LONG BEACH — "I think safety has to do with what a person walking through the downtown feels. It's, 'Do I feel safe?' It has nothing to do with crime data." --David Lund, deputy police chief and former Redevelopment Agency director.
It was almost 7 p.m., but the sun still warmed Thelma Swift, who cocked her head upward from a bench to catch the sky's last rays.
Swift, 63, dapper in slacks, silky blouse and sports cap, positioned herself on the inviting tree-lined northern Promenade. Even as darkness approached, she had not thought of budging.
"I'm laid up with this darn broken arm and I needed to get out," she said. "Usually I don't come down here at all. But I couldn't drive with this arm, and this is close to home."
Owner of a downtown condominium, she had chosen the early evening for a stroll, she said, to avoid the daytime bustle on the walkway that links the Plaza shopping mall on the north with Ocean Boulevard and the new Hyatt Regency Hotel and Shoreline Village on the south.
She had not given her safety a second thought, she said.
But as the sun set, only she and three vagrants were still about. She glanced at the scruffy men who were sitting nearby, sharing a cigarette.
"It's not all fear that keeps people away from here," she said. "It's just the atmosphere. They don't like what they see. None of my neighbors shop down here and neither do I. We get in our cars and drive someplace else."
In one way, Swift seems typical of an increasing number of Long Beach residents and visitors drawn to attractive downtown areas by new development. They come almost in spite of themselves, knowing they are not altogether safe in an area still high in crime.
There are, for example, retiree Lee Anderson, small-business owner Tom Donald and airline pilot Art Culver.
Anderson, 61, a Long Beach resident for 30 years, insisted the 3-year-old, 120-store Plaza shopping center lures the worst types downtown, but he still goes to the mall most days because it is a safe place to chat with friends.
"I don't know a guy in this town who hasn't been robbed or mugged in the last two years," declared Anderson, who said he was fighting off four muggers when police arrived at a downtown street corner one evening last year.
Donald, 60, a Seal Beach resident, had ventured downtown to use Western Union's Promenade office, not knowing that, like most other shops and offices, it had closed by 6 p.m.
Unwise to Carry Cash
"I'm down here to wire money, otherwise you wouldn't see me here at night," he said. He sometimes goes to plays at the Terrace Theater and events at the Convention Center, he said, but as a general rule, "You don't walk down here at night with money in your pocket."
Culver, an American Airlines pilot receiving simulator training at Douglas Aircraft Co., had studied the downtown during lengthy evening walks from the Breakers Hotel. A resident of Connecticut, he had been warned by other pilots about Long Beach.
"When I told them I was going to Long Beach, they said, 'That's a bad part of Los Angeles,' " said Culver, 47. "My first impressions are that it's not that bad at all. And I've been to a lot of cities. But you've got to get the people down here at night."
City officials could hardly agree more. In fact, much of the 10-year-old downtown development plan is designed to make the area "an 18-hour activity center," said Deputy Police Chief David Lund, the redevelopment chief until he temporarily shifted to the Police Department early this year.
"The more activity you are able to create, the safer people will feel, and that has to discourage criminal activity," Lund said. "That has been and continues to be one of our principal intentions."
The problem, said Lund and his successor at redevelopment, J. Edward Tewes, is that despite $1 billion in new construction, the nighttime activities planned along the Promenade corridor have not materialized north of Ocean Boulevard.
South of Ocean, shops and restaurants at Victorian-style Shoreline Village and business at the Hyatt Regency have boomed, and it is not uncommon to see couples strolling the boardwalk near the Hyatt even after midnight.
But the "ocean of safety" Lund had also predicted for the northern Promenade has proved elusive.
One recent evening between 7 and 9 p.m., no more than two dozen people were on the Promenade's two blocks between the Plaza mall and First Street, even though most shopping center stores were open until 9 p.m. Nearly all mall shoppers went directly to their cars in an adjacent parking structure.
Crime statistics for the area indicate the shoppers were wise--that late-evening walks are not a good idea.
Although reports of violent crimes--murder, rape, robbery and assault--have dropped 12% in the downtown area during the past three years, some blocks north of Ocean Boulevard remain particularly dangerous. The downtown is defined as the area south of 7th Street, west of Alamitos Avenue and east of the Long Beach Freeway.