My first impression of San Pedro occurred 15 years ago during a tour organized by the Los Angeles Conservancy. A middle-aged man, who had been a sailor during World War II, became animated as we stood beside the old city jail in the municipal building.
He had been a teenage sailor when he went on furlough in San Pedro, then one of the toughest Navy towns on the West Coast. In one particularly notorious bar, men stationed on either side of the door both would wait for the next customer to walk through the door, and belt the unwary newcomer from both sides. After that hazing, the customer was free to nurse his throbbing jaw with a steady flow of stiff drinks.
The protagonist of our story may have been new to booze. In any event, he found himself amid a sprawl of other drunken sailors in the basement of the municipal building. This was not an unusual occurrence in San Pedro, where the local authorities were familiar enough with Navy customs to release the men at dawn, so they could stumble their back to ships in time for roll call.
The Navy has left San Pedro, and has been replaced by the second busiest port in the nation. A walk through many parts of this oceanfront district, however, gives the impression that little has changed here since the 1940s. Today, San Pedro is the Sad Sack of Los Angeles. Although much of the region’s wealth rolls through San Pedro on trucks and trains, they leave little in their wake but diesel fumes.
Officially part of the City of Los Angeles – attached to the city by a ludicrously slender thread of land so that city officials are able to maintain control of the profitable port — San Pedro feels like a neglected stepchild of the wealthy city to the north.
Not without reason: A walk through the district is a walk through working-class grit, combined with the weathered, seaside look that comes from constant exposure to salt air. True, there is a middle-class community, including some houses with commanding views of the ocean from tall bluffs. On the whole, however, there is little happening in San Pedro in the way of redevelopment.
One of the best chances to improve the quality of life in San Pedro lies along the waterfront. The Port of Los Angeles has proposed and begun work on an eight-mile long stretch of San Pedro’s coastline as a waterfront walk, or, to put it in planning terms, a linear regional park. The appeal of walking along the waterfront is obvious; what is unusual here, perhaps, is that people in San Pedro may be accustomed to thinking of the tall bluffs as the waterfront, while much of the proposed new park lies below the bluffs, close to the shore.
“There are no waterfront parks in the Los Angeles area, with the exception of Santa Monica,” said project architect Vaughan Davies.
In a wealthy city, the typical pattern of developing an urban waterfront is for one or two developers to clear out the old industrial buildings and clean up the contaminated land. The cool air and pleasant view of water makes waterfront development desirable for hotels, restaurants and high-end housing. In a comparatively poor community like San Pedro, however, local government, rather than private investment, must provide the impetus for redeveloping the waterfront.
In the design by architect Davies, who prepared it while a principal in the Los Angeles office of Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn, and continues to supervise the design from his current post as principal of EDAW’s Los Angeles office, the San Pedro waterfront becomes the mechanism to create a whole set of desirable uses (mostly) for the district.
Here, some purists may balk at the colorful theming proposed to reposition drab little San Pedro. The oceanfront walk has been divided into several “themed” areas, each emphasizing the heritage of commercial fishing and shipping in San Pedro. The 22nd Street Marina attempts to bring San Pedro closer to the water, while a second area, the “outer harbor warehouse,” promises to provide a hotel, a fish market and a restaurant.
Moving north we find the Ports o’ Call/San Pedro Slip, which will “preserve and renew the attraction of the authentic, working commercial fishing industry,” according to the project proponents. Further north still is the downtown harbor, providing a set of pedestrian linkages to downtown San Pedro, including attractions to lure downtown visitors, such as an expanded Maritime Museum.
The northernmost area, known as the Piers District, will showcase the shipping industry. The Piers District is also the site of the World Cruise Center, a passenger facility that will be “complemented” by a new maritime building and what port officials describe as a “waterfront plaza.”
In some ways, this optimistic plan makes itself an easy mark for cynical comments, which I don’t necessarily share. Purists, as mentioned before, will claim that the historic character of San Pedro is in danger of being obscured behind the marketing glitz; San Pedro is being marketed as a kind of imitation of itself.
I dislike theming, (“This is Happiness Village here, and over there is Beautiful Vista cove.”) but I have come to understand that this is the way that designers and civic leaders provide a rationale for certain kinds of improvements. San Pedro is, in fact, a place of genuine historical interest, and if theming can remind us of that history without being overbearing, I will keep an open mind. There are worse things in the world.
The most important thing is not to make San Pedro into a regional attraction—that may or may not ever happen—but to provide a breath of fresh air and a continuous waterfront to walk or bicycle to the residents of this long-neglected Navy town. Even some theming has to be better than the neglect that the district has endured, and it is certainly better than a sharp uppercut to the jaw.