In Search of Another Solution


Tourism, automation and the quest to replace lost jobs

By James Preston Allen, Publisher

Somewhere filed in the archives of this newspaper is a historic picture of the marriage between Ms. San Pedro and Mr. Los Angeles — an arrangement the descendants of Ms. Pedro and her cousins in Wilmington and Harbor City have grumbled about for over 100 years. You see, back in the day East San Pedro, now known as Terminal Island, was a seaside resort for the rich and famous. A long sandy sloping beach with lots of fresh fish with beachfront homes was the escape destination via rail line from downtown Los Angeles for many. One of the best histories on this is by Naomi Hirahara  Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor, coauthored by none other than Geraldine Knatz, former director of the Port of Los Angeles.

The picture of the L.A. Harbor as being a “tourist resort” seems like a far away proposition but it is the current plan behind the demolition of Ports O’ Call Village, the plans coming out of the San Pedro Property Business Improvement District and the Port of L.A.’s waterfront access investment plan. The PBID is researching spending some $10,000 on a tourist website portal to market the San Pedro waterfront as a destination, saying that we already have some 3-5 million visitors to the Harbor Area annually. They believe this can grow.

The executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, Gene Seroka, has committed to spending a minimum of $10 million a year over the next decade on a just released waterfront investment plan. The port realizes that its core business is reliant upon a singular business model in which nearly $500 billion in cargo flows in and out of the twin ports annually and is the portal for some 40 percent of all trade coming into North America. Our local economy is seriously attached to global trade in ways that some people are only vaguely aware.

The main workforce, the longshore workers annual payroll plus benefits comes to something like $1.4 billion. When you start adding up all the other jobs that are connected to global trade, the ripple effect pushes the goods movement industry into the top three industries in all of Southern California. That also makes the goods movement industry (driven by the twin ports) the single largest source of pollution in Southern California, despite significant strides to eliminate pollution.

In short, we are married to this industrialized port in many of the same ways we’re married to the City of Los Angeles, even though at one point we filed for a divorce. Back in the 1980s, there were some 60,000 workers making a living in the ports, but what gets forgotten is that in that same decade the canneries closed, the shipyards left and other related industries were moved offshore. The result was the loss of some 30,000 blue collar jobs (half of the workforce) and real estate prices crashed and small businesses in downtown Pedro closed or struggled to survive. Some believe that it never really recovered.

Since that time there have been many attempts to “reinvent” San Pedro starting with two Urban Land Institute studies, two revitalization efforts, the creation of special PBID tax, marketing and economic zones. Each were launched with great “expectations” but never reached the goal of a creating “new prosperity.” Even current projects for job creation, including the addition of AltaSea and the San Pedro Waterfront Marketplace, might bring in perhaps 3,000 new jobs. At least half of these would be service jobs — a paltry number compared to the jobs lost.

It seems as if this town has been left at the altar of economic expansion more times than the daughter of a pauper, beginning with the closing of the Naval Shipyard, the moving of  U.S. Customs to Long Beach, L.A. County’s consolidation of the San Pedro Courthouse with the Gov. Deukmejian Courthouse in Long Beach, Marymount College’s arrival and retreat from downtown San Pedro, Molina Healthcare’s failed move to San Pedro and capped by Space X’s cancellation of its lease at the Port of Los Angeles (have I missed anything?). All of these provided or would have provided better jobs than the service industry jobs town boosters are chasing and weaned us off of the singular global economy tit.

Now one of the largest shipping companies in the world APM Maersk wants to automate its terminal at Pier 400 and could eliminate a significant number of the best paying blue collar jobs left in our community. It is feared that this could be the trend of the future with AI robotics replacing high paid jobs and leaving the surrounding area poorer with a 25 percent or more reduction in jobs.

I mean with all of the high-tech solutions coming at us from the Silicon Valley —driverless cars, smart home devices and artificial intelligence robots — workers in the future won’t even be able to have a part time gig as a Lyft driver or maybe even a service clerk at Home Depot. Smart technology may be as much a curse as a blessing if it doesn’t provide general prosperity while cooking your breakfast and doing the laundry. After all, most humans are defined as much by what they do as by what they think and we should all think very carefully about automating away the last best jobs in the Los Angeles Harbor Area.

In the last analysis, we’ve lost more jobs than were created over the last 40 years. We’ve lost many opportunities to add significantly to the job pool and there has been no coordinated vision on how to actually bring back even half of those middle class jobs.

It is high time to consider the future of what “smart technology” actually brings us.  At this point we need to demand cleaner tech solutions that put more people to work in the industries that provide long term sustainable jobs rather than automating people out of work so they can end up homeless in front of our post office!