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.
Ive looked up at many big bridges in my time; even lived under one once. But Ive 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 youre carrying truck cargo. Thats 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: Were decently dressed, unthreatening folk in our 50s, weve arrived midafternoon in a respectable new vehicle. We dont have cameras or sketchpads, so we cant be Iraqi spies. I start to ask where it says this isnt 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 doesnt bother us, we wont 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, theres an attraction to be found in its mix of natural beauty, antiquity and privation. Theres 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; hed like to see San Pedro reach what many of its long-term inhabitants think is its crowd-pleasing potential. Something like San Franciscos Fishermans 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 artists rendering shows an attractive, wide, paved path very similar to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade that has invigorated that New York boroughs 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 dont 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 citys 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 districts 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.
The promenade proposal is the key element in the EDCs plan to remake the entirety of San Pedro into something that a wide range of Angelenos will find worth visiting.
It is hoped it will be picked up as a centerpiece for the new port development. The plan would involve three extensive sites along the proposed walkway.
The idea seems to be gathering wide local support and some media coverage; the Harbor-Watts EDC has an office and a small staff, led by development expert Bruce Dobb, who likes to call San Pedro a gold mine on a waterfront, Southern Californias last underdeveloped commercial shoreline. Dobb says his plan tried to avoid a gold rush, the massive and slapdash revamping he fears from the Harbor Department.
But as in most gold mines, theres more dirt than gold along the San Pedro shore. Its studded with disused tank farms, derelict docks and underutilized warehouses of the department of harbors. Papadakis points out that the entire world of shipping has changed since the city took over the once-independent port town: Cargo now arrives in giant containers, which are unloaded north of the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Much of the old pier area south of the bridge, which handled old-time loose cargo, is now obsolete. Thats why, say boosters, it so badly needs the promenades symbolic and actual unification.
As noted last week, mayoral candidate Steve Soboroff is very interested in the EDC proposal. I love the idea and it is very well thought out, says the man Dick Riordan wants to succeed him as mayor. Its something we should go ahead with as long as it doesnt interfere with the port. And even if it does, Soboroff says, the promenade project should be completed with the appropriate route changes.
But the decision making is up to the department of harbors. Harbor spokeswoman Barbara Yamamoto says that her agency is at the pre-request-for-proposal stage in its big plan. Were interested in what Mr. Papadakis proposes, she says. But the final decision on what goes on the San Pedro shore will probably be made by whoever gets the redevelopment contract with the Harbor Department.
When Papadakis and Dobb mention that all-powerful agency, its with foreboding. They just havent been with us on this sort of thing; its as if it werent their concern, Papadakis says. Dobb puts it more bluntly: Theyre just not equipped for this kind of project.
There is a common San Pedro lament against the department: They dont even think of us as residents. Or to realize that the harbor community interpenetrated by the citys shipping operations is also home to more than 100,000 people.
To Dobb, the major affront came seven years ago, when the department ordained a new export facility -- the so-called LAXT -- for finely divided coal and carbon-coke. He complains that little consideration was then given to the possible pollution via dust from a large, open coal pile. Nor that it could be a health danger. Locals united, the pile was covered. But the harbor agency, the largest local employer, was less trusted than ever.
Some San Pedrans think the mayors recent ejection of Harbor Commission president Ted Stein could improve department-community relations. He wasnt very receptive, Dobb says of the former Riordan intimate.
Replacement Rick Caruso is locally unknown, but has development experience Stein lacked. Theres ambivalence, however, about how Stein went. Hector Cepeda -- a consultant to state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and candidate for the local 15th District council seat -- adds, No ones sorry to see Stein go, but no ones happy about how he went.
Cepeda strongly backs the EDC proposal, though: The place has its own character. It should keep it. Fellow candidate Frank OBrien agrees the EDC is a good idea, but he is skeptical about what difference the Stein ouster will make. The Harbor Department doesnt believe in the community. I believe the new boss will be the same as the old boss.
Yamamoto says that the departments board may not choose a contractor until November. If so, vital decisions on whither San Pedro are going to be made by a new mayor. Could people-friendly harbor development become a big 2001 campaign issue? I wouldnt be surprised. In fact, Soboroff, who says, Im for greening L.A., is already out there running with it.#
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.