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A Stroll Along 'Italian' Canals--in Long Beach

December 20, 1986|ROBERT PIERSON | Pierson is the author of "The Beach Towns: A Walker's Guide to L.A.'s Beach Communities" (Chronicle Books, 1985). and

Instead of sleigh bells, caroling and snowy fields, the holidays in Southern California bring sunny skies, red poinsettias and green lawns. Perhaps the region's unique contribution to the season comes together in waterside neighborhoods, where residents decorate not only their homes, yards and patios, but boats, docks and waterfront sidewalks.

One community in particular combines this colorful Christmas spirit with its Southland setting. Naples, a nearly hidden canal neighborhood nestled in the southeast corner of Long Beach, is already an insider secret among walkers from Long Beach, Seal Beach and Los Alamitos.

Holiday Decorations

It takes on even more charm as lavishly decorated trees--piled with teddy bears, dolls and other whimsies--appear in front of picture windows, animated scenes sprout in backyards and lights festoon the boats anchored at walkside.

What follows is a leisurely two-hour walk of Naples. It leads you onto its three islands, over bridges, along gentle canals, and--from mid-December until January--before cheerfully decorated houses.

The walk also introduces you to the geography, history and character of this picturesque canal community. You may want to begin the walk an hour or so before sunset and conclude the stroll with dinner at a nearby cafe. Try to avoid the area today, however. Tonight's annual boat parade will jam the streets with cars and the sidewalks with onlookers; access streets will be blocked off and leisurely viewing may be a near impossibility.

To get to Naples, exit the San Diego Freeway south on Seal Beach Boulevard, turn west on Westminster Avenue (which becomes East 2nd Street) and park near Bayshore Drive.

Today, Naples consists of three small islands in Alamitos Bay. But scarcely a century ago, the bay was a desolute tidal estuary of marshland, sloughs and mud flats. The San Gabriel River emptied into the tidelands, protected from the Pacific by a narrow peninsula.

The bay remained nearly undisturbed until 1903, when the peninsula was purchased and subdivided into nearly 500 lots by a real estate company. Sales were brisk, due in part to an enterprising father-and-son sales team, A. M. and A. C. Parsons.

A. M. Parsons, an imaginative entrepreneur, eyed the forlorn marshland in the center of the bay. The company considered it undevelopable, but Parsons thought otherwise. One day while duck hunting, he climbed onto a shack roof overlooking the marsh. Grabbing an envelope from his pocket, he hastily sketched a rough picture of an island community with a Venetian flair.

When the Pacific Electric built a trolley line by the bay in 1904, Parsons knew the time was right. He organized the Naples Co., purchased the marshland, and began creating his dream community. Thousands of piles were placed, retaining walls were constructed. Landfill dredged from the bay formed three islands. The project was completed in 1906 and the first lots sold on July 6 of that year.

But sales slowed due to the economic depression that followed that year's great San Francisco earthquake. Parsons sold the venture to Henry Huntington's land company in 1907.

Desirable Neighborhood

In 1919 sales grew tremendously as Belmont Shore, then a mud flat to the west, was developed. Naples finally began to take its present shape. Today it is one of Long Beach's most desirable residential neighborhoods.

Begin the walk at East 2nd Street and Bayshore Drive. The Bayshore Branch library marks the site of the original real estate sales office, later the Naples Sales Pavilion. Prospective buyers boarded trolleys, gondolas and motorboats to tour the islands and bay. The first lots sold for $900 to $4,000 in 1906.

Walk across the East 2nd Street bridge over Alamitos Bay. Turn right on the Toledo and follow this quiet street past the Naples Elementary School. Only the ship masts rising above the homes on the right remind you that you are on an island.

As you reach the short bridge ahead, another world awaits you. Pause atop the bridge to survey the graceful curve of Rivo Alto Canal, its gentle waters lapping the anchored boats. Rows of tidy residences, ranging in style from Cape Cod cottages, Mediterranean manors, post-World War II stucco boxes, and neo-Victorian houses, line the serene canal.

Cross the bridge and walk down the steps to the left. Now you can appreciate closely these canalside cottages, fronted by manicured hedges, potted plants, cozy sun decks, colorful flowers and shady trees. Studying the dated patio furniture at many houses is like perusing back issues of Sunset magazine. Open picture windows seem to be designed to see in as well as out. As you stroll along the canal, you pass several eclectic residences. An elaborate neo-Victorian house at 66 Rivo Alto Canal, squat in scale, features spindled woodwork and ornate corbels. Farther along at 82 Rivo Alto stands the boxy residence built in 1962 as Case Study House No. 27 by California Arts and Architecture magazine.

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