2012: A Year in Review (December 2012 Cover Story)

Photo by John Mattera

It was a year of incredible change and transformation for San Pedro.

A year of gains, losses and continued tradition. The waters brought us a new resident, a home for artisans was built, and a new councilman was chosen to lead us. We faced the challenge of the land sliding beneath us, out of control skateboarders, and the constant threat of crime. We saw a lighthouse and a church reborn, milestones surpassed, and parking meters meeting their maker. Even through the good and the bad, when 2013 rolls around, history will look back on 2012 as the year it all started coming together for San Pedro.

The previous year did not end well. We were still reeling from the Paseo del Mar landslide that happened in November 2011. At the time, no one had any answers as to why the land toppled into the sea and we were still getting used to having a neighborhood divided by the ocean cliffs. And then things got worse.

Eva Tice

San Pedrans were stunned and saddened by the killing of Eva Tice, a 60-year-old mentally disabled woman who was stabbed walking home on Pacific Ave. from a Christmas Eve church service. Police would later announce a $50,000 reward for information leading to her killer, who fled the scene and still has yet to be found.

Photo by John Mattera

The good news arrived, when, after months of campaigning and a special run-off election against Assemblyman Warren Furutani, former LAPD Harbor Division Senior Lead Officer Joe Buscaino was sworn in as councilman of the city’s 15th District on January 31, replacing Janice Hahn, who won a seat on Congress the previous year.

Residents also freaked out for a bit when false rumors of a serial killer in the Harbor Area spread on Facebook. It turned out to be the end result of a game of telephone after a young woman was found slain in Wilmington.

Later in January, talks began about a proposed a skatepark in Peck Park. After months of planning, the project got a monetary boost from the Tony Hawk Foundation in October. Construction bids should go out this month. Supporters hope the project will be completed before overpass construction will temporarily close the existing Channel Street Skatepark later next year.

Speaking of skating, the increasingly familiar sight of packs of un-helmeted skaters “bombing” hills at high speeds in traffic around town became a forefront issue this year when Caleb Daniel Simpson, a 15-year-old from Palmdale, became the second teen to die engaging in the activity in San Pedro. A few months earlier, 14-year-old Michael Borojevich died after he crashed skating near 25th St. and Western Ave. The deaths gained widespread media attention and prompted officials to eventually ban bombing throughout the city in August.

In February, the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities announced its new home at the Warner Grand Theatre. In November, the theatre company announced an indefinite suspension, pulling out of the Warner Grand and leaving existing subscribers in the dark.

Photo courtesy of Boys & Girls Club

Students at San Pedro High School and the Boys & Girls Club got a visit from ballerina and alumnus Misty Copeland, a soloist in the American Ballet Theatre. Copeland returned to her hometown in February to share her experiences getting her start at the Boys & Girls Club and rising to the top of the ballet world, where she is ABT’s first African-American female soloist in decades.

After months of restoration work, St. Peter’s Church, San Pedro’s oldest place of worship, reopened its doors on Easter Sunday at its new home at Green Hills Memorial Park. Originally built in 1884, the church was moved to Green Hills in 2011, where it underwent badly needed repairs.

A much-improved Angels Gate Lighthouse was unveiled in April after a six-month restoration project spearheaded by the Cabrillo Beach Boosters, who fixed the lighthouse’s rusting exterior. Steel reinforcements, a new paint job and zinc coating were just some of the repairs made to help protect the lighthouse from erosion for another 25 years. The Boosters also hope to restore the crumbling interior in time for the lighthouse’s centennial next year.

Point Fermin Lighthouse also made headlines this year when in May, the federal government declared it to be surplus property, basically putting it up for grabs for new ownership. A handful of groups and nonprofits have applied, including the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks and the Point Fermin Lighthouse Society. We’re still waiting to see who will be chosen to run one of San Pedro’s iconic landmarks.

Arguably, the biggest story of the year for San Pedro was May’s arrival of the historic battleship USS Iowa in the Port of Los Angeles. Only two years ago, the Port had rejected a proposal to berth the ship as a floating museum and tourist attraction. Robert Kent, who founded the nonprofit that spearheaded the effort, got the community to rally around the project, eventually getting the Port to come around. With funding in place and the Port’s blessing, the Pacific Battleship Center made a bid for the ship, and was later granted it by the Navy. Repairs were made in Northern California before the ship was towed to Los Angeles.

On June 9, the ship made its final journey down the main channel to its permanent berth as thousands of spectators on shore lined Harbor Blvd. The ship hosted a Veteran’s reunion and opened for public tours in July.

On the heels of the Iowa’s arrival, the Historic Waterfront Business Improvement District (commonly known as the PBID) put on a Swingin’ Salute Block Party in downtown San Pedro. Residents decked out in their 1940’s best came out for free swing music and dance lessons under new decorative lights crisscrossing over 6th St. The San Pedro Bay Historical Society also put together a series of historical window exhibits displayed in shops downtown.

Also in June, nonprofit Harbor Interfaith Services opened a new, three-story facility on 9th Street, where it relocated its headquarters and expanded services supporting struggling families.

Seven months after a 600-ft. stretch of Paseo del Mar slid into the ocean after a rainstorm, the City released a geotechnical report assessing the causes of the landslide and future of the site. Both natural and manmade factors like irrigation and wave erosion played a role in the slide, but no further ground movement was detected. The City later secured funds to stabilize and grade the area and install drains. Whether or not the road will be re-routed is to be determined with the input of a new 50-member community advisory committee appointed by Councilman Buscaino.

Photo by John Mattera

Another major story of the year happened in late June, when the first of two WWII-era warehouses near 22nd Street Park re-opened as Crafted, an indoor craft marketplace dreamt up by the same developer as Santa Monica’s successful Bergamot Station. With a 35-year lease, dozens of vendors and far-reaching media coverage, Crafted has already proven to be a one-of-a-kind regional draw. After gripes about its $5 parking fee, Crafted gave away free one-year parking passes to local residents and later offered free parking on Fridays.

After planning this year’s Taste in San Pedro festival for Ports O’ Call Village, the Chamber of Commerce announced its cancellation in July. It would be the first summer without one in more than a decade. The Taste wasn’t the only foodie event cancelled this year. Weeks later, organizers of the Ćevapčići Festival announced its cancellation due to lack of funds. It was especially a bummer since the Balkan sausage fest had some big press lined up. The Port’s annual Lobster Festival went on as usual, drawing thousands of sea foodies to the waterfront.

In early August, an 18-year-old former Mary Star of the Sea High School running back confessed to stealing cash registers from several businesses on Western Ave and Gaffey St. He ran into a slight problem when his dad recognized him on the surveillance video that made the media rounds and convinced his son to turn himself in.

More than 600 parking meters were axed in downtown San Pedro and Wilmington this summer, a move by Councilman Buscaino’s office after a study concluded they did more harm than good. Rates on remaining meters also went down. Business owners had long complained that the overabundance of meters and rate hikes discouraged consumers from shopping downtown. The issue was a talking point in the special election to replace former Councilwoman Janice Hahn.

This year’s Navy Days went much smoother than last, drawing 5,000 people over the course of two days (2011’s event was longer and larger, causing a traffic nightmare and long lines). Tour goers got an inside look at the USS Wayne E. Meyer destroyer and the Coast Guard Cutter George Cobb.

The same weekend, reports came pouring in of a man spotted jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge shortly after 12:30 p.m. on August 19. A few hours later, Port police announced they had recovered the body of Top Gun director Tony Scott, whose car was found on top of the bridge with a note left inside. His suicide drew national media attention. A coroner’s report later confirmed that contrary to reports, he was not battling cancer at the time of his death.

Photo by John Mattera

Thousands of young San Pedrans went back to school weeks earlier than usual this year, part of an early start schedule adopted by the L.A. Unified School District that’ll have them out for summer in early June (they were originally slated to get out by the end of May, but Prop. 30 changed that). This was also the first year for the new John M. and Muriel Olguin Campus of San Pedro High School, an environmentally innovative annex campus built to relieve overcrowding at SPHS. Shortly after school started, there was a bit of a traffic controversy in the surrounding neighborhood.

Also in August, San Pedro native and LAPD Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon announced his retirement after 34 years on the force. A few months later, he took a new job as Chief of Airport Police at LAX.

Seventeen-year-old Monica Bender, a senior at Mary Star of the Sea High School, made headlines when she swam the 20-mile Catalina Channel the last week of August.

After a string of residential burglaries over the summer had residents on edge, eight new police officers were assigned to LAPD Harbor Division to help curb property crime. Police eventually arrested an 18-year-old San Pedro man linked to one of the crime scenes.

Astronaut and first-mom-in-space Anna Fisher returned to her hometown in September for the fundraiser opening of Harbor Day Preschool. She also took time to speak with students at several high schools. In other San Pedro space news, the ashes of Allyson Diana Genest, an avid Star Trek fan from San Pedro who died in 1999, were sent to outer space with Space X’s Dragon launch in May. It was her dying wish.

Who could forget the refinery burn-off freakout on September 15? When a power outage set off a controlled burn-off at the ConocoPhillips Refinery in Wilmington, shooting flames and smoke high into the air, many residents wondered if there was a raging blaze to worry about. Some later filed complaints about pollution emitted during the burn-off.

On a related note, the Rancho LPG facility on North Gaffey Street – those two big gas tanks across from the Home Depot – got in trouble with air quality officials after neighboring residents reported smelling what turned out to be a gas leak in October. The facility has been subject to criticism and protest from neighboring residents for decades. Councilman Buscaino held a hearing addressing their concerns earlier this year.

Also in October, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor and Point Fermin Elementary School celebrated milestone birthdays, turning 75 and 100, respectively.

On Columbus Day, eight new inductees were honored at the annual San Pedro Sportswalk to the Waterfront. Later that the day, hundreds gathered outside the Italian-American Club for the councilman’s first Buscaino Block Party and Spaghetti Dinner.

After the Port put out a call over the summer for commercial developers to fix up Ports O’ Call Village, it announced in October that eight had taken interest. A decision on a developer should arrive early next year.

The San Pedro International Film Festival made its debut in October, screening dozens of films and hosting workshops.

On October 10, San Pedro Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, Betsy Cheek, announced her resignation after not having her contract renewed by the Chamber Board of Directors. The Chamber will begin the search for a new president/CEO early next year.

Many San Pedrans were bummed when organizers of the Railroad Revival Tour announced its cancellation weeks before it was set to roll through town (2011’s sold-out Mumford and Sons performance drew thousands to the waterfront). Willie Nelson, Band of Horses, Jamey Johnson, and John Reilly and Friends were set to perform at Ports O’ Call Village on October 27. Band of Horses still wanted to play however, putting on a show at the Warner Grand Theatre the same night instead.

Congresswoman Janice Hahn defeated Congresswoman Laura Richardson in early November in the race to represent California’s newly drawn 44th Congressional District.

Yet another version of the proposed housing development for the long-abandoned Navy housing property along Western Ave. surfaced in early November. The new Ponte Vista is more scaled back than previous incarnations and includes additional lanes to address traffic concerns that have shot down the project in the past.

This month, of course, marks two San Pedro holiday traditions, the 32nd Annual Spirit of San Pedro Christmas Parade, and the 50th L.A. Harbor Holiday Afloat Parade.

We know we missed a few items of note from the past year, but we couldn’t fit everything in. Needless to say, it’s been a year of intense change and challenges. Let’s hope 2013 is just as exciting and full of positive, forward thinking progress as we continue to push San Pedro towards a more prosperous future.

They Shall Be Missed

Sadly, we also lost a number of notable San Pedrans this year. Here’s a list of noteworthy deaths:

Steve Saggiani, longshoreman
Rudy Svorinich Sr., community leader and father of former Councilman Rudy Svorinich, Jr.
“Cheerful” Al Kaye, owner, Union War Surplus
Dr. H. Michael Weitzman, optometrist and philanthropist
Tom Phillips, painter of iconic San Pedro scenes and landscapes
Joseph M. Mardesich III, entrepreneur
Stancil Jones, longtime fire captain
Joe Caccavalla, Tri-Art Festival founder
Ray Patricio, community leader and nature preservationist
Dr. Jerry Blaskovich, dermatologist
Tony Perkov, owner, Ante’s Restaurant
Geoff Agisim, sea chantey singer
John Greenwood, school board member, community leader
Cindy Rutherford, owner, Century Motorcycles
(apologies to those we may have omitted by accident)

ON THE COVER: From Renegade To Legit

Professional skateboarder and Channel Street Skatepark regular, Robbie Russo, shows off his moves. (photo by John Mattera)

Cars and semi-trucks rumble overhead, while traffic through the busiest corridor of the Port of Los Angeles roars by at street level. Approaching the area underneath the 110 Harbor Freeway, the hum of traffic lessens. Replacing it are the sounds of wheels and wooden boards grinding against concrete and metal. The grittiness of the area seems contradictory to the sounds of teenage chatter, laughter and hands slapping other hands as skaters glide past each other. This is the Channel Street Skatepark.

Ten years ago, it seemed an unlikely location, but today it’s an obvious choice. “Skateboarding is loud,” says Andy Harris, one of the founders of the Channel Street Skatepark. “This is the perfect spot. No one is bothered by the sounds of skateboarding.”

There are no houses in the vicinity, and it’s behind a strip mall of businesses. “We don’t even hear them,” says John Bagakis, general manager of Big Nick’s Pizza, one of the businesses in the strip mall. “They’re good kids, and they come in and buy slices, and ask for water on hot days. We ask them not to ride on the sidewalks or inside the plaza, and they’ve been pretty respectful of the rules.”

Although the location is perfect, it didn’t always meet everyone’s approval. Harris, Robbie O’Connell, Bill Sargeant, Robert Yamasaki, Scott Smith and Gabe Solis were some of the local skaters who saw the desolate area as a shining gem. The group had no permits and had not created a non-profit. The land was owned by Caltrans, who had not given permission. But after fruitless years of trying to get the city to build a skatepark, they decided to go down the do-it-yourself path. The inspiration came from San Diego.

“We went down there and saw the skatepark at Washington Street and we were like ‘Wow, we have the same setup,’” says Harris. “So we came back to this spot, and started building bumps.”

The Washington Street Skatepark is a series of smooth concrete humps and bowls, and looks similar to what the Channel Street Skatepark is today. When they started building small bumps, no one noticed. When they got a concrete truck down there, it was a different story.

“They all showed up at the same time,” says Harris. “Harbor Department and the Department of Building and Safety were down here and just told us, this is all going to be torn down.”

But instead of listening or calling it a wash and just walking away, they fought.

“It’s the idea that you’re doing something that is beneficial,” says Harris of why he wouldn’t give up. “There’s no way this is going away. It’s for the kids in town.”

Andy Harris (front row, second from right) with the old and new guard of the Channel Street Skatepark. (photo by John Mattera)

Harris called Janice Hahn’s office, who at the time was the Los Angeles City Council member serving the 15th District, which covers San Pedro. Caroline Brady-Sinco, who worked for Janice Hahn, worked with Harris to keep the park open, even driving to San Diego to see the Washington Street Skatepark that inspired them. Brady-Sinco’s efforts worked.

“Next thing you know, the Harbor Department says we’ll put up a chain link fence,” says Harris.

Even though officials threatened them with closure, they firmly believed they would find a way to keep it.

“It’s an asset,” says fellow founder, Robbie O’Connell of the skatepark. “It’s for the little kid learning how to skate and the old crusty guy still skating after 25 years.”

Hahn’s office asked that they create a non-profit for the skatepark, which they did, called the San Pedro Skatepark Association. This way people and businesses can donate money and supplies so that the entire building cost isn’t borne by the founders. When asked how much money they spent out of pocket, Harris shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t even want to know,” he says.

The First Day - clearing debris under the 110 freeway. (photo by Andy Harris)

Thankfully, tax-deductible donations are now possible. Supporters like Pasha Stevedoring & Terminals has donated close to ten thousand dollars of rebar.

“We have so much rebar in there, good luck tearing it down,” jokes Harris. “If anything ever happens in the world, I’m taking cover there. It’s like a fortress.”

The park has grown from a few bumps in 2002 to about 8,000 square feet of smooth concrete humps and bowls. The outside walls are decorated with paint and mosaic tile art, much of which was done by the same skaters who are spending every afternoon at the park.

“We bring awareness to the kids and give them a sense of ownership,” says Harris. “It’s not about ‘this is mine,’ this is everybody’s.”

Harris is a longshoreman now, but before that he was a substitute teacher. It’s not surprising when seeing the connection he makes to the kids that visit the park. As he pulls up in his car, skaters come over one by one to slap hands and say hello. There is a tangible respect among all of the skaters, regardless of age.

One older man comes by holding a broom, says hello to Harris before walking away to finish sweeping areas of the skatepark.

“That’s Alfie,” says Harris. “Before he skates, he sweeps. We take care of this place. We don’t own it and we don’t want any reason for the city to ever say we don’t take care of it.”

Over the years, the number of skaters has multiplied. With the growing numbers is also a wide variety of age.

“When I was a kid, there weren’t any dads who skateboarded with their kids,” says Harris. “Now, on Saturdays here, it’s like mommy and me.”

There is one day that sticks with Harris, in which he realized that their little skatepark-that-could they had built was becoming a real, full-blown skatepark.

“It was the day when we were just working on the park and a minivan pulled up, and a mom dropped off a whole carload of kids,” says Harris. “I mean, they’re dropping their kids off under a freeway.”

Many parents view the park as a safer place for their kids to skate, rather than the car-filled streets of San Pedro.

Wooden framework is installed to shape the skatepark. (photo by Andy Harris)

Channel Street Skatepark will have to close down in the spring of 2013 for a full year. At that time, construction will be done on the 110 Freeway, forcing the park’s closure. Because of the community’s need for a safe place for skaters, a new skatepark is going to be built in Peck Park on Western Avenue. The estimated cost of the project is between $750,000 and $1 million with the City of Los Angeles Recreation and Parks funding the bulk of it with some money coming from the Tony Hawk Foundation. The Northwest Neighborhood Council, along with the San Pedro Skateboard Association, has been meeting with Recreation and Parks architects on design elements.

John Mavar, former vice president of the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council, hopes the park will open in about a year and a half.

“This park is so important,” says Mavar. “We need to provide another location for the kids who skate, the same way we provide basketball courts or baseball diamonds.”

Officials are beginning to see having a skatepark as a necessity. Ten years ago, Harris and his friends couldn’t get anyone to listen to their pleas, but today, they’re helping to plan out a new skatepark. Not a do-it-yourself skatepark, but one paid for in large part by the city, permits and all.

Concrete is poured as the Channel Street Skatepark becomes a reality. (photo by Andy Harris)

The Channel Street Skatepark may have begun as just a place to skate, but it’s blossomed into something much larger. Harris’s next step is looking into liability insurance. It’s a far cry from where they started: just a few guys building skating bumps on illegal property under the freeway.

As Harris says, “We went from renegade to legit.” spt

For more information about the Skatepark or how to donate, visit the Channel Street Skatepark Facebook page.