Terminal Island—Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor
By James Preston Allen, Publisher
Most of you have probably never heard of Brighton Beach. The name kind of conjures up images of languid summers in the South Hamptons, where wealthy families escape their mansions in the city for a vacation.
Most people in San Pedro don’t even question the designation on the numbered streets indicating west 6th Street, as if there were an east part of that street somewhere past the Main Channel.
And if you stand up on the hill overlooking the vast industrial complex of the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors, it might be incomprehensible to imagine that Terminal Island was once the preferred escape destination for the wealthiest of Los Angeles’ very rich and famous.
Terminal Island circa 1900, as recounted by former Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Geraldine Knatz, and Naomi Hirahara, in their book of the same name, was just such a beach resort town that offered large beachfront homes, grand hotels, sport fishing and yachting. Long before the canneries and shipyards—decades before the POLA became the No. 1 container port in North America–San Pedro, or at least that part of it, was “gentrified.”
Long, sloping sandy beaches allowed for wading far out from shore with warm water and no riptides, and thousands of Angelinos made the excursion on passenger trains directly from downtown, a convenience that no longer exists today.
Nearby, and directly across from what is now the San Pedro waterfront, was the town of East San Pedro. And, a little farther south, toward the jetty that connected the island with Deadman’s Island (which was demolished to widen the channel in 1929), was where the “not so well-to-do” squatted on idyllic waterfront property for free.
These were a hearty, stubborn group of bohemians, outcasts, loners, artists and intellectuals who lived on stilted shacks made of driftwood and discarded lumber. They could fish from their front porches, according to Knatz and Hirahara, in this biologically diverse and plentiful bay.
The famous journalist, poet and founder of the Southwest Museum, Charles Lummis, was one of the luminary squatters across from what now is Ports O’ Call.
You couldn’t quite call these people “homeless.” They had constructed their tiny homes along what was unused land, but they didn’t pay any taxes and none carried a mortgage. What a life.
Terminal Island recounts how at low tide, the residents of San Pedro could casually wade across the Main Channel to go fishing or swimming on the island, long before it was dredged. All of this started to change when the towns of San Pedro and Wilmington voted narrowly to annex to the “octopus” of Los Angeles.
If LA was going to be the big city of its chamber of commerce’s booster-ish dreams, it needed a major seaport, a harbor, even if 26 miles distant from City Hall. And the “big dream” of Los Angeles would have consumed the rest of the harbor and most of Long Beach, if the founders of that city across the bay had not fought back and built their own harbor. Their resistance proved more fruitful when oil was discovered there.
The boom years between the annexation to Los Angeles in 1909 and the stock market crash of 1929 brought major changes to this harbor area. First, squatters along the Main Channel were evicted, the railroads purchased the land rights to wharfs in the harbor and Deadman’s Island was demolished.
If you look around at most of the older parts of the communities surrounding the San Pedro Bay, the dominant architecture is of this period. But the past is never dead.
With the dream of an industrial harbor, both cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach invested hundreds of millions of dollars, which was matched with federal dollars to build this vast port complex. These two ports now handle more than 40 percent of all imports into North America—cargo with an estimated value of $200 billion a year.
This investment allowed Southern California to become the economic epicenter of Pacific Rim trade. The effort was visionary, but it came at a cost—decades of environmental destruction that only recently is being addressed after community activists fought back and sued the cities.
The memory of Terminal Island, East San Pedro and Brighton Beach still exists in the subconscious of both San Pedro and Long Beach like a dream. The resonance of what came before is somehow instilled in this place and resurfaces with those who argue for “gentrification” of certain parts of these cities, while others hold stubbornly to a different vision of bohemian art culture.
Both of these perspectives are competing against the economic imperative of international trade, global economics and the power of the city of Los Angeles.
Oddly enough, Terminal Island was released almost at the same time as George and Carmela Cunningham’s Port Town—published by their respective harbor departments within months of each other. One seems to be the counterpoint to the other—two versions of the same history.
In the end, however, both are documents of a drive spanning more than 100 years to industrialize the two ports—a drive that came at the expense of limiting citizen access to the waterfront and non-industrial uses, accompanied by environmental destruction of the San Pedro Bay.
Sometimes, I look out over this vast harbor and imagine what might have been if our civic leaders weren’t in such a mad rush for profit. An astute reader will realize that the commercial success of the harbors has come at the expense of these competing visions. Terminal Island—Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor tells us how this happened.