California Excursion Part IV: Extra Words on Long Beach

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I wrote this about three weeks ago and somehow forgot to publish it. It began as an extra chunk to Part III of my LA writings, but I separated it into its own entry because, like I write below, Long Beach deserves to be so much more than just a footnote to LA. Enjoy! More updates this week on my Fall and Spring teaching schedule. – Ty

It’s difficult for me to write about Los Angeles without abbreviating it as LA/LB, because for most of this decade, Long Beach has felt like my Western home rather than the juggernaut dwarfing it from up the 405 and 710. Despite one legendary Long Beach poet’s references to “so much drama in the LBC,” the city’s actually a subdued counterpart to Los Angeles. If Long Beach were located anywhere outside of LA’s orbit, it would be considered a major city and maybe even have its own NBA team (seeing as how Anaheim has an MLB team and an NHL team with about 200,000 fewer people). All that being said, anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time in Long Beach is reticent to consider it as part of Los Angeles. “Greater Los Angeles,” perhaps, mostly because the red blotch in so many atlases I grew up reading enveloped both cities and the Metro Blue Line does connect the two efficiently (or, as efficiently as possible… you try to get from Downtown Long Beach to Downtown Los Angeles in under an hour for the grand total of $1.50).

So, whenever I told anyone where I was the other week, I said “LA/LB,” because I was spending quality time in both cities and taking advantage of what they respectively had to offer. Los Angeles has taco trucks and delicious street dog stands on every corner, Amoeba Records, the Hollywood Bowl, not to mention Western epicenters of North American comedy, film and theater. Long Beach has a better bus system, fewer taco trucks (that are still delicious), Fingerprints Records and Cafe, the biggest port in North America, and the single most beautiful urban place to see a sunset (I lived off of 4th Street for a year and it never got an iota less wonderful).

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Long Beach has gone a long way over the past two generations to establish its identity. Before World War II, it was viewed by outsiders (and many insiders) as a weekend getaway for Los Angeles’ swelling petite bourgeoisie. At least until the city erected a massive breakwater (which may very well come down soon depending on the results of an Army Corps of Engineers study), it resembled other blown-out mid-Century party harbors like Ocean City, Coney Island, and (shudder) Atlantic City. Of course, this depiction of the city belied the growing indigenous population (not to mention the actual indigenous population of Gabrielino Indians). The Long Beach items from the Ben Irving postcard collection, particularly this one above, shows off how the city prided itself back during Wartime. Irving sent this one home to my grandmother in Brooklyn on August 16, 1940. You can just see the Pike off in the back left of this image, Long Beach’s response to the Santa Monica pier, which had been devised around the turn of the century as a way to disguise sewage dumping but quickly turned into a fishing and amusement pier (more detailed history here).

The Pike was, for generations, an amusement park that stuck out into Long Beach’s own chunk of the Pacific, nestled next to the port and to the sea of oil refineries. Today, The Pike is perhaps better known to young Long Beach as a restaurant and bar near 4th and Cherry where DJs spin tunes by Social Distortion (for whom the owner Chris Reece, in the hat, used to play drums), burlesque troupes perform, and Hot Rod lovers converge. The area where the Pike pier sat has become a weird simulacrum that’s still tourist-friendly but filled with a convention center, a P. F. Changs, and a walkway decorated with lights that make it feel like the ghost of the roller coaster from last century. When I lived there, I barely ever went down there, other than to occasionally catch special events at the movie theater.

Anyway, between the EmoGeo conference and quick trips back and forth to LA, I didn’t have the chance to re-frame any of the Ben Irving Long Beach postcards. That was no excuse to omit some personal/professional reflection on the city, though, because I miss it an awful lot these days.

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Bret, me, Abel. An impromptu reunion of The Casual Geographer at The Pike Bar in Long Beach in June. We took about 15 of these, most of them blurry.