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Colorado Lagoon : Watery Ghetto Amid Suburban Affluence; Worlds Don't Mix

August 16, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Within a few hundred feet of the Colorado Lagoon stand homes worth $500,000. Cooled by gentle breezes, they are the residences of the affluent in one of this city's more exclusive neighborhoods.

The homes overlook a popular swimming and picnic area that is packed most weekends, and even draws a crowd on summer weekdays. But the people who go there do not live in the houses surrounding it. They come from downtown Long Beach, East Los Angeles, Pico Rivera, Cudahy and Santa Fe Springs. More than 80% of them, lifeguards say, are Spanish-speaking, many of them lower income. Most of the rest are Cambodian, Vietnamese, Samoan or black.

On Sundays they come in huge family groups to barbecue chicken, beef and tortillas or to celebrate their children's birthdays by hanging pinatas from the trees. About twice a month, church groups come to perform baptisms in the lagoon's murky green saltwater.

"It's been a tradition for decades," said Linda Sharp, 41, who has lived in one of the houses fronting the lagoon for 15 years.

Another Tradition

During those same decades, another tradition of sorts has grown up among some middle- and upper-class whites in Long Beach. Mothers in the 1950s sternly warned their children away from what was then known as the "Polio Pit." And today white teen-agers scornfully refer to the lagoon as "Burrito Beach," while real estate agents showing homes in the area call it the "Mexican Riviera."

The result is a fascinating contrast in an otherwise serene suburban landscape. Located between Alamitos Heights and Belmont Heights within sight of the Marine Stadium, the area is a watery minority ghetto smack in the middle of an upper middle-class white neighborhood.

Nobody knows exactly how or when the minority influx began. Pete Archer, 83, a retired physical education teacher who oversaw the public opening of the natural backwater lagoon in 1929, recalls its early visitors as primarily white residents of the nearby houses just being built. But Paxton Klaus, 77, a former city lifeguard who has been swimming in the lagoon for more than 50 years, says the place began attracting Latinos almost from the start.

"Some people came and liked it and they brought their friends," according to Mike Polsky, 20, who grew up a block from the water's edge and now is a lifeguard there. "They just came here and made it their own."

Invariably, bathers and picnickers say they like the lagoon because it provides a safe and comfortable environment for their families.

"Spanish people have more babies," explained Robert Garcia, 31, a cook who brings his wife and four young children to the lagoon regularly from their home in downtown Long Beach. Because there are no waves, the lifeguards plentiful and the water warm, he said, "this is better for the kids."

Jim Gonzalez, also 31, believes that the ethnic character of the lagoon's clientele has been shaped somewhat by the tendency of Latinos to stick together. "They hear that Mexicans are coming to a particular beach and they all tend to hang out there," said Gonzalez, himself of Spanish descent.

A Nostalgic Attraction

And Rosemary Castro, a Paramount resident who has been visiting the place with her father for most of her 22 years, believes that it holds a certain nostalgic attraction to Latino immigrants. "It kind of reminds them of places in Mexico," said Castro, who was born in the United States but has traveled south of the border with her immigrant father. "All they have in inland Mexico are lakes."

The causes for the lack of Anglos at the lagoon are less obvious. Some who frequent the beach attribute it simply to racism. Near by residents, however, generally explain their lack of enthusiasm for the local bathing spot as concern about its sanitary condition.

"The water's kind of nasty," said Chuck Bluemel, 15, who almost never swims in the lagoon although he lives in a house fronting on it. "There are a lot of poisons in there."

City officials say the lagoon's bad reputation is undeserved. Like that of other local marine recreational areas, they say, its water is frequently tested for unhealthful conditions and the lagoon is closed whenever problems are found. "Typically it doesn't have to be closed any more frequently than other marine areas," said Randall Davis, the city's captain of marine safety.

Smell of Mud

Archer believes the Colorado Lagoon's bad reputation stems from the early days when bathers kicking up the adobe mud on its bottom mistook the material's pungent smell for a sign of contamination. Since then, according to Davis, the impression has been deepened by the fact that several storm drains empty into the water, and by the periodic red algae bloom caused by the lagoon's shallowness and relative warmth.

The algae condition gives a reddish tinge to the water but is in no way harmful to people, authorities say. Although other swimming areas experience similar blooms, the lagoon is particularly susceptible, lifeguards say, because it gets limited tidal flushing action; it is linked to Marine Stadium only by two small floodgates.

None of that makes any difference to the Latinos and other minorities who frequent the place in droves.

"I like it here," said Raul DePaz, 37, who had come all the way from East Los Angeles with his wife, two children and several neighbors on a recent weekday afternoon to enjoy a meal of barbecued chicken and tortillas. "It's beautiful."

Nor does the beauty make any difference to the locals.

"I have a pool in my backyard," said Bluemel, standing in front of his house on the same afternoon. "Why should I go swimming in the lagoon?

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