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The Pain of Being Gentrified

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nestled along a southern stretch of Santa Monica Bay, Manhattan Beach was for decades a middle-class ocean lover’s paradise.

It was a place where a teacher’s salary or an aerospace worker’s wage could pay the mortgage on a comfortable, if modest, house within walking or bicycling distance of the beach. Let the rich have their Malibus and Newport Beaches--Manhattan Beach’s affordability made possible a seashore lifestyle that was famously laid-back and unpretentious.

“You could pound nails for a living and afford to live in a place where you could go surfing every day or go down to the beach to watch the sun set,” said John McDonald, who grew up in Manhattan Beach, the son of a mail carrier and a sometime waitress.

Today, McDonald, who owns Stone’s Throw, a communications company two blocks from the beach, and his wife, Tawny, a paralegal, feel lucky to still live in town. They bought their recently remodeled house a dozen years ago, before an influx of well-heeled home buyers from the entertainment and high-tech industries fed a dizzying spike in property values and began transforming Manhattan Beach into an enclave for the wealthy.

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Longtime residents have watched big new homes rise on the postage stamp lots that once held the cozy bungalows of their longtime friends and neighbors, while the town’s average annual household income climbed past $122,000 and the median home resale price topped $676,000. It is no longer uncommon for homes to sell for $1 million or more, often in mostly cash deals.

Downtown, stylish boutiques, coffeehouses and pricey restaurants replaced an appliance store, a movie theater and a pharmacy, each change signaling that another piece of the California Dream is slipping beyond the reach of the working and middle classes.

Similar shifts have occurred in other California coastal communities, including Santa Monica two to three decades earlier, and the Belmont Shore section of Long Beach, according to David Dale-Johnson, an associate business professor who heads USC’s real estate studies program.

But the gentrification of Manhattan Beach has been more dramatic, fueled by the expansion of film and television studios and new media companies into a South Bay formerly dependent on aerospace and defense. The opening of the Century Freeway, the community’s reputation for good schools and its small town atmosphere added to its appeal.

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Some officials and residents stress that new shops and an influx of well-to-do families are good news, trends that ensure Manhattan Beach’s demographic vitality and financial health. Still, resentment of the newcomers and the changes they are bringing simmers among longtime residents of this town of 33,000 who mourn the loss of familiar landmarks, faces and a way of life as they knew it.

Many who grew up in Manhattan Beach can no longer afford to buy a home there; nor can newer generations of the town’s teachers, police officers, firefighters and municipal employees.

Barbara Poznik, for example, is a third-generation Manhattanite whose maternal grandparents, George and Agnes Lindsey, arrived in 1920 and helped develop the city. She and her husband recently bought a house in less pricey Redondo Beach, a nearby community she finds more to her liking.

Manhattan Beach “has changed so much that I wouldn’t live here now, even if we could afford it,” Poznik said.

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Personal evidence of the transformation she dislikes came a few years back, in the form of an indignant note a new neighbor left on her father’s trash cans. He had forgotten to bring them back off the street on collection day.

That may seem like a small thing in the complicated life of a Southern California town, but not to Poznik. Most longer-established residents would have let the matter rest for a day or so, she says, or even offered to take in the cans themselves. The acid-toned note personified to Poznik some newcomers’ “lack of respect for the older people who built this community and their lack of tolerance for people who don’t have as much money as they do.”

Some might see that assessment as unjustly harsh and say that change is difficult but inevitable.

Average Household Income Soars

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Evidence of the gentrification abounds. Average annual household income in 1980 was $32,470 in town; by 1990 it was $88,700, according the the U.S. Census Bureau. That amount had risen to $122,194 by 1998, based on estimates by Claritas, a demographic information and market research firm.

By 2003, Claritas estimates, the average household income will be $143,111, with 7.5% of households earning $500,000 a year or more. For Los Angeles County as a whole, median household income was an estimated $40,344 last year and is projected to be only slightly higher--$41,492--by 2003.

Annette Graw, a real estate broker and Manhattan Beach resident since 1972, said the city is merely the forerunner in a housing market boom that has spread south to Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach and is now showing up in Manhattan’s northern neighbor, El Segundo, long considered the plain Jane of South Bay beach towns.

“Families who live in Pacific Palisades or Brentwood and are facing private school tuitions for their three kids are finding they can get more house for their money and send their kids to the public schools,” said Graw of South Bay Brokers.

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Enrollment in the well-regarded Manhattan Beach Unified School District ballooned 21% over five years, to 5,779 by the fall of 1998, district officials said. Countywide, kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment in public schools rose 10% during the same period.

Many of the million-dollar home sales have basically been cash transactions, Graw said, an indication that property is being snapped up by people “who have done very well,” including star athletes, television and movie actors and producers. Golf champion Tiger Woods, for example, recently bought a townhouse in the city’s Sand Section. And Clippers center Michael Olowokandi just purchased a new home east of Sepulveda Boulevard for $1.3 million, according to the builder and seller, Rich V.R., who shortened his Indian surname to initials to make it simpler for business reasons.

Veda Casper of ReMax Beach Cities Realty said it is not unusual now for people with children to pay $700,000 for a small home--then knock it down and replace it with a much bigger one.

About a decade ago, the city restricted house sizes, lowered height limits and increased the distance homes had to be set back from the perimeter of lots. But some residents complained that the changes did not go far enough. And as the knock-down trend continues, longtime residents see their neighborhoods morphing almost overnight.

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The changes are taking place all across town--in the Sand Section of oceanfront homes along the Strand, in the Tree Section of shady, family-friendly streets a few blocks inland, and even east of Sepulveda, an area once looked down upon by residents lucky enough to live closer to the beach.

Resentment Among Longtime Residents

Jeanne Jackson, a freelance writer whose comfortable Tree Section home is set in a shady garden on a double lot, wrote a newspaper commentary recently about life in a construction zone as small, single-story houses are being torn down to make way for space-gobbling structures that crowd their neighbors. She complained about the parade of prospective new residents snaking through narrow streets in big luxury cars and the quickening pace of life.

“After that article appeared, I got calls from people I had never even heard of, telling me I had articulated what they have been feeling,” Jackson said.

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As she spoke, a bulldozer down the street was knocking down a modest home that had been owned by one family for about 50 years. The developer, V.R., who built and sold Olowokandi’s house and many others in town, said he is asking $1.79 million for the house going up in its place.

V.R. said his building and real estate practice is so busy it prompted him and his wife, Bhavna Rohera, also a real estate agent, to move with their two small children from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Manhattan Beach.

“There are always going to be people who don’t like change, but life is too short to worry about everybody,” said V.R., adding that most people “are very friendly . . . they accept the change.”

“Most people like the fact that the values of the properties are going up and the whole town is getting very upscale, with lots of professional people moving in.”

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Not everyone agrees, including a longtime homeowner on a block with three of V.R.'s projects.

“A lot of the older people feel quite resentful having an ‘estate’ built on a small lot,” said Wilma Tafoya, a retired teacher who moved to Manhattan Beach 44 years ago and raised four children there.

She’s grateful that most of her new neighbors are friendly and thoughtful and that she and her husband live in a community that has never had to grapple with deteriorating neighborhoods, she said. But she regrets the price of prosperity nonetheless.

“We feel a real sense of loss,” Tafoya said of the now-gone homes with their generous, tree-shaded yards.

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One of the newcomers to Jackson’s and Tafoya’s street, Inga Middleton, said she is aware of some longtime residents’ discomfort and has gone out of her way to fit in to what she says is a very friendly, close-knit block.

Middleton, who suspended her career as an attorney to stay home with her sons, ages 2 years and 4 months, and her husband, Tom, a marketing executive with General Dynamics Worldwide Telecommunications Systems, bought their 2,400-square-foot home in June for $626,000. They assured the neighbors, who brought them cookies and invited them to block parties, that they weren’t going to tear down or substantially change their new home.

“People have been way more friendly than I had expected,” said Inga Middleton, who moved to the beach from Westchester, near Los Angeles International Airport. But when she attended a City Council meeting recently on traffic congestion, she “heard a lot of animosity from some of the old-timers.

“People are very proud of their community, and so I sort of understand [their resentment of its changing], but it’s kind of sad,” Middleton said. “It’s a great community, a perfect choice for us.”

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The city’s downtown district has caught the wave of affluence and ridden it to commercial success.

Ron Guidone was a bit ahead of the curve when, in 1981, he opened Mangiamo, a Northern Italian seafood restaurant that was one of the first upscale eateries in town. Elegant and intimate, half a block from the pier, the restaurant did well despite some locals’ complaints about its higher prices and sophisticated style.

“It has really progressed from that time,” said Guidone, “There are lots of people with lots of money moving in, and that’s been good for us. . . . That’s our kind of business.”

“I do hear grumblings” about the changes in the town, Guidone said, but he added that Manhattan Beach is still a place where “plumbers can mix with multimillionaire stockbrokers . . . and the community is still comfortable with that diversity.”

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For Wilmer Drake, who moved to town as a child 77 years ago, many of the changes have not been positive. A trustee with the Manhattan Beach Historical Society, Drake leads walking tours and points out things as they used to be: the dunes leveled to provide sand for Waikiki beach in Honolulu, the site of the first City Hall, a former public bathhouse.

If asked, Drake will say that he misses the affordable, family-owned businesses that not long ago dotted Manhattan Beach Boulevard and Manhattan and Highland avenues.

“We need more places to buy medium-priced clothing again,” Drake said.

Many of the well-heeled new residents tend as a group to be more highly educated and more assertive than their predecessors, USC professor Dale-Johnson said.

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“The new people coming in put more demands on schools and city services. They bring more commuter traffic, and they have new dreams that are very different from those of the longtime residents,” said Dale-Johnson, who, as an 18-year Manhattan Beach resident, has watched the changes first-hand.

Mayor Linda Wilson said the newcomers tend to become involved in the community and are helping shape city policies ranging from traffic solutions to how to redevelop a former pottery factory site in the heart of town.

The new residents expect high-quality municipal services, she said, but those demands ultimately lead to improvements for all. “Change is inevitable,” Wilson said. “We can’t hold it back, but we can try to mold it, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

(What remains about the same is the town’s racial composition, which is now reportedly 87% white, with Asians and Latinos the largest minority groups.)

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Longtime resident Bob White tries to keep a sense of humor about the “monster houses” that have been springing up in his ocean view Hill Section neighborhood. He and a friend once had a sign professionally made and stuck it in front of one particularly large manse under construction. “Opening Soon: Fred’s Taco Stand,” it read, hoping to pierce its pretensions.

And he’s taken to naming some others he considers especially overdone. (He calls one “Temple to the Sun” after the solar symbol on its entryway design.)

But he wouldn’t trade life in Manhattan Beach for anyplace else.

“Despite the incursion of the yuppies, I don’t know of any place else I’d rather live,” White said. “I’m happy as hell.”

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