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SURROUNDINGS - LONG BEACH

Along the Canals, Summer Party Never Ends

Immune from many urban woes, Naples residents enjoy boat races, cookouts, gondola rides and a long tradition of neighborly fun.

April 11, 2002|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even past combatants admit that the water fights of Naples got out of hand. Boaters cruised the canals and hurled water balloons onto the patio parties above them. Partygoers retaliated with garden hoses.

"Kids would go up on the bridges and dump buckets of water down on unsuspecting boaters," said Dr. Rick Adams, a physician in his 40s who used to take part.

By nightfall, revelers would quaff enough beer, wine and margaritas to sink a cargo ship. Fun? Like a pillow fight while your parents are sleeping. Like sneaking out the window to go dancing. Fun hardly began to describe it, unless you showed up unprepared to get wet. Which was, said Adams, part of the problem: "Not everyone knew about the tradition of water fights on the Fourth of July."

A crackdown by patrol boats has muted the water wars on the Naples canals, but the canal people still manage to enjoy life pretty much all year-round. Like some chosen tribe, immune from the urban woes of greater Los Angeles, these Long Beach residents are blessed with money and--imagine it--good times too.

They are forever holding kayak races, swim races and regattas. They run their skiffs up and down Alamitos Bay and take their yachts to Newport Beach and Santa Catalina Island.

Any time the weather is nice--and mostly it is--they fill the weekends with cocktail parties and cookouts on the brick patios lining the canals. Some begin on sunlit afternoons, with breezes pushing at the weather vanes, and end at night with flames leaping from the fire pits.

At Christmas, the homes are festooned with so many lights the canals almost shimmer. Thousands of people come down to stroll the waterways. The annual boat parade consists of craft small enough to fit under the canal bridges: electric boats, dinghies, kayaks and ski boats, all strung with lights. Miniature barges carry high school bands.

The Neptunes, a group of free-divers, slip into wetsuits and endure the chilly waters to push around a segmented dragon: a Loch Ness-like monster that spouts flames from its butane-fed mouth. The divers number from two dozen to four dozen, and they take turns abandoning the dragon to beg for beer and cocktails at the crowded docks.

"They'll start barking like seals," Adams said. "If you don't give them something, they'll splash you."

Stan Poe remembered watching the parade with a woman who confused the Neptunes with the Neptune Society, a separate organization that scatters human remains at sea. She watched the dragon's impressive flame and expected to see someone cremated.

Poe laughed. He has pushed the float himself and said the effort is rather informal.

"Last year, one of my neighbors just jumped in [and helped]," Poe said. "He didn't even know anybody. Just swam around and drank."

Poe, 56, a teacher who swims every day in the canals, is the Naples historian, the author of a pictorial history that shows the canals when home lots sold for $900 to $4,000. Those prices have inflated in 99 years by roughly three more zeroes. A tear-down goes for close to $1 million. Larger homes command $4 million and up.

"The idea was to build an Italian paradise," Poe said. "Oh, it worked."

Land barons Harry Huntington and Arthur M. Parsons envisioned the canals in 1903, the same year similar development was started up the coast in Venice, Poe said. The Venice canals were beset by early financial problems and never overcame the poor tidal flow that rendered much of them a dirty backwater. Naples, while not as well known, evolved into a hidden jewel, part of a tiny island near the border of Long Beach and Seal Beach.

Two canals provide a mile or so of waterfront: Naples Canal, which divides Naples Island from Treasure Island, and the longer Rivo Alto Canal, which runs in a circle through Naples under a series of roadway bridges. Originally, said Poe, no cars were allowed on the island. Second Street, now the heart of nearby Belmont Shore, began as a canal. Other streets still bear deliberately pedestrian names: Riviera Walk, Savona Walk, Via Di Roma Walk.

"What they ended up with," said Poe, "was a really tight little community." Early residents could get mail without even using addresses. A name and "Naples" were enough for delivery. Single-story cottages have given way to two-story showcases of various styles--Mediterranean, Cape Cod, Victorian, storybook, modern--but the people, or their children, have generally stayed.

"I was at a party yesterday," Poe said, "and everybody had roots back into the '20s." His wife, Maureen, recently had hip surgery, and various neighbors have come by with food every day. "We haven't had to cook since Feb. 28."

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