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Shipping Out : Once the Biggest Business in Town, the Downsizing of the Navy Hits at the Very Heart--and Soul--of Long Beach

January 13, 1994|TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like so many others in those days, he first saw the city from the sea.

The jade-green roof of the old hotel Riviera steepled into a blue sky. The Pike amusement park spilled across the beach like a handful of children's toys on the city's front porch. In 1949, to an 18-year-old sailor from Winganon, Okla., it was beautiful. So Don Clark made Long Beach his home. He married, raised a family, made captain's rank and retired here.

For a long time it was like this: When a sailor talked about the Navy on the West Coast, no one had to ask where on the coast. San Francisco and San Diego were Navy towns. Long Beach was the Navy town.

After all, the city and the Navy got their first peek at each other at the turn of the century and grew up together. During the fever of World War II and Vietnam, Long Beach eclipsed all other West Coast Navy towns in size and prominence.

"Long Beach meant Navy on this coast," recalls Capt. Harry Selfridge, the current regional commander of naval activity in Central California.

Thousands of sailors--men and women who spent years floating from one base to another--decided to make their homes here. Meanwhile, the Long Beach Naval Shipyard next door to the Naval Station on Terminal Island offered thousands of locals steady work and good wages repairing ships. The shipyard gave many an opportunity to escape poverty, to buy homes with back yards and send their children to college.

The Navy helped shape the city. It defined an era, and even after Vietnam, when the service's presence here began to dim, it remained part of the fabric of the community.

Now the Navy star in Long Beach is on the verge of being extinguished.

In September, just days after its 52nd birthday, the Long Beach Naval Station will close for the third, almost certainly last, time. Only four ships will remain at the naval station--the last of a fleet of 38.

With the fleet will go at least 15,000 sailors once assigned to the station, and when they leave, an entire westside neighborhood where Navy families lived will vanish. Already, 400 homes in the Navy's Savannah housing tract just a few miles north of the station sit in eerie silence, isolated by chain-link fences topped with razor wire. Next door, the Cabrillo housing tract is slowly emptying as sailors are reassigned and their families are moved out.

Two weeks ago, the Long Beach Naval Hospital discharged its final patient, and in March will be closed. That same month, Long Beach will witness the commissioning of a new ship at the station. After the ceremony, the destroyer class USS Curtis Wilbur will also leave Long Beach.

If all goes as city leaders plan, a mega-mall will take the place of the naval station. A university research park, two schools, a housing project for the homeless and a job-training center will erase any signs of the Savannah and Cabrillo housing tracts. The Port of Long Beach, growing by leaps and bounds, hopes to acquire whatever naval station property it can for a new shipping terminal.

Only the Long Beach Naval Shipyard will remain. After narrowly escaping closure two times in the last four years, its fate remains uncertain. In private, city, business and Navy officials predict that when Long Beach enters the next century, the Navy will not go with it. *

"I feel kind of lost," said Clark, one of an estimated 13,000 retired Navy people in the Long Beach and Los Angeles area. "As long as I've been here, there was a Navy and now it's going."

The loss will not jar the lives of all, perhaps not even most, Long Beach residents. But the ripples of closure are already reaching apartment owners and grocers, people who provided services to the families who lived in Navy housing, people whose jobs depended on the Navy and the estimated $330 million a year local Navy personnel spent.

For every military job that goes, 1.5 other jobs will disappear in the overall economy of the area, said Larry Kimble, director of the UCLA Business Forecasting Project, a privately funded program that conducts economic research. When the station closes nine months from now, a minimum of 15,000 active-duty Navy personnel and their families will be gone. In that time, if the formula holds, more than 22,000 non-military jobs in Long Beach and surrounding cities will have vanished too.

"It will have an impact on every grocery store, every hair stylist, every manicurist, doctor, lawyer," said Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach). "That's a (small) town disappearing off the face of the Earth."

The cutting blow for the Navy in Long Beach fell in the fall of 1991. A federal base-closure commission appointed by then-President George Bush recommended closing both the station and the hospital, although neither the Navy nor the Department of Defense had pushed for such action. For a city in the midst of recession, the decision was a sucker punch that left local officials stunned.

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