Long Beach: The (Simple) Art of Beautification

Oftentimes, we feel far too overwhelmed with the act of bettering our neighborhoods. There’s a sense of futility, particularly paired with the economic crisis, that overshadows creative and innovative ways to handle even the most simplest of beautification tasks.

4th Street Before...

Say, for example, a sidewalk. Many of us know that fences, barriers, bridges, and sidewalks serve as canvases, both socially and business-wise. They foster not just aesthetic appreciation, but generate that all-powerful triad of foot traffic, communal pride, and civic engagement (hence the Chamber of Commerce’s support to remove five spaces in San Luis Obispo’s downtown to make room for sidewalk expansion). But when you notice that a pothole hasn’t even been patched along a main drag—let alone an over-taken-by-weeds, dead grass, dirt patched stretch of sidewalk—the sense of futility is not only understandable but far too common. One wants to see it better, but the task of taking on that endeavor eventually wins.

Enter Eric Gray.

...and After. Both Pics: Brian Addison

A sales executive by day and Long Beach urban guru superhero at all other hours, Gray’s approach to making our streets more livable and accessible is simple: grasp the project while being simultaneously creative and smart. And while these two seemingly so-common-they’re-uncommon concepts are, they are not easy to come by since it takes work—that larger fish in the pond that is the epicenter of one’s futile perspective on getting beautification projects done.

But Gray has tangible proof, right on 4th Street, that his philosophy—which essentially eschews postmodern pretense and opts for that old-school modern concept of teamwork—ultimately works.

Undoubtedly, Fingerprints and Berlin altered the East Village Arts District when they moved into 420 E. 4th Street, overtaking what used to the former Lyons Arts Supply building and turning it into a co-mingling space which shoppers and eaters alike can traverse.

“[Fingerprints and Berlin] basically brought the quality of life up for residents in and around Downtown,” explained Gray. “After 4th Street started becoming alive, I noticed the two parkways to the east of the businesses needed to be fixed up and if they were fixed up, it would expand the revitalization of the block.”

His approach was simple, like his philosophy: use the Downtown Residential Council as well as the First District Council Office as a backbone, incorporate local businesses (Berlin owner Kerstin Kansteiner immediately jumped on board as did round-the-corner flower shop Primal Flower, who provided the succulents, and South Coast Supply for the decomposed granite) and approach the beautification process from a low-maintenance and -cost angle.

What this simple project and its success brings forth is a question which has been the battleground for many: Is it the community’s responsibility or that of the Council to enhance the quality of a neighborhood? And in a time when we want so easily to point a finger to blame for our woes, Gray once again goes for old-school modern: both.

“One could argue that it is solely the community’s job to approach the city for these types of projects but I disagree. People in the community have full-time jobs, families, spouses, responsibilities—and do not always have time to navigate through the processes.”

But this doesn’t necessitate doing nothing.

In other words: drop the nihilist futility. Gray—as are many within Long Beach—know, as this project proves, that there are monies available, be it through community groups, city offices, businesses themselves… You just need to do that very un-contemporary thing of physically reaching out for partners.

  • Tara

    “Urban guru superhero” is absolutely right. Eric Gray is exactly the person Downtown Long Beach needs to help turn itself around. Kudos to Eric for his tireless work to better the community at large!

  • Diannetmcninch

    Thank you for posting this story, it shows that one committed individual, reaching out to others can make a large difference, by creating many small projects that others can be a part of, without large personal time or financial committment on their part. Eric has lived this philosphy and created much success and beauty throughout the downtown area of Long Beach.

  • That project looks awesome. 

    I wish we could get this idea across in the wider transportation/urban planning arena — that beauty/aesthetics actually matter, and even the non-rich deserve to be able to access it — to live in beautiful places, etc.

    I always think of the excellent TED Talk by JHK:

    The public realm in America has two roles: it is the dwelling place of our civilization and our civic life, and it is the physical manifestation of the common good. And when you degrade the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life that take place there.The public realm comes mostly in the form of the street in America

  • first time home buyer

    Jim Danno is a big government pain in the butt. he and the rest of the Willmore City Heritage Association want to run around and control what people do with their private property. Long Beach is an old working class community, not a historical site. first time home buyers be ware. while 70% of people put bars on their windows, Jim Danno and co want to make sure you install $15,000 wood frame windows, check with him before you paint your house, etc. or he will “call the city” the only thing Jim Danno and WCHA do is keep long beach properties run down. Property owners cant make reasonable improvements to THIER property because all construction has to meet a ridiculous historical standard, costing thousands more than would be required. This guy and people like him are the problem! get a life, help the poor and starving people sleeping in the streets of this “historical city” not build a little garden.

  • fred4evr

    First Time Home Buyer, when you buy your second house, do more research on the neighborhood you’ll be living in.

    The Willmore area is not only a historical district, it was the first neighborhood to be designated a historic district in Long Beach. People in the Willmore district care not just about their own private properties, but their neighborhood as a whole. Caring about your neighborhood means neighbors are more likely to keep their neighborhood clean and well cared for. If they notice someone suspicion-looking prowling around their or your house, they’re more likely to report it.

    In a historic district, it also means keeping your home historically accurate, otherwise it compromises both the home’s historical legacy and the value of the entire neighborhood (i.e., if everyone does whatever they want to their homes, the neighborhood will no longer be considered a historic district, which could make the neighborhood less desirable to live in and lower property values). And it does make economic sense to live in a historic district http://www.preservationnation.org/information-center/sustainable-communities/green-lab/oldersmallerbetter.

    Sometimes when you buy something, there are rules and restrictions governing that purchase (i.e., buying a car means you need to have a driver’s license, insurance, etc.). If you’d prefer not to feel “controlled” by such rules, make sure the thing you are purchasing has as little restrictions as possible and then everyone will be happy.