Catching Up With The Councilman

Councilman Joe Buscaino, photographed in his San Pedro office. (photo by John Mattera)

It’s 1:30 p.m. on July 15 and Councilman Joe Buscaino is on a much-needed vacation. Nonetheless, he’s made it a point to be in his San Pedro office today, with his son and daughter in tow, to catch up on some business and speak to San Pedro Today for this anniversary issue.

Dressed in a polo shirt, shorts and tennis visor on this particular day, the council office seems to fit him quite well. It seems like a far cry from his days patrolling the streets as a Senior Lead Officer with the LAPD, but in reality that was just 18 months ago, and San Pedro has been quite busy during that year and a half.

Under his watch, he’s seen the USS Iowa and Crafted open along the waterfront, main thoroughfares Gaffey and Western have been repaved (including a number of side streets), Ports O’ Call redevelopment has begun, the Southern California International Gateway Project is moving forward, skateboard “bombing” has been curbed, and, with his help, Los Angeles has a newly-elected mayor who can actually find his way to San Pedro. (Not to mention, those frustrating bike lanes, which his office is currently trying to rectify.) It’s been quite a busy year and a half for the councilman, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

San Pedro Today: What do you think the state of San Pedro is today?

Councilman Joe Buscaino: There are some exciting times ahead of us without a doubt. It all starts with the waterline. For us to be a part of it to ensure that we don’t delay and we don’t stop progress is one of my goals. We’re seeing it. We’re feeling it. We’re hearing it, as well. The people are interested in investing in San Pedro. Look at the recent developments in the last year: the USS Iowa, Plaza Park, naming a developer for renovating Ports O’ Call, Crafted… We’re just excited. Look at the number of visitors that have come through San Pedro in the last year, it’s phenomenal and we’re just getting started.

SPT: Some might argue that there’s a battle going on between “old” San Pedro and “new” San Pedro. The older generation vs. the younger generation. Status quo vs. change. Do you find it tough to convince people of change here? As councilman, how do you convince people that change is imminent and we should embrace it?

Buscaino: Well, I think we need to be fair. We need to respect people’s opinions without a doubt. But I look at when my dad came back from a fishing trip; he took my mom, my sisters and I straight to Ports O’Call for dinner and ice cream. Fast-forward to today and I’m raising two kids in San Pedro, I think of them. I think of our future generation and the opportunities that are going to be provided for them here in town. I hope and pray that my kids remain here and my kids’ kids remain here, as well. The only way for us to think about our future generation is to make sure that they have opportunities in San Pedro, not just working the docks. The docks shouldn’t be the only job opportunity here for our families. There should be other opportunities for them to work and remain here and raise their families here. Change is good, absolutely. It’s up to our generation to move the ball forward and not stop progress. I understand there’s always going to be concerns about development, but at the same time, we need to listen, we need to be respectful of the process, and make the right decisions.

SPT: Social media has really put a microscope on crime in town, causing many to believe that crime is rampant. Whether it is or not, it’s happening and people are concerned about the recent criminal activity that’s been going on. As a former LAPD officer, how do we stop this problem?

Buscaino: Last year, the Harbor Area had the best crime reduction in 50 years. So regardless of what’s happening on Facebook and other social media sites, we’ve seen a reduction in crime. If you look at San Pedro, we’ve seen a significant drop in violent crime. We’ve always had a history of property crimes in town. I’ve experienced that as a Senior Lead Officer, as well. To answer your question, if you look at what’s happened in Hollywood and Downtown Los Angeles, good, smart development weeds out crime. We’ve had our fair share of crime here, absolutely, but you weed it out by putting people back to work, by making San Pedro a destination, by attracting tourism dollars here. Look at Baltimore and how dilapidated it was and how quick it turned around. Good, economic development weeds out crime.

We have a vigilant community, and I’m proud of the fact and it’s evident in social media. I was proud of the fact that I have the most number of neighborhood watch groups in the entire South Bureau of the LAPD just because people wanted to help. The police cannot be on every street corner, as much as they’d like to. Our community can always use more eyes and ears.

Someone who’s just been victimized, they don’t care if crime is down or not. Yet, we have to acknowledge that the relationship between the police and the community is better than ever. We need to capitalize on that.

SPT: On another topic, filming in San Pedro seems to have dropped off lately. Some downtown businesses have complained in the past about film crews not respecting their businesses, which has caused distrust amongst the city and Hollywood. In your opinion, how important is it to bring more production to San Pedro?

Buscaino: I meet with Film L.A. quite often. Specifically, sitting on the Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee. As a kid growing up on 19th and Alma, I remember CHiPs filming on 19th Street. I ran out there and saw Poncherello on his bike. When my dad was working on the nets at Ports O’Call, he called and said, “Guess who’s down here? Tattoo from Fantasy Island!” Those are my memories of filming in San Pedro. Here’s the thing, when production companies come in they help commerce. Whether it’s the grips, the actors, the studio personnel, they come, and not only do we expose San Pedro, but we help the business community. Yes, they have to respect the businesses because it’s going to affect their business. We have to be respectful of that, too, because our small business owners put their blood, sweat and tears into their own businesses.

We need to keep filming in the City of Los Angeles. I have friends who are in the film industry and they are oftentimes away for three months at a time, away from their families. These kids I coach in baseball, their dad was away on a production in the Midwest because they offer more incentives. That’s what we’re competing with.

SPT: You’ve been councilman now for a year and a half. What’s been your biggest win so far?

Buscaino: (pause) Do I have to pick just one?

SPT: You can mention a couple.

Buscaino: Okay, two of my main goals in the next four years are to lead the city in job growth and not to delay progress. We’re moving forward on the Southern California International Gateway Project (SCIG) to make this port more competitive, more efficient and more effective, and at the same time improving our environment. Developers have been chosen to lead the Ports O’ Call redevelopment project. In Watts, we’ve cleared the path for redevelopment of the Jordan Downs Housing Development. These three main projects are going to impact our economy tremendously and put people back to work.

There’s now an opportunity to move forward on Ponte Vista where you can put people back to work and offer some homes. We’re working with the Planning Department, the neighborhood councils and the community on that and hoping that moves forward within the next six months. For me, going back to your original question, the waterfront redevelopment is crucial for us. By moving forward on that project, we already have a lot of people who’ve expressed interest in investing in the Harbor Area community. We’ve done a lot in the last year and a half.

SPT: What would you say has been your biggest challenge?

Buscaino: Not moving fast enough. At the same time, there’s a process in place that I have to respect. I get excited about these projects and at the same, you know, there’s a process in place at City Hall that we need to follow that includes a lot of departments, including the City Attorney, which we need the legal advice of. But when somebody comes up with an idea and I know it’s feasible, it’s a “let’s get it done” mentality for me.

SPT: Speaking of getting it done, you campaigned vigorously for our new mayor, Eric Garcetti. In fact, I would go so far as to say Mr. Garcetti has made more appearances in San Pedro during his campaign than the former mayor has during his entire tenure. Do you think that because of your relationship with Mayor Garcetti that we are going to see a lot more enthusiasm from the Mayor’s office for San Pedro and the waterfront?

Buscaino: Without a doubt. Eric’s family to me, he’s like my brother. And in the last year and a half, I’ve learned a lot from him sitting two chairs away. The reason why I went with Eric on this is because I’ve worked with him day in and day out. I was with him three days a week on that council. I’ve seen what he’s done in his district and I just want to replicate that here. He gets it.

He called me on Wednesday before the Fourth of July, he said, “Joe, what are you doing for the Fourth?” I said there’s a great fireworks show down here at Cabrillo Beach. So he says, “Amy and I are bringing Maya, we’re going to come down and watch the fireworks show.” And we’re going to see more of that. You’re going to see him around town. He has an office downstairs [in San Pedro City Hall] that he’s opening up for people to come in and have office hours. It’s not going to take a press conference to get the mayor down here.

SPT: Any final words our town’s 125th anniversary and what it means to you, personally?

Buscaino: I still gotta pinch myself for this opportunity to serve my hometown. When I speak across the city, I say only in San Pedro is where you can find a hometown boy getting elected to a city office. We are blessed with who we are as a community, a community of faith, a community of family, a community that never leaves this place. And if they do leave, they find their way back home. So I continue to be humbled and grateful to serve and this’ll be a great four years. spt

Path To Prosperity

Last month’s San Pedro Today article recalling the slaughter of the innocent and devout Eva Tice in downtown San Pedro made my blood boil once again. For it is the byproduct of a deepening (by the decades) of poverty, and the drug addiction, crime and violence that has become our harbor side reality.

This was not always our identity. In the first two-thirds of the last century, our waterline was our key to prosperity, for it offered a diversity of industrial and commercial economic opportunity from the Bridge to the Breakwater and beyond. We were busy working.

However, by offering no vision for the type of public use that creates the commercial growth that would ensure a bright future, the City of Los Angeles (who holds the reins) instead created a social service and industrial dumping ground in its own southern section and seaside soul. So, for well over half a century we have suffered with a well-earned dangerous and dead end image that headlines continue to shout.

Look in on all other west coast ports to observe commercial seaside commerce and abundant economic activity – regional prosperity. The cry in the Harbor Area must be for economic justice that overcomes the anomaly of our seaside poverty.

The surest path to community safety and the seaside promise of prosperity is the full development and complete transformation of the Los Angeles waterfront. Our prominent institutions: the hospitals, schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, Marymount College, and other such institutions, must be promoted and economically nurtured in strength in order to safeguard and serve our social wellness and welfare. The development of the waterfront, which started as the Bridge to the Breakwater Grande Promenade Plan fourteen years ago, is the key to the economic health of the entire Harbor Area.

Our main street areas have degenerated into swap meets. The few waterfront commercial businesses that currently exist only serve weekend crowds, and those crowds represent a limited demographic that does not circulate into downtown or spend a dime elsewhere. All of the businesses that do not cater to that limited demographic have died (Simon’s Banquet Center is a recent example), thus the emptiness throughout the area.

Shouldn’t the waterfront serve and benefit all? Shouldn’t it be open and connect to all? Aren’t we good enough to attract people from all over the world? As a great people attraction that included visits by presidents, celebrities, astronauts, generals, admirals and heads of state, the Papadakis Taverna, which started in an empty building on a very rough corner of downtown in the early 1970s, did. And it did it for nearly four decades. That is how Sixth St. between Centre and Mesa came alive with people places. Why can’t our waterfront become an infectious welcome beacon for everyone?

The waterline must serve as a doorstep to all. Our port becoming a statewide seaside destination will engender the commercial growth that has escaped us for decades. For it will attract the great diversity of people that comprise what we call Southern Californians – not to mention the millions of folks who visit annually, as tourism is L.A.’s biggest business. Finally, it will create a locally based business community with the blessing of a diversified and bona fide job market.

Our history is our waterline. Simply put, the path to prosperity begins at our waterline. The rocky, bloody path to poverty begins there as well, as we have observed. What we make of it now, and whom we make it for, will determine our future.

There are those who will deny what I have expressed here and fought for all these years. You will have to take a good look at them and ask yourself why. I looked through and past them long ago.

Here’s to a new year, a new urban waterfront mecca, a bustling, busy international city by the blue Pacific, and economic justice to the long-suffering people of the southern portion of Los Angeles. spt

John Papadakis was the owner of Papadakis Taverna and is founder of the Bridge to the Breakwater Plan.