First Street paralleling the ocean bluffs in Long Beach is one of those rare, lovely streets that hint of a simpler time.
Set back from the broad, tree-lined boulevard in the Bluff Park area is an appealing mix of rambling houses representing a range of rich architectural styles, from Craftsman to Mediterranean Revival.
Most of the houses were built in the 1920s when the area boomed, thanks to the oil gushing in nearby Signal Hill, which turned the seaside resort of Long Beach into a thriving city and Bluff Park into prime residential real estate.
Now bicycles and tricycles on expansive lawns, and late-model, car-seat-cluttered station wagons in driveways indicate a boom of another sort, a baby boom, that has brought new life to the area and made the large houses there more desirable than ever.
I had gone to Bluff Park to meet with a group of local preservationists to review their continuing battle to raise the city's consciousness about its rich history, and also to glimpse some of the area's surviving landmarks.
A favorite of mine is the Raymond House, 2749 E. Ocean Blvd., a lesser-known work of Irving Gill and one of the few that remains relatively intact. Designed in 1918 in Gill's distinctively straightforward Cubist style, it stands as a precursor of the Modern movement.
In the preservationist group, Luann Pryor, a founder of the city's Cultural Heritage Commission, and Richard Gaylord, chairman of the city's Planning Commission, talked of efforts to save select buildings downtown, and to protect Long Beach's diverse neighborhoods. And just this week the City Council joined the effort by curtailing future high-density residential development.
Unfortunately, not much of historic downtown Long Beach has survived the wrecking balls of an aggressive redevelopment agency. Among the more prominent survivors is the Breakers Hotel, a richly restored Spanish Colonial-style relic of the 1920s, and the Villa Riviera Apartments, a towering, Chateauesque-topped cooperative. Both grace Ocean Boulevard.
Also downtown are a few frail fragments of Long Beach's golden age of Art Deco design, and a marvelous mosaic of 30,000 tile pieces crafted in the 1930s by artists employed in a federal work project. It stands at the north end of the pedestrian mall at 3rd Street. (A modest walking tour guide to downtown is available for $3.50 from the Long Beach Heritage Foundation, P.O. Box 90007, Long Beach 90809.)
But what interested me most was not downtown, but the neighborhoods. They seemed to exude an enticing small-town spirit, no doubt a remnant from a half-century ago when Long Beach began receiving a steady stream of migrants from the Midwest, predominately from Iowa. It was this same small-town spirit that about 10 years ago stopped the march of high-rise apartment houses that were threatening the scale and ambiance of Bluff Park. The spirit has subsequently spread to other neighborhoods, which are now involved in a variety of preservation efforts.
A few blocks north of Bluff Park just east of Junipero Avenue is Carroll Park, with its curving, well-landscaped streets lined with appealing Queen Anne and Craftsman-style bungalows. The polished condition of most of the houses indicates a pride of ownership and respect for historical value.
The same spirit is on display in a line of unpretentious bungalows along a less affluent stretch of Junipero Avenue, from 7th to 10th streets; and in scattered Craftsman and Queen Anne-styled gems in struggling Willmore City north of downtown along Chestnut and Cedar avenues.
They and singular, stately Victorians and Colonial Revivals a little farther out in the Drake Park area persevere amongst ticky-tacky, trashed stucco and clapboard apartment complexes, and shabby commercial structures.
"It hasn't been easy saving and restoring these houses," said preservationist Peter Devereaux. But he added that if Long Beach is to retain its sense of history, and also serve its less-privileged residents, it is in such neighborhoods as Willmore City that it will happen.
In contrast, to the east and beyond Bluff Park is comfortable Belmont Heights, trendy Belmont Shore and pricey Naples. A sort of snug Westwood-by-the-water, the Belmonts bob with boats, bicycles and yuppies, while Naples drifts contendly off shore.
"For a small city we have some very diverse neighborhoods," said Pryor, who with Devereaux was consuming a cup of frozen yogurt on 2nd Street, the east end's principal street for shopping, promenading and preening.
Having just traversed Long Beach through a a variety of poor, moderate and wealthy areas, populated to varying degrees with a mix of Asians, blacks, Latinos and whites, young and old, I had to agree.
The coast of Iowa it is not.