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LA On the Grow: Public Market Plan Has San Pedro Feelin’ Good

GELFAND’S WORLD--While smaller cities such as Baltimore and Seattle were constructing tourist attractions to complement their harbors, the Port of Los Angeles (POLA) concentrated on developing itself as a working port. POLA and its adjacent Port of Long Beach became the leading traders in American overseas shipping.

Those trailer trucks you see on the freeways carry the cargo containers offloaded by the hundreds of thousands from freighters arriving here from Singapore, China, Japan, and Korea. On any given day, the twin ports move more than a billion dollars worth of goods. The ports are a huge economic engine, creating -- directly and indirectly -- employment for hundreds of thousands of people. 

At the same time, Wilmington and San Pedro, the communities adjacent to the port, endured truck traffic, air pollution, and the encroachment of port expansion. The situation reached the level of public tension during the last year of Richard Riordan's term as mayor, a time in which the harbor secession movement was growing. 

The situation provided a clear mandate for change, and the new mayor, Jim Hahn, made a commitment to improve things. 

It's taken the combined efforts of the past three mayors, Hahn, Villaraigosa, and Garcetti, but the situation has changed. Due to technical improvements, the level of air polluting emissions has been reduced markedly.

What has been missing for Los Angeles residents is the kind of experience available to other port cities such as Seattle, where visitors can enjoy the extensive harbor-adjacent open air public markets. 

Under the last three mayors, the west side of the main shipping channel has undergone a gradual improvement as a people-friendly promenade and extension of maritime history. The siting of the battleship Iowa has provided one tourist attraction. 

The expanse between the Vincent Thomas bridge and the breakwater has a number of other attractions such as the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and a yet to be constructed marine research facility. This week, the public were told of the finalization of plans to create the tourist anchor in what has, up till now, been the Ports O'Call Village. 

It is to be called the San Pedro Public Market.  A crowd estimated at 600 filled the Warner Grand Theater to hear about it Wednesday night. The audience, joined by City Councilman Joe Buscaino, were enthusiastic about the plan, with the most prevalent question, "When will it be ready?" 

A harbor area film festival in a potentially doomed facility 

As they say in movie jargon, cut to the Warner Grand Theater, the place where the San Pedro Public Market presentation was held. The WGT is an Art Deco style movie palace with capabilities for live performances that opened in 1931. The WGT has become the place for public discussions, particularly of a local political nature, since it can hold nearly 1400 people. It is also the facility that hosts local companies such as San Pedro Ballet, opera companies such as Long Beach Opera, and musical productions such as Mary Poppins. 

As such, the WGT has become a symbol of a rejuvenating downtown for San Pedro, as well as the place that people expect to assemble for public meetings. There are other, smaller venues, but for a mayoral candidate debate or a discussion on public safety featuring the Chief of Police, the WGT has become the place to be. 

Let's consider one home-grown WGT specialty which will occur this weekend, the L.A. Harbor International Film Festival. The LAHIFF is now in its second decade. Of note is Friday night's screening of Fahrenheit 451, the film based on Ray Bradbury's story of a civilization which forbids the ownership and reading of books. We might consider Donald Trump's threat to loosen the libel rules so he can get back at newspapers such as the New York Times. 

Also of note is a collection of documentaries including Sunday morning's screening about actress Marsha Hunt. She will be there, which is remarkable in itself considering that she is 98 and has one of the original stars on Hollywood Blvd. It's a chance to meet real Hollywood royalty. 

Saturday night's big number is the 1960 Can Can. It got a lot of publicity during its production when Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev was invited to attend the filming of one scene. Reports at the time suggested that Khruschev was miffed at the sexiness of the production, but some recent accounts disagree. 

Will we lose the Warner Grand Theater to outside management? 

The WGT was purchased by the city of Los Angeles in 1996. By that time, very few of the old time movie palaces were still viable. Competition with television and with multiscreen complexes made them financially unsound. In order to prevent the WGT from being turned into a flea market or a church (the fate of many old time theaters), the city bought the structure and maintained it at a subsistence level. For example, there was no effective system of temperature control, which resulted in at least one performance where an actor remarked out loud that he could see his own breath condensing in front of him. 

Ten years and millions of dollars later, the WGT has a rebuilt electric system, new heating and air conditioning, and backstage improvements. It is not entirely refurbished, but it's getting there. 

The problem is that the city of Los Angeles has been trying to get the WGT off its books for years. It is a net loser in terms of revenue, and in an era of perpetual structural deficits in the city budget, it is one more thing that could be jettisoned. It's a small cost item compared to other city expenditures, but it's red ink on the books. 

In the same week that the San Pedro Public Market plan was presented to the public at the WGT, the city also announced that it will be putting the WGT up for bid. The hope among some bureaucrats is that the theater will be leased by some big name promotion/production company which will put in lots of money for deferred maintenance, run a performance schedule, and somehow pay the city rent. Locals demand that the contract include favorable treatment for homegrown festivals such as LAHIFF, the ballet company, and so forth. 

It's not hard to see the contrast between the Public Market proposal and the attempt to bid out the WGT. The former involves local input in the planning and a local developer with roots in the community. The WGT currently has strong community roots. Locals are concerned that if a major theatrical producer wins the contract, the local roots will be ripped out. 

There is something to be said for the symbolic importance of a meeting facility. The WGT is not at the level of Independence Hall in Philadelphia or Faneuil Hall, its Boston counterpart, but it has become important to harbor area residents. Bidding it out is a mistake that should be left undone.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]

-cw