Monday, January 31, 2005

It's A Wonder We Can Eat With Utensils*

Back in the early 90s, San Pedro was home to a series of tragic teen suicides. When Time Magazine used us as framework for an article on teen suicide, the author opened by saying - and I'm not paraphrasing by much here - that with all the industrial port machinery and refineries, how could anyone not want to off themselves, living is such a lack of beauty.

Clearly, that author had never been to San Pedro.

And neither has the staff writer responsible for today's LAT coverage of last night's Bridge lighting.

Returning the the only leitmotif most of the city's ever been able to come up with for San Pedro - that gawky little neighborhood that's just not Westside enough - the reporter refers to us as "broad-shouldered," "hard-working," and our lights as - wait for it - frivolous. We certainly don't shy from work in this town - and we're damn proud of it - otherwise the LA economy would collapse (taking with it large chunks of state and national trade as well). Here's a highlight, however:

Apart from the graceful, green-painted frame of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, San Pedro's most visible landmarks are the cargo cranes that loom over the Harbor Freeway and the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest container port. They are imposing, ungainly instruments that announce, proudly and literally, that this is where Los Angeles' heavy lifting occurs.

Yet the fight for the lights — a pretty, frivolous addition to the waterfront skyline — has unified San Pedro's business leaders, dockworkers and housewives.
Yes, it's just SO UGLY here. Those twinkly, view-giving harbor lights that increase property values and cause legal battles over view easements. Of course, if non-Pedrans managed to make it past the first mile of town, they'd see Los Angeles's last bit of unspoiled, un-overdeveloped coastline, etched in stony cliffs, lined with stately palms, with smog free air, unobstructed views of Catalina Island and dolphins playing in the surf.

Forget, too, for a moment that the article makes no reference to those who put forth the effort - the Vincent Thomas Bridge Lighting Committee (full disclosure: it was helmed by my Dad, so, yes, my beef is personal - but it's about slamming my hometown even more than slighting the people who did the work. "Locals" isn't a credit).

Nancy Wride, the Times Staff Writer credited as a contributer to the report, interviewed the Bridge Lighting Committee Chair - so it's not like more of the story wasn't there for the article's primary author's taking. And I appreciate space concerns - the whole inverted pyramid level of informational importance - yadda yadda - but isn't "WHO" part of the story?

And when you're writing about the "WHERE" try to reach beyond tired themes that prove you care little about a story.

Little Pedro, always tugging on its own bootstraps, so poor, so downtrodden, so working class, so amazing when it can do anything. So time to move past this narrative, LAT.

All city districts are deeper than the stereotypes we quip about at cocktail parties. To my knowledge, few call the Hollywood sign (formerly just a real estate ad, mind you) "frivolous." And if anyone did, Hollywood residents - and much of the city - would raise holy hell.

San Pedro, The Bridge Lighting Committee, and the City did accomplish something great last night. A strong work ethic is respected in the American narrative, but always with a hint of pity, a moment of Scarlet O'Hara hiding her newly calloused hands from polite society - because the American Dream is all about working until you achieve wealth and don't have to work anymore. All good-for-you-working-class stories, in their "we have so much to learn from the little guys" glory, are inherently condescending.

Find a new meme.

Update: Thanks to L.A. Observed's link to my post (I'm figuring), I received a response from Richard Fausset, the Times Staff Writer who authored the article to which I took umbrage above (posted with his permission):


Hello, & first off, thanks for bothering to read our rag. I thought you made some valuable comments about my story. Not mentioning your dad's contributions was an unfortunate oversight on my part, but very late last night -- on a tight deadline with tight space restrictions -- I had to make some tough editing decisions, and he ended up on the cutting room floor. I didn't like doing it, but c'est la guerre.

As for my characterization of San Pedro, I guess it's your prerogative to see it as condescending, but I certainly didn't mean it that way. As a non-Californian, my conceptions of San Pedro were formed years before I'd stepped foot in it, spun by Charles Bukowski & the Minutemen, mostly. The latter, especially, created this idea in my head of a town that was the antithesis of fickle, status-hungry, trendy L.A., and if I'm guilty of anything, perhaps it's that I am still in thrall to this myth. It's the prism through which I've processed all of my San Pedro experiences -- hanging out at Ports O'Call on Sunday & jostling with Latino families for a fried fish plate, killing hangovers at the Pacific Diner, interviewing dockworkers during mock terror drills, &, among other things, last night's bridge lighting. I'm sure they are more limited than your experiences, but they never really punched holes in the idea of San Pedro that Mike Watt spun for me back when I was a teenager. For better or worse, Pedro seems to be largely defined by the fact that it hosts one of the largest and busiest ports in the world. San Pedrans seem peculiarly proud of that fact, and of their city in general.

Anyhow, for what it's worth, I thought the idea for the bridge lights, and the locals' enthusiastic response, was pretty cool. My other SoCal memes may be equally tired, but I can't imagine hundreds of West L.A. residents showing up for the lighting of anything.

Richard Fausset
First off - and though it may seem like a small thing - I give him much credit for spelling my name right.

While he and I will continue to disagree over whether I was right in my gut reaction to his piece, I will give credit when due to someone who does, in fact, walk the beat - he has enough familiarity with San Pedro to reference the right things (Pacific Dinner, how I miss you when I'm away). And he has good taste in music.


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Unknown said...

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Unknown said...
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