Earlier this month plans were revealed for a $100-million development that would replace Ports O’ Call Village in San Pedro with the San Pedro Public Market. The idea is that the whimsical but deteriorated collection of restaurants and shops that have been perched next to Los Angeles Harbor since 1963 will be replaced by an open air market connected by a replica Red Car trolley. If all goes as planned, developer Wayne Ratkovich (Los Angeles magazine’s landlord) will partner with San Pedro-based Jerico Development, and the project will break ground next year. Both firms are known for historic preservation, but current plans call for the mid-century themed environment to be demolished.
Writer Digby Diehl took a trip to the harbor on assignment for Los Angeles magazine nearly fifty years ago. He described a colorful neighborhood on the verge of major change, as new machines began to replace dockworkers and the combined ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles were on their way to becoming the largest outside of Asia. New developments have transformed parts of San Pedro in recent years, but much of the old character remains. Cabrillo Beach, Angel’s Gate Lighthouse, and the Catalina Casino are still going strong. The grunion are running through July, just like they were back in 1966.
Enjoy Diehl’s article, below, and maybe take a trip to Pedro this weekend for a fish dinner and some live music on the water.
The Surprising Harbor
By Digby Diehl
Los Angeles magazine
Since Circe first tempted Ulysses’ ship toward destruction with her songs, musical sounds of the sea have been universally regarded with suspicion. And although living in one of the dozen great seaports of the world, most Los Angeles landlubbers tend to identify the luring song of the sea as a call by the Beachboys for surfing, rather than an urge for shipping out.
But along the sprawling 28 miles of Los Angeles Harbor live 200,000 people for whom the magical sounds of the waterfront have been spellbinding for generations. They live with the slosh of the tide lapping up along wooden piers, the brassy resonant blast of oceanliners’ horns, the whirr of twin-engined Catalina seaplanes, the zany “oue-oue-oue-oue” of the police boat, the threatened-old-lady cry of the gulls, the work-break whistles at the canneries, the clanging of bells on tankers, the brisk snap of flags in the breeze. They also hear, more and more often now, the contemporary dissonances of automation and the rising Calliope notes of entertainment.
If you would find What’s New In The Harbor, chart your course through the Sargasso network of freeways 25 miles due south of City Hall down the Harbor Freeway, and listen for the sounds. As you enter Wilmington District, The vague form of the Vincent Thomas Bridge rises on the horizon and the strange incongruity of an Antonioni landscape is apparent on your right, the barren, imposing structure of an oil refinery dominates the rolling hills of yellow sand and grasses, reaching out with miles of piping to scores of huge oil tanks.
And suddenly, a ship emerges from the wind-bent wheat on your left and reveals its moorings in the West Basin of the harbor. Then suddenly all is hidden again by the yellow landscape when the freeway turns and descends into the harbor.
Two more ships, the Zephyrillis and the Sea Lane appear ghostlike and rusting at the intersection of the freeway exit with Pacific Avenue. From this point, you may drive directly down along the Main Channel, or up around the Inner Harbor, or over the 6,060 feet of the Vincent Thomas Bridge onto Terminal Island. For an overview of the harbor, the $21-million bridge offers clear panoramas on each side, showing the large storage sheds, tanker slips and metal works off of the Turning Basin to the north, or the coastline of San Pedro, fishing boats, Coast Guard cruisers, and open sea outside the breakwater to the south.
There’s a surprisingly modern air to the docks of the San Pedro side of the channel. The tasteful design of the terminal and warehouse buildings, the clean expanses of parking facilities and dock-side space, the uncluttered sunlit piers, the carefully scrubbed and painted private craft, even the smooth functional construction lines of the wharves themselves contribute to the modern sense of waterfront life.
No On The Waterfront John Friendlys could survive in this neurosis-free environment. The waterfront men are disappointingly clean-cut, vigorous, and career-minded fellows with ordinary middle-class homes. The Longshoremen’s Union has just renewed an automation contract that has kept the docs strikeless and satisfied for the past ten years. Organized gangland operations that still stalk throughout many major harbors are unknown here, and the incidence of any crime in San Pedro is amazingly low for a waterfront area. As Bab Beck, Managing Editor of the daily News-Pilot, mused. “I can’t really remember when we had our last real waterfront-type murder.”
Distinguished among waterfronts by it’s a stable, home-owning seaside population, San Pedro looks remarkably healthy for a large commercial port. Unlike the acres of garbage-heaped misery on the New York waterfront, this town has but about four square blocks of the seedy bars, snooker parlors, and dingy hotels, which hardly qualify as a skid row. South of this eyesore along Beacon Street past the Branch City Hall is a pleasantly neat park that overlooks the Main Channel and Ports O’ Call plaza. Here, near the architecturally unique Norwegian church, talkative natives often may be found strolling in the afternoon, circling around an occasional sleeping hobo, and enjoying a sunset view of the harbor.
These harbor-dwellers have grown up by the sea, and they speak with authority and affection about harbor activities. The wind-battered old-timers will tell stories about Dead Man’s Island, a small reef in the middle of the harbor that was dredged away in the 1920s as a navigational hazard and was discovered to be littered with human skeletons. Even the waitresses in coffee shops can reel off statistics about the port like harbor engineers: “I guess the harbor moves about two million tons of cargo every month, mostly metal – iron scrap and steel mill products. We have about 3,600 ships going in and out every year, you know. We’re the biggest port in the West and I suppose we’ll eventually be the biggest port in the world the way folks keep moving to California.”
Capt. Walter B. Smith, the only tugboat captain in Los Angeles, has been in the harbor since 1922. He agrees that the harbor has been rapidly evolving, but that the residents will always feel the same about the area: “The harbor traditions are different here than in, say, New York. For most of us, the Pacific is really kind of a security. We have the largest fishing fleet in the United States; our longshoreman have a strong union and are about the most independent in the world; and the harbor seems to be growing faster than any of us can keep up with.” He paused momentarily to watch a passing monster barge moving through the channel powered by a tiny tug. “Now for example,” Capt. Smith continued, “Todd Shipyards just got a contract to construct seven new destroyers for the Navy at $12 million each. Over the next three to five years that alone will mean more than 1,200 more jobs on the harbor.”
In fact, the automated dockworker appears to be extremely happy about the modern innovations of the shipping industry. In addition to a union contract that grants a 26.6% wage increase over the next five years, the new machinery has made jobs cleaner and less back-breaking. According to several men working along the Matson docks, there is no dissatisfaction about unemployment or shifts to mechanized jobs. They claim that increased shipping business has been well phased with automation so that new jobs are constantly available as older ones become obsolete.
One of the harbor’s most bizarre modern installations, the Hugo Nu Proler scrap metal reducer, has been dubbed with appropriate black humor the “End of the Freeway.” “This equipment munches hungrily away at a gigantic stack of automobiles retired from California highways and chews them up at the rate of one each second. The ordinary car is chewed up into about a barrelful of metal macaroni, and Volkswagens hardly make a decent plateful after passing through these teeth.
If the story of the harbor’s modernisms can be told by almost everyone, few of the waterfront lovers know its fascinating history. Exactly fifty years after the fortuitous landing of Columbus, Juan Rodrigo Cabrillo sailed into the bay of San Pedro and discovered smog-or almost smog, for the “Bay of Smokes” as he called it, was clouded by grass fires that the Indians had set to flush small game. Juan, an intelligent man, retreated from the smog immediately. The unprotected bay remained a muddy tideflat until the early nineteenth century when traders began to stop there for tallow and hides. Juan’s namesake, Cabrillo Beach, is the location of a little-known Marine Museum containing the harbor’s later history and a myriad of models and artifacts. As recorded in the museums 1840 edition of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast, San Pedro was known as “the hell of California” and one of the most difficult ports in which to deal because hides had to be hauled from an adobe customs house at the present location of Fort MacArthur, dragged down the steep cliffs all around the bay, and then rowed out to the ship in small boats, since there was no anchorage near shore. “I also learned, to my surprise, “says Dana, “that the desolate-looking place we were in furnished more hides than any port on the coast. It was the only port for a distance of eighty miles, and about thirty miles in the interior with a fine plain country, filled with herds of cattle, in the center of which was the Pueblo de Los Angeles -the largest town in California…”
During the second half of the nineteenth century the harbor developed rapidly as an entrance channel in the mudflats was gouged out by nature and widened artificially, until the bay became a strategic supply point for the Civil and Indian wars. The museum has some forty ship models of this period, including the “Cutty Sark,” which was a very sober clipper that carried tea, and a twelve-foot replica of the brig, “Tradition.”
Los Angeles had a population of about 11,000 in 1880 and rose quickly to 50,000 by 1890. Although the Army already had built a breakwater between Terminal Island and Dead Man’s Island, their engineers decided in 1891 that more extensive harbor area was required. After an eight-year “Free Harbor” fight with the railroad interests that wanted a harbor in Santa Monica, an 11,000 foot breakwater was begun in San Pedro Bay and completed in 1912. This breakwater has since been extended to a length of nine miles and now includes the lonely outpost known as Angel’s Gate Lighthouse. The reopening of the Panama Canal after World War I one gave the harbor a tremendous economic influx, and in 1923, the world’s largest man-made harbor began to handle the most tonnage of any port on the Pacific coast, a record which it’s still maintains.
If ichthyology is more your dish then history, however, the Marine Museum offers a complete display of some 15,000 seashells, 100 varieties of fish-stuffed, and 500,000-year-old fish fossil displays from Malaga Cove near the Palos Verdes Estates. Since plans are underway to convert Cabrillo Beach to a 3,100-boat marina in the near future, there has been discussion of moving the museum to a new building near Ports O’ Call Village and expanding its collection.
Aside from a lucky few in Marineland, the fish around San Pedro are almost all stuffed or canned. Alleycat’s Paradise, the largest fish canning center in the world, packs $35 million of tuna, mackerel, and sardines each year; The StarKist tuna plant alone produces 1,000,000 cans cans of tuna fish-daily! Even in such fast moving industry, the fishing boats returning to the harbor after a four or five-month trip always have their catch inspected by the local “sniffer” for freshness: he can determine whether or not a fish is good by sticking his thumb into it and taking a sniff.
Progress has even caught up with the fisherman, and although the gaffs and nets are still used, fishing has become a much more scientific business. Migratory patterns charts, sonar, and even airplane reconnaissance are now use to make the catch a record annual 374 million pounds and to make the hours at sea less dangerous. According to Nick Trani, San Pedro fisherman turned real estate dealer, two crucial improvements in fishing have been the use of gigantic hydraulic power blocks to draw in the catch and the concurrent development of strong nylon netting to hold the fish.
A director of the Fisherman’s Fiesta since it’s inception in 1946, Mr. Trani suggested that part of the popularity of this annual event arises from traditional competitions such as net-mending and cable-splicing. But what really makes this the third most photographed event in the United States (behind the Mardi Gras and the Rose Parade), Attended by 250,000 spectators, is the sight of dozens of fishing boats decorated to the hilt and parading through the harbor. Since the date of the Fiesta depends upon elements that keep the fishermen in port, such as the light of the full moon (the reflection of which prevents the phosphorescent glow of fish from being seen at night) and the unpredictable break between the tuna season and the sardine season, the only suggested time is “possibly late in September.”
If tuna and sardines are well-watched by the fisherman, the Fish and Game Laboratories on Terminal Island keep a close eye on whales and grunion from the building near the prison which Al Capone once called home. As surely as The swallows wing back to Capistrano, in April, large herds of gray whale maybe seen migrating along the coast of California. And if anyone is interested in grunion runs, the Lab has practically infallible timetables for their spawning dates. The last grunion run this year, alas, was in July.
But the grunion-running is as close to the harbor’s chief business of fishing and shipping as most Angeleans chance to come. Most of us know a more artificial side-we know the harbor that plays on the beckoning lure of the sea. Bora-Bora, Rarotonga, Australia, Fiji, Pago Pago, Tahiti, New Zealand, Noumea, Niuafo’ou, or Hawaii-all these and more can be reached from the harbor by the steamers of Matson, American President, Holland-American, or P & O orient ship lines. If you must settle for dreams of such spots, you may enrich your travel fantasies by eavesdropping on a shipboard Bon Voyage party, complete with streamers and popping champagne corks. More than 25,000 travelers will embark on these for passenger lines this year for westward points, and a few hundred other fortunates will sail in the often more impressive passenger facilities on some freighters.
Falling somewhere between ship-watching and the South Seas is a trip to Catalina, which may explain why this island held together by chewing gum (the Wrigley interests still own it) remains among the top tourist attractions in Southern California. The casino is now billed as “The World’s Grooviest Teenage Night Club,” replete with “Wildcat-a-go-go Girls” which may indicate that the island, like sunset Strip, is no longer safe for adults after dark.
The 27-mile hop to Catalina may now be made a variety of ways-day or night steamship or seaplane-from the luxurious new Catalina Terminal facilities just under the Vincent Thomas Bridge.
Just down the Channel from the Catalina Terminal sits the main focus of some 20,000 visitors every weekend, Ports O’ Call Village. The brainchild of an enterprising man named David Tallichet, who finds the lure of the sea worth about $8 million annually, this restoration of an old San Pedro town is already scheduled for expansion. The complex which now includes the Bay of Naples restaurant, Norm’s deep-sea Fisherman’s Landing (not a Tallichet enterprise), the Village with Ports O’ Call restaurant, and the Yankee Whaler Inn, will be joined next Easter by a 32,000-foot Cape Cod Village, patterned after Mystic, Conn., to accompany the Yankee Whaler Inn. “Let’s face it: the waterfront is fascinating,“ says Mr. Tallichet. “Our success at Ports O’ Call is due to the atmosphere of the port. We’re really trading in wanderlust. I mean it’s exciting to have foreign freighters found for any of 200 world ports gliding by while you’re having dinner.” And it is. The ceiling-to-floor glass views in his restaurants and the public address system blooming out corny “Alohas” to departing passengers from their friends in the Ports O’ Call bar are so unique the good food seems like a bonus. If the Village itself seems a bit too precious and filled with quaint shops, no one can deny the winning atmosphere of cobblestoned streets.
The fact that such a calculated innovation as the Village would fit in at all with the rest of the harbor says much about the modern maritime romance that predominates in this area. If the sawdust floors of Hoboken’s Clam Broth House and the open-air fish markets of San Francisco reflect a harbor quality peculiar to their locations, so the combination of charm and modernity in the Ports O’ Call is in keeping with the salt water sophistication that is beginning to invade Los Angeles Harbor.
Justifiably drunk with power, the Harbor Commission has been talking about the “super-port” of Los Angeles, the Megaloport of Tomorrow that will eventually include among its exotic facilities, “Floating Saucers” to zoom into futuristic moorings. In addition to the Cabrillo Marina, plans for the harbor include three new cargo terminals in the outer harbor, a fast artificial expansion of anchorage space extending from terminal Island, a New U.S. Customs House, and the creation of a World Trade Building. The recreation facilities, in addition to the new Cape Cod Village and the proposed relocation of the Marine Museum, will soon feature a floating restaurant, “The Princess Louise,” presently being revamped for its new berth at the Old Ferry Building on Terminal Island. Perhaps most significant of all future development from a financial point of view, drilling for oil has begun at the port and the initial results indicate the 25 to 30,000 barrels of oil may be located in the Outer Harbor.
Despite all of these contemporary overlays, however, the essential magnetism of Los Angeles Harbor will always be summed up in the lure of the rolling Pacific beyond the breakwater. If anyone can explain what compels the harbor dwellers and beckons the curious, it is Herman Melville: “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath… This mysterious, divine Pacific zones the worlds bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth. Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan.”