VOICES-Like a scene out of “Mad Max,”parties rage all night with furniture fueled fires burning directly on the sand at Cabrillo Beach.
It looks like a wasteland in hell where the government has collapsed altogether. The litter produced from this lawless land often ends up in the ocean. It has an apocalyptic feel with residents trying to protect their nearby neighborhood and marine life with no police available to enforce laws on the beach. Starfish and crabs are killed for the sake of a keepsake from looted tide pools tagged with gang names. Birds eat plastic from trash-filled kelp washed up on the beach.
This area of the City of Los Angeles, San Pedro, is home to the Port of Los Angeles which supports over $270 billion in trade nationwide and creates one million California jobs. It is a port first, and despite sandy beaches, it has never been nurtured as a beach town by the City of Los Angeles. Even with marinas and calm waters, there are no amenitieslike on the water rentals for stand-up paddle boards, kayaks or boats. It is 20 miles south from the decision makers in downtown, far enough away to be ignored. The pipeline of money that goes to the city from the port is a one-waystreet. The funds, communication from the cityand services needed in San Pedro seem to trickle back barely.
Human fecal matter and used toilet paper are discovered in the mornings outside a city-run child-care facility at Cabrillo Beachcalled the Bathhouse. Broken glass and burning coals in the sand await unsuspecting beachgoers with bare feet. Scattered styrofoam plates and plastic cups from overturned trash cans litter the beach and decapitatedbirds from religious ceremonies lie in the sand. A large dog runs off leash near the water leaving a pile of waste that is left by the owner. There are no dogs allowed on the beach, but nobody is there to enforce the rules or manage the beach.
Sparsely staffed Recreation and Parks maintenance crews, the fall guys, are responsible for cleaning up the messes of people who do not respect the ocean, the beach or the neighborhood. They are on the front line doing the hard work, bearing the burden of bad management at the top. It is like a scene out of “GroundHog Day” … the same every day, playing out for decades. If the beach looks good for a day or two, it is only by luck or volunteer clean-ups, not consistent city services.
As the lifeguards arrive, all night campers wake up on the sand with their trash spread over the beach and in the ocean. Locals find litter in the water and remove it by reaching with the paddles from their kayaks or with their bare hands as they swim. Camping and tents are not permitted, but without anybody in charge, it’s a free-for-all.
Recent crimes at Cabrillo Beach at night, including a carjacking, a shooting and a rape, have outraged locals. Fed up, neighbors have banded together to form a beach Neighborhood Watch and beautification group and now have over 220 members. The group helps clean the beach and advocates for much-needed city services such as patrol, but its requests are falling on deaf city ears. Excuses about limited budgets are either repeated over and over, or there is no reply at all from city officials when contacted.
Neighbors call police or park rangers when a car is driving on the sidewalk at the beach or minors are drinking and fighting at 2 a.m. by the fire pits. It is so loud it wakes up half the block. Then an M80 explodes, and nowthe whole neighborhood is awake on a work night. It’s a good night if the police ever showup, but only a quick fix. Everything is back to normal the next day when something else happens and residents call again. These people who are trying to preserve the environment are the new maid service to polluters. Nobody enforces litter laws.
Both Port Police and LAPD say they will respond to calls from Cabrillo Beach but admit they will not patrol on the sand. They do not have a beach patrol like Venice Beach, another Los Angeles beach area patrolled by LAPD. At Venice Beach, they have ATVs on the sand anda bike patrol. LAPD oversees patrollingouter Cabrillo beach, which includes the fire pit area, but they only drive through the parking lot from time to time.
Park rangers work limited hours and days. They are not available after 8 p.m. or before 11 a.m. when the war zone on the beach is at its worst, especially on the weekends. Empty promises about more rangers or new trash cans with attached lids have been made for years, old wives’ tales for locals. At Farmer’s Market, neighbors can be heard discussing the idea of buying new trash cans themselves for the beach. It seems that City staff issues are left to the residents to figure out.
Neighbors understand that living near a beach comes with perks and problems, but the issues at Cabrillo Beach are far beyond reasonable.
Cabrillo Beach is made up of a coastal park, The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, The Bathhouse, a fishing pier, a boat ramp, an inner beach on the harbor and an outer beach facing Catalina Island. The confusion about a federal breakwater, Tidelands Trusts, county, city, state and port jurisdiction is the standard excuse when something goes array. The Port of Los Angeles leases the land to the City of Los Angeles, but the details are unclear even to the people who own the property and lease it. Roles are convoluted, and fingers are pointed. It is a trifecta of disorganization with a lack of management, government red tape, and minimal police patrol.
The inner beach which is managed by the Port of Los Angeles is consistently rated “F” in water quality while the outer beach receives a regular “A” rating. The inner beach is thick with eelgrass that grows close to shore, providing food, shelter, and protection for invertebrates in quiet water. It rates “F” just inches from the shore. Further out the rating is an “A.” Both beaches are named Cabrillo Beach to add to the confusion. Some locals think the inner beach should be renamed the Port of Los Angeles Beach, so the Port can own their pollutionwithout soiling the name of the popular outer beach. This happens when Heal the Bay releases their water ratings, and news reports of “F” ratings at Cabrillo Beach do not distinguish between the two beaches.
The outer beach is a small cove with tide pools on one side separated by a sandy beach and a rock jetty on the other. The sand levels have been eroding, and the beach has needed additional sand for years to prevent even more erosion. A large kelp bed grows beneath a high cliff lined with homes.
Depending on the breeze, barking sea lions can be heard for blocks. A buoy named Moaning Mona hums along with fog horns on damp nights off Cabrillo Beach and Taps is heard nightly from the outside speakers at the nearby military housing base. Whales swim near the pier at times as fisherman wait for the fish to bite. Junior lifeguards, aquarium volunteers, and Catalina-bound boaters all to utilize Cabrillo Beach. Large crowds attend grunion runs seasonally and every day a group of locals swim to the beach buoy sans wetsuits no matter what the water temperature.
Outer Cabrillo Beach is beautiful with stand-up paddle boarders headed to the nearby lighthouse as dolphins flip in the air. Windsurfers come from far away to catch the famous wind known as Hurricane Gulch, one of the most consistent high wind areas in Southern California. The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium provides education about the local marine life and hosts regular volunteer beach clean-up days. Thousands of school children visit the aquarium yearly to learn about conservation and respect of the ocean. Neighbors can be seen picking up trash daily at the beach. A mom paints and hangs handmade wood signs with messages about throwing away trash and keeping the beach clean.
For decades, there has been a lack of LAPD or ranger patrol on the sand which has created a beach where rules and laws are laughable suggestions. The neighborhood near Cabrillo Beach is known as Point Fermin or the Point by locals. Smoke fillshomes from fires on the beachthat burn 24 hours a day. Many homes do not open their windows because the smoke is so intense fromburning scraps, dressers or anything else that can be found by people who light fires directly on the sand. A partial bedframe struck a local girl as she played in the waves recently, a likely remnantfrom a fire at the beach. Fire pits are located 170 feet away from homes, in the closest possible place on the beach to houses. Other beaches have adopted policies of positioning their beach fire pits no closerthan 700 feet from housesand no fires directly on the sand. The City of Los Angeles has no such policy. The sand at Cabrillo Beach is mixed with small pieces of burnt wood from years of fires outside the fire pits.
On weekends unpermitted concerts and group events at Cabrillo Beach start sound checking on amplified speakers at 8 am and can be heard for miles. Police and rangers are called, but theyhave no idea who has a permit from Recreation and Parks. Police often leave without shutting down the event because there is no city staff available to provide details. The groups create trash that overflow the old city cans and litter ends up in the sea. On the street above, an ungraded gutter opening leads to a pipe that spews trash near the tide pools when it rains; pollution is everywhere.
Bathrooms on the outer beach close at 6 p.m. daily even if the beach is full of people. Small, outdated restrooms are located on the inner beach not suitable to meet the demands of the crowds that frequent this area. The inner beach restrooms are difficult to find and not marked well. People including senior citizens and families with young children can often be seen looking for a bathroom after 6 p.m., walking in circles since no signs are there to direct them toward the inner beach restrooms. After Labor Day, the city closes the outer beach bathrooms on Sundays. Human waste is often found near the grass where people barbeque. There is no barbequing allowed on the grass, but there are no signs or enforcement so hot coals are left burning in the brown grass that is now mostly dead.
Currently, there are not enough LAPD or Park Rangers to create a safe environment for the beach or the community in general. The LAPD Harbor division has an average of six patrol cars at a time covering San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City and Harbor Gateway -- a total of 27 square miles. The jail in San Pedro that cost taxpayers millions to build remains closed. If someone is arrested, officers must spend hours driving up the 110 freeway, often in traffic, to book suspects at the 77thStreet Station 15 miles away. This leaves the community vulnerable with evenfewer officers available to patrol. LAPD is top heavy with too many police behind desks versus on the streets. This seems to be an overall theme in the city.
In the neighborhood near the beach, all night party goers burning fires on the beach block sidewalks and in residents’ driveways near their cars. The city’s MYLA311 service request phone is closed at night, as if by magic city problems stop for the evening and residents should be able to figure it out themselves. LADOT usually has a 30-minute wait on hold if called and even after reporting a violation, rarely do they show up. LAPD now handles most of the work neglected by the LADOT in San Pedro. Abandon cars are reported, but it takes months for a response from LADOT, if ever, so residents call the policenow. The patrol police absorb the city problems that are ignored by those in power.
The Cabrillo Beach neighborhood watch wants a safe, clean beach that can be used by everybody. They are advocating for consistent beach patrol, fire pits moved away from the homes with set hours, fires only in pits, and new freestanding bathrooms with outside showers that are open the same hours as the fire pits and the beach. They are requesting clear rules and hours posted at the beach and on the city website in both English and Spanish. Residents expect city staff located at the beach, no matter what department, to call rangers or police when they observe laws being violated or for maintenance issues. For years, city staff have witnessed problems at the beach but don’t do anything if it is not their department. It has been up to the public to report issues, even if city employees have seen these problems for days. The neighborhood watch is also requesting city staff to oversee all permitted events and provide a list of these events to rangers and police. Most importantly, they want one person in charge of the area. Recreation and Parks have multiple bureaucraciesand each one seems to have an agenda.
It seems like a logical fix, but the dysfunction of the City of Los Angeles runs deep. Adjacentto CabrilloBeach is Sunken City, an oceanfront jumble of foundations from a landslide that is now permanently tagged and littered with spray cans and trash. Below Wilder’s Addition Park, stairs that lead to the ocean and tide pools have been closed for months denying access to anybody. This is another oceanfront area neglected by the City of Los Angeles that has been littered and graffitied.
The city claims the stairs are the responsibility of the county and the county points to the city. At Averill Park in San Pedro when a small group of momsplays with their children, a Recreation and Parkemployee tells them they will be fined for gathering as a group without a permit, the moms go to parks in Torrance and Carson.
At Royal Palms, a Los Angeles County beach in San Pedro, littering and drinking are the norm with minimal patrol which is assigned to LAPD and the County Beaches and Harbor. Recently, posts by a local social media group outraged neighbors as out-of-towners were reportedly throwing a live baby octopus against rocks to kill it and tossing beer bottles in the ocean. Contacting the County of Los Angeles with an issue usually results in being told officers are out of El Segundo so they can’t do anything. The dead octopus and pollution are the results of a city that can not take care of its environment. A few blocks inland from the beach, Peck Park canyons are littered with trash and it’s a favorite for illegal activity with no patrol available. These unkempt canyons are near an abandoned city pool that has been broken for years. It used to serve the northern side of San Pedro, a place where children in years past were able to walk from their neighborhood to swim in a pool.
San Pedro is a tight-knit community, an old fishing town with a large population of Croatians and Italians who immigrated decades ago.It is culturally diverse with a small-town feel, where you might see a man selling foodpushing his cart through the streets yelling "tamales, tamales, tamales." Everybody knows everybody or are related it seems. An inside joke in San Pedro is be careful talking in the market; you never know who will hear you. Artists, professionals, students and dock workers drink coffee at Sacred Grounds or Sirens, the local coffee shops. Church bells ring in the distance as ships from around the world arrive to deliver and pick-up goods.
Talk of separating from Los Angeles has occurred on the couches in the Corner Store year after year but nothing comes of it. Main streets in town like Gaffey and Pacific are lined with empty stores and vacated buildings. A burnt down Elks Lodge, once the pride of the community, sits empty, mirroring the despair of the town below it. Promises of a new Ports O’ Call and a marine research facility called Alta Sea will solve everything, they say…just wait, you’ll see.
It is hard to figure out who is to blame for the many issues plaguing San Pedro. There are executives, officials, and commissioners whose hands are in the pot but either they seem to have no idea what is going on in San Pedro, or they do know and just don’t care. Decisions are made behind closed doors and while residents sleep, the city takes away street lanes to make room for bike lanes that are rarely used. It now takes drivers twice as long to get across town. These new lanes are the new expressways for criminals on stolen bikes. City big shots brag about how environmentally friendly they are making the city while, down the street, trash at Cabrillo Beach pollutes the LA waterfront and smoke from burning tables on the sand fills the sky.
The new reality of life in San Pedro is symbolized by a partially dressedwoman on Western Avenue having a bowel movement on the sidewalk as children watch from the backseat of their parents’ cars on the way to school. The police are called but say there is nothing they can do. People run out of the grocery markets without paying for items as shocked customers ask why the store doesn’t do anything. The stores have quit calling the police because they do not come. With no other options, residents have begun to slowly "take back their town." They have started cleaning city and port properties themselves, removing large amounts of a litter.They are tired of complaining and seeing no results.
Vigilante groups have formed to restore basic civilityand protect the parks and beaches which are trashed. In place of police are residents who patrol at all hours, many of them armed with cameras and weapons. Some have guns, slingshots, knivesor dynamite. They follow criminals at times taking them down themselves or reporting their whereabouts until LAPD arrives. Photos of arrested criminals are posted online in crime watch groups, and excited residents praise their neighbors who are making San Pedro safe again. Neighborhood and cyber watch groups are strong, and residents in town know who to contact if something is going down, though it’s usually not the police unless it is a real emergency.There is an unspoken mutual understanding: the police are few and far in between, so, do it yourself if you can.
San Pedro is like a dysfunctional family in many ways. Abandoned by the city, frustrated residents bicker with each as they try to figure out what to do. They are tasked with reporting city issues: the dumped couch on their street, an alley that needs repaving and is full of trash and the tree that has not been trimmed in 20 years. The lack of city services disrespects the hardworking generations of people who wear shirts and hats proudly displaying the name of their hometown, San Pedro. This is not just a city to the people who live there; it is their history and a way of life.
Slowly the infighting has been replaced by disdain. Community members realize they only have each other to fix this seemingly forgotten area of Los Angeles. City hillsides get landscaped by locals who can no longer stand the blight. Or they weed a park hillside on Saturday and pick up trash on the beach on Sunday. It’s like having a part-time job with the city, only there’s no pay. San Pedro pride has waned but has never faded as residents keep moving forward, despite the absence of a functional city government. Select city services still exist, but they are unpredictable and unreliable. If the city decides to do anything, residents are the last to know.
The City of Los Angeles is endangering its citizens by not providing enough police to protect and serve San Pedroand its beaches. The ban of plastic bags and push for planting trees is all smoke and mirrors as the city continues to pollute the waterfront in San Pedro. They plant trees that are not trimmed for 50 years; these trees uproot sidewalks which residents are then expected to pay to repair. Top heavy departments that are run by people who are not familiar with the area or its problems are not doing their jobs. Policies and procedures seem to be missing at every turn, but San Pedro residents continue to fight for their town on their own. The beaches and the seal life pay the ultimate price of a polluted ocean caused by the city’s negligence. Highly paid city executives need to come out of their offices, grab a trash bag and start cleaning up the mess they have created. It is shameful.
Overlooking San Pedro, The Elk’s Lodge is almost ready to open again after years of construction and financial setbacks. It is like San Pedro; nothing can keep it down. As the Elk’s Lodge rises from the ashes, many people in San Pedro hope their town will too.
(Jennifer Marquezis a former member of Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council. Currently she serves on two San Pedro school site councils and is a columnist for San Pedro Today Magazine and CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.