CTFF Co-founder, Director, Featured in KCET

On Location: North Long Beach

By Mike Sonksen |

July 24, 2015


Atlantic Theaters in North Long Beach was demolished to make way for a new library | Photo: Cinematreasures.org.

The city of Long Beach is very similar to its northern neighbor, Los Angeles, with its many eclectic and diverse districts. In the last few years I have written about Cambodia TownBixby Knolls, and the historic architecture of Downtown Long Beach. This week L.A. Letters focuses on an underappreciated but equally fascinating section of the city: North Long Beach.

North Long Beach is located north of Bixby Knolls, and south of Compton and
Paramount. The district’s eastern border is Lakewood and on the northeastern edge is Bellflower. Many Long Beach residents try to lump Bixby Knolls into North Long Beach, but they are two separate districts. North Long Beach really begins north of Del Amo and it is much more working class than Bixby Knolls. The 91 freeway is on the northern edge, but there’s a small slice of North Long Beach that is north of the 91 before it becomes Compton. On the western edge is the 710 and Los Angeles River, but there is also a small triangle-shaped portion of North Long Beach that is west of the freeway and river. The two biggest streets in the area are Atlantic and Long Beach Boulevard, but other significant thoroughfares include Cherry, Artesia Boulevard, Del Amo and South Street.

Similar to so much of Southern California, the roots of North Long Beach are agricultural. The landscape began in the early 20th Century as open pastures of asparagus, sugar beets, and dairy farms. For much of the 20th Century the residents were truck drivers, shipyard employees, and factory workers.

Now, North Long Beach is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in all of Southern California, with sizable populations of African-Americans, Cambodians, and Latinos. The current population is just under 95,000. According to census figures, about 54% are Hispanic, 21% are Black, 11% are Asian and about 8.7% are non-Hispanic white. There is also a sizable Samoan and Tongan population. My mom taught at Jane Adams elementary school in North Long Beach for 15 years, from the mid-1970s until 1990. She told me that when she started there, the school was widely known across Long Beach for being the most diverse elementary in the district.

The neighborhood itself is a patchwork landscape that is urban and suburban simultaneously. Well-kept houses exist on quiet tree-lined streets, and a block over there may be small apartments, pawn shops, and liquor stores. Over the years I have driven through North Long Beach countless times and have had many friends that have lived and worked in different corners of the district.

Marcella Carlson, born in 1938, lived most of her early life in North Long Beach. “I was born in Long Beach, California, at the Bixby Knolls Maternity Hospital,” she says. “My first memory of North Long Beach was living in Carmelitos Housing Project. We lived near some of my mother’s family. I was in Kindergarten, at Jane Adams Elementary.” The Carmelitos Housing Project, still located in North Long Beach just west of Orange Avenue and in between Del Amo and Market Avenue, was built at the end of the Great Depression just before the start of World War Two. The project has undergone many ups and downs over the years, but it is currently in better shape than ever and now, and is known for a large community garden just east of Atlantic.

Carlson remembers the days in her early childhood when much of North Long Beach was open space and the landscape was not as packed with houses. Her father was in the military and after the war finished, they bought a home at 65th Street and Cherry Avenue, about two miles north of Carmelitos. She went to McKinley Elementary School and remembers riding the bus to get there. Her dad was an iron worker and her mom worked at her grandmother’s Mexican restaurant. One of her strongest memories from her childhood was the heavy fog that blanketed North Long Beach during the cold months every year. “One year it was so thick,” she recalls that her dad “walked in front of the car to find our way home. Today, I rarely see fog.”

During the 1950s and into the ’60s, the district’s population continued to increase, and both the 710 and 91 freeways were built through the area. More homes were built and many apartment buildings also emerged. The population for many years had been working class whites and many from Midwestern states like Arkansas and Oklahoma. As surrounding areas like Compton became more African-American in the 1970s, North Long Beach did gradually as well.

‘Harmony’ mural in North Long Beach | Photo: Councilmember Rex Richardson Facebook

Reverend Leon Wood has been a minister at two different churches in North Long Beach over the last few decades. He tells me that the neighborhood is now “in transition.” Wood wants more collective action and he does his best to connect all of the different groups. He says that the Samoan and Tongan population are his “forgotten people.” He says this because though they have a significant presence in the area, they are not as politically visible as the Latino, African-American, or Cambodian populations. He has a few Tongan godchildren that he does his best to look after and help out. Wood and his wife run a nonprofit organization called “Success in Challenges,” a “grass-roots social service agency” that serves the Long Beach area.

Wood works with all segments of the district. On the day I met with him, he had just finished meeting with a local gang leader. Wood also works closely with city officials and prominent businessmen. He tells me he is not interested in judging people, as he’s too busy making a difference and he does his best to advocate for those that don’t have a voice. He hopes that community members in North Long Beach and across the city can become a “united team for progress.” He cares deeply for the young people of North Long Beach, and tells me incredulously that “some of the youngsters of North Long Beach have never even seen the water five miles south down Atlantic.” At the same time, he does his best to instill their entrepreneurial spirit. “We’re not in the position for leisure,” he says. “It’s time for hard work.”

Wood is keenly aware of historical trends and tells me that “gang activity follows the employment cycle. When industry moves out, gangs move in.” For this reason and more, his nonprofit offers employment referral services, job placement assistance, tutoring, and personal, career, and family counseling. Over the years Wood’s programs have been sponsored by organizations like the Long Beach Transit, St. Mary’s Hospital, and the Port of Long Beach, among many others. Over the course of the afternoon I spent with him, I saw him greeted warmly by dozens of diverse local residents.

The educator and poet Sarah Tatro grew up in North Long Beach. She moved there in October of 1986 after moving numerous times and attending eight different elementary schools. She recently told me, “After living as transients for several years, North Long Beach was a middle class haven in my 12 year old eyes. To say the least, it was the first place I lived long enough to feel like home.” She attended Lindberg Junior High, and then Jordan High School. Her family lived on Osgood Street, a half a block from Deforest Park, which runs along the L.A. River bed.

Tatro spent a lot of my time riding her bike and walking her dog in the park or up on the riverbed. The neighborhood provided enough safety for her to provide spaces for her writing, but “it was also full of streets you didn’t walk down — day motels, drug dens, crying babies in front yards, gang affiliations, kids trying to posture themselves against threats. We all survived in our own ways. I tried a few crowds: skateboarders, cheerleaders, drama kids, beach bums, death-rockers, and even the Christian rockers.”

The longer Tatro lived there, the more aware she became of the social class levels of the surrounding neighborhoods. “Lakewood was a couple miles east and was just one class above ours,” she remembers. “Bixby Knolls was a couple miles south and was full of older, more affluent families. Compton, to the north and west of us, already had a reputation for being ruled by gangs. North Long Beach was somewhere in the middle of it all — a mix of grit and family homes.”

The neighborhood was a big influence on her and she was discovering music by groups like The Cure, The Smiths, and New Order. She wandered around the park with her dog and tried to write song lyrics in her head. “Since I have zero musical training or talent,” Tatro acknowledges, “these lyrics became poems. I wrote about other people’s drug use or suicide attempts. I wrote about my own invisibility and longing for love.” Her youth in North Long Beach led to her becoming a writer filled with empathy. “I’m not afraid to speak painful truths. When people share their darkest corners, I don’t flinch. It’s all beautiful, the grit and softness of life,” she says.

Though the Anaheim Street corridor, located three plus miles south of North Long Beach, is known as Cambodia Town, there is a significant amount of Cambodians living in North Long Beach since the 1980s. Prach Ly, the well-known Cambodian activist and hip-hop artist, spent most of his childhood in North Long Beach. His family lived in an apartment at 69th Street and Long Beach Boulevard from the time he was about 7 to 17. The building is two blocks south of the Compton-Long Beach border. Ly attended Jordan High School, and credits his love of hip-hop to growing up surrounded by it. Ly recently drove me around his old stomping grounds and also pointed out apartment buildings where Cambodians lived. The one he grew up in was a building with a Cambodian manager, a fact that encouraged his parents to move there.

Aerial view of Jordan High School | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ly reminisced while we drove down Long Beach Boulevard. “Before the iPad and Xbox we played outside a lot. Hide-n-seek, cop-n-robbers, kick the can, marbles, throwing coins. We even played tackle football on cemented concrete.” Growing up in North Long Beach during the late 1980s and early 1990s was at times intense for Ly. “I’ve been jumped, stabbed, shot at, caught in a middle of a drive by. It got to the point where I was immune to the violence,” he recalls.

In spite of all the trauma he faced and all the struggles he went through, Ly remains upbeat and optimistic. “A lot of things have changed in North Long Beach, not just in North Long Beach but throughout Long Beach, and it’s for the better,” he says. It’s cleaner and safer. I’d like to personally thank the city officials and acknowledge the police department in doing so. And the people and citizens of Long Beach for making the change within themselves by helping to be the change. Change start from within.” Ly prides himself on his ability to reach out to others and to be positive in the face of negativity.

Two years ago Ly co-founded the Cambodia Town Film Festival with his friend, the filmmaker Caylee So, who lives in North Long Beach with her husband. A few years ago the film she made for her Masters’ Thesis at Chapman College won the top prize. Ly and So hope to highlight Cambodian cinema because Cambodian arts, music and film were nearly destroyed during the Killing Fields. “A quarter of our population was either murdered or starved to death,” Ly says. “The Khmer Rouge regime was on a mission to turn back time, no social class, and declared their takeover as ‘Year Zero.”‘ Ly takes his role very seriously as an artist and activist. He’s glad that he can make a difference. “We are the children of the ‘Killing Fields’ and Long Beach being the largest population of Cambodians outside of Southeast Asia,” Ly notes, “we feel like we have a responsibility to make a change.”

Caylee So is encouraged by seeing Cambodian-American youth in North Long Beach, “embracing their dual cultural identities.” One of the biggest intentions of their film festival is to “Increase the visibility of the Cambodian community, especially through the arts.” This year’s Cambodia Town Film Festival will be held on September 3 to 6.

Prach Ly also introduced me to Suely Saro, a Cambodian-American woman who works as a field representative for Senator Ricardo Lara of the 33rd District. Saro says, “The increasing number of Cambodians moving to North Long Beach creates a relationship with Cambodia Town. Cambodians influence neighbors and friends in North Long Beach to shop, eat, and hangout in Cambodia Town, and also vice-versa.” She told me that on April 17, 2015, the Cambodian Genocide Remembrance Day was conducted in Uptown Long Beach.

On the corner of Atlantic and Artesia Boulevard is Jordan High School. In years past the school had a bad reputation, but there’s been big improvements over the last several years. Tiffaney Mocsary Gardea has taught at Jordan for 10 years. For the last five years she has been the lead teacher for their “Excellence Through the Arts,” program. Gardea told me that when she first started they had a huge turnover in principals, with almost one per year, but then they switched the school over to a credit recovery campus and “We increased our graduation by about 100 students.” She remembers, “One student told a heart wrenching story at graduation about being ‘just another statistic on the streets’ until she realized with the credit recover campus she actually had a chance. She did it, she pulled through, and was the first in her family to graduation.”

Gardea has been teaming up with other teachers to create authentic real world experiences for their students. They have worked with representatives from the toy industry for a toy design project that the students really love. “One of our graduating seniors may even be able to make his toy design a reality, and our business advisory board can help make that happen,” she says. “I love going to work in North Long Beach where I know I can really make a difference. We are all trying to make a difference for the better at Jordan.”

Another group in North Long Beach doing their part to improve the area is the Uptown Business District. Located on Atlantic near 56th Street, the group works with local stakeholders, clergy, and community organizations. I briefly met with Sean Duren, their Executive Director, who told me that they are working with Rex Richardson, the Long Beach 9th District Councilmember, on the “North Long Beach Whole Village Initiative.” This program aims to improve outcomes and conditions for boys and young men of color. The program includes after-school workshops, mentoring, college readiness, and opportunities for jobs and internships.

In the next year, a new library will be built at 58th and Atlantic. The 25,000 square foot facility will be state of the art and a focal point for the community. There is also a new fire station coming, and the Deforest Wetlands Restoration, which will convert 34 acres of overgrown vegetation into land for public use. The wetlands will be for both wildlife habitat and hiking in the area just east of the Los Angeles River, north of South Street.

In 2009, a local group of educators and writers published an anthology of nonfiction essays, poetry, oral history, and fiction about North Long Beach. Edited by Rachel Potucek, the collection includes over 50 writers and over 30-plus paintings and photographs accompanying the text. The book is bursting with community pride. A short essay celebrates the multicultural mix of kids at the skate park at Houghton Park, just south of Jordan High School. Another piece laments the loss of the movie palaces in the area, and one memorializes the long gone Dooley’s Hardware Store that was on Long Beach Boulevard for so many years. Moreover the collection highlights little known facts like how Long Beach Boulevard was one called American Avenue, and that North Long Beach was once called Virginia City in its earliest days. The book’s proceeds were all donated to the Fairfield YMCA, serving youth in families in the North Long Beach community.

Recently Def Jam Recordings signed the young rapper Vince Staples, who grew up in North Long Beach, near Ramona Park. Staples has a song called, “Norf, Norf,” about growing up in the area. Though Snoop Dogg grew up in Long Beach, he is from the Central District and went to Poly High School, significantly south of North Long Beach. Staples is one of the hottest young rappers in the game these days and he proudly claims North Long Beach. His debut album was released last month.

North Long Beach is not often mentioned when one thinks of the greater Long Beach area, but the district is a soulful, diverse area with a bright future. There is a large group of committed citizens doing their part to improve their district. Salute to North Long Beach for being a dynamic neighborhood in the geography of L.A. Letters.