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Broken Ground, Broken Promises: West Harbor Is Not for San Pedrans

- By Nadia Nizetich

Growing up I went to Ports O’ Call Village in San Pedro ritually to wave goodbye to Dad as he headed out to sea on the massive container ships destined for China. Sitting right on the main channel that his ships took on their way out of the harbor. This was the perfect place to say farewell. Mom would park my brother and I on the saltkissed picnic benches of the pier with a hot lunch from the San Pedro Fish Market, and we’d wait until we saw Dad’s ship creep into view with him on the starboard side. He’d wave and yell, and we’d holler enthusiast­ically back.

This should be a familiar story to many of the residents of San Pedro — for years, Ports O’ Call was a place for goodbyes and homecoming­s, for celebratio­ns and vigils. But Ports O’ Call is no longer there, having been torn down in 2017 by the Port of Los Angeles to be replaced by something called West Harbor, a massive entertainm­ent complex developers see as a natural update to its outdated predecesso­r. West Harbor is sleek and tastefully designed, with a color scheme intended to evoke the nautical flags used by seafarers for generation­s. The warehouse-like buildings feature industrial blue metal exteriors, and shipping containers will house food stalls, aesthetic features that are nods to San Pedro’s portside heritage. Indeed, San Pedro really does seem to be at the forefront of their planning — West Harbor’s website promises that it “improves the quality of life for the San Pedro community” and “will stimulate the local economy of San Pedro, creating jobs, public spaces, entertainm­ent and possibilit­ies.” Michael Galvin, director of waterfront and commercial real estate at the Port of Los Angeles and one of the many overseers to the project, stated in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that West Harbor is “a once-in-alifetime opportunit­y to really change these communitie­s.” But now in 2021, with the project set to be completed in just under two years and more informatio­n about the businesses that will operate there emerging, I am doubtful of their promises. Who is this change really for?

I spent two years researchin­g tourism in a Croatian town facing developmen­t similar to West Harbor. Tourism can be lucrative for locals — if local products are being sold and residents own businesses, profits are funneled back into the community and the local economy. The developers of West Harbor have begun to contract businesses for its 42-acre dining and entertainm­ent complex, and the Los Angeles Times recently reported that seven have signed on in the last two weeks (none of which are based in San Pedro and one of which is owned by mogul Elie Samaha who was charged with fraud in 2004). If this trend continues, what this means is that the jobs created for San Pedrans will be low-skill and

likely minimum wage — servers, ticket-takers, concierge — hardly enough to inject substantia­l profits into San Pedro and stimulate the local economy. Moreover, West Harbor may even deter customers from real local businesses located on the nearby historic 6th and 7th streets, leaving the district open to a similar fate of outside encroachme­nt.

I am not the only San Pedran wary of developer’s promises. In 2017, public outcry over the initial designs of the project sent developers back to the drawing board to rethink their stylistic choices. What was produced was a blue, yellow, and red color scheme and the shipping container aesthetic. The revisions missed the point of the locals’ protests, seeming to make it appear that San Pedro culture is showcased at West Harbor. Their website now states, “Our culture is an eclectic mix of cuisine and camaraderi­e. We celebrate the culture, history, and diversity of the longshorem­en, the fishing industry, craftspeop­le, and small businesses throughout LA County.” Is celebratin­g longshorem­en accomplish­ed through repurposed shipping containers and a nautical theme? Are craftspeop­le and small businesses respected by tearing down their shops at Ports O’ Call and replacing them with nonnative restaurant­s? Paying homage to fishermen, longshorem­en, and the working class is not achieved by decorating a retail plaza with nautical flags, and San Pedro culture is not reducible to aesthetic frills. West Harbor’s co-opting of San Pedro is inconsider­ate of countless lives that have been lost on the docks and at sea. I applaud developers for rethinking their approach and putting in a good-faith effort to appease locals, but good faith alone is not enough, especially when they speak

on locals’ behalf while inadverten­tly working against the well-being of the town. Developers only seem to have realized the economic potential of selling San Pedrans their identity at a fiftyperce­nt markup.

There is still time for West Harbor to right its wrongs. A few restaurant spaces remain and many more retail spots are open. Developers would be wise to contract local businesses for these. Relax the rigid design scheme and partner with local artists to decorate West Harbor with murals and mosaics. Make a better effort to commemorat­e the cultures that have been here for generation­s in one of the most diverse communitie­s in Los Angeles — expand the nearby Los Angeles Maritime Museum to encompass exhibits showcasing Mexican, Italian, Croatian, Japanese, Greek and Norwegian cultures that have lived here for over a century. By incorporat­ing real cultural elements, developers would truly showcase local culture and improve the quality of life for the community.

With the project slated to be completed by 2023, I hope it’s not too late for San Pedro. Developmen­t is not a boogeyman, but developers must realize that memories are bulldozed along with buildings. My Dad passed not long after those days at Ports O’ Call, and with its removal I’ve only got my stories to tell. And even with the best intentions, developmen­t may harm the communitie­s it aims to help. Project leaders at West Harbor need to lengthen the bottom line to include more than profits and treat San Pedro with respect — and respect is more than just an aesthetic.

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