A Metaphor for Post-industrial America
In the boom years of San Pedro, from the tween years of the two world wars and the end of the war in Vietnam, South Pacific Avenue was the commercial corridor for this part of the LA Harbor Area. During this period, it had car dealerships, a movie theater, ethnic bakeries and two hardware stores and a men’s clothing store. There was even a Montgomery Ward, a Newberry’s five and dime store and upscale women’s wear store near 8th Street and a variety of ethnic restaurants.
According to one cabbie’s cheat sheet, there were more than 19 different bars, nightclubs and places of ill repute to service sailors and servicemen from the port and Fort Mac- Arthur.
Many locals fondly remember these as the “good ol’ days” for which Pedro earned its rough reputation and Beacon Street as “the toughest four blocks in the world,” with its second floor “bargirls.” The San Pedro history website, My San Pedro, lists San Pedro as one of the world’s [most] famous red light districts which had basement “casinos” and the infamous Shanghai Red’s “café” with its tattooed female bouncers (like Cairo Mary).
When civic leaders attempt to “rebrand” this place, as they have tried to every decade, they have to deal with a waterfront town whose legacy is epitomized by the saying: On Beacon Street money flowed as freely as blood from the open wounds of rolled sailors. The charm of old San Pedro is embedded in this town’s brick and mortar and architectural memory, allowing it to remain a part of this town’s present. You can’t ever change this.
Today along this avenue, like many other places in Los Angeles, the past glories are lost to dreams of gentrification and indistinct multistory high rises. Developers who rarely know much of this history bring architects with less interest in historical preservation and design as if they are working on a blank slate. As one local architect commented, it all looks like Soviet era worker housing that comes out of a computer template to save the expense of actually paying for design.
I’ve witnessed this development cycle before when the civic leaders celebrated the tearing down of the old Beacon Street section in the early 1970s with dreams of bringing new life and a “new image” to Pedro. It took 30 years to build back what was torn down and still this place has a reputation for tattoos, bars and burly waterfront workers. As much as some people wish it to change, the more it seems to stay the same. And yet it has changed. Gone are the majority of the dive bars that once lined Pacific Avenue. Most of the single room hotels built for sailors have been transformed to Section 8 rentals and brothels and street walkers have all found online dating apps on their cell phones or retired.
The robust retail stores that once thrived along these streets have mostly disappeared while a handful of restaurants catering to longshore workers, artists and gig workers, and a curious selection of retro retail shops and small boutiques have survived.
What has also been lost are many, but not all, of the once famous ethnic restaurants like Olsen’s, Cigo’s, Papadakis and Ante’s and some names even older.
What UCLA professor Natalia Molina writes in her book A Place at the Nayarit, is that ethnic restaurants nourished the community with more than food — they are a cultural oasis, a meeting place, and much more. She goes on, “As a historian, I know the Nayarit [which was located near Echo Park] did a lot more than launch my family in the U.S. It’s a prime piece of what I call under-documented Los Angeles — overlooked places, people and events that nonetheless make the city what it is.”
She could be talking about almost every immigrant neighborhood in all of this metropolis, but it has a certain resonance here to San Pedro.
Currently on the west side of the two blocks near my office there’s three quarters of each block boarded up waiting for developer gentrification — gone are La Rue’s pharmacy with its old-time soda fountain and the Dancing Waters club. Gone is Kings Bicycle Shop, Cruz Furniture and the independent auto parts shop next door.
When the StarKist Tuna cannery and Todd Shipyard closed and the tuna fishing fleet moved overseas, some 30,000 blue collar jobs were lost in just one decade and were never replaced. The free trade policies of the Reagan-Bush era and then the NAFTA deal signed by President Bill Clinton sealed the fate of the Los Angeles Harbor Area, which is now primarily a mono-culture economy of international trade and 85% controlled by overseas corporations.
Of the $400 billion in trade that flows through the two San Pedro Bay ports annually, only some 12% of the exports carry American products and most of those are agricultural. The majority of the containers you see shipping out through Angels Gate are empties full of LA air bound for China.
And currently as the International Longshore Warehouse Union negotiates its contract with Pacific Maritime Association, what’s up next is the automation of some of the best paid jobs left in this harbor.
As reported last month in RLNews by the Economic Round Table, “The International Transportation Forum found that the productivity of automated ports is 7% to 15 % lower than for non-automated ports. Automation, however, enables foreign shippers to deliver their products to American consumers without relying on American dockworkers.”
They went on to say that, “Automation at two San Pedro Bay terminals has eliminated 572 full-time dockworker jobs along with an additional 254 jobs and $50 million in sales at stores where dockworkers spend their wages.” One of the report’s authors, Patrick Burns, summed up the report by saying, “The wages lost because of automation are devastating for dockworkers and their families. Restaurants in San Pedro, doctors’ offices in Long Beach, grocery stores in Wilmington, and businesses across the state are also hurt by lost wages on the docks.”
When you add all of this up and wonder about the boarded up storefronts or worry about the growing homeless crisis or the lack of a vibrant retail market in your neighborhood and the loss of the historic businesses that once thrived here, look out your window at all the jobs and the profits that are being shipped overseas.
It’s time to build back something better than high priced apartments on over-priced retail space with platitudes from leaders who have no vision.