By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
”We‘ll get people who come in here and fill a big bag to sell the cactus for a dollar or two apiece.“
Worse than the loss is the damage done by the thief to the plants.
”There’s a certain way to cut cactus,“ Ronnie says. ”You have to twist them off with your hand -- but [the thief] uses a knife and cuts beyond what we call the plant‘s heart and destroys it, because then it won’t reproduce anymore.“
Ronnie grew up in Watts, an area still haunted by the 1965 riots (the Superior market is located on a stretch dubbed Charcoal Alley during the upheaval) and which has been especially hard-hit by the current economic downturn -- today‘s news of the closing of Kmart’s Compton store spread quickly here. ”It has its bad points,“ he says about his neighborhood, ”but little by little it‘s getting better.“
Container Land’s Shadows
South of the cactus patches lies Compton, with its new Egyptian obelisks and hieroglyphic friezes above the trench at Palmer Street, and beyond this stretches the Southern Pacific rail yards and clean-tech industrial parks just north of Carson. Here, where Alameda Street crosses streets like Auto Drive and Vista Industria, the corridor widens into a gleaming channel of new concrete and asphalt.
Near Alameda Street‘s harbor terminus the corridor has not been a stealth project quietly constructed in someone else’s back yard, but a curse that has wreaked the most damage to small businesses by blocking access to them.
”We‘re completely empty!“ complains Dinesh Desai, who has owned the 16-unit Alameda Motel since 1988. ”I never knew about [the project] until I saw the construction begin -- I never heard from anyone.“ Until recently his motel had been full -- half with full-time residents, half with truck drivers and workers from the nearby Texaco refinery who pay $45 a night for the rooms.
Down at this crowded and confusing part of the corridor, which, to the outsider, might seem like a post-apocalyptic landscape of body shops and salvage outfits, visibility means everything to small businesses.
”They can get hold of you by phone, but they can’t find you!“ says Chip Van Werf, who has owned All‘e Auto Wrecking for the past 33 years. His business, which specializes in trucks, sits on Opp Street, two blocks from the Alameda Motel -- which is also bordered by Opp. This street normally bisects Henry Ford and the next street over, Alameda, but is now blocked at Ford. Van Werf is a weather-beaten man with only the faintest hint of his native Netherlands accent. Like everyone else in the salvage business, he must landscape his operation, and All’e is a surprisingly lush oasis of shrubbery, palms and palmettos. Even as he chuckles about environmental rules that prevent him from washing down his driveway and require him to maintain strict records of rainfall and water-quality samples (”I‘ve gotta be able to make tea with my runoff!“), he flatly announces the demise of business in this part of Wilmington.
”I used to have five guys working for me,“ Van Werf says, ”but not for the last five years.“ Then, somewhat wistful, he speculates about his plans, which, in an odd way, sound a little bit like the future of the old Alameda Street that was being buried as he spoke.
”I’ve got to get rid of all these trucks, and I‘m going to hate it. But I’ll start another line of work -- I‘ve got to be doing something.“
Looking at the towering walls of stacked freight containers that surround his business like old tenement buildings, it’s easy to see why Van Werf predicts that the area is destined to become what he calls Container Land.
He notes that even most of the area‘s huge homeless population has disappeared. There was a time when these desperate people, who are overwhelmingly -- if not all -- African-American, could be seen wandering the unpaved side streets north of Anaheim Street. Many suffered from crack addiction, and it was not uncommon, in the middle of the day, to see a woman jump into the cab of a pickup truck to turn a trick. Today there only seems to be a small group of men huddling across from the psychedelically yellow mountains of powder on the California Sulfur Co.’s property.
Like his South Gate counterparts, Van Werf has suffered from recurring thefts, which, like the stock market, go up and down according to the price of metals.
”They even took the copper from the power line!“ he marvels about one break-in. ”They cut live 220s! Another time I had an almost new truck, and they cut all the wires out of it. You can catch these guys, but what are you going to do? They‘re homeless.“
By 4 o’clock, Van Werf‘s yard is already covered in the shadows cast by the stacked containers, while the nonstop rumble of 18-wheelers going up Alameda and Ford continues, replaced only by the sound of air brakes when traffic grinds to a halt.
”It’s been a good, steady business, but now it‘s dead,“ he says, ticking off the names of colleagues who have closed during the corridor’s construction. ”Our days are numbered -- it‘ll just be all containers here. That’s how it works.“