Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Town Monday - San Pedro

San Pedro is a community at the end of the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles. It is technically part of the City of Los Angeles, but don't ever tell anyone in town that you live in Los Angeles instead of San Pedro. If you do, it's almost a guarantee that you will have a fight on your hands.
It's been six months now since I moved out of San Pedro. And for the first time since I left, I think I can put down into words some of my thoughts on living there. My life there full of turmoil and worry, unemployment and an unsellable house, but also new friendships made, a great romance that came and went, the publication of my grandfather's book and my writings, and some other pretty amazing times. I'm still now trying to sort it all out. My time in San Pedro was a case study in extremes, not unlike the town itself.
It's a tough town, built on the backs of fishermen and longshoremen, many of whom were Italians, Greeks, Slavs and Croatians who settled during the early part of the 20th century. Now, the area east of Gaffey Street is run down, full of houses that have been reduced to crack houses. There are some exquisite Victorians in that area, but you'd never catch me living in one of those. People wander around east of Gaffey Street that you dare not ask for directions. When I took some of these photos, it was an early morning and there was barely a person around, but I took them with my heart in my throat. I had heard too many stories.

Yet, I have never, ever, lived in such a friendly town as San Pedro, where everyone talks to everyone else. I've always said that when you meet a stranger on the street in San Pedro and say hello, you will know that person's life story before you exchange good-byes. When I first starting looking for a house to buy in San Pedro, I was struck by how few houses were available. My friend told me that this was because when people move to San Pedro, they never leave. He was right. Many families in San Pedro are now in the third generation growing up there.

When you drive into San Pedro, you are greeted by an ugly concrete bridge with the words "Welcome to San Pedro" painted in large yellow block type. You turn left and you're on Gaffey Street, full of fast food chain restaurants and motels and closed up storefronts. Keep driving. You continue down Gaffey Street and approach MacArthur Park, you hit a crest in the road and there, in unfathomable beauty, will be the Pacific Ocean, and Catalina a mere 26 miles away. If you keep driving, you will literally drive straight into the ocean. Get out and walk around Point Fermin Park on the cliffs, with the lighthouse that has been used in countless movies and television shows. Don't get too close to the cliffs, because people jump and fall off, on purpose and accidentally, on a regular basis.

Getting back to not saying you live in Los Angeles: the animosity towards the City of Angels bureaucracy goes back decades for various reasons. One reason is the Port of Los Angeles, built in the harbor in the early 20th century, that provides the bread and butter for many of the families in town. Yet that comes with a price - air pollution from the diesel trucks accounts for one of the highest particulate matter concentrations in the country. And because the Port and the City of Los Angeles are so closely tied together, there is pretty much no hope that the little town could ever declare its independence and become its own incorporated town like the towns nearby like Torrance and Hawthorne and Gardena, who have police that actually respond to calls and clean streets and libraries with books.

There are more halfway houses and rehabilitations centers in the San Pedro area than in any other place in the city. That stems from a long honored tradition of the city "dumping" its problems on the little town by the sea. At the same time, there is still a culture of drinking so there are plenty of cocktail lounges for those who want to slip out of their rehab rooms in the middle of the night for a quick one. I always thought that my main worry about my safety in town wasn't the high number of gang members - it was getting hit by a drunk driver while driving through town late at night. One night a few years ago in San Pedro, a policeman was investigating a serious accident - one caused by a drunk driver - when another drunk driver plowed into the patrol car.

I don't miss the gang bangers living in the duplex two doors down. I don't miss hearing an automatic weapon being fired at 5 in the morning at the corner - the first and last time I hope I ever have to get on the floor in my own house to avoid being shot. I don't miss not being able to park my car out front of my house, because the city in its infinite wisdom allowed apartment buildings to be built all over the hill without thinking of the parking ramifications. (But then, you don't want to park in front of my house anyway, because twice drunk drivers have careened down the hill and sideswiped other cars - always leaving the scene of course.) I don't miss having to drive all the way to Torrance to eat at a decent restaurant or shop for clothes because there are no such places in Pedro. (Oh, and by the way, it's pronounced Peedro, not Paydro. Just some advice to keep you safe when you visit.)

But I do miss my neighbors and feeling like I truly live in a small town. I miss the local businesses like the Sandwich Saloon, and the Waffle and Omelet Place where people lined up on Sunday mornings, and the Croatian bakery and the Italian deli. I miss talking to my neighbor Jerry who owns the book store downtown (the oldest book store in Los Angeles, by the way, 100 years old and still going). I miss my neighbors and worry about my good friend Timna who lives across the street and can't work due to disabilities. I miss the cool ocean breezes and hearing the cruise ships horns blowing on Sunday afternoons, telling passengers that it's time to embark. I could smell the ocean from my house and if you walked out into the middle of the street, you can see the ocean - full of cranes in the Port, but still. The Ocean.

I live in a much more sedate area now north of Long Beach called Lakewood, a planned community built in the 1950s for those who worked for the aerospace industry plants nearby. Trees are planted outside of each house and there are parks everywhere. There are so many restaurants and shopping centers that it will take me 5 years to get inside all of them. But I didn't move here out of choice. It was because real estate in San Pedro, like the rest of the city of L.A., is still unrealistically high and rental prices are the same.

Will I ever move back? That's a good question. There are days when I don't think I could handle the noise, the density, the overall craziness. But then I pass someone in my new town on the street and they walk by, head down, without saying good morning, and a little part of me misses San Pedro so much it hurts.

This post of part of the My Town Monday meme. For more information, go to Travis Erwin's blog. Travis is looking for someone to take over the management of the My Town Monday tradition. Please contact him through his blog it if you are interested.


debra said...

Thanks for look at your town. San Pedro sounds like a diverse community--one of many contrasts.

Barbara Martin said...

While reading your post on San Pedro it felt as if I was there, seeing it as you do. There is an appealing aspect of living in an area where there is a long diverse history where the people are friendly, though I understand why a person would leave.


Gang bangers and gunfire - Wow, that's so cool!

Lauren said...

San Pedro sounds like a very colorful town. I can see why you would be sad to leave and also reasons why you wanted to. Sometimes the best places teeter between the two.

Barrie said...

What an interesting post! Personally, I don't think I could handle the violence. But your post did make me think how much I'd like smaller town life. I hope you make lots of good friends in Long Beach.