Cargoland: San Pedro’s search for respect and development on the waterfront

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San Pedro’s fortunes have long been tied to the Port of Los Angeles. Here you see a cargo ship heading out to the open sea, gliding by the U.S.S. Iowa, a World War II-era battleship that’s one of San Pedro’s new waterfront attractions. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

If you think of the port community of San Pedro, likely the sights and sounds of its waterfront come to mind, from massive freighter ships moored to their docks as their cargo gets unloaded by enormous cranes to the sounds of seagulls circling above fishing vessels sailing into port, the birds hoping that they’ll share in the catch of the day.

Beyond its waterfront, San Pedro is home to 86,000 residents, many of whom are descendants of old Italian, Greek and Croatian fishing families who moved to the community decades ago, families who came to work on the docks and in the community’s once booming seafood canning industry. Their influence has given San Pedro an Old World blue collar feel and a distinctive sense of place.

“San Pedro is the way the rest of Los Angeles used to be before it got all built up,” says James Preston Allen, a four-decade resident of San Pedro and the publisher and executive editor of “Random Lengths,” the community’s muckraking weekly newspaper.

Allen says San Pedro has kept its character because of its relative isolation from the rest of Los Angeles. San Pedro, along with the neighboring L.A. community of Wilmington, is more than 20 miles away from downtown L.A. And it’s only connected to the rest of the city by the thin umbilical cord that is the 110 Freeway. But that isolation can be both a blessing and curse, especially when it comes to getting the attention of L.A.’s political and business leadership in efforts to improve the community.

“Many times people say you are from San Pedro, or Wilmington, and they want to know if that is some place close to the Mexican border or close to New Jersey,” says Allen.

A lot of the recognition and respect San Pedro seeks is focused on plans to redevelop its waterfront, so that it’s as welcoming to people as it is to ships and the cranes that unload their cargo.

“Bring the people to the sea and the sea to the people, as we often say around here,” says Joe Buscaino. He’s both a San Pedro native and represents the community on the Los Angeles City Council. Buscaino wants to see new retail and residential development on the San Pedro waterfront, development that he thinks will be good for locals and attract out-of-town visitors.

“For us in this area, prosperity begins at the waterline and that’s with the jobs along the docks,” says Buscaino. “But when it comes to retail, dining, entertainment, we find ourselves spending money elsewhere, going to L.A. Live and Hollywood and Highland, going to neighboring cities along the South Bay. And we are tired of spending money elsewhere. We should be spending our money along the waterline.”

Buscaino wants to see the City of Los Angeles, private developers and the powerful Port of L.A. do more to attract development along the San Pedro waterfront. He says a day where San Pedro’s waterfront can be as active and attractive as Seattle’s or San Francisco’s.

A fair amount of development has already happened. That includes the recent completion of a $32 million pedestrian promenade along the water and the opening of Crafted at the Port of Los Angeles, a marketplace whee local craftspeople and artists sell their works. And looking ahead there are plans to build a 35 acre marine research center in San Pedro and redevelop the community’s aging and faded Ports O’Call shopping center located on the water.

But many long time locals, like James Preston Allen, say big plans for the San Pedro waterfront have a way of sinking beneath the waves, especially if they don’t have the full support of the Port of Los Angeles.

“We have been promised many many things on our waterfront,” says Allen. “And we are now at a point where the proof is in the doing.”

Whatever happens on the San Pedro waterfront, the seagulls will be watching it all play out from above.

San Pedro used to be home to an enormous fishing fleet and giant seafood canning plants. Those jobs attracted many immigrant European families to the community. There are no seafood plants left and far fewer fishing vessels, but the families remain. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Joe Buscaino grew up in San Pedro, patrolled its streets as an LAPD officer and now represents the community on the Los Angeles City Council. He believes San Pedro can follow in the footsteps of downtown L.A. and Hollywood as a hotspot of retail and residential development, but with the added advantage of having a view of the water. (Photo Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
A view of San Pedro’s new waterfront pedestrian promenade. Local boosters hope it will one day extend over eight miles and feature restaurants, stores and community amenities. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Maybe no one knows San Pedro as well as James Preston Allen, publisher of the community’s weekly paper “Random Lengths” and general man about town. He invited us out to lunch at Ports O’Call, San Pedro’s faded waterfront complex of stores and restaurants. There are plans to redevelop the place and make it more upscale. But Allen says many in the community are wary of big redevelopment plans, saying too many of them in the past have come to nothing. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)