Sunday, May 10, 2009

Reviving the Walks

New civic association to address neighborhood neglect

By Joseph Kellard

Call it the second coming of the Walks Neighborhood Association. The Long Beach civic group, established in 1998 but disbanded a couple of years later, has been resurrected by a group of newer residents.

According to President Allison Kallelis and grant officer Jamie Lynch, the first association fizzled out because City Hall was unresponsive to its calls for neighborhood improvements. The new officers, however — who have recruited some original members — hope to turn the page and begin a new chapter with the city.

Kallelis and other Walks residents have met several times with City Manager Charles Theofan since last summer to discuss their concerns about the historic 10-block neighborhood that is without street access, driveways or garages. Most problems relate to parking, sewage and homes that are expanding or subdividing properties.

Kallelis said that the city’s zoning board has made some favorable decisions on development and other building issues in their neighborhood. The association leadership was scheduled to meet with Theofan again this week to discuss parking, and it has invited the City Council to its May 4 meeting.

“The meetings with the city so far have been very productive,” said Lynch, who has lived on May Walk with his family for five years.

At the March 17 City Council meeting, Lynch, Kallelis and some 25 fellow Walks Association members joined other city residents seeking to obtain funds through the city’s community development program. The Walks Association wants the city to install new decorative street signs and light posts. They have planned fundraisers to pay for other beautification projects.

The neighborhood is bounded by West Park Avenue to the north and West Beech Street to the south. A total of 10 walks run north-south, paralleling Lindell Avenue, the eastern border, and New York Avenue to the west. There are about 28 houses per walk, and 300 in all.

Kallelis, who moved from Yonkers to September Walk with her husband, Alex, eight years ago, said that residents began building new, larger homes or expanding existing ones about four years ago, during the housing boom. But the neighborhood had no representation on the zoning board.

“Some of the neighbors and I were talking and we were saying, ‘This is ridiculous, we have no power. If we had a bigger voice, maybe we could get some things changed here,” Kallelis recalled.

Last year she talked with Jim Hennessy, a former City Council president who grew up and still lives in the Walks, and other long-time residents. They organized a meeting last fall, and Kallelis estimated that about 10 percent of the neighborhood attended. In December the group elected a five-member board, and they have been holding periodic meetings since.

“There were a lot of people eager to be involved,” Kallelis said, adding that there are some 50 association members who participate to varying degrees.

Bob Reed, a board member who has lived on September Walk for a year, said he believes that a key to the association’s success is to generate good will among neighbors. “It’s important for residents to get to know each other, and the best way to do that is through courteousness,” said Reed, who lends a hand in shoveling snow from the narrow sidewalk. “From this, you’re likely to get more participation and representation.”

Focusing first on beautification projects, the group would like to replace the 50 street signs that are bent, rusted or have been vandalized, at a cost of about $35,000. Members also want to install light posts, but Theofan said that project may not materialize for another year or longer.

Each year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides grants to Long Beach’s Community Development program, a portion of which can go to nonprofits like the Walks Association to fund improvements.

“The Walks have been a much-neglected neighborhood in our community,” Theofan said. “It’s about time we give them the attention that they deserve.”

Beyond beautification, the neighborhood faces some large-scale infrastructure issues attributable to long-term neglect. The aging sewage system needs to be replaced, but its pipes run through residents’ yards because of the absence of streets. Further complicating matters in a neighborhood known for its tight quarters are state health regulations that require sewer pipes be a certain distance from water pipes.

“So you have to figure out the practical problems of where you’re going to put things,” Theofan said. “These items need to be tended to, and it’s just a matter of when. But we’re starting the process of seeing what needs to be done, accessing it and looking at the cost and trying to put it into the capital improvement plan.”

Lynch said he understands that some projects may take some time to get under way, particularly in a struggling economy. If the city is not responsive, however, as some walks residents have complained in the past, “Then we’ll have to make monthly visits up to City Hall,” Lynch said. “Maybe even weekly, if need be.”

The Walks’ military beginnings

The historic Walks neighborhood was first developed in 1917 and 1918, when the U.S. military took over the Nassau Hotel (now the Ocean Club condos) and Long Beach was turned into a military settlement.

The original uninsulated, prefabricated bungalows were built for $2,500 by Milton Kolb, who also developed the first three blocks on the West End: New York, California and Pennsylvania. The prefabs were installed on property owned by Brooklyn developer and former State Sen. William Reynolds. The homes were meant for summer use, so they
came with front porches and faced either east or west so they could capture the breezes from the ocean and the bay to the south and north.

“The whole design of the walks was to build houses without street access, but an aside was the breezes,” said Roberta Fiore, a Long Beach historian, who noted that for $500 more than the selling price, a chimney could be built for winter use.

In 1928, single-level bungalows were built alongside the original homes by Louis Bossert, a Brooklyn lumber producer who developed the future city’s second wave of homes after World War I. St. Ignatius Church on West Broadway was built for the Walks community in 1926.

In the mid-1950s tenants began living in the Walks year-round, and by the 1970s, by most accounts, a majority of residents did so. “When the Walks became an all-year-round community, the expression then was, ‘Throw some heat in the bungalows,’” Fiore said. — JK

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