Editor's note: An earlier version of this story originally appeared in the Long Beach Herald's special 25th anniversary edition on July 23, 2015.
“The vast majority of relative newcomers in town really don’t know what happened back then,” former Long Beach City Manager Ed Eaton said of Long Beach’s economic hard times in the 1970s and ’80s. “You had a town that became a [expletive] — half the buildings on Park Avenue were burned out, especially where the Waldbaum’s shopping center is now. And there were all these derelict buildings; people would set fire to their own buildings, it was like the South Bronx. Long Beach was like Beirut — it was in desperate shape.”
To understand how the city has developed over the past quarter-century, Eaton and many others say that it’s important to recognize the efforts by local leaders in the ’80s that played a pivotal role in Long Beach’s transformation.
Eaton — a three-time city manager who served for 25 years and a former teacher and water treatment plant operator — noted how far the city has come since the days when the state “dumped” its mental patients in Long Beach, fires burned routinely and the city was in a fiscal crisis. The days when the city had thrived as a resort community, Eaton said, had passed long ago.
“Into 1960s and ’70s, Long Beach wasn’t the fashionable place to come to anymore — you could get on a plane and go to a more exotic locale,” Eaton said. “In 1968, the state started emptying its mental facilities in order to put those patients in a community environment. But where do you put them? Well, Long Beach had a lot of empty resort hotels and people who owned them were looking for some kind of income.”
By 1980, about 80 percent of Long Island’s mental patients — roughly 2,000 people — were living in Long Beach, Eaton said, which led to lower home values.
“We were declaring war on the state of New York for discharging their mental patients and the buildings were in bad shape,” Eaton recalled. “They were poor souls — they weren’t violent people, but they would walk around barefoot, panhandling and urinating. Some would jump off buildings. They needed care and support and the state wasn’t providing it.”
The city itself was in dire fiscal straits, and “dubious” building fires — many believed to have been started by tenants or landlords looking for insurance payouts — were common, while many storefronts and buildings along Park Avenue had seen better days.
A dysfunctional government didn’t help matters, and the city was in such poor fiscal shape that it was on the brink of bankruptcy in the ’70s.
“We had to get promissory notes to get our paychecks,” said Eaton, who had worked at the city’s water treatment plant. “And if the city ended up defaulting, we would owe the bank money if the checks bounced.”