The making of Los Angeles in the 20th century - in popular mythology, at least - centers on palm trees and Hollywood. It would be equally accurate to say that Los Angeles' success depends on dockworkers and San Pedro.
Before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Los Angeles was an economic appendage of San Francisco. After 1914, Los Angeles rapidly became an international hub with connections to the Far East, Latin America, the South, and the Pacific Northwest through the Port of Los Angeles (and its twin, the Port of Long Beach).
Today, Los Angeles and Long Beach have the biggest port complex in the nation and are home to the world's sixth-busiest harbor. Their ports handle about 41 percent of all the goods shipped from China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and other Asian manufacturing centers.
But their grip on east-west trade is slipping. And it's not the dicey economy alone that's hurting the two ports.
Already, Singapore and ports in India have become preferred transshipment points for booming South Asia. Their location favors direct shipment (via the Suez Canal) to New York, New Jersey and Savannah, Georgia. (Containers for Midwest and the East Coast destinations must be shifted to to trucks or rail when they reach the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.)
As a result, cargo totals for the two ports dropped by 200,000 containers in 2011 while the total for the 10 largest American ports elsewhere increased by about the same amount.
The increased competition has already impacted some of the 650,000 jobs in Southern California that are linked to goods movement. And it seems likely that the prospects for port jobs will worsen in the coming years.
In 2014, Panama expects to complete a $5.2-billion project that will widen the canal to accommodate the largest container ships now working Pacific trade routes. A wider Panama Canal will make it possible for shippers to bypass the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and sail directly to ports on the Gulf Coast and the eastern seaboard.
As much as 25 percent of the import/export trade now passing through Los Angeles and Long Beach might be lost, according to the most pessimistic estimates. Job losses might top 100,000.
Both ports are making some efforts to offset decline, by aiding exporters in developing new markets in Asia, expanding port and rail facilities, and even turning to retail and tourist-oriented development on port property. But the two ports are hampered by the lack of a coordinated plan and time.
Cost is another factor. The Los Angeles Times recently estimated that port improvements would cost $7.5 billion.
But before any of projects can begin, both ports must answer the concerns of residents in the neighborhoods that surround them. For the residents of San Pedro, Wilmington, and west Long Beach, the ports create jobs but they also generate health risks that have increasingly overshadowed the ports' expansion and modernization.
The heath risks from portside air pollution and environmental contamination are well documented. The costs of fully mitigating them would be high. And nothing can reduce health risks to zero.
Los Angeles was just a sunny retirement destination in 1897, when business interests downtown successfully lobbied Congress to establish a deep-water port at San Pedro where only mud flats welcomed inbound steamers. By 1912, Los Angeles was becoming an industrial powerhouse, manufacturing export goods for the entire Pacific Rim.
The jobs in the industries around the ports built the working-class neighborhoods that today close in on harbor facilities - facilities that still power the local economy while worsening the quality of life for the residents who live just beyond the docks.
Los Angeles and Long Beach must respond to global changes in trade patterns, perhaps with bigger and more efficient ports. But can they co-exist with environmental justice for portside residents?
Or do our ports face inevitable decline (and job losses) because they will be too dirty to live with?
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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