In the shadow of Long Beach City Hall lies Lincoln Park, a patch of urban grit that has attracted such unflattering online descriptions as “basically a homeless encampment.”
On a recent night, however, it was a place transformed. The trees were hung with Chinese lanterns, a band played from a stage and well-dressed people mingled at wine bars.
The occasion was to celebrate what Mayor Robert Garcia called “the rebirth not just of downtown, but of Long Beach,” part of which includes a new civic center complex on this site.
“Don’t ever forget that we live in the best city in the country!” Garcia, 37, told the crowd when he took the stage. “And I need your help to tell the Long Beach story.”
How to tell the story of Los Angeles County’s second-largest city — so long in the shadow of the megalopolis to the north — has emerged as a key theme of Garcia’s mayoralty, now 8 months old.
In earlier decades, the city’s character was easier to define. It was an oil town, a Navy town, an aerospace space. But the derricks vanished, the Navy sailed off, and Boeing is closing its C-17 plant.
Now, as Long Beach gropes afresh for its identity, the mayor of this famously blue-collar town is arguing for what seems an unlikely vision: Long Beach as high-tech hub, a world-class mecca of innovation, an incubator of cutting-edge entrepreneurship.
Or, as he likes to put it: “The Silicon Valley of the south.”
It’s not the most obvious picture of the sprawling 50-square-mile city 30 miles south of L.A. Other images spring quicker to mind: an aquarium, an airport, the Queen Mary, a Cal State campus and a port, one of the country’s largest.
Long Beach has hipster record shops and storied dives, wealthy enclaves such as Belmont Shore and Naples that overlook the Pacific, miles of middle-class tract homes and large, poor, inland swaths.
What is doesn’t have — with exceptions such as the electronics firm Epson and the software company Laserfiche — is a conspicuous tech sector.
In comparison with Los Angeles and Orange County cities such as Irvine and Anaheim, Long Beach has not attracted much of the venture-capital money that fuels the tech sector, according to a 2013 study by Richard Florida, an NYU professor who studies cities.
When Slate.com compiled a list of dozens of places the media has characterized as “the next Silicon Valley” in recent years, the candidates included Austin; Boston; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Detroit; Beijing; Kigali, Rwanda; Tel Aviv; and Santiago, Chile. Long Beach wasn’t mentioned.
The city doesn’t even know how far it needs to go. Garcia’s spokesman said Long Beach doesn’t keep numbers of its tech-sector jobs, or of its comparative success in attracting venture capital. It’s working on it.
If the task of transforming Long Beach into a tech hub seems formidable, its mayor — youthful, earnest, adroit with a smartphone and unabashed in his boosterism — seems better positioned to try than previous leaders.
“When I talk about the Silicon Valley concept, it’s kind of a state of mind,” said Garcia, who speaks in the rapid-fire cadences of a true believer. “It means Long Beach 3.0. It means being a city that embraces open data and embraces innovation.”
As a councilman, he championed the city’s “go Long Beach” app, which enables residents to report potholes and other problems on their smartphones. Under his watch, the city won a $3-million “innovation grant” that will pay for a team of experts in technology and economic growth.
“I believe Long Beach has had an inferiority complex for a really long time,” Garcia said. “A lot of it has been tied to being close to L.A. We are a large, international city. We’re the 36th-largest city in the country.”
But people are surprised when he points out that Long Beach, with around 470,000 people, is more populous than such iconic American cities as Miami, St. Louis or New Orleans.
Of course, those other cities are the largest in their regions, while Long Beach is dwarfed by its northern neighbor.
“People haven’t always believed that we can play in the big leagues,” said Garcia, who is also the city’s first gay mayor and first Latino mayor. “People for a long time have said, ‘Oh, we’re too close to L.A to do anything big.’ You’ll hear less of that today than you would five or 10 years ago.”
Garcia’s family brought him from Peru to California when he was 5. As a young man he was a Republican and an admirer of Ronald Reagan, who signed the amnesty bill that allowed his family to gain American citizenship.
He arrived in Long Beach as a freshman at the Cal State campus — eventually earning a doctorate in education there — and never left. He taught communications at Long Beach City College, Cal State Long Beach and USC, and worked as a legislative aide to a local Republican councilman.
By the time he joined the City Council in 2009, he was a Democrat.
“The biggest piece was being gay,” he said. “Just coming out and being who I am, there was just no way I couldn’t change my registration.”
An ardent comic-book fan, Garcia wore Superman socks to his mayoral inauguration. “I was having my Clark Kent phone booth moment.
“I always identified with Clark Kent. I wore glasses. I was kind of a nerd. An immigrant.”
Some longtime observers of the city are skeptical about his tech-mecca vision. Political consultant Jeffrey Adler called it “an overreach” at a time when voters are more focused on such issues as good roads, trash pickup and decent schools.
“To put Long Beach in competition against the likes of Irvine or Silicon Valley is unrealistic,” Adler said. “We don’t have the workforce for high tech.”
Adler added: “It may be Long Beach is what it is — a city in the shadow of a larger city. It’s not a primary city. It’s not Minneapolis. It’s not Atlanta. It’s a secondary city in a vast sea of 88 cities in L.A. County.”
Key to Garcia’s plans: making downtown friendly to the workers who might perform the hoped-for tech jobs. He wants to bring 4,000 residential units, with some 10,000 people, to downtown over the next decade. He likes to say that his city is one of only three in California, along with San Francisco and San Diego, with a downtown on the water.
Recently, Long Beach received good news. Virgin Galactic announced it will build satellite launchers at a facility near the Long Beach Airport, with initial plans to employ 100 people.
It’s hard to match the glamour of rocket-making. But Long Beach remains a far cry from the success of communities such as Playa Vista, which has attracted such massive tech firms as YouTube, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo, or Venice, with Google and Snapshot.
When investors and start-ups launch their businesses, Garcia said, he wants Long Beach on the list of places to consider.
“I’ve been in office eight months,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”