For more than a century, Long Beach has been tying swaths of its identity and chunks of its fortune to a succession of strange and incoherent events, icons and attractions—a box of chocolates that has included a beached whale, an international beauty pageant, a British luxury liner, an auto race and a gigantic fish tank.
Over the years, the collection—eclectic, artistic, eccentric or idiotic; you make the call—has provided can't-stop-looking insight into the chronic fantasy/inferiority complex that somehow seems to beset every generation of Long Beach leaders. The condition is typically driven by the conviction the city must pursue some kind of international profile or tourist draw to put itself on the map between Los Angeles and Orange County.
Recently, however, there are signs these symptoms are relaxing. There is evidence that Long Beach residents are increasingly aware and appreciative of the potential of their own city, an attitude manifested by the homegrown events that are blooming in neighborhoods across Long Beach, from First Friday's monthly party along Atlantic Avenue in Bixby Knolls to the retro-vibed collection of shops, bars and general hipness that flourishes on Fourth Street to the massive insanity of downtown's Zombie Walk.
Into that mix now comes perhaps the most ambitiously transformative project yet. A consortium of city staff, professional consultants and particularly skilled residents is cultivating a wide-ranging but meticulously executed plan: to use bicycles as day-to-day transportation in and around Long Beach. The organizers are using federal grants to fund the infrastructure and the education. And the early returns—okay, they've been at this for three years, but when you're talking massive social change, that's early—look impressive.
Downtown is garlanded with dedicated bike lanes—created by taking a lane away from cars and tricking them out with their own traffic signals—that shepherd eastbound traffic on Broadway and westbound traffic on Third Street. In Belmont Shore, the crowded and colorful Second Street shopping district is accommodated by so-called “sharrows”: lanes shared by bikes and cars and identifiable by a stunning streak of green paint. Throughout the city are experiments in such traffic-calming techniques as bike boulevards and traffic circles.
And yet, there are some growing pains. . . . Aren't there?
Charlie Gandy, the preppy pied piper of Long Beach's bicycling mission, a guy who almost always has something nice to say, gets quiet. He has been at this a long time, and he defines his objective—social change—long range, and he knows that takes a long time. Gandy is careful. He's patient. But he also knows the value of a well-placed opinion. And besides, sometimes he gets pissed off.
Fact is, Long Beach's downshift into its burgeoning bike culture has been a little choppy—hasn't it, Charlie?
“It has been an extraordinary story,” Gandy says with somber satisfaction.
“It's just that I am surprised at some of the institutions that have been so slow to embrace this stuff,” he finally continues. “But there are people whose knee-jerk reaction is to be opposed to anything new.”
He pauses again.
“I'm from Texas,” Gandy begins again, “so I know a lot about backwater—and we're a long way from that. But people who resist change just because it's change? I find it frustrating in a city that's supposed to be an innovative city.”
No doubt, a cross-section of Long Beach can constitute a tough crowd—highly suspicious, deeply cynical, reflexively negative—and many of them haven't kept secret their disapproval of the biking makeover, which has been expressed with rolling eyes, insults and anger. These people can be jerks, but their reactions probably aren't knee-jerk. Their emotions seem more complex than contrarian.
Long Beach has a history of big-concept projects that didn't pan out, and many still weigh on the city's ego and economy. Over time, these experiences tend to translate the language of opportunity into words of warning. It's a place where a proposal can feel like a con, a plan feels like a scheme, and an investment feels like a sucker's bet. And when these projects are rolled up in some fresh civic identity—icon, slogan, festival, whatever—it's doubling down on the misery. Resistance? This sounds like the recipe.
But at a moment when the people of Long Beach might be calmed and convinced by a clear and simple vision, they're getting a flashback to the old formula—the one that ties together those swaths of identity and chunks of fortune—combining the Long Beach brand with the bicycle project's goal with a slogan that seems to describe a double hallucination.
“Long Beach: The Most Bike-Friendly City In America.”
Which, of course, isn't true.
Says Gandy: “Yet.”
* * *
It was about three years ago that Long Beach was first officially proclaimed the Most Bike-Friendly City In America. It happened at an April 2009 meeting of the Long Beach City Council, a notoriously fractious group that somehow transformed its governing duties into a christening ceremony of such audacious harmony that its vote on Long Beach's Most Bicycle-Friendliness was unanimous. Hardly anybody noticed.
Seven months later, it was a different story. When City Council members convened for the regular 5 p.m. start of their Nov. 17, 2009, meeting, so did a set of circumstances that drew the first big attention to Long Beach's Most Bike-Friendly City In America-ness. And the first critical responses.
It was the inaccuracy of the slogan's claim that created the problem. There was no proof that Long Beach's streets were any less dangerous or hostile than any other place in America. The proclamation somehow incited memories—or perceptions, anyway—of a Long Beach style of civic leadership out of touch with basic responsibilities, not to mention constituents . . . and how about honesty?
On top of that, rather than being in council chambers at 5 o'clock to gavel the meeting to order, Mayor Bob Foster was outside the entrance to City Hall, milling around with the rest of the elected officials.
All of them appeared to be blowing it off. Each was paired with a bicycle, a prop for the portrait a photographer was nearly ready to shoot, and as a bank of lights washed the plaza in a movie-premiere glow, they chatted and posed for snapshots. Hanging above them—freshly bolted into City Hall's concrete wall over the weekend—was a sculpture of an iconic pennyfarthing bicycle, rendered by artist Patrick Vogel from parts culled from the police department's stolen-bike graveyard. It was underlined by a shiny metal banner engraved with those same eight words: “Long Beach, The Most Bicycle-Friendly City In America.”
In quick succession, the photos were taken and the council members returned to their chamber to begin plowing diligently through the entire agenda, continuing long into the night. But the scene endured. It prompted online comments about unsavory ways city officials can play the system or constituents for perks. It revived memories of the Queen Mary operator who curried favor with officials by providing them with free use of the ship's facilities, usually for political fund-raisers, but also for private parties. It ignited criticism of the Aquarium of the Pacific's rotating offer of access to City Council members, who can cozy up to constituents by providing free admission to residents of their districts.
But bad impressions went even deeper than that, creating the sense that this slogan had become the latest in the long list of those employed over the years as synonyms for Long Beach. City leaders have always longed for a larger-than-life image. Evidence of their desperate search goes back at least to 1897, when a 63-foot finback whale strayed into shallow surf. A few of the locals killed it, picked its carcass clean and displayed the skeleton downtown at Lincoln Park, nicknaming the trophy “Minnie the Whale”; the editor of a local paper proclaimed, “Long Beach is now in possession of [a] wonder of the world.” For most of the time since, Minnie's bones have been in the Los Angeles Natural History Museum storage facility in Vernon.
That's led to a lot of nicknames over the years: Queen of the Beaches, Iowa-By-the-Sea, Queen City, the International City, Many Unique Neighborhoods and One Great City, and now the one the bicycle folks just got.
Gandy concedes that Long Beach is absolutely not the Most Bicycle-Friendly City In America and insists deception was never the intention.
“The supporting theory is that it is an aspiration—the direction the city wants to go,” he says. “I come from Austin, which in the early 1990s passed a resolution claiming it was the Live Music Capital of the World. That wasn't exactly the case at the time, but it certainly came true—Austin City Limits and South By Southwest are just the most obvious proof.”
The payoff, Gandy says, has already begun for Long Beach's Bicycle Friendliness, attracting business partners, donations, volunteers and energy.
“It's served as an interesting magnet for unexpected opportunities, businesses stepping forward to ask what they can do to support us,” he says. “That's the magic of that big, hairy goal.”
He makes a case for the bicycle project based on reasons ranging from environmental benefits to the generation of business and tourism to improving Long Beach's profile as a great city. The Most Bicycle-Friendly City In America designation may be magical, but it doesn't seem quite so imaginative when you realize the City Council's unanimous vote to claim it as Long Beach's brand came only six months after its unanimous vote in late 2007 to market Long Beach as the Aquatic Capital of America.
But approving the aquatic title didn't require the City Council to look any further than its pitchmen, the passel of old, rich, yacht-club members so influential they arranged for the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine to prepare their PowerPoint presentation. Most were friends of Chris Pook, founder of the Long Beach Grand Prix, and some were board members of the Long Beach Sea Festival that Pook had been running for the city—in fact, running without a contract, thanks to then-city manager Jerry Miller, who disobeyed explicit orders from the council to do that favor.
The Aquatic Capital of America designation was such a done deal that the council seemed ready to ignore the most obvious problem with the name—the then-raging controversy over the Long Beach Breakwater, which had made the city aquatically famous for turning its waterfront into a bedpan.
Finally, council member Rae Gabelich made a delicate attempt. “I would think this is a wonderful thing for us to strive to become,” Gabelich began, before cautioning that the title might come across as a little “self-serving” and suggesting that using it to market the city “would be a little disingenuous” at the moment.
“I'm wondering how Miami, Orlando or Fort Lauderdale, or even San Diego, would feel about us taking that on and adopting it for ourselves,” Gabelich speculated.
Council member Gary DeLong—currently running for Congress in the 47th District—jumped right on that one with a calculated cluelessness intended to blow questions of ethics out of the water. “I think what they would think is, 'Darn, I wish we had thought of it first,'” DeLong said.
But Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske was next, and she had no interest in wordplay, instead taking the point-missing straight to its illogical extreme. “What would San Diego and others think?” she asked, then answered, “Who cares?”
Actually, Schipske showed she cared a little bit about what other cities might think, specifically in case they think about using the “Aquatics Capital of America” title, too. She recommended Long Beach trademark the name.
* * *
Meanwhile . . . um . . . Long Beach? Biketown USA? Buried deep beneath a budget deficit, surrounded by recession, the city is all a-buzzing—and okay, all a-bitching, too—about a major civic cycling makeover that puts it in the conversation about where everybody goes next. Where did this come from?
“It wasn't me,” says Gandy. “I was attracted to Long Beach because the people I met here had their act together.”
Gandy met a lot of people—big surprise—including council members Suja Lowenthal and Robert Garcia, Andrea White-Kjuss and John Case of Bikestation, and publicist Melissa Balmer. They were a cross-section of politicians, activists, insiders, business owners and a lot of folks who like to ride bikes. Gandy is especially focused on that last category.
“Like Saul Alinsky says, 'Only two things are powerful in politics: organized money or organized voices,'” Gandy offers. “My job is to organize the voices of the cyclists to be heard in the political process.”
In this case, the voice of one cyclist in particular was already pretty well-heard in Long Beach's political process. In fact, it's fair to wonder—and people certainly do—how much Long Beach's focus on bike culture can be traced to the fact that city manager Pat West is a cyclist.
Yet once those voices are heard, the conversation can go anywhere. The movement being enabled by this bicycle makeover has no limits, either. It ain't just about bikes—but nothing's going to get very far without them.
It's about the story a clean, convenient and local bicycle-transportation system will tell about Long Beach.
“It's a narrative that's attractive to young people and people with disposable incomes,” says Gandy.
It's about the options that will be created by the bike-share systems that will soon be installed.
“The people at the Convention and Visitors Bureau are very excited,” says Gandy “They see it as a way to get conventioneer dollars.”
It's about the opportunities that can be created and increased for existing businesses through the needs that will be created by all the active lives.
“It's called economic gardening—instead of only trying to bring new companies into the city, we look at the businesses that exist and support those that can expand quickly,” he concludes. “When those people start making money, they aren't likely to move. It's all about finding people with talent and passion and supporting them.”
This article appeared in print as “Biketown USA? Long Beach reinvents itself (again) by hitching its civic reputation to cycling culture.”