SoCal’s Hidden Sunken City … and Why They Want to Keep You Out

GELFAND’S WORLD-You go to the edge of a cliff and look out towards where the ocean ought to be. But instead of the waves approaching a beach, there is a section of broken off land, containing an old paved street hanging at a crazy angle. It's where cliff top houses used to be until a 1929 landslide moved everything down to the water and turned everything on its side. It's what the San Pedro locals call Sunken City, and what the police and community prosecutors want to close off from the public. 

I only learned about the Sunken City after I moved to San Pedro. It doesn't get a lot of official attention because it belongs to the city of Los Angeles, and the authorities try to prevent people from hiking down to the site itself. Now, Mike Feuer's community prosecutors and the LAPD are trying to make it even harder for people to visit. 

To get a feel for what the place is like, take a look at this YouTube video, showing a guy doing his own tour. What's amusing is that the narrator climbs over a fence that is obviously intended to keep people out. That fence was put in only a few years ago. It is an ugly intrusion on the ocean view, and was obviously intended to save us from ourselves by protecting us from danger. 

This is what conservatives like to call the nanny state. In this instance, the conservatives would be correct. What is the LA city nanny trying to control? 

Here's one clue. A few years ago, I saw a documentary video about the Sunken City made by local high school students. It became obvious that Sunken City has achieved that iconic American status, the teen hangout. The local students go there sort of like teens in 1950s movies went to the hamburger stand on date night. 

San Pedro kids go down to Sunken City for the same reason that teenagers have always gone off on their own. It's to get away from mom and pop -- and social controls -- for a couple of hours. The authorities tell us in shocked tones that the kids actually smoke marijuana and drink. They imply by this language that it's a major crisis and we have to put a stop to it. 

Perhaps I'm being a little harsh about traditional authoritarian attitudes here, but I attended a presentation by some members of the City Attorney's staff recently, and that's how they came across. Nicely authoritarian it's true, but still authoritarian. 

The alleged reason for their desire to put a figurative padlock on access to the Sunken City is classical inverted logic: Bad things happen there, including the aforementioned drinking and drugs. The idea that opening the area to the public would obviate some of these problems seems to be lost on them. 

They point out that in addition to the teen antics, there have been robberies, vandalism (I assume they mean graffiti spraying), and people falling down. One prosecutor alluded to a death, although it wasn't clear what the proximate cause was. Locals are aware that suicides sometimes occur along our miles of cliffs, and sometimes somebody just falls. 

Of course the more effective way of preventing injurious falls would be to tear down the fencing and open a hiking path to the bottom. The state of California has many cliffs, and many pathways from cliff tops to the beaches below, and we hear of very few deaths from any of these over the course of the decades. And it's not uncommon to see warning signs describing hazardous conditions, presumably to protect local governments from lawsuits. 

And it would be kind of silly to think that Sunken City is the only place that drinking and marijuana smoking occur. 

But the LAPD and the city prosecutors are obsessed with risk and putting a stop to it. When one of the prosecutors trotted out the old cliche about an urban cliff potentially creating liability for the city, I almost groaned. Why not worry about having streets, and the fact that some motorists drive their cars into trees at high speed? It's an equal level of absurdity, except that there are more single car accidents (and fatalities) than falls from the top of the Sunken City. 

There are a lot of wonderful places in California that are not without risks. To some extent, that's part of their allure, the idea that you can experience the reality of nature without being confined to a car seat. Yosemite Valley has trails that lead to the tops of waterfalls. There have been unfortunate accidents where people ignored warning signs and got swept over the falls to their deaths. But the American people and the National Park Service are not about to close the trails of Yosemite to the public. They feel that they have an obligation to post the warning messages, but they refuse to fence off Nevada Falls. 

It's the same for traveling through Death Valley and backpacking in the high Sierra. Right here in Los Angeles, there are rattlesnakes along our local hiking trails, but the city and county don't insist on paving them (the trails, not the snakes). 

Here is another internet discussion of Sunken City, subtitled An Awesome Hidden LA Adventure. In this case, the editor has inserted a warning. It's not about the Sunken City itself, but the fact that the authorities are ramping up their efforts to enforce the law. 

What law are they enforcing that allows them to keep people away from the oceanfront, which usually is considered public property? Since Los Angeles has control of the Sunken City, it has the authority to close it to the public, in the same way that it can close public parks at 10 PM. This is why the prosecutors refer to the violation as trespassing. 


{module [862]}
{module [662]}



Doing a quick Google brings up pages of sunken city links. One is to a Yelp page that offers the sort of advice you would find in a tourist guide to Europe. Wear comfortable shoes, bring a jacket, and beware of the locals, that sort of thing. It's interesting that many of the commenters refer to breaking the law, but recommend going anyway. 

Perhaps a policy that L.A. could adopt is to maintain the official fiction that Sunken City is off limits, but continue a hands off policy of non-enforcement. Instead, the prosecutors are talking about cracking down. As in so many other examples, we have a cure which is a lot worse than the disease itself. 

One last point. There is a simple and common counterargument to what I have stated here, namely that drugs and alcohol can cause serious problems for some people. It would be ridiculous to argue the contrary, but this counterargument is seriously incomplete. You have to weigh the alternatives, and to my mind, bringing the law down on people who want to visit Sunken City is a cure that is worse than the disease.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at






Vol 12 Issue 72

Pub: Sep 5, 2014