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Long Beach: The (Simple) Art of Beautification

11:05 AM PST on December 18, 2012

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.

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.

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.

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