Looking up in North Long Beach

Times Staff Writer

The working-class neighborhoods on the north end of Long Beach have long been waiting for what other communities in the sprawling city take for granted: a library, sit-down restaurants, parking spaces, an ice cream parlor.

The contrasts were particularly glaring a decade ago when the city approved construction of gleaming seaside retail and entertainment centers while its commercial corridors eight miles to the north remained blighted stretches of no-tell motels, liquor stores and used-furniture outlets.

By the 1990s, drugs and crime had ravaged parts of North Long Beach. If there was a sign that things had hit rock bottom, it was when the Long Beach Unified School District built a 10-foot-high, 900-foot-long concrete wall to shield a north-side middle school from bullets.


The wall is still there. But there are signs of a revival underway in the diverse community. Since 1996, $193 million has been spent on redevelopment projects in North Long Beach -- about $95 million of that since 2005. In the last two years, two liquor stores, two day-rate motels and an adult movie theater went out of business.

It’s probably too soon to call the trend a renaissance, but residents and city officials point to many encouraging signs.

Homes in the roughly 8-square-mile piece of the city bordered by Compton, Paramount, Bellflower and Lakewood come with $500,000 price tags. North Long Beach is also home to the city’s newest campus, Dooley Elementary School, near the busy corner of Del Amo and Long Beach boulevards.

An improved economy, tougher code and law enforcement, and community efforts to attract development projects have contributed to a 4% decline in crime each of the last four years.

Less crime has translated into more customers at El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant, a family-operated North Long Beach business that recently hired four more full-time employees and two part-timers.

“We’ve grown 15% over the past six months because the overall environment is more inviting and comfortable,” said co-owner Johnnie Cerda. “We want to buy the auto shop next door to create more parking spaces.”


Long Beach City Councilman Val Lerch, a lifelong resident of the community, which was once considered a symbol of the dangers of urban life south of downtown Los Angeles, has a nickname for the 9th District he now represents: “the top of the town.”

On a hot August morning, Lerch, who has a salt-and-pepper goatee and easy smile, stood beside a vacant lot near South Street and Atlantic Boulevard and spread his arms wide. “We’re going to create something special here, something ‘wow,’ which will send a message to investors,” he said. “This is going to be the cornerstone of redevelopment in North Long Beach. We call it North Village Center.”

Lerch pointed to a ramshackle storefront. “That furniture store across the street will be coming down, and a family restaurant will be going up on the corner,” he said. “Behind the restaurant will be new housing with a crosswalk leading to a new library -- the city’s first in 30 years -- with a courtyard, a cafe and an ice cream parlor.

“If fast-tracked in Long Beach City Hall,” he added, “it’ll take three years to complete.”

Some business owners near the redevelopment zone, however, are not so sure the North Village concept will work. Graffiti remains a nagging problem in the area, a haven for gangs. A month ago, three armed men robbed four nearby stores during the lunch hour. The suspects were arrested the same day, and no one was injured, but the holdups unsettled merchants in the area.

“They weren’t even wearing masks to hide their identities -- they must have thought it easy pickings around here,” recalled John Will, 18, manager of a shop offering hip-hop gear and cellphones. “I do believe that if the city improves things with a new library and a place for people to talk and sip coffee, guys like that might be too intimidated to try it again.”

Pat West, Long Beach’s new city manager and a leader of the effort to revive North Long Beach, agreed.


“As we change the urban fabric of the area, we hope that has a calming effect,” he said. “That’s the kind of environment the community wants.”

With that goal in mind, city officials are trying to energize and redefine North Long Beach with a surge of redevelopment funds targeting key intersections. It’s a “weed and seed” approach that West used in his former position as city manager of neighboring Paramount to transform that former disaster area of gangs, polluting industries and rundown neighborhoods into a success story.

The city has spurred the rebound with a variety of incentives. It provides, for example, small-business development loans, and matching funds for facades and such neighborhood enhancements as security lighting and house paint. The redevelopment agency aims to attract new businesses with favorable lease arrangements and tax cuts.

Now, North Long Beach is getting a Target near Cherry Avenue and the Long Beach Freeway. A restaurant will soon replace a gas station near Atlantic Avenue and Carson Boulevard. Many storefronts along major arteries, such as Atlantic Avenue and Long Beach Boulevard, are sporting colorful new facades.

The changes could not happen soon enough for Chuck Fowler, 59, a longtime member of the North Long Beach Project Advisory Committee, a citizens group organized to work with the redevelopment agency.

“North Long Beach has always been treated like a stepchild, and more than once we’ve talked about secession,” Fowler said. “I think it has to do with money and votes. In a good year, we get a voter turnout of only 35% in North Long Beach.


“The perception continues to be that it’s an unsafe place to live,” he added. “So I think we’re going to need a lot of support from City Hall over the next five years to sustain these improvements.”

That kind of talk is not surprising. In the 1990s, after the city’s aerospace industry downsized and the military closed Long Beach Naval Shipyard, city officials struggled to cope with the loss of 50,000 jobs by approving coastal projects designed to lure visitors back to the beleaguered downtown.

In May, the monthly magazine of the Urban Land Institute listed Long Beach as one of the top 10 revived downtowns in the United States.

Will the same thing be said of North Long Beach in coming years? Some residents guardedly say yes.

“That’s the party line; the reality may be a little different,” Fowler said. “But we’re hopeful.”