaning some homes along adjacent streets will have to be destroyed, officials said.
No one knows how many houses might go or which ones. But some residents of the surrounding neighborhoods--many of them elderly or retired--have already made it clear that they won't be displaced.
"These are working people and retired. People who have been in their homes 30, 40, 50 years, and they don't want to be disturbed," said Councilman Clarence Smith, whose district encompasses most of the houses that could be threatened. "If they don't buy into this, I'm not going to support it."
For some homeowners, though, it could be a bonanza. The city is promising to relocate anyone who owns and lives in a single-family home threatened by redevelopment. That means, for example, that the owner of a $200,000 home with a $30,000 mortgage and a monthly payment of $200 must be restored to the same debt and payment in a similar neighborhood, even if the homes there are selling for twice the price.
"Financially," Shick said, "they will not be hurt at all."
If it succeeds, city officials say, the redevelopment would not only resuscitate four miles of boulevard but an urban lifestyle that fell to ruin when Southern Californians headed for the suburbs.
"The potential is there for people who love to live in the city, " said Don Westerland, board chairman of the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency. "This will attract people from places like Boston and Philadelphia, people who look at apartment living in different ways, who don't want to live 16 blocks from where they shop. People who want to get on the light rail and go south to the heart of Long Beach or north to the heart of L.A. What a terrific option."