Long Beach

As you learn about it, you become sad that a city of half a million, once known as the Coney Island of the West Coast (and much later, in the 2000 Census, as the most ethnically diverse U.S. city), could forget what made it strong. And hitch its star to a breakwater, a Depression-era British ocean liner now mired in debt, an ill-conceived downtown redevelopment project and an overrated boutique beach district. But Long Beach is a great city in which to live, and tremendous fun to visit -- if you know what is here, and where to look. Long Beach's best points are often its most underrated.

It began promisingly enough in 1866, with sheep rancher Jotham Bixby buying part of a former Spanish land grant, Rancho Los Cerritos. In 1880, Bixby sold 4,000 acres of it to an Englishman, William E. Willmore, who failed in starting his own farming community -- Willmore City, the first real city here -- and died in the poorhouse. The Long Beach Land and Water Company bought out Willmore, changed the name of his utopia to Long Beach and incorporated eight years later. Bixby died in 1916, and his last 3,500 acres were subdivided into the present-day neighborhoods of North Long Beach, California Heights, Bixby Knolls, and part of the city of Signal Hill. And there was Long Beach -- sans Belmont Shore, which was a boggy marsh (a marshy bog?), Cal State Long Beach (1949), and much of East Long Beach. But it was staged for greatness!

Builders built, people bought, and Long Beach by the late '30s had most of the great Victorian, Craftsman and Spanish-style houses that make it a great place to live (Sunset magazine recently named Cal Heights one of the best neighborhoods in the nation); pounding surf (no breakwater yet); an International Style Moderne high school (Polytechnic, my alma mater); and the Pike, a storied amusement park that yielded the Coney Island label. Thousands of bathers rode the Pacific Electric railway's longest-lived line (a.k.a. the Red Car) here to soak it all up.

World War II and the 1950s changed everything. The city built a massive breakwater in the '40s to shield the Navy's Seventh Fleet -- headquartered here through Vietnam -- and the warships being created in its shipyards. That turned off the waves like closing a faucet, allowing, eventually, homes to be safely built right on the coast, but eliminating much of the waves' shore-cleansing effects. The '50s and '60s were prime growth years, with Long Beach annexing such northern regions as Lakewood Village, fueling a housing boom. But instead of updating the Pike, city fathers set the scene for its demise: expanding the shoreline by filling it, a process that was well along by the time they bought the Queen Mary, an Art Deco liner, in 1967. The harbor flourished as the Pike withered (it was eventually demolished in the 1980s), and downtown languished.

Despite this, Long Beach today is not the depressed industrial wasteland that East Coast papers inevitably label it whenever Boeing slashes its output/workforce. It truly is an International City, with a huge Vietnamese community and the largest Cambodian population outside Phnom Penh -- and correspondingly great ethnic cuisine. And despite its urbane pretensions, Long Beach has kept a blue-collar ethos, thanks perhaps to the harbor, the aerospace industry, the Navy or the ghosts of shipyard welders. No matter how much publicity the Aquarium of the Pacific, the Pine Avenue restaurant row or Second Street in Belmont Shore receives, this city's true heart will always be elsewhere: in its many intriguing bars, on 10th or Anaheim streets, on Atlantic Avenue in North Long Beach or Bixby Knolls, in any of its hundreds of historic structures or in any of the hundreds of residents who can recount any bit of this past.

Best Hip-hop MogulsUp Above Records. Farsighted enough to sign the Visionaries and to hang with LMNO. Seventh Street and Pine Avenue, Long Beach.

Best Cambodian FoodSophie's Thai and Cambodian Cuisine. Tender, delicious Panang salmon, grilled then topped with a thick curry; Phnom Penh rice noodles in broth with thin-sliced meats and shrimp, topped with cilantro and fried garlic. Served with a selection of wines, in an elegantly urbane space to make you forget busy Anaheim Street outside. 3720 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-1763.

Best Midcentury Homes The Ranchos. Designed by the father of the modern ranch house, Cliff May, who went so far as to design fences and to specify which types of trees he'd like framing the streets of this serene district (though most of the ficus trees were yanked after they uprooted sidewalks). Classic low-slung, back-yard-facing A-frame buildings, these look like nothing special from the street. Unless someone takes pity and invites you in to one of the few unmolested examples; then windows swing out, open floor plans tell all, and gracious '50s living is evident. Northeast of Studebaker Road and Spring Street, Long Beach.

Best Motorcycle Shop West Coast Choppers. The reality thing is played, and their wide-tired, deconstructionist aesthetic isn't really our bag, but give Jesse James and his crew credit for virtually single-handedly reinvigorating the custom motorcycle like no one since Sonny Barger. 718 W. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 983-6666;

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