Nostalgia for a Past that No Longer Exists
By James Preston Allen, Publisher
Nostalgia hangs over this harbor area like overcast clouds on one of those days that brings a chill off the Pacific Ocean near Sunken City. It lingers for a time around the quaint Weymouth Corners shopping district like Mayberry, from the old Andy Griffith Show and then drifts down the stair-steps of Vista del Oro to the historic district of San Pedro.
At certain moments, I think that parts of this town are stuck in a time capsule, like the brick storefronts on 6th Street or the façade of the Warner Grand Theatre. They’re throwbacks to Art Deco and this town’s boom time in the pre- and post-World War II eras.
Other times, I imagine the sounds of the thousands of workers who trekked down this street to cross the main channel to the fish canneries, shipyards and docks. The old ferry is gone. The shipyards are diminished and all the canneries have moved offshore except for one.
San Pedro’s once mighty fishing fleet, at one point the largest on the West Coast, is now relegated to catching sardines and squid—profitable for the few remaining boats—but not like in the glory days of tuna fishing.
And the once gracious Catalina Steamer, now a rusting, decaying wreck in Ensenada Bay, is but a memory that only a few still recall.
The dreams and memories of yesteryear abound. William Faulkner, in reflection on such things said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” If you’ve ever read anything by Faulkner, you’d know that’s probably one of the shortest summaries on the subject he ever penned.
All of this brings me to the point of why I’m writing today about our incessant struggle to address the present and our challenge of imagining the future. It seems like every time this community is confronted with anything new, like a plan for the waterfront, improving Gaffey Street or even rebranding something old, we get our feet stuck in this thing called “the past.” By the way, I don’t think this is just our problem. It’s a problem that is shared with any place that is older than the city of Irvine.
As Americans, especially those born in California, we have this constant sense that we can reinvent ourselves, our places and perhaps even our histories. To some extent it seems true. Think of Hollywood and its dream machine.
Yet, here in the San Pedro Bay, with our reliance on global trade and a blue collar work ethic, reinvention here seems harder than in most places. Here, the anchor of our past is shackled to the bow of our memories.
Unlike many other places in Los Angeles, or the rest of this state, that regularly bulldozes its past, San Pedro has ardently clung onto its history with museums, monuments and some fervent preservation.
Yet, most of what we think of this historic past is wrapped up in some form of childhood memory, myth or half-truth about the “good ol’ days.”
What I have often observed is much of what we are confronting now is not much different than what our predecessors dealt with. Many historic solutions to waterfront access for example, are applicable today. Does anyone remember the viaduct that connected the lower part of 14th Street to where the commercial fish market is today? It was a direct link for the workers to get to the fishing boats.
The same could be said about the old routes of the Red Cars connecting the port to downtown Los Angeles and beyond, or the Terminal Island ferry. All of these things are lost but not forgotten in our pursuit of some uncertain future.
Yet, the San Pedro Harbor Area is an anomaly in California in that the memory of its past surpasses any desire of erasure. Typically, such places only realize belatedly how much was actually lost.
By comparison, San Francisco never gave up its trolley cars and preserves its grand Victorian architecture. Venice preserved its canals and Santa Barbara its Mission District.
We have what’s left of our historic downtown and the adjoining Vinegar Hill Historic Preservation District—a district that was recently expanded after years of study. What lies in store in the future of our waterfront? How will this harbor community, so distant from the epicenter of Los Angeles political power, connect to both itself and the vast metropolis to the north?
I’m not so sure that the great minds of our day have any better solutions to the problems of the present than our ancestors did in theirs. The difference, however, is that they didn’t have a historical perspective or even a single foot in the past. After all, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat mistakes.
Others will just look back with a pining sense of nostalgia, while some will look at the past as a tool to create the future. Beware of those who tell you, “Don’t look back.”