- Greggory Moore
Typically Long Beachers have plenty to say—good and bad—about the city we call home. But what impressions does it make on others, particularly those rare individuals who have both spent a lot of time in Long Beach and have a lot with which to compare it?
The thought came to mind while speaking with Jimi Vesely at the end of his recent four-month stay with us. A native of the Czech Republic who attended university in Edinburgh and has traveled throughout the United States and Europe, the 26-year-old Vesely has stayed in Long Beach for at least one month nearly a dozen times since 2000.
The bottom line is that he loves Long Beach. But he’s seen it change for both better and worse and finds as much to criticize as to praise.
Long Beach was not Vesely’s first experience of the United States. He lived in Claremont (for which he retains a fondness) for two years in the mid 1990s. When his parents split up towards the end of the decade, Vesely went back to the Czech Republic, while his father purchases a house at Orange Avenue and 2nd Street. Thus did Vesely’s first strong impression of Long Beach center around the ocean, which was only a couple of blocks away.
“Even though I’m not really big on water, going to the beach, enjoying the sand and the waves….”
At this he catches himself and laughs. “You don’t get many waves here because of the [breakwater],” he continues. “But still, for someone coming from Europe, you have the ocean at your fingertips. Even if you’re not big into water, at first it overwhelms you. You’re like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.'”
He recalls that when other children heard where he lived, they would refer to the neighborhood as a “ghetto,” a perception that puzzled him even then. To him the side streets were a playground, with he and his brothers often bicycling and roller-blading all throughout the immediate area.
The feeling of freedom to roam stemmed partly from the people here, who evinced a qualitative difference from the people in his homeland.
“I find people in Long Beach, and maybe in America [as a whole], quite friendly and open,” Vesely says. “When we were kids going to the park, we frequently interacted with the people there, and we never really felt threatened by the adults or the kids. [Everything] was [undertaken] in a friendly way—the small talk, the chatter—which is an experience you definitely don’t have in the Czech Republic. There is a great public-transportation system in Prague, but you will never really talk to anyone on the metro or the tram because they are strangers, and if you can avoid contact with them, you do. That’s just the way it works there. But in Long Beach, and in America in general, the people seems to be a lot more open and want to communicate, to connect a lot more.”
As far as local attractions, Vesely recalls Pine Avenue as being a big deal.
“Back then, Pine Avenue was the experience,” he says. “We were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to Pine!’ Because it was the place you had to walk like 15 or 20 minutes [to get to], and it was the place where everything happened.”
One of Vesely’s criticisms of Long Beach is how Pine-centered the city remains and how development of other areas has been neglected.
“On the one hand, it’s really great to have everything concentrated in one place, because you know where to go,” he says. “On the other hand, you walk [beyond] Pine, and it can be really hard to find another [highly activated] place. There are a lot of projects [underway] to make Pine look even better. There are new trees here, and they have a long-term plan for what to do with the street. And that’s great. I love that. But at the same time, it would be great to take some of that attention and apply it to a different part of Long Beach, or maybe expand it a little bit so it’s not just one street. […] There are things happening [elsewhere in Long Beach], like on 4th Street, but I don’t think the City gives attention to those places. The attention is all on Pine. […] It would be great to expand that, or maybe find a second place so there is more diversity for someone who comes here as a tourist so he can go to two different places and not just one.”
When asked to single out what he likes best on Pine, Vesely’s answer may be surprising: the bar/restaurant Taco Beach.
“I would say Taco Beach is one of the mainstays of Long Beach,” he says. “We used to go there back then, and we go there quite often now. It’s a really great place.”
Equally surprising is the high marks Vesely gives to the area’s public transit. He calls the free Passport service downtown “an awesome thing [that] you don’t see that very often in any city around the world,” although he was disappointed to hear that since the Passport’s free east-west service was discontinued in August 2012. Even so, he praises the convenience of local bus service and the Blue Line.
“And that’s coming from someone who comes and visits, so obviously I don’t have my own car here,” he says. “Perhaps a lot of people who live here locally might not use the [public transit] service as often because they have a car, but I think [public transit] is an integral part of making a lively city.”
For Vesely, the most memorable change in Long Beach is a negative one: the loss of Acres of Books.
“In the early years that was a big part of the Long Beach experience for me, and it’s gone now,” he laments. “I really loved that place. It was amazing. When you stepped in, the smell overwhelmed you. It was perfect. I loved to go there and buy something or just sit down for a little while and read something. […] I was actually here during the time they were closing it down; I was here on the last day it was open. That was kind of a sad experience, feeling that that is going away. It makes it even more bitter walking past that place today because the building is still standing there. The [façade] is still there. They said they were going to build something there, but they haven’t. They haven’t torn the building down; they haven’t built anything new there. That’s a sad thing that happened here. This amazing place disappeared.”
The loss of Acres of Books is one aspect of a problem Vesely feels plagues Long Beach and much of the United States: poor long-term planning.
“Walking down the streets in Long Beach—and […] in L.A., as well—it just seems like everything is put together cheaply,” he says. “It feels like things were built to last just long enough but not much longer. Whereas in Europe things usually tend be made to last a really, really long time. […] I like the place. But compared to some aspects of Europe, you can definitely tell it’s a much younger place that hasn’t been grounded as much.”
Considering that poor long-term planning brings Vesely back to the wasted opportunity that is the Long Beach beachfront.
“You’re staying in a city that is on a beachfront, and you might say, ‘Oh, that’s amazing!'” he says. “But I feel that if you really want to live on a beachfront, you usually want the waves—which you won’t get here. […] If I wanted to live by the beach, and that was the deciding point, I would probably give Long Beach a glance, but then I would move somewhere where the waves are bigger. Long Beach is not just about the beach; there are lots of other things that make Long Beach worth it. […] But for someone who is looking for a beach-centered place—and [in Long Beach] ‘beach’ is even in the name—the beach isn’t a selling point.”
For Vesely, Long Beach’s main selling point is the people, including the inclusiveness within the community. Such inclusiveness has shaped Vesely’s very alignment toward his fellow humans.
“Long Beach is quite known for being a place where there are a lot of gay people,” he says. “[Here] was one of the first times I really came into contact with something like that at that scale. Meeting all these great [gay] people, I realized you can’t judge someone by their sexual orientation. I was maybe 15 or 16 at the time when I was thinking about this and making this discovery that, ‘Wow, these are just really nice people. […] They’re just like everyone else.'”
Considering that Long Beach has a higher population than Atlanta, we ought to expect our city play on the level of the world’s international cities. With such a lofty goal, it is probably worth keeping in mind how our home appears not only to us, but also to those who visit us from afar. An international city needs to attract people. Through Vesely’s eyes we can glimpse some of what Long Beach has, what it has lost, and what it has failed to develop. Perhaps such glimpses can help guide us into becoming all that we might become.