Long Beach: Say What You Will, But the Promenade Is Complete and It’s Completely Awesome

The artwork of JR was plastered along the Promenade following his presentation at the T.E.D. Conference in Long Beach. Photo courtesy of T.E.D

Firstly, we will (finally) have free WiFi not just in our libraries but in our parks as well, expanding the city’s offering of free Internet access that already exists at the Long Beach Airport and City Hall.

Just as cool is that one can enjoy said WiFi when it is installed at the (also finally) complete $11.7 million Promenade in Downtown. And despite one’s gripes about specificities of the Promenade, it undoubtedly one thing: absolutely cool.

Its coolness goes beyond what used to be the dismally dark, cold stretch of concrete–reminiscent of the Civic Center, ahem, ahem–that eventually turned into a wide (yes), open (Yes), mixed-use (YES) green (YES!), and accessible (YEESSS!) space of use. It goes beyond the sad dissolution of the Redevelopment Agency that developed the plan in 2007 but somehow the Promenade pulled through (Oh, Acres of Books, why were you not one more block over?). It goes beyond the simple badass-ness that is the BikeStation. It goes beyond the fact that it is home to the first park ever named after a LGBT leader, in this case Harvey Milk. It goes beyond the fact that T.E.D. conference artist JR, after his presentation at the Performing Arts Center, used the Promenade as his own canvas.

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Its coolness even goes beyond the so-called pejorative aspects of the Promenade. It goes beyond the electric-fly-zapper-blue ground light rods which greet every cross street along the stretch of the Promenade, lights that honestly make one feel hallucinogenic if one stares at them for too long. It goes way beyond the almost incomprehensible, two-legged metal Craig Cree Stone sculptures that look like 1990 versions of the attacking flowers from Alice in Wonderland (one can call Carl Cheng’s Aerial Plaza, right next to the Stone pieces on the south block, boring but at least it doesn’t feel like the art is about to attack you). It goes beyond the sad shuttering of Edison Theatre because the building next to it doesn’t fit the building code for Cal State Long Beach, who used to house their graduate theatre crew there.

The reason the Promenade is a holding more coolness than an ice cream cone is because the people made–and make–it cool. It is a redundant point to make that one can build the most beautiful public space in the world but if it isn’t actually used by the public, it’s quite the equivalent of locking away an entire museum’s art in a hidden storage–but it doesn’t make it any less true.

And the brave entrepreneurs who saw the potential moved in and did what Long Beach does best: Long Beach.

There is a reason, after all, that places like the Pike and City Place are urbanightmares and it’s because Long Beach is inherently allergic to big-box stores and chains that go beyond fast food. What are the most packed places at Marina Pacifica? Tantalum and Forbidden City; not Acapulco and Starbucks. What’s more popular–by far–in the Shore? Nicks on 2nd, Simmzy’s, and Tavern on 2; not Lucille’s or Jamba Juice.

This similar vein runs deep in the Promenade, whose only major chain is Starbucks and that’s because it’s attached to the Renaissance Hotel (honestly, folks, if you’re ever at the Renaissance, just go to Sip–even for a coffee).

It starts, undoubtedly and single-handedly, with good beer. That’s right: Travis Ensling of Congregation Ale House and Gabe Gordon and Lena Perelman of Beachwood BBQ & Brewing made the Promenade not just cool–but desirable, as in you wished you were within stumbling distance of these two craft beer houses of worship.

Congy–as it is affectionately called amongst its regulars–and Beachwood not only broadened Long Beach’s palates for hops and malts (dive bars across the LBC have taken a hint that Bud is not always a buddy), but drove the crowd into the Promenade that, at least beforehand, was only seen in the conceptual drawings. And even better: they have drawn other businesses.

Garry Muir of Downtown L.A. wine staple Corkbar caught the whiff of brews and opened The Stave. Think old-school Euro meets Bauhaus cleanliness.

Michael Dene–Italian food guru who shocked the culinary world when Zagat called his LB joint in Naples the Best Italian Restaurant in the L.A. region–has also got an itch for the Promenade. He’ll be opening up a Michael’s Pizzeria, his second in Long Beach, right next to Beachwood in just a few weeks.

Julia Huang, who heads one of the most powerful female-led marketing agencies in California, has made the former Psychic Temple building her new headquarters. Yes, I mean the building that was once the home of a cult, then a speakeasy, and then a brother–clearly, the awesomeness only continues. Set to open at the end of this year via the development work of Jan van Dijs (the urbanerd who altered the East Village on 4th and just so happened to restore the Art Theatre to its former glory), the Broadway joint not only holds on to a piece of history that city was set on getting rid of, but sits just across from the Edison Theatre and Congy.

Design wise, implementation wise, aesthetics wise: the Promenade has its pluses and minuses–though much more of the former, even on just those terms (c’mon, the odes to Long Beach history that are the manhole covers are epic). But what eradicates any of those negatives, by and far, are the people and businesses who have utilized the spaces through the simple owning of their own ideas rather than the drab and tired regurgitation of That Which Already Exists.

Go. Have a pizza (from one of the best Italian chefs around). Then have a beer from the only L.A. area brewery medaled at this year’s Great American Beer Festival (that would be Beachwood and for those who don’t know of the prestige: it’s the nation’s most respected beer competition, with 4000 beers from 580 breweries). Then have another beer, perhaps an Italian craft brew (yeah, Italy does craft beer and Congregation has had it). Then have some charcuterie and vino a la Stave. Then some sushi at Wokano.

The Promenade is your Downtown Long Beach oyster.