Back to the Future   

The bulldozers have finally reached Ports O' Call Restaurant following their eviction.
The bulldozers have finally reached Ports O' Call Restaurant following their eviction.

Historic mistakes come back to haunt the harbor and no one seems to notice

By James Preston Allen, Publisher

There’s something in the American psyche that fundamentally believes that all new things are good.  And, conversely, everything old is passé. It may have something to do with commercial advertising of the latest and greatest or perhaps some older version of manifest destiny, but we’ve definitely suffered from it here in San Pedro by the Bay.  Sure, change is inevitable but we shouldn’t have to suffer from the same mistakes and delusions as our predecessors, should we?

I am of course talking about tearing down the old to build the new. Ports O’ Call is the perfect example, but then think of everything else around here that doesn’t yet have a historical designation to it.

In the 1970s our visionary civic leaders decided that old Beacon Street was so rundown that the only solution was “redevelopment.” And so everything except the 1923 San Pedro City Hall was demolished, along with a lot of history, who some at the time, would rather have had forgotten — the bars, the brothels and the moniker of “being the toughest waterfront on the West Coast.”

There was even a celebration the night before the demolition started, but it would be 30 years before the last vacant lot was rebuilt. The town is still waiting for the economic benefits to return on this investment.

Similarly, the extension of the 110 Freeway into San Pedro and the building of the Vincent Thomas Bridge were heralded as great advancements for our area only to see the throngs of workers stop walking down Sixth Street to board the ferry to Terminal Island. Instead they got into their cars to commute to their jobs. This basically killed retail business on Sixth Street.

Today, there are some 62,000 car trips per day at the entrance to this freeway and since the canneries and shipyards closed in the 1980s, there has been a loss of some 30,000 local jobs. At the time that amounted to about half the local workforce. The majority of those jobs were never replaced.

Since this time San Pedro and the surrounding communities have struggled to regain their economic footing with various efforts to revitalize, redevelop and reorganize with some temporary fixes but nothing permanent or substantial. There is, however, always the next “new promise” on the horizon and hope springs eternal.

For a while, it was the new Pacific Corridor redevelopment district, an expansion of the old Beacon Street district, run by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. They were really only able to finish what the previous iteration failed to do — complete the final phase of Beacon Street and stop any further destruction of Old Town Pedro and add some historic looking street lights. Still, the retention of jobs was like a revolving door with one aerospace company coming in and then leaving, or the customs office moving in and then leaving for Long Beach.  The real knife to the heart was the closing of the San Pedro courthouse and consolidating those courts into the multi-million dollar crystal palace of justice in Long Beach.

For a while it seemed like we stemmed the tide of job loss by the opening of Marymount College’s waterfront campus. With the promise of staff and students that would bring a younger demographic into the area. Alas, as of this month Marymount, too, has abandoned the Old Town to regroup back up on The Hill. This combined with the closing of Ports O’ Call Restaurant adds up to a loss of a couple hundred more jobs.

The solution, according to Councilman Joe Buscaino, is to build more apartments, which is only part of a solution, because it only enhances the notion of Old Town being a bedroom community and nothing more. It increases traffic on an already tenuous transportation plan — no light rail connection, more congestion heading to the freeway. The only real improvement has been bike lanes, the Silver Line to downtown L.A. and the expansion of the 110 Freeway, which was built to facilitate more container traffic.

So, here we are again, some 35 to 45 years after the great “redevelopment” of San Pedro. We’re still facing the same problems, making the same mistakes, hoping that the next “new” thing to come along is what’s going to “save San Pedro.” But we have no understanding of what’s actually been lost and what actually might be done to recover even half of the local jobs, once native to this industrial Port of Los Angeles, for the benefit of those who live here.

I previously reported on the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation’s report findings that only three percent of the jobs created by the port benefited the people who live here. A member of the Harbor Commission, Dave Arian challenged me on that number, but let’s just say if it were three times that number, the number of jobs created by the port wouldn’t even cause a dent in the amount of traffic leaving town daily heading for parts unknown up the 110 Freeway for jobs not located in our community.

My point here is that we can no longer accept or sustain the continued shedding of jobs based on the “future promise of prosperity” without a serious and concerted effort to bring new enterprises to the Harbor Area. We need enterprises that create thousands, rather than dozens, of quality jobs. Only through these means can we truly create  “a rising tide that lifts all boats.”

While bringing new enterprises to the Harbor Area we should defend the jobs that are already here, while remembering the mistakes of our past. The cost of diminishing investment in human capital is only now being realized in the growing number of marginalized people who inhabit our sidewalks — many of whom are afflicted by addiction and despair.