By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
From below, the Vincent Thomas Bridge is green and fresh, the paint glossy-bright on all the bolts and screws, wires and girders, all the way to the tops of its towers.
I’ve looked up at many big bridges in my time; even lived under one once. But I‘ve never seen one so, well, shiny and straight-out-of-the-box-looking.
The bridge is spectacular, but little known. Since almost no one lives on Terminal Island but federal inmates, you rarely use this bridge unless you’re carrying truck cargo. That‘s heavy weight, but such is the strength of Los Angeles’ biggest span that it seems to sing, rather than rumble, under all that travel.
It can be restful under bridges. All that traffic is moving, and you and the bridge are not. Gulls circle the giant piers, the water laps them gently and, looking up through the grid and the hustle, you see the eternal sky. A calming complexity, usually. And in most places -- certainly San Francisco and New York City -- underbridges are easily accessible. You just do what we three visitors did a few days ago: You go there and look. Undisturbed.
Not in San Pedro, though. “Excuse me, can I help you?” comes a voice in the key of anger. A man in a T-shirt has emerged from no visible point in the several acres of semi-paved territory around the bridge pier. There are no obvious keep-out signs, but the man -- heavily built, but not very big -- amplifies: “You are all trespassing.” Did someone, I wonder, manage to sell this guy the Vincent Thomas Bridge? But the hostility is neither funny nor understandable: We‘re decently dressed, unthreatening folk in our 50s, we’ve arrived midafternoon in a respectable new vehicle. We don‘t have cameras or sketchpads, so we can’t be Iraqi spies. I start to ask where it says this isn‘t public property, but one of my local friends is already, while conversing pleasantly, backing the intruder away in a manner that suggests that if he doesn’t bother us, we won‘t bother him. We linger a few minutes after that, but confrontation is hard on contemplation. The only real reason we could stay was that we were three to one.
And that is Los Angeles Harbor territoriality in a nutshell. There are vast, friendly public accommodations and beaches. But elsewhere there are undelineated fiefdoms and weird little power plays. One of my guides said that when he last visited another attractive area, someone chased him with a wrench. Though we were not disturbed at the same locale, it was hard for me to stop worrying and enjoy the vistas.
But if Los Angeles’ own port town can be a rough place in which to wander, there‘s an attraction to be found in its mix of natural beauty, antiquity and privation. There’s also a deeply rooted residential and business community of spacious diversity and loyalty. The community has long united in its frustrated wish that the rest of us would come down and spend and enjoy it more often. To make it prosper.
Now comes John Papadakis, restaurant owner and San Pedro native son. Papadakis is a prominent but, as he insists, coequal member of a local initiative group that wants to bind San Pedro into a tourist-friendly whole.
A big, congenial man in his 50s, Papadakis comes from a family that has been locally prominent for generations; he‘d like to see San Pedro reach what many of its long-term inhabitants think is its crowd-pleasing potential. Something like San Francisco’s Fisherman‘s Wharf. Only with a city of nearly 4 million, instead of 700,000, at its back.
And the first step in this revival, he says, is “a pedestrian-oriented walkway and bicycle path along the four- to five-mile San Pedro waterfront.”
An artist’s rendering shows an attractive, wide, paved path very similar to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade that has invigorated that New York borough‘s eastern shore. The San Pedro ’Nade would zigzag up and down wharves and docks, marinas and channels, past the Cruise Ship Terminal and the Cabrillo aquarium and museum, to the shady paths of Point Fermin Park, which has some of the best ocean views anywhere. Papadakis blames past problems of San Pedro revival on a lack of overall vision. So far that revival consists of “hotels, commercial centers, restaurant sites that don‘t hook up in any particular way,” he says. There have been over 20 years of this patchwork effort costing tens of millions, some by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, some by the Harbor Department and other agencies. The results are stuff like the newish and underused-looking, medium-size hotels scattered from Gaffey Street just off the Harbor Freeway down to the harbor itself, and retail pods still lacking tenants. The promenade would help connect them all, and encourage many to walk three blocks from the shore to the little district‘s downtown. Where the Los Angeles Harbor-Watts Economic Development Corporation (or EDC) proposes another redevelopment of Old Town San Pedro, along the preservationist lines proposed by the National Historic Trust.
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