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San Pedro, where the water goes to work

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The Port of Los Angeles, as seen from above San Pedro

The coastline makes a hard left turn at Point Fermin. The sheer sandstone walls that drop a thousand feet into the ocean in Palos Verdes are gone. The broad surfing beaches of the South Bay are a peninsula away. This is a coastal stretch that’s not particularly scenic. It’s also not very recreational.

This is a different kind of coast—a gritty industrial one. This is where the ocean brings money from something other than sunscreen and burger shacks. This is San Pedro, where the water goes to work.

Standing atop a bluff in late afternoon right past the hard left turn, I’m drawn into conversation with a recreational walker who stops to take in the view. He tells me he’s a San Pedro native, that he works on the docks operating one of the large cranes that unload ships. It’s good work, he says. He works four hours a day and gets paid for eight. He’s been at it for more than 30 years. His father has worked on the docks for nearly 50 years. He makes more than $140,000 a year, he tells me. But he admits not everything on this stretch of working coast is good, that the recession and changing economy have hit San Pedro hard, that many of his friends and neighbors are barely getting by. As a matter of fact, he asks me for some money so he can get his car running and put some gas in it. I give him $10.

A gull on the railing of an observation point on the Main Channel of the Port of Los Angeles.

There’s this same kind of financial disconnect throughout San Pedro. It’s the kind of place that has worked hard, can still work hard, still wants to work hard… but is having a little trouble making it. Its business district has many of the shuttered storefronts that have become a common sight in the economic downturn. But San Pedro also has a substantial number of industrial buildings that haven’t been used for far longer than a few years. For many of them—wharf warehouses, brick industrial shops—the downturn came decades ago and hasn’t gone away.

San Pedro is a model of ethnic diversity. Southern California is incredibly diverse, but even against that background, San Pedro stands out. There are Asians and Europeans, Latinos and African-Americans. But rather than assembling in individual enclaves across a vast area, in San Pedro, ethnicities seem compressed into a single neighborhood and much more thoroughly mixed than anywhere else. There’s a Croatian Heritage Hall down the street from a Mexican restaurant, a Scandinavian worship center near a Japanese restaurant, Slavic names on businesses next door to Italian ones or Hispanic ones.

What made San Pedro the melting pot, and what keeps it that way, is the harbor. Technically, it’s the Port of Los Angeles, one of two harbors in San Pedro Bay. (The other, the Port of Long Beach, is adjacent to the east. It is indistinguishable in look or feel, but administered by a separate set of authorities.) Together, the two ports in San Pedro Bay are, according the the U.S. Dept. of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the largest in the United States, the largest in North America, and the fifth-largest by container volume in the world.

By their nature as commercial hubs, ports become ethnically diverse places. They need to have people who speak and understand multiple languages to communicate with those aboard the vessels; people who can move between, and not be threatened by, those of other cultures; people who feel comfortable with virtually any other language they hear in their midst.

Cruise ships at their terminal next to the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro.

The harbor historically has catered to two different water-bound industries—commercial fishing and maritime trade. The fishing started at the dawn of the 20th Century, being home to a fleet of boats that scoured the nearby waters, and over time, the waters off of South America as well as North America. A huge canning industry grew up in the harbor, but then dwindled in the second half of the century as the same technological and economic forces that brought it into existence made it cheaper to do it in other countries.

The Port of Los Angeles also grew phenomenally beginning in the early 20th Century, as technology (and government assistance) enabled the building of a breakwater and allowed for dredging sand to create deeper channels and more wharf space. But the closure of the Navy base in the harbor and changes from crated to containerized cargo started a downturn.

Today, San Pedro is pinning its hopes on a renovation of its waterfront to accommodate the USS Iowa, a WWII-era battleship that will be taken out of mothballs and towed to a prominent spot near the Vincent Thomas Bridge. By the 4th of July  this year, when the USS Iowa is scheduled to open as a museum and waterfront attraction, San Pedro hopes to begin its renaissance.

In some ways, it’s like boasting of your great earning power… and then hitting a stranger up for $10, isn’t it?

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