The Demise of Dead Man's Island, Lost Landmark of L.A.'s Harbor

As one of the San Pedro Bay's most conspicuous features, Dead Man's Island became something of a landmark. Postcard by M. Reider, courtesy of the James H. Osborne Photograph Collection, CSUDH Archives.

With a name like Dead Man's Island, you might think that the small protrusion of rock was doomed all along. But the tiny island at the entrance to the San Pedro harbor was so steeped in romantic lore that many Southern Californians -- powerless to stop the dynamite and steam shovels -- greeted its demise in 1928 with sorrow.

Dead Man's Island was named for the shallow graves dug into its flat top. Various legends give different accounts of who was buried first: the last male survivor of San Nicolas Island, an Indian named Black Hawk; an English sailor who died while anchored at San Pedro; a smuggler who washed ashore on the island and died there of thirst or hunger. No one knows for certain which (if any) is true, but it's clear that by the 1830s the local, Spanish-speaking population knew the outcrop as Isla de Los Muertos.

In photos, it appears deceptively small; in fact, it measured at least 800 feet long and 250 feet wide. Rising 55 feet above the surface and separated from the San Pedro bluffs by nearly a mile of open water, Dead Man's Island was the bay's most conspicuous landform -- one that stood out from the mudflats, sandbars, and marshes that made up Los Angeles River estuary. It became something of a landmark for sailors anchored nearby.

Richard Henry Dana spied it from his ship, the Pilgrim, in 1835. "It was always a solemn and interesting spot to me," he wrote in "Two Years Before the Mast." "There it stood, desolate and in the midst of desolation; and there were the remains of one who died and was buried alone and friendless. It was the only thing in California from which I could ever extract anything like poetry." Needless to say, Dana hated his time in San Pedro.

During the Mexican-American War, the island accepted more corporeal deposits. Six American sailors and marines killed in the Battle of Dominguez Rancho -- often known by the more colorful name, the Battle of the Old Woman's Gun -- were interred on the island in October 1846. Later, two more bodies joined them, and by 1858 as many as eleven bodies called the tiny island home. According to early Los Angeles historian James Guinn, the island became San Pedro's cemetery of choice since a narrow channel of open water protected it from scavenging coyotes.

In Memoriam: Michael Reed

Michael and his dog, Topaz. A friend of mine died recently, a man by the name of Michael Reed. He was homeless. That wasn't the most important thing about him, but it was important to me because I frankly had never had a homeless friend until Michael. He was a real friend, a confidant and fellow traveler, not somebody I passed daily on a street corner and gave money or kind words, someone for whom I felt vague sympathy and kept a certain distance. It wasn't like that. Nor was he a journalistic subject I wrote about once and then kept in touch, just to maintain connection to a street-level source who could be useful in the future. It wasn't like that, either.

Actually it was Michael's dog, Topaz, who was the journalistic subject that I was keen on writing about after she got shot in a police crossfire in downtown Inglewood back in the summer of 2008. Topaz the pit bull had been quietly sitting tied to Michael's shopping cart when the Inglewood cops let loose a hail of 40 bullets intended for another homeless man they suspected of wielding a gun. The man was killed and Topaz was wounded in her hind leg. Inexplicably, the cops whisked her away to an animal shelter and took Michael down to the police station for questioning. By the time Michael reconnected with Topaz in the shelter system, the under-treated leg was in bad shape and had to come off. I was outraged by the death of the man -- turns out he had a toy gun -- and equally outraged that an innocent-bystander dog had to pay for such incompetence with one of her limbs. She was a victim of excessive use of force if I ever saw one.

Michael agreed. He was indignant, but he had lived such a hardscrabble life that Topaz's misfortune didn't surprise him much; ultimately, he was glad to have his beloved companion back alive. Michael was short and wiry, about my age, with graying hair and face stubble, but he was full of an energy and boundless optimism that bordered on adolescent. He had a brilliant, often mischievous smile. He experienced drinking and drug problems that had waylaid him -- "partying," he called it -- but never killed his spirit; a native Angeleno, he had grown up in the South Bay and loved to surf.

From Ventura to the East Coast, Our Vain Battle Against the Sea

They are once again dredging our harbor. From where I sit here on the beach, I can see the dredge at the harbor mouth. It is actually pretty in the last light of day. Turned to shadow by the setting sun it looks like some head-scratching avant garde sculpture: its lights giving off a cozy glow. I can hear the work it is doing, an incessant machine rumble, sand sucked up off the bottom and pumped through the pipe which runs up and along the beach. From where I sit I can also hear the gravel click of sediment coursing through the pipe, the sound like the scurrying of rats in an attic.

Over the years, I've sat on identical pipes watching similar dredgings of Ventura's harbor mouth. It is a never ending process. Man pumps. When man finishes, Nature begins to silt the harbor in again. Once we built the harbor here, it's the way it has to be.

If they don't dredge our Ventura harbor mouth, things can get quite exciting. The sand fills in. The bottom shallows. Waves begin to break in the mouth of the harbor. Sometimes very big waves. I once watched a sailboat make for the mouth of the harbor during a large swell. This sailboat and a tremendous breaking wave arrived at the harbor mouth at the same time with breathtaking result. The wave reared skyward. The sailboat rode up, up, up the face of the wave, but not up enough. The wave heaved over, burying the boat in a foamy mass. There was a brief moment of impasse and then the sailboat punched through. It was heart-stopping for me. I cannot imagine the buzz experienced by the figure at the helm. I have always wanted to ask this Lilliputian captain what possessed him to sail forth on that day. I have no doubt the response would be interesting.

Recently a series of powerful storms again saw our local waters come alive, tremendous waves gouging away beaches and pounding sea walls. Perhaps the daring sailor again sallied forth. I don't know. But again the ocean's power to change our shoreline was highly visible.

Choppy Waters: Competition, Environmental Impacts Trouble L.A.'s Harbors

Every day, giant cranes at the twin ports of Los Angeles (4,300 acres) and Long Beach (3,200 acres) reach over the piled decks of cargo ships, transferring containers to trucks waiting below on the pier. Those cranes lifted 14.6 million containers last year, a 3.4 percent increase from the year before.

Currently, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handle about 40 percent of the nation's entire containerized trade from Asia. Good-paying, blue-collar jobs depend on that trade, estimated to be between 800,000 and 900,000 workers at the ports and in warehousing and transport elsewhere in Southern California and the West.

But that's likely to change should the gloomier predictions of the LA 2020 Commission come true.

Smaller ports in Mexico and Canada are taking business from California ports already. And shippers are expected to send more container cargo to Gulf Coast and eastern ports when a widened Panama Canal opens in 2015. The stiffening competition could drain working-class jobs from Los Angeles County and dampen the region's slow economic recovery.

My Very Own Carmageddon

It's official: my car is breaking up with me.

It's a done deal. But even at this late stage in our relationship, I'm in a lingering haze of denial. I don't want it to break up with me. I've done everything possible to maintain the connection. I've bent over backwards, doled out a few thousand dollars for a half dozen-plus repairs over the last year to repair a car that is certainly worth less than that. Even now, as it sits across town in a service station that after two days of sweat and research has pronounced it unfixable, I resist the idea of changing horses. Because frankly, I like this one. I have since the moment I chose the 1999 Chrysler 300M over a similar-looking VW Jetta that just didn't have the Chrysler's soul.

We've been through a lot together, it and I. (I love my car but never assigned it a name or a gender -- it's a machine -- even though it does have a soul. Which means that I didn't fall in love with it like Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with the digital voice in the movie "Her," but I certainly got attached.) We've traversed the city in style, chauffered around more dogs at one time than it has seats. In thirteen years I've rewarded its forbearance by sticking by it and resisting fluctuating auto trends, from mammoth SUV's to smart cars and Fiats, ignoring the statistical reality that people change cars every five years or so. And I have been hopelessly, and until recently, happily loyal.

When Big Numbers Roamed the Hills of Los Angeles

Heinz on the Hill
| Photo courtesy of the Huntington Library

Los Angeles has always been smitten with outdoor advertising, thanks to its motorized population, fair weather, and wide open spaces. Blocks of empty lots fronting boulevards in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, were nearly walled off by enormous billboards placed at drivers' eye level.

But billboards were beat for dramatic size as early as 1916 by advertisements for ketchup and pickles. On a slope in the Baldwin Hills, where Moynier Lane (now La Cienega Boulevard) curved among oil wells, and on another prominent slope near Culver City, "57" in giant concrete numbers reminded both motorists and Pacific Electric passengers to stock up on Heinz's 57 varieties of condiments.

When the Los Angeles Angels Flew to Anaheim

Anaheim Stadium rises from a former cornfield in Anaheim in 1966. Photo by George R. Fry, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license.

How could the Angels call any place but Los Angeles their home? After all, the club's name directly referred to the city, and there had been a team named the Los Angeles Angels since the first decade of the 20th Century, when the minor-league Los Angeles Looloos wisely opted for a more dignified nickname. So it's easy to understand why, when the Angels began to voice their displeasure over their second-class citizenship at Dodger Stadium, L.A.'s political leadership scrambled to keep the team within the city limits. A city council member proposed a new stadium at the site of Pacoima's Hansen Dam. Mayor Sam Yorty offered up the empty bowl of the damaged Baldwin Hills Reservoir. But some forty miles to the south in rapidly suburbanizing Orange County, the city of Anaheim and its mayor, Rex Coons, lured the team with an offer too sweet to refuse: a publicly financed ballpark, a 35-year lease, and the chance to build a new fan base among Orange County's growing population.

No one would have described the site of the Angels' new stadium as heavenly on August 30, 1964, when team owner Gene Autry and other dignitaries thrust their golden shovels into the ground and turned the tired soil of a bulldozed cornfield. A row of eucalyptus trees -- the remnants of a windbreak -- towered above the three wooden stakes marking the future location of home plate. Tumbleweeds rolled nearby, while in the distance, beyond parallel rows of alfalfa and an orange grove, State College Boulevard hummed with traffic. Still, the mood was festive. A couple of Anaheim's most distinguished citizens -- Goofy and Mickey Mouse -- were on hand to participate, as were a Marine Corps band and several Hollywood stars. Even Mayor Yorty of Los Angeles dropped in to wish the team well.

Work began almost as soon as the groundbreaking ceremony adjourned. Contractor Del E. Webb, who happened to own part of the New York Yankees, had little time to spare: he had pledged to complete the $15.8 million stadium by the opening day of the 1966 season. Over the next 20 months, Webb's construction workers poured 42,000 cubic yards of concrete, laid 7 million pounds of reinforcing steel and 8 million pounds of structure steel, and installed 1,900 light bulbs. City leaders, meanwhile, announced that the park would bear the city's name, since they had agreed to let the ballclub rebrand itself generically as the California Angels. (Also considered: "Southern California Angels" and "Orange County Angels.")

When Anaheim Stadium opened on April 19, 1966 (Chicago White Sox 3, California Angels 1), it was a monument to its time. Designed by Noble W. Herzberg, the stadium -- since renamed Edison International Field and then Angel Stadium of Anaheim -- looked almost futuristic from the expansive parking lot, like a massive, squat spaceship on its launch pad. Four sets of cantilevered ramps protruded from the hull, and a sleek command center (or office pavilion) stood behind home plate. Instead of paint, a material containing quartz crystals coated the exterior walls, which made the concrete glisten under the night lights. Inside, a symmetrical, three-tiered grandstand afforded close views of the field from its 43,204 plastic seats, while the open outfield allowed glimpses of the Chino Hills and the San Gabriel Mountains. But nothing caught the eye as much as the Big A: a 230-foot-tall A-shaped scoreboard that stood just behind the outfield fence. Naturally, a halo topped the structure, which helped the Angels feel a little more at home despite the long freeway drive that now separated them from their eponymous city.

Making Mistakes and the Perfection of Trying Again

Not long ago a friend sent along a note and a quote. The note read "In our room, perfection with be a stranger and vulnerability our friend." The quote was from jazz great Miles Davis.

Do not fear mistakes - there are none.

The note was funny for obvious reasons (or maybe the typo was intentional to subtly cement a point), but it was important, too, for it was discussed in a local elementary school classroom and this next generation is every hope we have.

Sadly I was not privy to the conversation itself, being some years removed from elementary school, although now and again certain fussy people suggest I am eminently qualified to return. But you don't need to sit around an elementary school carpet to know that perfection is very much a standard in our world, which is why I so like both the thoughts of the communal carpet and Miles Davis regarding the matter.

We live in a world that strives for, and glorifies, the achievement of perfection, perhaps at some cost. I once stood outside a third grade classroom listening to a parent tell me their Student of the Month would one day attend Stanford University. This shocks no one. We are all familiar with driven parents driving their children. Formerly (I don't do it any more: I have learned my lesson), on the rare occasion when I questioned whether a third grader even knew what Stanford was (or had considered the economics of going there), I was sternly informed that it is a ruthlessly competitive world and only the best survive. Never too early to think about the future. Plan or perish. Accept nothing less than perfection. If I was bold enough to mention that the child was eight, I was reprimanded for my Peter Pan attitude.

Once, after one such foolish mention, a mother glared at me.

What are you doing at an elementary school in the middle of the afternoon anyhow?

Well, planning to play wall ball with my sons.

The woman didn't voice it directly, but the inference was clear. A man in his (then) mid-forties shouldn't be standing in an elementary school hallway at two in the afternoon. He should be out in the world striving for perfection, perhaps well along in captaining a ship of commerce toward a Fortune 500 berth. Maybe she was angry because she had hoped I would lend her money when her child got into Stanford, but there are few dollars, though much reward, in wall ball with happy third graders. And I must say I achieved a modicum of success in the wall ball arena, although I fell short of perfection.

We celebrate the winner. We console second place. One word. Sochi Olympics. Wait. That's two words. My mistake. Or is it a mistake? Either way, second in the world never seemed a consolation prize to me.

I like Miles Davis because he created soulful music, but I also like him because he provides us carte blanche to make mistakes, and I have made many.

Maybe the emphasis on perfection is more strident these days because there are so many of us. To rise above the ever-swelling crowd of humanity requires nothing less than perfection. The sticking point here is obvious. Which is why, when my friend sent me Miles Davis's quote, I decided to share it with you in this column. Because being human means being a vessel of imperfection. Because being human isn't about achieving perfection, it's about running aground. And running aground isn't always a mistake.

As a book writer of (very) moderate success, I am occasionally approached by those who are also writing books. Sometimes they tell me they have finished their book, and as they say this I see it in their eyes. They shrug. They look down at their feet. They are reluctant to publish their book, they say softly, because it's not quite perfect. They still need to tinker. The more honest writers also give voice to another problem. What if people don't like what they've written?

They are so very vulnerable.

Aren't we all? I worry about my editor liking this column. I worry about you liking this column. I worry about my books being liked. I worry about the words being perfect. And I do my best writing when I give a friendly nod to these worries and just move ahead.

In our room, perfection with be a stranger and vulnerability our friend.

Yes, the typo is intentional.

One of my favorite sayings is a Chinese proverb. I'm betting Miles Davis would have liked it too.

Fall down seven times get up eight.

It's one of my favorite sayings because, along with being easy to remember, it applies to almost everything in life. Plus - here I am being vulnerable - I fall down a lot. It is not easy being a writer. There are many setbacks. I have experienced a degree of success, but it is still very much an everyday struggle. I have doubts. I have readers (yes some of them are friends, and one of them is a lover) who believe in me. They tell me I am going to be a best-selling author. They tell me my words stir them, and that the stirrings matter. They tell me I am not perfect (especially the lover, because she knows me well, although she is very loving in the telling), but they tell me that sometimes the words are close.

This is what I strive for every time I search for words and stories. I like to think Miles Davis did the same thing with musical notes.

I plan on making what some see as mistakes, but I plan on getting up.

I will be perfect at it.

2014 Is the Year of the Night Market

The decades-old tradition of the night market (covered last year in Transpacific Routes) -- the evening outdoor marketplace events in Asian cities known worldwide for their array of street food and haggle-happy merchandise vendor stalls -- is still a nascent concept on this side of the ocean, but it's already quickly writing its own history here.

After the initial 626 Night Market hit the streets of Pasadena in April 2012 -- an event that was as heavily criticized as it was attended -- the organizers worked out the logistical kinks with a larger location at the Pasadena civic center, before settling at their current home at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia last year. In June 2013, summer weekend Little Saigon Night Market premiered, as well as the inaugural San Diego Night Market in that city's pan-Asian Convoy District.

Now, in 2014, even more night market events are setting up in the Southland, with the recent announcement of the KTown Night Market coming to L.A.'s Koreatown in April and the now-experienced 626 Night Market operators taking their show to the 714 (949, technically) and the 213 with events at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa in May and the Staples Center parking lot in Downtown Los Angeles in June. Later this summer, Asian American arts and entertainment organization Kollaboration and the Monterey Park Chamber of Commerce are planning to bring the night market experience to that city as well.

Less than two years after the first Asian-style night market made its debut in the San Gabriel Valley, the nocturnal bazaars are finally making their mark on the cultural landscape of Southern California. The Year of The Horse? The Year of The Night Market is more like it.

So why have night markets suddenly become all the rage recently?

Fading Tinsel: New Report Pictures Trouble in Hollywood

The trouble, as always, is money. Hollywood has created dreams and spectacle for screens big and small for a hundred years, but the payoff for the studios wasn't entertainment. It was always cash flow.

That's because Hollywood is the place where, as memoirist William Goldman famously said, "Not one person ... knows for a certainty what's going to work." Goldman didn't say that the suits in the suites in Burbank and Culver City are stupid. He meant that the suits in banks in New York and Tokyo can never know if or when an unreleased movie will ever recover its production costs.

Because of that uncertainty, Hollywood is always looking grab its next up-front dollar and Hollywood doesn't mind where it's found. These days, up-front dollars are found in Louisiana, Georgia, New York, London, and Vancouver in the form of tax credits and rebates that are helping to hollow out film and TV production in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley.