The Plaza (East LB Suburbs)

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By Mike Guardabascio

My neighborhood doesn’t have the history of Pine, or the memories of the Pike.  It doesn’t have the spark of 4th or the posh of 2nd, the grit of the Westside or the glitz of City Hall—but my neighborhood, the Plaza, does have a story.

In 1951, the city of Long Beach purchased 300 acres of undeveloped land, drastically expanding its northeastern corner.  Seeking to house the area’s post-war boom of middle-class blue collar workers, construction magnates Mark Taper, Ben Weingart and Louis Bayer laid out a cookie sheet and cut thousands of homes, forming what would ultimately become Long Beach’s eastern suburbs, and the bulk of Lakewood.  The photos of new homeowners in the years following the housing boom are all nearly identical: young, white families smiling at the black-and-white camera.  Everything about these pictures screams growth: the paint looks wet, there’s a baby in a carriage, and each new house has a sapling planted in front of it, just like the vast swaths of fresh parkland, designated Heartwell and El Dorado.

For the most part, there are two floor plans in the Plaza: a two bedroom/one bathroom where the attached garage sticks out on the right to form an L in the blueprint, and its inverse, with the garage on the left.  This floor plan is so universal that when my family would visit a new friend or classmate’s home in the neighborhood, we could walk in and immediately find our way around.

Inhabiting one of these floor plans, and one of those old photos, is the Fitch family, who lived across the street from me when I was growing up.  Audrey and Jim Fitch moved to Long Beach shortly after Jim’s return from World War II.  As Jim was a career Navy man, they jumped at the chance to buy an affordable home away from the base, with room to stretch and grow and raise a family.

58 years later, Audrey Fitch is still there. Her husband has passed on, her children are grown and raising their own families in the Plaza.  The tree in front of her house is two stories tall, like the rest of the trees on the street, and in the nearby parks—part of why Long Beach is now a Tree City, USA.  And the neighborhood itself has evolved along with the rest of the city.  My neighbors as a child weren’t, for the most part, the families in those old photos.  Yes, there were original owners like the Fitches, but there were gay, Cambodian, Japanese, Hispanic, and African-American families too.  Long Beach is now the most diverse city in the world, and even its suburbs reflect that.

I have been across America, and chosen to come back, so I know: these are not the faces living behind white picket fences in Iowa.  And that’s why the East Long Beach suburbs are different—because they, like the rest of the city, contain all of America’s dream, but all of her complexity, too.

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