Connecting the Dots on the Waterfront

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To the future and the past of the communities surrounding the ports
By James Preston Allen, Publisher

The showdown between the new executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, Gene Seroka, and the community over the future of the Los Angeles Waterfront has a long backstory that those who now cry the loudest about the lack of jobs or are shocked that “San Pedro has a homeless problem” don’t even know. Most of those who long for a nostalgic past of some mythical sense of community weren’t even born when the real problem began.

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The history behind the long decline in the Harbor Area actually began with a dispute unrelated to the port. In the 1980s there was a dispute between the air-traffic controllers union and President Ronald Reagan that ended with him busting the union and a decades long anti-union march towards the global economy.

The impact on the San Pedro Bay waterfront was that over the course of the next 10 years, the shipyards were closed, the tuna canneries moved off shore and the once proud fishing fleet dwindled. Free trade, NAFTA and deregulation were the watchwords of the day. In the end, the Los Angeles harbor area lost 50 percent of its blue-collar jobs, exported to some other part of the globe. Most of these were well paid union jobs.

According to an economic report issued by the City of Los Angeles years later, the San Pedro harbor area lost some 30,000 jobs in the 1980s. The loss of those middle class jobs fundamentally changed the nature of both San Pedro and Wilmington, creating what we now call “income disparity” and a decline in real estate values.

Some say that the economic “blight” of the old downtown Pedro came much earlier with the building of the Vincent Thomas Bridge and retail clerks union’s drive to organize the big brand stores that once lined Pacific Avenue. But the nail in the coffin was really the 30,000 jobs. Nothing since that time has come close to replacing them.

Since that time, homes in San Pedro and select areas surrounding the ports have become upper income bedroom communities for commuters while other areas have become mostly housing for lower class service workers–not forgetting to mention housing for the casualties of income disparity and the global economy– the homeless, the dispossessed, the addicted and insane.

One of the only bulwarks against this disparity has been the strength of the remaining local unions, primarily the ILWU, whose hold on waterfront jobs has been unchallenged until now. Because their jobs could not be exported and because of our growing dependence on imports, these waterfront unions have been some of the lucky few to maintain a middle class standard of living during an era that witnessed the decline in both the numbers of unions and incomes nationwide.

This is now set to change significantly with the arrival of automation on the waterfront and changes in the global shipping industry, which may end up eroding as many as 25 percent of these remaining good paying jobs. This is not only the challenge faced by the current ILWU negotiators in the prolonged contract discussions with the Pacific Maritime Association, this is also a challenge faced by small businesses, professionals and even local chambers of commerce that are either directly or indirectly beneficiaries of the $1 billion a year payroll of the longshore unions.

Clearly, allowing the economy of the surrounding local communities to depend so heavily on POLA’s future success in the world of global shipping, is at best, not a good idea.  The best minds in business will diversify their investments. The most cautious investors will have diversified their portfolios. Even the smartest of small businessman knows the dangers of being too reliant on just one kind of customer.

This common understanding is the reason why POLA needs to diversify its investment on the non-industrial parts of this waterfront.  This is the connection between the economic injustice expressed by the Wilmington residents and the reaction of the local real estate brokers and the chambers of commerce and Harbor Area neighborhood councils to the POLA draft waterfront spending plan.

There needs to be a second economy that is connected to the prime asset of this community–its harbor and the gateway to the Pacific Ocean. This can not be some meager attempt to placate a few unruly locals, a few loud neighborhood councils, to pacify a starry eyed city councilman. It must be a bold investment in the economic future of the 200,000 residents who live near this import capital of the Pacific Rim.

It must both symbolically and literally connect this region of Los Angeles to the nearly 10 million residents of the county. This investment cannot wait to begin. Waiting will only mean a lost opportunity. An opportunity like this only comes along once in a generation. This is the time and this is the future. Grab it and make it real!

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