Monday, March 4, 2013

Shifting winds at the port

The small community of San Pedro is the Port of Los Angeles. It's the busiest port in the United States, and together with its next-door neighbor, the Port of Long Beach, it's the sixth busiest port in the world.

Sea-going travel boats, fishing, shipping - these industries have driven human civilization since its beginning, and bring with them dependent industries. Port cities become vibrant places where amusement and vice are mingled with overindulgence, and where the world's cultures intersect, both authentically and with contrived fakery.

View from Ports o' Call Village
San Pedro's Ports o' Call Village is an example. Built in the 1960s as a tourist attraction, it was a Southern California replica of a New England seaside village, with a little Polynesia and Wild West thrown in. The complex hugs the west side of the shipping channel, and serves as the docking site for harbor cruises. Restaurants, gift shops, and amusements brought tourists and locals down to the waterfront.

The New England cottages are still there, selling a somewhat tired and tacky collection of souvenirs, but fifty years later, the place has evolved in a predictably LA way.

The gift shops now include an outlet for Mexican day-of-the-dead crafts, and another Afro-centric shop selling Bob Marley gear. Gone are the resort-wear clad matrons of the 60s; now the place teems with working-class families out for a weekend feast, with strollers full of kids, pushed by moms and abuelas. The parking lot glitters with motorcycles. The attire is casual, with wife-beater style undershirts and baggy shorts for the guys, leggings, tube tops and painted acrylic nails for the ladies.

There's a faded sit-down restaurant among the gift shops, but the real action is further north, where four seafood market restaurants seem to blend into one another, as a giant pulsing mass of noisy humanity, gorging itself on food, beer, and margaritas.

Huachinango, or Pacific red snapper
Whether it's the San Pedro Fish Market, the Crusty Crab, the Pan-Pacific Restaurant or Alaska Seafood & Sushi, it all works the same way. You go into the market and select your fish - you can pick the typical filet, shrimps or calimari from the case, or you can pull a live crab or lobster out of a tank, or choose a whole red snapper, tilapia, or parrot fish from the bins of ice.

You deliver it to the kitchen to cook it for you, and while you wait for the pager they give you to buzz, you search among the hordes for an empty table.

Choosing a fish
This sounds methodical, but on a busy Saturday afternoon, it's chaotic. The lines stretch forever. The bathrooms are crowded. It's hard to see past the broad shoulders of the people in line, and the buzz of Spanish, English and Tagalog mingles with the bleat of the mariachi trumpets and the fuzzy-buzzy overamplification of the public address system.

Yes, there are clowns here, too. With inflatable assault rifles.
Another member of your party stands in line for drinks - beer, margaritas, or the huge plastic cups of michelada - a mixture of beer, tomato juice or clamato, doctored with worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and lime juice, and dusted around the rim with powdered chile.

A shrimp tray and a whole cooked snapper
The specialty of all four houses is something called the "shrimp tray" - this is a plastic cafeteria tray piled high with shrimp cooked in a spicy sauce with potatoes and peppers, and served with huge greasy slabs of garlic bread.

The beer and oyster stand
This is a lot of food, and while most of it is shared, family-style, the amount of food is prodigious, and it's not uncommon to see people bearing huge, laden trays through the teeming crowds.

Butterflied fish on the grill
Meanwhile, people step up to the oyster counters and ceviche stands that dot the crowded patios, getting a little more here and a little more there. For dessert, there are ice cream stands, or churro sellers nearby. Throughout it all, costumed clowns and singing mariachis stroll among the diners.

It's not the kind of place to dine alone, although the day I visited I was by myself. I ordered a tostada with shrimp ceviche from the little stand, then looked around for a place to eat. At one of the long picnic tables near the railing overlooking the channel, a family was clustered around one end. The father saw me looking, and kindly invited me to step in and sit at the empty end.

I sat and ate while watching a tour boat come into the dock. Next time, I'll bring more company, and maybe I'll try for the live crab!

There are hundreds of people eating under the clear blue sky. Families assemble at the tables, or groups of young people, sometimes a group of guys or several couples. Children are everywhere. It's a multi-generational, multi-ethnic phenomenon. There are Mexican families, Filipino families, Korean families, African-American families. The menus at the restaurants reflect this multi-culturalism, offering tempura alongside kalbi, each translated into Spanish, and serving everything with tortillas and Tapatio hot sauce.

Micheladas and shrimp tray
This is hangover food - lots of chile, lots of protein, and garlic bread to mop it up. You need a lot of beer to wash down a shrimp tray. The kids have mechanical rides and games to keep them occupied while the grown-ups wait for the food to come. The mariachis strolls through the crowds, playing.

Detritus of a meal
The gluttony and overindulgence are a typical symptom of American culture - and if truth be told, Ports o' Call Village vividly showcases our country's growing problem of obesity.  There are a lot of very overweight people here, stuffing their faces.

Still, there's something cheerful and rich about the gusto and pleasure exhibited by the hordes of people enjoying themselves here around a communal table - and sharing it with the whole family. From the oldest grandmother to the smallest toddler, they're peeling shrimp and slurping oysters, prizing nuggets of sweet white flesh from the spines of grilled whole snappers, and from bright boiled crab claws, licking rivulets of melted ice cream from their wrists and forearms.

Everyone I encountered, from the tattooed dudes in the beer line to the acrylic-nailed and black eyelinered ladies from the broad-shouldered vatos in their heavy metal t-shirts to the young girl at the ceviche stand with the thick mascara, was having a good time. It was Saturday, it was sunny and brilliant, and there was good food and drink at hand, and the smell of the sea.

But like all incredibly tacky and low-brow popular past-times, Ports o' Call Villages is becoming a bit of an embarrassment to the movers and shakers that operate the Port of Los Angeles. People complain about the the drunkenness, the presence of gangs, the dirt and the crowds and the fried food.

View from the patio
The lease to the company that's been managing the place since the 1980s expires in 2014. Last summer, the port put out an RFP for developers to propose changes to the village. Plans include adding more green space and bike paths,  a boutique hotel, conference center, and high-end retail.  The grit and sleaze will be banished, the tacky rides and games gone.

Coin-operated game at Ports o' Call Village
What do you think? Gentrification is on the march again. Will it improve a tired and stale waterfront, and bring it into the 21st century? Or will it destroy a unique and beloved cultural entity, bringing chain stores and hipster chic to what was once a working class haven?


Kizz said...

I understand doing an RFP like that and creating green space and whatnot when people aren't using the area in question. Here it was Brooklyn Bridge Park that was built in an area that almost no one was coming to. There was a classical music barge, a super high end restaurant, and a great ice cream shop and that was it. So they built a park and now there's all sorts of things going on. If people are going to the port and money is being made and businesses are doing well, why do you insist on fucking with that?

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Kizz has a good point there. I mean, I get the desire to clean up an area that has become a place for gangs to hang out, but a lot of what you paint here with words and photos is a day out for families that sounds like a SoCal version of the Jersey shore. (No offense to either meant!)
It's all so different from what we have here in my big small town.

"Southern California replica of a New England seaside village, with a little Polynesia and Wild West thrown in" is still making me smile. Also, I'm getting a little hungry...

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

or you can pull a live crab or lobster out of a tank

Just make sure no one gives him a name, first!

Sheila said...

It was just as busy 35 years ago when I used to go there. Why do they need to change it. Of course it's all about the Benjamins.