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An Exquisite Scar

When it was called Harbor Truck Boulevard, Alameda Street was a two-lane road connecting downtown Los Angeles to its port -- a dusty, eucalyptus-lined route with a railroad berm running down the middle. Today it’s barely possible to imagine the farmland that once surrounded that road, because when people say ”industrial Los Angeles,“ they mean Alameda Street and its 20 miles of foundries, salvage yards, silos, bakeries, warehouses and tank farms -- a street of steel that was once the most densely concentrated manufacturing zone in America, second in the world only to Germany‘s Ruhr Valley.

Last month the street underwent a kind of rebirth as the Alameda Corridor, thanks to a Pharaonic construction project whose centerpiece is a 33-foot-deep railroad trench that submerges tracks between Compton and Vernon, and is designed to handle the 100 trains per day that will replace the endless truck convoys that shuttle back and forth between downtown and the harbor.

This 10-mile gash forms an exquisite scar that marks both a city’s $2.4 billion gamble for its economic future and a quest to clean up some of the rail pollution created during the past 90 years. To accomplish this, 51 bridges have been created to divert surface traffic from the old varicose network of rail track, 1,700 relocations of underground and overhead utilities have been made, and 900 million pounds of contaminated soil have been removed and disposed of.

Other statistics are just as impressive: 1 million cubic yards of concrete were poured, 150 million pounds of rebar were used and 800 million pounds of rock were laid for railroad ballast. Yet as massive as this five-year undertaking has been, for most Angelenos it may as well have been a U.N. irrigation project somewhere in the Sudan -- what can you expect from a town more concerned with celebrity court appearances than the gears and bolts of the local economy? There was a time, however, when Alameda Street itself formed a deep psychic trench in Los Angeles, when it was known as the Cotton Curtain because it separated black ghettos from both the high-paying jobs along the street‘s flanks and the hillbilly suburbs that lay immediately to its east.

Those snow-white suburbs (Lynwood called itself ”The Friendly Caucasian City“) have now long been Latino neighborhoods, but the area remains everything Hollywood, Santa Monica and Encino are not -- the corridor is not just another part of town, it is the other L.A., a parallel blue-collar world that exists as Los Angeles’ non-identical twin city. The corridor is 120 square miles of hard labor and noise, double negatives, squat VFW halls, rotting bungalows, and flat, treeless streets where the families of forklift drivers and union leaders live behind Mexican-style iron grillwork. The corridor is also home to what might be Los Angeles‘ largest concentration of Art Deco architecture and the last place where business owners can display their personal eccentricities with abandon. It is both what L.A. used to be and what it is becoming.

The Iron Men

From a plane the trench looks like a gigantic zipper running up the city’s torso. Vernon, South Gate and Compton are some of the hard-ass towns Alameda Street cuts through, and the terrain noticeably changes about every five miles. The corridor‘s L.A. terminus begins below Washington Boulevard, just as the city’s commercial topography ends with Alameda Books Inc. -- a porn store that the corridor‘s construction workers reportedly have been warned against visiting during work hours. South from there come the recycling yards, Alameda Strip (”Cocktails . . . Girls . . . Halibut Dinner Special“) and then the old Streamline Moderne buildings of Vernon; farther down come the Pueblo del Rio community gardens, grain elevators, and warm-bagel smells from the ovens of Sara Lee and the International Baking Co.

Alameda Street’s endlessly grinding, pounding, churning soundtrack never lets you forget that it‘s all business and sweat here, but there’s also an insurgent nutty charm, from the ancient red fire truck that an artist had planted years ago on the roof of the building that now houses the Red Chamber seafood company (there‘s also an old Deco New York Central car in its parking lot), to the sprawling Leonardo’s mariachi club with its new signs covering up those of a failed casino -- and let‘s not forget the charity ladies in white who collect money from gridlocked motorists on Gage Avenue on Sunday afternoons.

If Vernon means bakeries and boxed meat, South Gate means cars, car parts and rusted scrap, and it’s here that you run up against the vast automobile graveyards presided over by families that have ruled this stretch of Alameda for decades. Nate Adlen, owner of Samson Auto Salvage, can tell you that his father was raised in a junkyard on Ford Boulevard in East L.A. The Adlen family has owned the business, which is open seven days a week, since the beginning of the 1950s, though it has been called its present name only since 1960.

You can‘t miss Samson from the road -- from its yard a 70-foot fire ladder sticks up into the blue sky and at its tip stands a bikini-clad mannequin with her arms stretched in carnal welcome, American flags waving on either side of her. If that doesn’t catch your attention, there‘s always the 1931 red Willys Jeep on the roof -- a a vehicle that’s been there since 1932. Although this strip of Alameda doesn‘t feature the packs of auto-yard hawkers who stand on Mission Road in Boyle Heights urging you in to buy a used windshield or bumper, it nevertheless gets pretty crowded here on weekends. A Samson customer pays $1.50 to come in with his own tools to pick through cars for wanted parts; once inside Samson’s walls, you find something like an old fort or city-state, four acres that include a catering truck, a locksmith, and a clothing market specializing in jeans. Adlen, with his black leather coat, sunglasses, pinky ring and laconic smile, at first glance brings to mind a musician -- think of a young Roy Orbison -- until he proudly mentions the car crusher he has on his lot, an apparent rarity in these parts.

Sitting two doors down in the cool dark of Southern California Truck, Van & 4x4 Parts, old Abe Cohen traces the migration of Jews from one L.A. neighborhood to the next, from Temple-Beaudry to Central Avenue to Adams to Boyle Heights. ”We‘re the oldest yard in Los Angeles,“ he says, ”and we’re the oldest yard on Alameda.“

”Longest established -- that‘s a funny word, isn’t it?“ muses his nephew, Marty, a third-generation operator who‘s worked here a mere 25 years. Marty’s grandfather came to L.A. in 1913 and first worked the corridor as a fruit peddler until he rented a yard in 1929 -- legend has it that he was the first peddler in L.A. to use a truck instead of a horse cart; when the rent went up in 1941, he moved the business to its present location.

”Victory!“ proclaims Lloyd Weinstein into a telephone, a greeting that‘s half affirmation, half announcement -- Weinstein owns Victory Salvage, located between the Cohens and Adlen, an establishment marked by a mockup of a red glider that is permanently poised to take off. His spread is four and a half acres of government-surplus equipment, which he sells, as-is or rebuilt by his mechanics.

”We get a lot of stuff from Uncle Sam -- Hummers, LARKs,“ he says, referring to the amphibious vehicles that look like boats with wheels. ”Mexican fishermen buy them, operators who run casinos on the Mississippi buy them.“

Weinstein is a man who enjoys a good cigar and, in keeping with a strict personal code, drives a Lincoln SUV. ”I only buy American,“ he says. ”When you stop buying American you start losing your country.“

When Weinstein roams his yards, he seems like a rancher inspecting his animals on the range as he picks his way among Humvees, aircraft water carts and hydraulic ”mules“ and the odd military tank.

”Victory Salvage is an old name,“ he says. ”We’ve been here 61 years, and our family‘s been in L.A. 81 years.“ Plaques, charity testimonials and old photographs of what Alameda looked like over those past six decades fill his office, and even here one must speak loudly to be heard over the trucks that are busy tearing up the street outside.

The gripes of men along the corridor are the gripes of guys who recycle society’s waste but are considered its ”junk men“ and pariahs, men who must contend with strict environmental rules, grandstanding politicians, and the deindustrialization of the corridor thanks to free-trade treaties that have sent corporations to Mexico and other countries. They remember how a once-booming furniture industry vanished from here as soon as California banned lacquer finishes, and will tell you about the Sisyphean chore of replacing city-mandated shrubbery that is forever being stolen by desperate people in need of drug money.

Theft, in fact, plagues this iron belt as much as anywhere in the city. Marty Cohen explains how stealing is a seasonal thing along Alameda: ”More air-conditioner parts will be stolen in summer and windshield wipers in winter.“

Like many other business owners along the corridor, Weinstein can point to a hole where robbers tried to squeeze through. ”We once brought in some copper cable and put it in the yard over New Year‘s,“ he recalls. ”We came back after the holiday and found they had sawed it up into small pieces and took it out. We didn’t have dogs then -- we have them now.“

”You have a couple of classifications of thieves,“ says Marty. ”You have guys who are well-organized and steal bigger products, and then you have drug addicts who jump fences to get some metal to pay for their next fix. Some yards have dogs, some don‘t.“ He lists the drawbacks of a owning canine guards: ”People will shoot dogs, and insurance companies won’t carry yards with dogs -- they‘re more concerned with liability of bites than theft.“

”You can’t stop a thief,“ Abe sighs philosophically. Later, he remembers a lighter moment in the business‘s history. ”We had a drunk come down Alameda and drive his pickup truck right into the side of our building, where our office is. It was here when we came to work.“

Considering the fact that the street in front of their businesses was in the process of being stripped to the dirt, the men seemed guardedly optimistic about the corridor project.

”This is a mess,“ says Weinstein, ”but once it’s done it will be an improvement.“

”Aesthetically it will be beautiful,“ says Adlen. ”The street always used to be horrendous with potholes and bumps.“

At one point Abe, who is standing outside next to a wall of truck axles, comments on the area‘s supposedly tainted dirt, although he may well be talking of the resiliency of the corridor’s people: ”This all used to be farmland. The soil under here is so rich that we still have tomato plants come up.“

So Big

The Alameda Corridor is about more than two pairs of track discreetly running past the churches of Compton and the swap meets of Vernon. The thing is big -- think of the new five-story train bridge near Washington Boulevard eight football fields long that now carries the Metrolink and Amtrak passenger cars that once shared track with freight trains. Better yet, instead of picturing the whole project as a model-train set, imagine a densely packed transistor board because of all the infrastructural changes occurring in Wilmington and Long Beach -- the two port areas to which the corridor splits to form a small fork -- but which aren‘t officially part of the corridor project. Most of the sprawling Long Beach Naval Base, for example, has been leveled and graded to make way for the 375-acre Hanjin container terminal; on Henry Ford Avenue, the 56-year-old Commodore Schuyler F. Heim lift bridge, a venerable symbol of muscular L.A., will be torn down by Caltrans; part of Pacific Coast Highway will become an overpass arching over the corridor just before it forks. And this isn’t to mention the almost uncountable new rail trestles that have been built to link port-area terminals to the corridor.

The corridor has also come in on time and on budget, a feat that recalls another such undertaking, albeit much smaller -- the rebuilding of the earthquake-shattered Santa Monica and Golden State freeways in 1994, although cynics might say this happened because of the economic necessity of restoring two heavily trafficked routes and because of the political need to show determination in the face of a disaster. Yet, in a way, the corridor project, first planned during L.A.‘s boom period of the early 1980s, was a response to what was then perceived as a disaster in the making: an early-20th-century harbor freight-transport system that was streaking toward gridlock. Like Oakland and Newark, Los Angeles and Long Beach had seized the economic high ground in the 1970s by building container facilities while San Francisco and New York stuck to the old labor-intensive method of loading and unloading cargo pallet by pallet. Yet midway through Mayor Tom Bradley’s reign, the bursting ports were falling victim to their own success and desperately needed to expand and upgrade their facilities.

Besides the ports‘ shipping tenants, the project’s immediate big winners include some of the usual old-boy suspects: construction giants Tudor-Saliba and Kiewit Pacific, and the O‘Melveny and Myers law firm. But project backers promise benefits to the entire city. By having Santa Fe and Union Pacific consolidate their four harbor-area tracks into a single expressway (the first time this has been done in the United States), 77 percent of the previously existing track miles have been eliminated. This fact, along with the reduced number of cars and semis that have choked Alameda Street for decades, corridor supporters say, will cut truck exhaust by 23 percent and rail emissions by 28 percent.

But there are those outside the city who claim that the sheer increase in cargo volume will eventually spew more pollutants into the air once all those trucks awaiting the trains at the corridor’s northern terminus -- the city‘s vast train yards located just east of the L.A. River -- begin fanning out across the state, an act similar to switching over to a fleet of lower-emission trucks but then tripling the size of the fleet.

The corridor’s ripple effect is like the Owens Valley water project in reverse -- L.A. will now be sending forth a rolling tsunami of big rigs into both the San Joaquin Valley and the Inland Empire, with unforeseen consequences. Already a projected extension of the corridor, called the Alameda Corridor East (ACE), is on the boards and has been high on the agenda of politicians ranging from Gray Davis to San Bernardino Congressman Joe Baca. Although ACE has been temporarily derailed by the state‘s budget crisis, supporters predict its eventual construction through the San Gabriel Valley and through northern Orange County and into Riverside and San Bernardino counties. These backers say ACE could one day reach through Arizona and to the Mexican border, but, more immediately, Inland Empire environmentalists worry about the exhaust that will be blowing out of the new mega truck hub being built on the site of the old Kaiser steel complex in Fontana.

Early fears about noise pollution from the trains have proved groundless, though, if for no other reason than that pedestrians can’t even hear them above the din of the trucks that still rumble along Alameda. To listen to the corridor‘s locomotive rhythms you pretty much have to stand right over the tracks, and from there you’ll hear two kinds of noise: The empty flat cars returning to the port are surprisingly quiet, like a distant waterfall gushing through a cave, while the engines carrying full containers into downtown sound louder and darker -- the image that comes to mind is an avalanche of iron.

The Cactus Family

At 92nd Street a blur of green appears in the corner of your eye as you head toward the more residential stretches of Alameda Street in Lynwood and Compton -- suddenly you notice acres of cactus laid out beneath the power lines of the Department of Water and Power. These three lots represent the cactus empire of the Aguirres, a family that migrated from Jalisco, Mexico, and cultivates the lots for cactus, as well as for carrots, cilantro, green onions, and honey from the beehives they keep here.

”We‘re Number One for cactus!“ says 28-year-old Ronnie, and you don’t doubt him as he explains his family‘s success. ”Maybe a white produce manager in Fullerton won’t stock cactus in his supermarket, but then he‘ll get someone from Santa Ana asking for it -- then they’ll start calling us. Little by little they‘ll start ordering five boxes.“

His father, Gregorio, began the business by selling cactus to neighborhood friends in Watts, which is just a few blocks away. Then the Superior supermarket on Avalon and 103rd Street began placing orders; soon came consignments from Top Value, Food for Less and Albertsons. Before long Gregorio was driving hundreds of boxes to Pacoima, Ontario, Canoga Park and Wilmington.

The cactus-growing season runs from April through October. Lent is the Aguirres’ busiest period, although on any weekend their patches are filled with shoppers who seek the plant for a wide variety of recipes, with egg and bean dishes among the most popular. Still, even a small enterprise like cactus growing is not immune from crime.

”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.“


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