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Old Homes Make Comeback : New Breed of Urban Pioneers Works to Preserve Willmore City

October 22, 1987|CHRIS WOODYARD | Times Staff Writer

In its turn-of-the-century heyday, the Drake Park area of Long Beach attracted some of the young city's finest citizens. They built strong, elaborate houses as big as their dreams.

The dreams remained, but over the years their once-proud homes fell into disrepair and decay or were razed to make way for apartment buildings. Beautiful carvings disappeared beneath layer upon layer of enamel.

The gentry moved out. Sailors home from the sea and large families looking for cheap digs moved in. Later, graffiti-scrawling gangs divided turf in the neighborhood a few blocks north of downtown.

Then, about a decade ago, the turnaround started.

Along came a new breed of urban pioneers lured by low home prices and preservationist zeal. They banded together with a close-knit improvement association that pressured city officials to install street-light poles, scrub the gutters weekly and create a special historical zone that would preserve the local character by warding off high-density developments.

Today, they have given the grand homes a new lease on life. They spend their evenings behind paint strippers instead of in front of television sets, and spinning power saws blades instead of record albums as they go about the painstaking tasks of rehabilitating the old homes they have bought.

The newcomers have cut a niche for themselves in the neighborhood and actively promote it as a respectable place to live.

"It takes a lot of guts to go into a deteriorating neighborhood and turn it around," said police Lt. Robert Kalowes, who heads the Community Relations Section that works closely with the residents. "They are investing a lot of money in an area that others had given up on."

The effort has paid off. Residents say their houses have doubled in value in the last three to five years. And with the development of the World Trade Center about a mile south, they expect prices to keep rising.

They have given the Drake Park area a new name--the Willmore City Historical District. It is bounded by Pacific Avenue, Anaheim Street, 7th Street and the Los Angeles River.

One of three historical districts in the city, the area's name harkens back more than a century ago when William Willmore tried to develop the site as a resort for snow-weary Midwesterners. Although his development failed, the area was incorporated as Long Beach in 1888.

That bit of history is related by Brenda Hinton, a Long Beach tour guide whose husband, Michael, is president and treasurer of the Willmore City Heritage Assn.

Brenda Hinton said they wanted to buy a historic fixer-upper, such as those in the affordable West Adams District in Los Angeles or the Northern California city of Petaluma.

"All of a sudden we discovered here in Long Beach--the city that we love--a historical district," she said. After a bit of searching, the Hintons settled on a rambling 1905 Queen Anne-style house with a large yard and plenty of fruit trees.

Hundreds of work hours later, their preservation efforts are beginning to take shape. The Hintons have restored their dining room, delicately stripped layers of paint off the carved wood and are planning to rebuild the grand staircase.

Apart from the enjoyment of her own house, Brenda Hinton said she loves the neighborhood. She said an evening stroll can last a couple of hours because of all the stops to chat.

"The neatest thing about Willmore City is that we know our neighbors," she said. "This area has come alive. . . .We have a common goal and we work on old houses."

The new residents share not only renovation tips, but the fine points of city rehabilitation programs as well. Hinton said she and others have made ample use of the city's tool and dumpster loans, as well as graffiti removal programs.

Graffiti Removed Quickly

She takes special pride in the effort to rid the neighborhood of graffiti. Either by calling on the city, or residents who take brush in hand with city-provided paint, gang slogans and monikers are usually removed before they have barely had time to dry. Without visibility, Hinton said, gangs head elsewhere.

To publicize its efforts, the heritage association hosts a tour of historical homes every June. This year, Hinton said 600 people attended. The $5,000 in proceeds is returned to the neighborhood through various projects. In 1985, about 100 volunteers scraped, sanded and painted the exterior of a historic home owned by an elderly woman on Chestnut Avenue.

The association also has a special home tour, barbecue and softball game for police officers only. By fostering good relations, Hinton said officers get to know residents and the special problems in the area.

Neither Hinton nor the Neighborhood Watch block captain, Barbara Peebles, hesitate to telephone police to report problems that might be considered mere annoyances.

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