Smarting from disturbances caused by rowdy bar patrons, a fashionable enclave in eastern Long Beach has become engulfed in a squabble between homeowners and business leaders over how to control the summer onslaught of customers who represent an economic benefit to the community and the city.
The Belmont Shore Residents Assn. wants an increased police presence along a 14-block stretch of 2nd Street to deal with the noise and violent behavior that can erupt as revelers retrieve their cars on neighborhood streets. Merchants and bar owners, however, say they are taking steps to police themselves and the customers attracted to the area's late-night party scene.
A focus of controversy is Mike Ruehle, president of the residents association and primary writer for its newsletters and blogs, which routinely make accusations against business owners and city officials, most of them vigorously denied. The retired engineering firm manager said he devotes "14 hours a day, six days a week" to the task of making bar owners more responsible for the behavior of their customers.
Ruehle, 53, has been banned from the most popular bars on 2nd Street and, he alleges, threatened by opponents. Ruehle said Long Beach City Councilman Gary DeLong, whose district includes 2nd Street, won't speak with him.
"I'm standing up for the community," Ruehle said. "There are 262 businesses in Belmont Shore, and 54 of them have alcohol licenses. Of those, less than 10 are open after 11 p.m. Five of them are open after midnight, when about 90% of all public disturbances occur."
"The people who oppose me own those bars," Ruehle added. "They are waiting for me to burn out and go away -- but that's not going to happen. You get in my face, I'll get back in yours just as hard."
That kind of talk has made Ruehle a hero to some homeowners who feel empowered by his relentless campaign against public drunkenness. Armed with video cameras, some residents have started posting videos of unruly behavior on YouTube: a young woman urinating in the middle of Covina Avenue, a fight in a parking lot, scuffles and screams in the shadows.
On May 28, at the bustling corner of Covina and 2nd, a police officer shot and critically wounded a man who tried to grab the officer's baton.
Adding a new wrinkle to the controversy, the Press-Telegram disclosed that Ruehle is on probation in connection with his arrest two years ago for drunk driving and speeding on 2nd Street.
In an interview with The Times, Ruehle acknowledged the incident, saying, "I made a mistake."
"We support Mike -- his efforts on our behalf have been heroic," said Cynthia Barron, an interior decorator who lives a few doors from Legends, a sports bar with 30 flat-screen televisions and seating for 300. "Every other night, we are awakened by horrifying street scenes."
But some business leaders said the problems have been exaggerated by residents who should have known about the neighborhood's night life when they moved there. They also say that Ruehle's accusations are so riddled with unsubstantiated statements that they seem to stretch freedom of speech to its limits.
For example, Ruehle tells anyone who will listen that certain Belmont Shore Business Assn. members are part of a secret alliance of business owners and city officials helping one another to illicitly further their interests.
"If Mike Ruehle can prove that, I'll pay off his mortgage," said Gene Rotondo, owner of Legends and president of the business association. "If he can't, he should apologize, then shut up."
A frequent target of Ruehle's allegations is Kurt Schneiter, chairman of the city parking commission.
"If Mike would only work with the rest of the community, we could move mountains," Schneiter said. "But too often, he creates conspiracies and drama out of rumors that are unfounded. As a result, it unleashes an environment of distrust and lack of commitment on all sides to work together."
Since the police-involved shooting, law enforcement authorities have been beefing up patrols on 2nd Street, and bar owners have been trying harder to be good neighbors.
"We hope to put some sort of long-term end to some of the problems on 2nd Street. Calls we get have been for public fighting and disturbing the peace," said Long Beach police Cmdr. Cynthia Renaud. "Overall, it's a complex situation with many players and many interests."
About midnight Thursday, the whoops of carousing were joined by grumblings about police and paddy wagons parked near the entrances of popular bars, including Legends and nearby Belmont Station.
At two bars, crowds filing out at closing time had to zig-zag past sidewalk signs that said, "Quiet please: You are entering a residential area" in large red letters. Those establishments and others had also positioned staff members outside to hush noisy patrons and prevent loitering.
"Things are going to get better," DeLong said. "Within 30 days, you will see a dramatic difference on the street that will manifest in fewer calls for police services and fewer incidents of inappropriate behavior on 2nd Street."
Ruehle said that remains to be seen. "All we want is better control of the street," he said, "and to protect our property values."