For longtime Long Beach resident Ken McLaughlin, the boardwalk brings back fond memories of places from his youth that are no longer there: the city's old amusement park that used to sit on the vacant Superblock property, the bowling alley on Shore Road and Papi's, a restaurant by the beach at Lincoln Boulevard.
"I've been coming here since I was a young kid, going to the concessions on the boardwalk after a day of surfing," McLaughlin said, adding that he later spent long summer days on the beach and boardwalk with his wife, Lisa, and their two children. "I came from a family of 10 kids, my mother was a widow, and when [the owner of Papi's] found that out, he would give us free passes to get on the beach. He was great."
Ken and Lisa McLaughlin stood just several feet away from the Grand Boulevard beach entrance on Saturday — where a large bulldozer was parked — and were among the 3,000 people who turned out for a special, at times emotional ceremony held by the city to mark the beginning of a month-long demolition process for the 2.2 mile boardwalk that was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. Residents described it as an end of an era, and so many people had turned out, in fact, that crews had to delay the demolition work.
"We're getting our few pieces of wood to have a memory of the boardwalk,"said McLaughlin, who now lives in Lido Beach, after he obtained a wooden piece of the boardwalk as a souvenir. "Like everybody else ... it's an emotional connection that you have, and I guess I wanted to see the official beginning of something being done. I was hoping we could actually see that start. I think we're all apprehensive ... are they going to get it done by summer? Are they going to use cement? Are they going back to wood? Of course I'd like to see exactly what they had — a boardwalk made out of boards."
City Manager Jack Schnirman opened the ceremony, saying, "We know that today is the beginning of the real big comeback. Today is a major step in recovery and moving forward toward a stronger, smarter, safer future. But first, we are here to say goodbye to an old friend."
Schnirman noted the many events held on the boardwalk each year, and said that the annual Polar Bear Splash, which attracts thousands of participants each year on Super Bowl Sunday at Riverside Boulevard, will be held at the Grand and Lindell Boulevard beaches this year.
"I loved participating in the Polar Bear swim last year and I can't wait to take the plunge again next month," Schnirman said.
City Council Vice President Scott Mandel, 37, said that his most cherished memory is when he proposed to his wife, Karen, on the boardwalk at Edwards Boulevard in 2006 — and she said "yes."
"It's more than just lumber, nails benches and rails," Mandel said. "It's the heart of Long Beach that many of us have built our fondest Long Beach memories upon."
Because the city intends to rebuild the boardwalk, Mandel said that the ceremony served not as a eulogy for the famous structure but as the beginning of a new chapter in the city's history. He said that the boardwalk "is every residents' family member."
"As a kid growing up on the South Shore, the boardwalk was the place to go during the summer, and it was your solace in the winter," Mandel said. "It was the right thing to do to commemorate and pay respect to the boardwalk. We're not surprised by the turnout; everyone who lives here or has lived here feels a kinship."
Local historian Roberta Fiore recalled the numerous celebrities, both famous and infamous, who frequented the boardwalk, originally built in 1907, the same year Sen. William Reynolds brought in two elephants from Coney Island to promote its construction. Celebrities included gangster Arnold Rothstein, who operated gaming houses in the city, and Rudolph Valentino, who gave dancing lessons at the Long Beach Casino.
"Isadora Duncun and the Isadorables danced on the boardwalk," Fiore said. "Will Rogers was a guest of the Nassau Hotel. Suffragettes did hold their parades in Long Beach and we can go on and on. When you look at this boardwalk, let these memories and this history talk to you. We have a proud future but we have a very colorful and interesting past. God bless Long Beach and God bless our boardwalk."
Colleen Quinn read a poem written by her brother, Patrick, a 1994 graduate of Long Beach High School and former lifeguard who lives in California, aptly titled "The Boardwalk."
"The spirit in my town won't be unfulfilled, we're banding together and we will rebuild."
Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, who has lived in Long Beach for 78 years, noted how the boardwalk became a place for residents to socialize.
"I've been running on this boardwalk for more than 65 years," Weisenberg said. "The beautiful boardwalk and beach has been utilized to meet the needs of all people. It was a respite from the stresses of life ... people came to the boardwalk to be able to enjoy the tranquility, to socialize and to utlize the beauty of our beach to just sit and reflect."