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
Globalization, it seems, is rife with equal opportunity for aspiring slums. Just a few decades ago, San Pedro was a thriving cannery town and home to a fishing fleet. In downtown Wilmington, film stars stayed overnight at the Don Hotel before boarding the ferry to Catalina Island. Both cities, according to urban planner Rafique Khan of the Community Redevelopment Agency of San Pedro, derived their identities from the waterfront.
Today, both are textbook examples of urban blight. Port expansion has fenced off much of the access to water. In a fashion endemic to Los Angeles, the port's industrial landscape has intruded on neighborhoods. Despite Wilmington's salsa beat and San Pedro's manicured lawns, both cities have the half-starved look of stray dogs. This is not simply a matter of wealth, but of the coherence that comes from a balance between housing and commerce. When both are rooted in the natural landscape, something ineffable is created: a sense of place.
What the South Bay has instead is the country's largest container shipping port. Since the 1950s, when containerization transformed the shipping industry, bigger has been better. In the 1980s and 1990s, the explosive growth of trade in the Pacific Rim exacerbated the trend toward economies of scale at the port. It is not the expansion itself, but what is perceived as the port's ruthlessness that has angered members of the community. Locals point to Knoll Hill, a bluff overlooking the harbor, where two besieged families live next to a port-owned dog run that looks like it has been used for target practice by Air Force bombers. They say the port bought the other houses, rented most of them to unsavory tenants, and then tore them down, hoping to raze the hill itself to expand its container facilities.
As the port grew, so did pollution. Ships are the worst offenders, producing 60 percent of the port's diesel pollution. On average, 16 ships call at the port every day, generating more smog-forming gases than 1 million cars. But the estimated 34,000 diesel trucks that arrive each day at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach pose a more complicated problem. After Reagan-era deregulation broke the back of the Teamsters, so-called "independent operators" came to dominate trucking. These truckers are usually Latino and non-unionized; their old semis are among the most-polluting trucks on the road. Because of congestion during peak hours, a truck with 800,000 miles of road wear may idle for as much as 10 hours waiting for containers to be loaded. On a day like this, a trucker may clear as little as $10 after expenses. It is a bad deal for everyone — except the port, the terminal operators, and the Wal-Marts and Targets that pay rock-bottom rates for transportation.
Business at the Port of Los Angeles is expected to double by 2010 and triple by 2020. The Alameda Corridor, the newly constructed $2.4 billion rail line that links the port to inland rail yards, can handle only a fraction of the projected increase. Analysts forecast that by 2020 there will be 92,000 trucks moving in and out of the ports each day. Upgrading the I-710 freeway to accommodate this increased traffic is estimated to cost $5 billion. Nobody knows where the money will come from.
As port expansion threatens to increase pollution, air-quality officials in January announced that Los Angeles is lagging way behind in meeting federal deadlines to reduce diesel emissions. Diesel engines do not burn fuel as completely as regular engines. Partially burned diesel exhaust contains tiny particles laced with toxic chemicals, including some too small to be stopped by the body's defense mechanisms. As sophisticated monitoring has yielded new information about the health effects of diesel, pressure has mounted on regulatory agencies to crack down.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a 2006 deadline for controlling diesel pollution. If Los Angeles is going to meet this deadline, the port will not only have to control new sources, such as the China Shipping terminal, but also must reduce the amount of pollution it currently produces.
Yet nothing seems to stop the port from growing. The port's growth is based on the explosive growth of Southern California itself; an estimated 40 percent of the goods brought into Los Angeles Harbor are sold regionally. "They are bombarded with cargo," said George Cunningham, editor of The Cunningham Report, a shipping-industry newsletter. "It's simply more cost-efficient to bring goods closer to where they're going to be sold."
Port environmental official T.L. Garrett made the point more succinctly: "You want to stop shipping?" Garrett asked. "Stop going to Target."
Those kinds of fighting words are not unusual in the South Bay. People in San Pedro and Wilmington talk of the "hundred years war" they've been waging with the port. In one famous example of hostilities, the president of the San Pedro homeowners association introduced himself at a Harbor Commission meeting and spoke of his desire for a new era of "two-way" communication, only to be told by then-Harbor Commission president Ted Stein: "I don't believe in two-way communication."
In her successful 2001 City Council run, Janice Hahn, the sister of Mayor James Hahn, campaigned on the promise that words like these would never again be spoken by a harbor commissioner.