San Pedro Still On the Verge

  • 04/18/2013
  • Terelle Jerricks

Discovering the secret assets
By James Preston Allen, Publisher
I have lived in this seaport community for 40 years now and I’m still discovering secrets in this close-knit town. Secrets that even some of the long-time residents don’t know or understand.

Situated as we are on the edge of Los Angeles, home to the largest seaport in North America, you can see the giant cargo cranes perched like huge praying mantes lifting cans from the giant cargo ships that haul 42 percent of all the imports into this country.

Looking southward toward the silhouette of Catalina Island, the Pacific Ocean is not directly west of the mainland. And the town of San Pedro acts as the political anchor to the 15 District, with some hardly recognizing that this and Wilmington were annexed at a key point in the expansion of Los Angeles, just one year before Hollywood was annexed and six years before a vast expanse of the San Fernando Valley was added.

Some of the residents here have never had the good fortune to traverse the 26 miles to the heart of downtown Los Angeles to the actual City Hall but instead partaking in the centralized sporting or cultural events there. I’m thinking of Dodger Stadium, the Coliseum, LA Live, MOCA or the Los Angeles Zoo.  It is our distance from all of this that separates and keeps this place near the harbor different, isolated and at times irrelevant to the rest of the City. This distance makes us distinctly separates us from the glitz and hype of Hollywood and the West Side and disconnected from the politics surrounding City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

We send to the emerald city only one elected councilman, a handful of lobbyists, and few community activists like a colony sends “ambassadors” to the seat of the empire. And over the course of many decades, the relationship between us and this empire’s largest armature — the Los Angeles Harbor Department — has been both contentious and hostile. This tension between port control of the tidelands and the community has only recently subsided into a kind of “environmental truce” emanating from the China Shipping terminal lawsuit and the mitigation funds derived from this and other negotiations and legal judgments. Some have called this the “end of the hundred year war.” But some remain skeptical.

The erection of the Vincent Thomas Bridge to Terminal Island in 1963 heralded the modern era of this community with both the promise and scourge of all things new. The old ferry to Terminal Island was made obsolete and urban renewal in the 1970’s demolished most of old Beacon Street. But with the bridge came the final freeway link to the rest of Los Angeles and then the containerization of shipping that emanates via these arteries boosted both volume and traffic. Only later, in the 1980s was the scourge of modernization made clearer to locals with the closure of the Todd Shipyard and most of the tuna canneries. The unspoken secret of this era is that through “free trade” treaties and overseas competition, some 35,000 blue-collar jobs were lost in the Harbor Area! Some still lament the shipyard closure and many more are still reminiscent of the days when their mothers, brother and others worked in the canneries. You could tell they were working when the smell of tuna quaffed in the breeze. The job market has never fully recovered.

It took nearly four decades for both the City of Los Angeles and local business leaders to recognize the mistake of urban renewal, and even then there was not much political will to change direction. It was only with the election of Mayor Jim Hahn, and his sister Janice to City Council, and the forced concession of the Port of Los Angeles legal decree that environmental concerns trumped economic trade imperatives. The first leg of the “Bridge to Breakwater” promenade was built and promises of more “community friendly” developments on the west side of the Main Channel were discussed. It seemed that not unlike the early 1970s, San Pedro was on the verge of being discovered, again!

One of the other secrets about this town is that it has been “discovered” by a succession of people over the course of its history. The first of these discoverers was Juan Cabrillo who anchored off the beach that bears his name. Even then, I’m sure that the locals looked upon “being discovered” with both joy and concern over what this meant for their future. Since the time when I first discovered San Pedro, I have come to realize that people here still embrace “discoverers” who come here to build, develop or modernize the same way–with uncertain antipathy and glee.

What this commentary may add to or subtract from the current exuberance surrounding the development of the next leg of San Pedro’s Waterfront at the Ports O’ Call Village may be just as uncertain and debated well into the next decade. What I can say for certain is that if the LA Waterfront Alliance do not address the critical issues of reconnecting the waterfront to the community and respecting the architectural and aesthetic cultural history of this place; and if the Port of Los Angeles does not address key transportation and parking issues that integrates what’s left of the historic downtown arts district, the damage they cause could be greater than any economic revival they promised. Any competent architect or urban planner knows the value of context and siting of a planned development. My advice is to listen to the history of this place and be careful of the secrets that it holds.


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