Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
Once you get past the refineries, San Pedro looks like many port cities whose generations have lived near the sea. Little homes crowd the hilly, treeless streets that climb the sweep of landscape from the docks to the Palos Verdes heights. The maritime air smells clean, even at 90 degrees. Downtown, there’s still the uncertain, patchy diversity common to ports, where ever fewer people work the docks, sail the ships and fish for a living.
Even so, you think, it must be inspiring to dwell here among the inhumanly scaled attributes of modern ocean commerce, breathing sea air.
Then you recall the near 30-mile freeway distance to what most people think of as L.A., and you remember that San Pedro isn’t a city at all. It’s just an odd piece of the great 450-square-mile puzzle of Los Angeles, from which it dangles on a 5-block-wide string of real estate. The big city, many San Pedrans feel, generally forgets that San Pedro is there at all. Let alone that it has problems of its own. One of which is representation at City Hall.
The dilemma here, though, is nuanced differently from the one articulated by San Fernando Valley secessionists. In the Valley, complaints center on the distance from City Hall and a perceived lack of attention and resources. And while the same could apply to San Pedro, down here residents speak of being overshadowed by a force that is all too near: the Port of Los Angeles.
In fact, you see the machinery of the port before you ever get to San Pedro, which begins where the Harbor Freeway spills out into Gaffey Street. On the last stretch of freeway, you glimpse the gawky, bright shapes of the modern cargo cranes, ships and containers of our city’s vast, artificial port. L.A.’s harbor operation controls, along with the neighboring port authority of Long Beach, the West’s greatest commercial gateway. The Port of Los Angeles imports and exports billions of dollars’ worth of cargo annually. But despite these substantial transactions, the city is paid only for services — police, fire and so on — directly related to the harbor operation.
In theory, the regional economy benefits from this vast trade volume; in practice, scarcely any money touches down in San Pedro. And those who live, vote and work here stand in line for government access behind one of L.A.’s largest public entities — one that has little fiduciary interest in the community. As Andrew Silber, restaurateur and local Chamber of Commerce member, puts it, “The quality of life here is mostly dictated by the Los Angeles Department of Harbors.”
Silber recently gathered some San Pedro merchants at his Seventh Street establishment to ponder the enclave’s future. The walls of Silber’s Whale & Ale pub are lined with local-government commendations, many of them from City Councilman Rudy Svorinich. But Silber’s disillusioned about Svorinich — even though the councilman was long a fellow San Pedro merchant. “He used to represent us; now he represents the Harbor Department,” mourns Silber.
Svorinich did not return my calls, but in that gathering there was a consensus that the councilman, who faces term limits and is running for the state Assembly, is of little present use to the community, which once had a livelier commercial tie to the port’s economy. As recently as the 1960s, merchant sailors and fishing-boat crewmen crowded waterfront dives and hotels and patronized the stores of a thriving, sometimes brawling, community where many of them lived. A regional center of blue-collar work, San Pedro was also pivotal in the labor movement, particularly under the legendary longshoreman Harry Bridges.
No more, says Rorvik Johnson, a semiretired marine-supplies vendor: “You’re in an era of tiny crews on huge ships. Automation runs the ships and gets the cargoes off and on them.”
Silber and his Chamber of Commerce friends want to replace the old maritime clientele with a new, upscale one — drawn by the picturesque townscape to eat, shop and stroll. To this end, the efforts of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency have proved a mixed bag.
You don’t have to look far to see where the CRA stumbled, says Jim Cross, another local businessperson. Just down Seventh Street, a vacant lot bears a sign promising, on behalf of the CRA, a new theater multiplex. The lot’s seriously overgrown; nothing’s happened there for some time. Farther down the hill stands one of the CRA’s few local successes — the San Pedro Sheraton hotel. But local labor activists complain that its management substituted minimum-wage employees for its formerly union work force.
Cross recalls, somewhat bitterly, that the entire area was once part of a CRA study that explored joining the village to the harborfront — giving San Pedro vital access to the shoreline. Cross, once a local representative on the CRA study committee, says that the waterfront portion was eventually deleted in deference to the Harbor Department’s needs. The remainder of the study has moved ahead, according to a June 16 Wall Street Journal article, although considering the CRA’s dire budget problems, it may never materialize. But Cross and Silber strongly believe that their own councilman ought to have got behind the entire proj-ect the way Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg did for Hollywood’s TrizecHahn development. Says Silber, “Since the Harbor Department is the 900-pound gorilla at City Hall, we constituents just don’t count as much.”
Some people in San Pedro talk of secession from Los Angeles, but that could leave San Pedro at the continuing mercies of the Department of Harbors without even a representative on the L.A. City Council.
Others say they hope the next local election will make a difference, because City Attorney Jim Hahn, a local resident, is considered a strong 2001 mayoral candidate. And then there’s Hahn’s sister Janice (who lost the 1993 council primary to Svorinich). After Janice Hahn’s well-received work on the Elected Charter Reform Commission, she’s being touted as a possible Svorinich successor.
But it would take more than the simultaneous election of a favorite son and daughter to make San Pedro a boomtown again. And maybe that’s not necessary.
Even without attention from City Hall, San Pedro’s urban mix has an earthy allure you won’t see elsewhere in Los Angeles. Walk down Seventh Street toward the harbor and you see an abandoned bank, a shuttered appliance store and a $10-a-month parking lot. But you also pass prosperous-looking restaurants and a string of upscale shops offering antiques, linens and gifts. Plus a store specializing in International Longshore Workers Union apparel and a pizzeria that might have been selling slices during the Battle of Midway. Across the street, there’s the by-no-means-five-star five-story Hotel Cabrillo, whose ground-floor saloon offers quarter-pounder chili dogs.
The park overlooking the harbor abuts some magnificent old buildings, along with some rehab centers and low-end residential hotels. On weekends, the banda music from the nearby Ports of Call tourist village comes over at jetliner-takeoff volume.
The San Pedro biweekly Random Lengths recently quoted a local museum director as calling for “cultural tourism.” That’s what the merchants should be promoting. The San Pedro area is as rich in history as any other corner of Los Angeles — with the Banning Museum and Drum Barracks in nearby Wilmington and the L.A. Maritime Museum, Cabrillo Aquarium and S.S. Lane Victory memorial, all within a few blocks.
But cultural tourism would include much more — a stroll through the family-packed neighborhoods surrounding the distinctly ungentrified commercial streets, a wander around the increasingly Latinized Ports of Call. The crowded public beaches. Tattoo parlors, trying to survive on $25 navel piercings. All in all, San Pedro’s already a fabulous culture to tour, just as it is.
The city of Alhambra recently stepped on a rake when it attempted a punitive traffic diversion into South Pasadena, which has long blocked the 710 freeway extension. The much-larger neighboring city fanatically wants this highway to ease its traffic burden, and this detour gambit was to teach South Pas a lesson. But as the Times reported, the rerouting simply infuriated motorists and cut the throats of some Alhambra businesses along the old route.
Here’s a better idea for Alhambra: If you want that freeway so bad, why not volunteer a 710 route through your own city? The 710’s currently routed through El Sereno and South Pasadena, completely avoiding the city that champions the freeway. And decimating areas that — understandably — oppose it.