Brenda Hinton was cruising down Daisy Avenue in Long Beach when she pointed out the corner house that once served as the city's favorite bordello.
"Some of the rooms still have numbers over them," she told the three well-dressed women in her van.
Later she showed them what is reputed to be the skinniest house in America, a 10-foot-wide structure on Gladys Avenue. And the still-functional well in Signal Hill that struck oil in 1921, beginning a historic boom. And the towering steel skeleton that will one day be the downtown World Trade Center.
"I call the tour 'Long Beach: Past, Present and Future,' " said Hinton, who as far as she knows is the city's first full-time professional tour guide.
As president of Long Beach Tours, she spirits an average of 10 to 15 tourists a week by van or by foot through the streets of this seaside city that for years was known as "Iowa by the Sea" but is now developing exponentially. The oddest thing, she says, is that half of them already live here.
"They're just people who want to know more about their community," she said. Customers can pay $6.50 for a 1 1/2-hour walking tour of the downtown area, $15 for a two-hour van trip through the entire city, or negotiable amounts for a whole range of special excursions customized to meet personal needs.
Hinton obliges her customers' curiosity by showing them everything from the curling canals of Naples to the picturesque parks of the affluent eastside. Among other things, she notes the artistic architecture of the city's historic Bluff Park residences, the grime of its world-class harbor, the outgoing outlines of its bulging buildings and the gentle grass of its own Japanese garden on the Cal State Long Beach campus.
Through it all she maintains a pleasant patter sprinkled with anecdotes from the city's past, present and future, gleaned from research and a vast personal network of contacts. As a member of the city's Cultural Heritage Commission and president of the Willmore Heritage Assn., she has access to lots of historical data with which to pepper her talks.
"I saw a void," is how she describes the founding of her business slightly more than a year ago. Hinton, a 30-year-old native Californian who had been a professional tour guide for most of her adult life, was tired of traveling to places in Europe and wanted to work closer to home. "Everywhere in the world you can go take a tour, so why not here?" she asked herself. "Everything I've done all my life has led up to this."
She gets referrals from local hotels, restaurants, the Long Beach Convention and Tourist Council and by word of mouth. In the year she has been running her tours, Hinton said, her business has more than quadrupled. Although she is not getting rich, she loves what she is doing. "I like educating," she said. "I like making things come alive for people."
And customers seem to respond. "I've lived here for eight years and now I feel enlightened," said Susan Keizer Hazelmann, a retired professional pilot and one of the three women on the recent tour.
Added Gail Dremel Wakkins, a secretary who has lived in the city since 1981: "I had no idea we even had a Japanese garden."
Hinton is not surprised that her tours are popular. "Long Beach is a very special city that has a lot to offer," she said. "What I do is timely; it's what the city needs."
Ultimately, though, it is history that interests her. In this case, the historical potential of the city's present and future. After all, she said, alluding to the recent Mayor's Task Force for the Year 2000, "This is Brenda Hinton's contribution to the 21st Century."