Long Beach’s decades of broken dreams

Imagine this town if Long Beach had won all the times that it’s lost. If our dreams had all come true, It would be better than the Jetsons: We’d all throw away our cars in favor of the sprawling network of monorails and aerial trams zipping all over the city, including stops at all the insane tourist destinations, like Angel Stadium, if that deal hadn’t been squashed by a city manager who insisted on making the team call itself the Long Beach Angels — or if Angels owner Gene Autry hadn’t countered that that name was too bush-league for the big time.

And, as long as I’m talking about stuff that Anaheim got instead of Long Beach, how about Port Disney, a $2.3 billion Waterworld of Wonder right here in the port, a deal that fell through because, I don’t know: Long Beach.

Long Beach Lost: The Dramatic Tale of the Disney Theme Park in DTLB

And, as long as I’m talking about deals in the port that fell through, howsabout the 1965 Long Beach World’s Fair, with its glitzy promise of bringing 50 million visitors to our town, with $4 billion burning a hole in their pockets? That dream faded when Long Beach officials discovered that the city would have to kick in $24 million to host the event and no one had the heart to ask taxpayers to pitch in. So the Expo moved to Montreal instead and gave the city the name for its (now former) Major League Baseball franchise.

In 2004, developer Russell Geyser presented plans for a $100 million “Tower of Toscana” to be built on the Pike site. Reaching a height of 600 feet, it would have been almost twice as tall as Downtown’s World Trade Center and would be a “vertical shopping center,” with restaurants, retail, and corporate meeting rooms, surrounded by a Tuscany-themed entertainment area.

The top would be an observation deck that people would eagerly pay about $9 to visit. It was touted as playing a key role in Long Beach’s renaissance. The great news for Long Beach: The city wouldn’t have to pay a dime. The bad news for Long Beach: The developer pulled out of the project over some sort of unrelated squabble over a planned Cheesecake Factory restaurant in Alamitos Bay. So, no Tower of Toscana. Not even a Cheesecake Factory.

Finally, let’s go back to an early dream for Long Beach: Fisherman’s Village, a concept that has caused us to be extra careful around people from Pomona with oversize ideas. These little “villages” abound in cities along the coast. Long Beach has Shoreline Village, San Diego has Seaport Village, Marina del Ray actually has a village called Fisherman’s Village. Typically, they’re places where you can buy funny T-shirts, hats and hot sauce.

But not this Fisherman’s Village. This one was the brilliant idea of a Pomona restaurateur named Ruth Cameron, who hired a couple of Disney artists to draw up her village that was projected to cost $5 million, which my inflation calculator says is the equivalent of more than $47 million in today’s dollars.

And it would have totally been worth it. Cameron mentioned that more fish are caught in these parts than anywhere else in the world, yet, strangely, no one has established a reputation for the best in seafood restaurants (she maintained). With no small amount of hubris, she told the press, “We shall correct this situation.”

The mega-tourist attraction was to be built west of the Belmont Pier and be centered on a “snug harbor” featuring moored fishing boats from several countries. The little harbor was to be surrounded by cafes and shops offering everything from fish hooks to travel advice. The main restaurant, The Fo’c’sle, was to be built inside the hull of a beached ship and would hold 400 patrons. And the Quarterdeck Club, with a 600-person capacity, would feature “top acts” from all over the country performing on a revolving stage. San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Cameron swore, “would pale by comparison.”

Well, you don’t need us to tell you that Fisherman’s Village never took off. It pretty much died amid no fanfare or tears. But the same year Cameron made her bold announcement, Walt Disney’s impossible dream, Disneyland, opened. Coincidentally, Cameron’s proposal had been designed by Disney conceptual artists Harper Goff and Herbert Ryman, whose plans looked like something drawn with charcoal on a cocktail napkin.

If we’ve learned nothing else over the years, it’s that some people’s ideas work better on paper than others.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.