San Pedro's Ports O'Call: The Theme Ends, Then What?

The Ports O'Call retail and restaurant complex is at the foot of the bluff that overlooks the harbor in San Pedro. When commercial fishing declined in the 1950s and the sardine and tuna canneries closed, the Port of Los Angeles in 1963 tried to re-imagine what 30-acres of disused wharves might become. This being Los Angeles, they became a theme park for shoppers.

The theme was a New England fishing village, since what could be less authentic to San Pedro (with its Slavs, Croats, Scandinavians, and Latinos) than a simulation of Cape Cod. The wood-shingled buildings of Ports O'Call were set among meandering cobblestone walks occasionally shaded by tropical bougainvilleas. The walks meandered to a Polynesian-theme restaurant, since Tikis and drinks with parasols are just as authentic as all the rest.

Ports O'Call today isn't much of a tourist attraction. The art galleries and nautical antique stores are gone. Some of the buildings have stood empty for years, their mullioned windows papered over. When the developer of a waterfront hotel in nearby city of Redondo Beach wanted to remind city officials of the ugly alternative to his project, he warned them that "otherwise you're gonna have a Ports O' Call here."

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Today, the future of Ports O'Call is something of a mystery. The commissioners of the Port of Los Angeles chose the Ratkovich Co. and Jerico Development in 2012 to undertake the site's redevelopment. The companies call themselves the "L.A. Waterfront Alliance" and have petitioned the port repeatedly for extensions of their development agreement. The latest extension ends in early November.

The port's negotiations with the Alliance are confidential, the Daily Breeze reported, and "little is known about the details, although on May 1 the commission approved doing a feasibility study that would be paid for by the port rather than the developer."

Given the slow pace of the project and new questions about its financing, some port commissioners are getting restless. Some San Pedro business owners, citing years of inaction, are getting angry.

When the Alliance rolled out its ambitious plans in late 2013, the plans showed a sunny promenade of shops, restaurants, festival spaces, bridges, fountains, and a canal tied to other portside attractions by trolleys and water taxis. The image was "a world-class venue worthy of picture postcards."

The dazzle, as intended, wowed the audience.

The Alliance and the port commissioners want what every retail developer and commercial property owner wants. In this case, it would seem to be a mash up of Downtown Disney and San Diego's Seaport Village -- tidy, earnestly false, and focused on creating a happy atmosphere for buying stuff.

But if you look at what's actually happening near the sad simulation of Ports O'Call, you see what local entrepreneurs and community members want. At the other end of the village is a cluster of fish markets and places to eat that has a gritty vitality and saltwater tang that picture postcards just won't get.

Jane Jacobs, prophet of true urban spaces, may not have approved of the rough communal dining, the smoking outdoor grills, the fish-scale flecked walkways, the savor and stink of seafood cooked and uncooked, or the thieving seagulls. Bitter, Anglos-only blog posters don't approve of a working-class Latino-Asian vibe that's more Baja than Malibu.

I prefer the steamed shrimp awash in hot salsa and served mounded on a plastic tray along with a couple of Pacifico beers.

Sitting among extended families eating, drinking, and watching container ships pull into the harbor is about as authentic as Los Angeles gets for me. I wonder if that's the theme the port commissioners are looking for.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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