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Uptown Long Beach: Bixby Knolls and California Heights

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Long Beach is always associated with the Queen Mary, the Aquarium of the Pacific, the Pike, and Belmont Shore, but there's an equally dynamic area in the northern half of the city. The neighborhoods of Bixby Knolls and California Heights make up what many call "Uptown Long Beach." In the spring of 2015, CicLAvia will even be hosting a Long Beach version passing through the area. This week L.A. Letters highlights the vibrant spirit, historic architecture and emerging bike friendly programs that are revitalizing and redefining these two great Long Beach neighborhoods.

Long Beach's population of over 462,000 people spreads across 51 square miles with many different districts, though some may not be as defined as they are in nearby L.A. The small city of Signal Hill lies in the middle of this, and is completely surrounded by Long Beach. Just north of Signal Hill are the areas of Bixby Knolls and California Heights. They are adjacent, like Echo Park and Silver Lake, and though they are two separate districts they mesh together seamlessly in a symbiotic relationship. Atlantic and Long Beach Boulevard are core arteries for these neighborhoods.

Blair Cohn, the Executive Director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association, tells me that back in the late '40s and '50s Bixby Knolls was really considered the "uptown" district in Long Beach. "Folks came uptown for high end dining, shopping, and services," Cohen says. Bixby Knolls remained well known over the years, but the overall feel was much less kinetic than it is now. Some trace the slow decline back to when the Lakewood Mall was developed and people's shopping patterns changed. The area's homes have always remained in great shape, but the retail district did not become revitalized until the last few years and the emergence of Cohn's Improvement Association.

The roots of the two neighborhoods trace back to the nearby Los Cerritos Ranch House, originally built in 1844. This historic home was built in the last days of California's Mexican era, and was owned by the Bixby family for several generations. Early in the 20th Century, one of the Bixby descendants began selling parcels of the former rancho, to become not only Bixby Knolls and California Heights, but other nearby locations like North Long Beach, Paramount, and Lakewood. The development began in the late 1910s and the Roaring '20s.

The Virginia Country Club is west of Long Beach Boulevard, and on the western side of Bixby Knolls. The adjacent neighborhood, with several streets of large homes, are known for old money and being the location of some of the biggest houses in Long Beach. Bixby Knolls includes a retail pedestrian stretch as well as many homes, whereas California Heights is mostly homes, directly east of Bixby Knolls and west of the Long Beach Airport. California Heights is a bit more modest, but the homes are still notable. California Heights is a Long Beach Historic District and their Neighborhood Association give home and garden tours of local houses built in Spanish Colonial Revival, Period Revival and Craftsman styles.

First Fridays Art Walk | Photo: First Fridays Long Beach
First Fridays Art Walk | Photo: First Fridays Long Beach.   

There are many more layers to the story about the development of these neighborhoods. The best place to acquire books, see exhibits or schedule a tour on the history and geography of Long Beach is the Historical Society of Long Beach on Atlantic in the middle of Bixby Knolls. The catalogue of books on Long Beach has grown quickly over the last few decades; several books celebrate the widespread Midcentury architecture as well as the Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Revival work throughout the city.

Two of the most important architectural firms in Long Beach history are both located in Bixby Knolls on Long Beach Boulevard, a few blocks apart. Hugh Gibbs and Donald Gibbs are a father-son team responsible for building iconic Long Beach sites like the Pyramid at Cal State Long Beach, the Long Beach City Hall, and the California Veterans Memorial State Office Building. Equally well known is Killingsworth, Stricker, Lindgren, Wilson and Associates. Edward Killingsworth designed a number of case study homes in the mid century, and is especially known for designing most of the campus of Cal State Long Beach. Both firms and their well-designed offices still stand in Bixby Knolls and continue their work today, even if the original founders passed in the last decade.

There have been a number of catalysts in the recent resurgence of Bixby Knolls and the micro-neighborhood along Atlantic. The district's mix of family-centric retail, great eateries, and bike-friendly design strikes a chord with contemporary times. More than one resident I spoke with praised the efforts of Blair Cohn and the Bixby Knolls Improvement Association for jumpstarting the neighborhood over the last half decade. Cohn took the job in December 2007. He reminisces that the real work began just after the start of the New Year in early 2008, just as the economy was crashing. In many ways, the difficult times have allowed him to be a bit fearless and very creative.

One of his first moves was to begin the First Friday Art Walk on Atlantic in January 2008. As the event grew bigger and more residents and businesses began participating, it helped quickly escalate the pulse in the walkable district. Atlantic Boulevard has seen a lot of new investment over the last few years. Over the next few months two new restaurants and two craft beer locations are opening up in Bixby Knolls. Cohn also tells that more office space is being leased, too. Cohn takes great pride in helping to revitalize the area because he is a lifelong Long Beach resident.

Blair Cohn

Born and raised in Long Beach, Cohn went to Cubberly, Marshall, and Millikan. His parents have been in the same house in the Plaza neighborhood since 1958. He is an urban alchemist with no shortage of optimism and energy. He defers any credit he receives to hundreds of committed local residents. He says. "There are a lot of good people around who are willing to give sweat equity to keep making things better in the neighborhoods and the business corridors. It's important that organizations, community groups of all kinds, and individuals take the initiative to move some things along." A defining spirit is connecting the neighborhood to the business district. The idea is to live, dine, shop and play together.

Above all, Cohn is a master of making lemons into lemonade. In March 2012, when the City of Long Beach informed him that the large several ton rock that became the "Levitated Mass" exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) would have to pass through Bixby Knolls very slowly on Atlantic over a 24 hour period, he decided to throw a spontaneous giant street party with live music, a DJ, live art, crafts for kids, food, and other festivities. The rock was being moved from Riverside to LACMA. Bixby Knolls called their party, "Rockapalooza."

This type of spontaneity has been a big part of the recent success. "I came in and wanted to do a few things that were non-traditional to reconnect the neighborhood to the district and raise the status of the district again," Cohn says. "We have worked closely with the city for all of the improvements to the area and earned a long-term contract through the Redevelopment Agency for funding to keep the improvements going." The programs are working, and the district is also becoming noteworthy for being especially bike-friendly.

The entire City of Long Beach's goal is to be one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country with an infrastructure of education and events. Bixby Knolls in particular is central in this effort. The popular CicLAvia event will be holding a Long Beach version next spring, traversing through Bixby Knolls and nearby North Long Beach. Titled "Beach Streets," miles of main roads will be closed to car traffic and opened up for people to walk, skate, bike, and enjoy the streets as their own. It was recently announced, and local residents can hardly wait. Cohn tells me, "We plan to include all types of activities in this 'open streets' concepts, from music to larger patios for the businesses, to classes of all types (yoga, gardening), to large chess pieces in the street for people to play."

Another one of their bike friendly programs is Kidical Mass. "It's a fun play on the 'Critical Mass' bike movement," Cohn says. "Here we say 'kids are traffic, too.'" They teach bike safety to families and ride a route through Bixby Knolls and California Heights over a 4.5-mile stretch. "It's all about putting the kids up front, having the families come out for a fun ride together," Cohn says. One local establishment, Georgie's Place, hosts the event and gives out free ice cream to the kids when they finish the ride.

California Heights mural by Art Mortimer | Photo: California Heights Neighborhood Association Facebook
California Heights mural by Art Mortimer | Photo: California Heights Neighborhood Association Facebook.   

This family spirit brought Long Beach State Journalism Professor Tyler Reeb over to California Heights three years ago with his young daughter. Originally from the south side of the city, attending Wilson High two decades ago, Reeb likes the small-town feel of his new neighborhood. He says, "We have block parties on my street every year and my neighbors are some of my best friends. We grow fruits and vegetables and share what we have." He adds, "I've got one neighbor who insists that I borrow his telescope indefinitely so long as I continue to use it with my daughter to look out at the planets and the stars on clear nights."

One more perspective on the area is offered by the Long Beach native and hip hop artist, James Kelley, aka LMNO. Kelley grew up in California Heights and Bixby Knolls during the 1970s, '80s and '90s. Kelley attended Polytechnic, and besides surfing and skating he played games of pick-up basketball in school with future UCLA star Tyus Edney. The racial diversity and geographic placement of the area helped make Kelley the goodwill ambassador that he is. He reflects on his childhood there, "We were cool with the whole city! Atlantic Avenue and Long Beach Boulevard connected us north to south, I had friends all over the city. Bixby Knolls is a gem in the middle."

Kelley has seen families and restaurants come and go, to hear him reminisce about growing up in the area is to hear authentic oral history. He recently told me, "when I think of Bixby Knolls in the '80s I think of Ray & Eddies Ranch Market, the concerts at Somerset Park, The 6ft. Trolls, Longfellow elementary, Hughes Jr. High, riding bikes and skating, Marty and DJ Speed DJing on Falcon, I wrote my first rap on Lime, watching Ron Chatman and the LBS crew skate." Some of these he notes in his song, "1888." Kelley has been an extremely prolific musician with both his crew, the Visionaries, and his own solo work. His rhymes have been on over 20 albums, with a new record, "Preparanoia," dropping later this summer.

There's much more to say about Bixby Knolls and California Heights. The bike friendly programs, art-centric activities, historic architecture, and family feel make the area not only the most progressive place in Long Beach, but one of the most visionary pockets of Southern California, comparable to other forward thinking enclaves across America. Furthermore, this energy has been spreading north up Atlantic and Long Beach Boulevard to the area of North Long Beach, where bike lanes are being constructed, trees are being planted, and several new parks are being built. I was recently driving through North Long Beach and saw a giant banner that read, "Uptown Renaissance."

There are also similar efforts taking place directly south in Signal Hill, with a new park being built on a former oil field. Local residents like Blair Cohn want to make their city better, and the energy is contagious. Salute to the rising spirit of Bixby Knolls and California Heights; this pocket of Uptown Long Beach offers a window into 21st Century progressive urbanism and remains a critical touchstone in the topography of L.A. Letters.

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