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CITY SMART | Community Profile: Long Beach

May 24, 1996|JOHN COX

Henry Huntington rolled out Long Beach's original red carpet on July 4, 1902, the day tourists from Los Angeles first stepped off the streetcars of the Pacific Electric Company. So many revelers flooded the seaside resort, filling a giant saltwater bathhouse and inaugurating a new oceanfront amusement zone, that Huntington's Red Cars lacked the capacity to return visitors to their homes that night. Hundreds of families ended up sleeping on the beach.

The Red Cars have since been replaced by the Blue Line, and morning commuters are more likely to be heading for Los Angeles. And now that dredging, harbor oil drilling and a breakwater have diminished the beach scene, the red carpets of California's fifth-largest city now lead mostly to international trade and the convention industry.

Once the heart of a remote settlement dubbed the American Colony, Long Beach had second thoughts about declaring its independence from Los Angeles County in 1888. Saloon owners, upset over the city's anti-liquor laws, outmaneuvered prohibitionists and on June 28, 1897, the city reverted to county control, complete with liberal pouring laws.

But new taxes soon convinced voters to reconsider, and they elected to reincorporate within six months.

The arrival of the Red Car coincided with the birth of Southern California's original amusement park, the Pike. Roller coasters and daredevil shows that would define the city for generations of Sunday strollers were added to a new pier. The Pike was shut down in 1979 infavor of a development plan that eventually fell through.

When oil was discovered along the Newport-Inglewood fault in 1921, property owners were quick to protect their claims and announced their incorporation as Signal Hill. But the oil money spilled over into downtown Long Beach, fueling the city's architectural heyday. Today, historical preservationists battle neglect to spare the city's distinctive Spanish Revival homes and California bungalows that went up in the '20s.

The same fault from which oil had sprung took back many of its blessings in 1933 when a major earthquake devastated much of the Long Beach region. At the end of the rebuilding period, World War II provided a huge boost to the city's economy. The city spearheaded the region's war effort: The Roosevelt Navy Base grew throughout the war, the naval shipyard repaired warships and Douglas Aircraft helped produced the B-17.

Each continued to prosper after the war, but a fourth player--the Port of Long Beach--was only beginning its rise. By the 1970s its steady expansion helped it compete with the neighboring Port of Los Angeles. Two years ago, the Long Beach port overtook San Pedro's as the nation's busiest, and together they form the world's third-largest harbor.


Despite huge gains in international trade, the early 1990s brought stagnation and layoffs to much of the rest of Long Beach. McDonnell Douglas, the city's largest employer, has laid off nearly 30,000 workers in recent years, although hiring is now on the rebound because of recent aircraft orders. The naval station closed in October 1994, followed less than a year later by the announcement that the shipyard, too, will shut down by late next year.

City leaders nevertheless view these losses as opportunity. Federal authorities have given the city a large degree of discretion over how to use the naval property. A new retail center and, elsewhere, a research facility, are to be among the bounty.

Indeed, forecasts are rosy across the city with a renovated convention center drawing record attendance just a 10-minute walk from the construction site of a world-class aquarium. North of that site, along Pine Avenue, a burgeoning club and restaurant scene has pumped new life into downtown. City planners believe that they are much better prepared today to handle visitors than on that summer day in 1902.


By The Numbers

City Business

Incorporated: Jan. 10, 1888

Area in square miles: 50

Number of parks: 43

City employees: 4,243 full time, 1,620 part time

1995-96 budget: $364 million



Population: 429,433

Households: 159,234

Average household size: 3

Median age: 30


Ethnic Breakdown

Asian: 13%

Latino: 24%

White: 50%

Black: 13%


Money and Work Median household income: $31,938

Median household income / L.A. County: $34,965

Median home value: $221,000

Employed workers (16 and older): 222,086

Percentage of women employed: 57%

Percentage of men employed: 78%

Self-employed: 12,405

Car-poolers: 26,675


Retail Stores

Number of stores: 2,760

Number of employees: 22,673

Annual sales: $2.3 billion



Married couples with children: 22%

Married couples with no children: 21%

Non-family households: 40%

Other types of families: 17%

Source: Claritas Inc. Retail figures are for 1995. All other figures are for 1990. Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.

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