A Golden Anniversary For San Pedro’s Golden Gate

The Vincent Thomas Bridge (photo by John Mattera)

San Pedro has more than one big birthday this year. Not only does 2013 mark the 125th anniversary of its founding, and the centennial of the Angel’s Gate Lighthouse, but this November, the Vincent Thomas Bridge is turning 50.

Dubbed “The Bridge to Nowhere,” “San Pedro’s Golden Gate,” and mistakenly thought by some to be named after a non-existent saint, the bridge that would become an icon of not only San Pedro, but the Harbor Area opened for business on Nov. 15, 1963, after a years-long push by the State Assemblyman it was named after.

The Road to “The Bridge to Nowhere”

For decades, San Pedrans used ferry service to cross the main channel to work in the canneries and naval shipyard on Terminal Island. As the Port grew, the concept of building a bridge was discussed as early as the 1920s, but when talks about building a connection got serious over the next few decades, the idea was to create an underground tube or tunnel like they have in New York City.

San Pedro’s hometown State Assemblyman Vincent Thomas, the son of Croatian immigrants, was met with skepticism and doubt that a bridge was necessary for his district, and would spend much of his career pushing through legislation to win the project’s approval. In 1958, a bill calling for the bridge’s construction was finally passed and won the support of the Board of Harbor Commissioners, which agreed to furnish rights of way. So began the $21 million San Pedro-Terminal Island Bridge project.

The official groundbreaking took place in May of 1960, but a slow bidding process meant construction wouldn’t begin until a year later, starting with the substructure. Next came the towers, pilings, 1,270 tons of tediously spun suspension cables, a concrete deck that was built from the towers in and paved, and finally the bridge’s signature green paint job that entails never-ending re-painting (no, really).

A resolution was passed to name the bridge after Assemblyman Thomas, who was still in office (he would serve 19 terms totaling 38 years). Designed by the Bridge Department of the California Division of Highways (or what we know today as CalTrans), the Vincent Thomas Bridge was the first and remains the only suspension bridge in the world to be supported entirely on pilings. It was the first suspension bridge in the United States to be welded instead of riveted, and is the third longest suspension bridge in California, after the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Late on the evening of Nov. 14, 1963, the Islander ferry made its final trip across the main channel, and at the stroke of midnight following a ribbon cutting ceremony, the bridge was officially opened to motorists. Assemblyman Thomas paid the first 25-cent toll.

The bridge under construction in 1963. (photo courtesy San Pedro Bay Historical Society)

Spanning Decades

The bridge exceeded traffic and revenue expectations, seeing 3.3 million motorists in its first year – almost one million more than projected. Within a few years, it became clear that a freeway connection would be needed, and in 1968, Governor Ronald Reagan was the keynote speaker at the official groundbreaking ceremony for the freeway link.

The bridge underwent several changes in the 1970s. Vertical safety screens were added in 1976 after longshoremen were so frustrated with dodging bottles thrown from cars above that they refused to work beneath the bridge. Two years later, a concrete center divider was added between the four lanes.

In 1983, the bridge toll was doubled to 50 cents, but lifted for eastbound traffic. It would be eliminated all together in 2000 and the tollbooths demolished.

In 1988, the bridge was closed for a 25th anniversary celebration that drew thousands and kicked off a fundraising effort to permanently light the bridge. At dusk, the bridge was lined with people carrying lights in a symbolic lighting ceremony.

In 1996, the bridge was named the official welcoming monument of the City of Los Angeles. A year later it underwent earthquake retrofitting.

The bridge was finally lit at night with blue LED lights in 2005. (photo by Jeff Loftin)

After a 17-year-long effort and fundraising campaign, permanent blue lights were finally installed across the bridge in 2005. The 160 solar-powered blue lamps made of 360 LEDs each are switched on every night from dusk to midnight.

“Sure, it took us 17 years to light the bridge, but it was such a struggle for Vincent Thomas just to get it built, and what a visionary – both the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach wouldn’t be what they are today without it,” says Louis Dominguez, who headed the bridge lighting committee.

Even though the path to making the lights a reality wasn’t without its hurdles, he says they turned out better than he first envisioned them. “It was sort of cutting edge, especially for the environment, not having to use coal-powered electricity. It’s the first LED-lit bridge to use solar panels in the country.”

Today, the bridge is temporarily closed on Labor Day for the annual Conquer the Bridge five-mile run.

 

On Camera and in Headlines

Over the years, the Vincent Thomas Bridge has been a backdrop in a number of films, TV shows and even a Jessica Simpson music video. Action scenes from To Live and Die in L.A., Charlie’s Angels and Gone in Sixty Seconds were all shot on the bridge.

Last year, it made headlines when Top Gun director Tony Scott shocked onlookers and the world when he parked his Prius atop the bridge, climbed the fence and leapt to his death. Scott had filmed scenes near the bridge in the past and had talked about wanting to shoot on the bridge for a future project.

The bridge has seen a number of bizarre and headline-making incidents over the years.

In 1976, tightrope walker Steve McPeak and his assistant successfully walked the cables of the bridge and were arrested by California Highway Patrol officers waiting for them below. In the 1980s, someone shot out one of the bridge’s navigational red lights, which required a tedious and dangerous replacement job. In 1989, the bridge made headlines again when a series of collisions resulted in a 30-car pileup, although no one was seriously injured. In 1990, diver Lawrence Andreassen, a bronze medalist in the 1964 Olympics, died diving from the bridge’s west tower in an attempt to set a new world record for the highest dive from a bridge. He had completed a dangerous dive from the Gerald Desmond Bridge two years earlier.

 

From Idea to Icon

Like many architectural landmarks, the Vincent Thomas Bridge has become an icon for San Pedro that has been featured in countless logos and images over the decades.

Anne Hansford, archivist at the San Pedro Bay Historical Society, says the bridge had a significant impact on the day-to-day lives of San Pedrans. “If you worked at the naval shipyard, which many people here in San Pedro did, it made your day so much faster, it just made life so much easier if you were heading east,” she says.

Fellow Historical Society member Chuck Short agrees. “It did replace one of our icons that we all miss, the Islander ferry, but the bridge is much more convenient and has become one of few San Pedro icons that are so recognizable.”

The one thing most people don’t know about the bridge, Hansford says, is just how hard Assemblyman Thomas had to fight to make it a reality. “There was just no credible belief in Sacramento that it could be worth the money; they really had the attitude that it was a bridge to nowhere. It was a very hard struggle for him,” she says. “Now it’s become a very recognizable symbol and it photographs so beautifully from so many angles.” spt

Bridge by the Numbers

* The bridge is 6,060 feet long and its towers are 365 feet tall, 35 stories above water.
* The road is 52 feet wide.
* The bridge has 19 cables made up of 212 wires each.
* It was built to withstand 90 mph winds.
* The bridge is supported on 990 steel piles each supporting 145 tons.
* 32,000 vehicles cross the bridge on a given weekday.
* The bridge cost $21 million to build.
* It is the third largest span bridge in California, the first and only suspension bridge in the world to be supported entirely on pilings, and the first suspension bridge in the United States to be welded, not riveted.
* The original toll to cross the bridge in either direction was 25 cents.
* The first car accident on the bridge occurred on October 6, 1964 and the one-millionth car crossed the bridge on March 9, 1964.
* High wire artist Steve McPeak was fined $126 for walking the bridge’s cables with his assistant in 1976.
* The bridge is lit by 160 lamps, each composed of 360 LEDs.

Sources: Port of Los Angeles, San Pedro Bay Historical Society, San Pedro News-Pilot, Associated Press

Happy 125th Birthday, San Pedro!

So I know, I’m still on probation.

I have lived in San Pedro for twenty-two years, and raised three adult children here – but next to so many of my friends and neighbors who have generations of history in San Pedro, I know I still count as a newcomer.

But for me, San Pedro is truly home.

When I was little, my father used to bring my brother and I down to Pedro to ride the old ferry to Terminal Island and back, years before the bridge was built, and to have dinner at Olsen’s. During the war, my father had served as a pilot bringing in the ships to our harbor and he loved bringing us back to this historic and vibrant port community.

I knew this was the place I wanted to raise my children. It is the town where my son, Mark, attended middle school at Dodson, where he played in Eastview Little League, and where he grew up to teach at POLA High School.

I take great pride in my adoptive hometown and it is an honor to wish San Pedro a happy 125th birthday and celebrate with all San Pedrans.

Our town is the picture of diversity. It is home to Croatian, Italian, and Mexican communities going back generations. From Mary Star of the Sea, to Temple Beth El, to St. Peter’s Presbyterian, this is a town that has embraced all faiths. It is a town of proud traditions that date back decades and bring us all closer in every passing year. Even I put away my embarrassment and don a swimsuit every January 1st for the annual Polar Bear Swim at Cabrillo Beach.

I love the San Pedro identity: small town feel, big city pride.

And I could not be prouder of the privilege I have had representing San Pedro for the last decade.

I was proud to serve alongside my brother in the City Council during his time as Mayor of Los Angeles. He was the first mayor to live in San Pedro and together we worked to make sure that the Los Angeles city government worked for our town that had long been underserved. We started the overdue project to revitalize the waterfront and breathe life into our tourism industry. We encouraged investment in downtown San Pedro and the development of new lofts and locally owned businesses. We understood the importance of the port to our local economy and worked to ensure the port remained the source of good paying jobs but didn’t come at the expense of the health of our children.

Now, in Congress, I am continuing the work that I started. I founded the bipartisan Congressional PORTS Caucus that brought the conversation about ports to the forefront and is now 82 members strong. I am fighting to ensure that the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach get the funding they need and deserve to stay globally competitive and secure. My own son, Danny, is a casual longshoreman: the future of the port is the future of my family. (As long as he has a good job, maybe he won’t move back home!)

Every week, when I leave my house in the early morning darkness and roll my suitcase out to my car to go fly to DC, I turn and look out over the port, over the Vincent Thomas Bridge, over the homes of my friends and neighbors. I take a deep breath of this community, so I can bring San Pedro with me to the nation’s capital. And there, in the first blush of dawn, I start to count down the hours till I am back with you again. spt

55 Years Of Beauty

Andre Nizetich poses next to an old-fashioned hair dryer at his San Pedro studio. (photo by Joshua Stecker)

Andre Nizetich takes a break from cutting hair foils in the back of the busy Western Avenue salon that bears his name. The energetic hairdresser scrolls through his iPhone as we sit down to chat – he’s busy planning his next hair summit.

You wouldn’t know he is 78 and has been cutting hair since 1957. You also wouldn’t know the San Pedro native is a nationally renowned hair color expert and educator.

Retrospective questions about his career take a turn to the present and soon he is deep in discussion about the latest trend of ammonia-free at-home hair color. Nizetich’s endless fascination with the hair industry keeps him on his toes, and it all began, of all places, at the U.S. Coast Guard station on Terminal Island.

“When I was in the service stationed at Terminal Island, a guy there told me I should go to El Camino College because they had a great cosmetology program,” he remembers.

The idea struck a chord with something he’d been told years earlier, before he worked for Ford Motors, Douglas Aircraft and Green Hills cemetery. When he was a student at San Pedro High School, Nizetich was told by a school counselor that he should find an artistic career that involved working with his hands.

“I thought it sounded like a fit, so I followed his advice,” he says.

A few years later, fresh out of cosmetology school, newly married and with a baby, Nizetich found himself a rare male hairdresser in a female-dominated industry. He took a job at Virginia’s Beauty Salon on Gaffey Street, where owner Myrtle Klages encouraged him.

“I was one of the few males in the business and I got a ribbing for it, but it served me well,” he recalls. “I was busy right away.”

Four years later in 1961, Nizetich took a gamble and opened his own salon in Redondo Beach. So began Andres Coiffures (later Andres Hair Studio) and the innovative coloring techniques that would lead to patents and acclaim.

Frustrated with traditional highlighting methods, Nizetich invented a device in the early ‘70s called the Super Streak, which was later sold to Clairol (he also invented and patented the hair foil cutting machine he was using earlier). In the process, he began seriously studying hair color, taking matters into his own hands, literally.

“I got a lot of hair and I made swatches, I even got a microscope and put the hair under it when I colored it to look at it to see what happened,” he says. “I found out that all the information we were getting about what happens with hair color was inaccurate.”

He challenged authority and questioned what hair color manufacturers taught.

“I knew that what they were teaching was wrong and it was really hindering the learning process,” he says.

Nizetich’s studies would become the basis of the curriculum of the American Board of Certified Hair Colorists, where he is president. Today, he travels the country teaching hair colorists and administering the board’s stringent exam. His own salon, which relocated to San Pedro, has six board certified colorists, the most of any in Southern California.

Nizetich still conducts hair experiments in his free time and presents the findings at his annual hair summit, which draws hundreds. He’s written books, made DVDs and still takes some of his longtime clients at the salon.

Julie Lazarof and Kris McGinnis have worked with Nizetich for over 20 years and now own Andres Hair Studio. They’re both amazed at how passionate he still is in training younger staff members. Both say he’s an inspiration because he still finds joy and new ideas in their industry, even after 50 years.

“He’s such an inspiration and he teaches us so much,” says stylist Jenna Lusic. “He’s also really funny.”

Nizetich has been married to his wife Joann for 56 years. His children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are some of the salon’s regular clients.

“It’s a joy working with the people I work with,” he says. “And I would like to thank all of my clients past and present for their support and for putting up with me.”

Nizetich with Regis Philbin on AM Los Angeles circa 1970s. (photo provided by Andre Nizetich)

Nizetich says his best advice for aspiring hairdressers is actually to avoid beauty school. “This sounds crazy, but there are literally thousands of people going to beauty school and they never go to work because there are no jobs. Go to a salon you want to work at and volunteer to work for free doing what you can; be the first one there in the morning, and the last one to leave. Do that for six weeks, then ask the owner if they will hire you as an apprentice.”

And while it wasn’t easy being a male hair dresser in the 1950s (“My father never forgave me for it. He wanted me to be a fisherman,” Nizetich quips), or going up against the might of big-name hair color manufacturers in the name of education, Nizetich says his career has been nothing but fulfilling.

“I’m working pretty hard to uplift professional hair color and give it a better reputation,” he says. “I’ve never regretted it, I’ve had a lot of fun and it’s been great being able to make people, whether clients or hair dressers, feel better about themselves.” spt

Andres Hair Studio is located at 28146 S. Western Ave. For more info, call (310) 547-1168 or visit www.andreshairstudio.com.

WWII Air Corps Veteran Gets Silver Star He Never Knew About

After World War II, New Mexico native Domitilio Lucero, like so many others, came to Southern California looking for work.

He got a job at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard on Terminal Island and discovered San Pedro. He married his high school sweetheart, and they put down roots and raised four sons, two of whom graduated from Fermin Lasuen High and two from San Pedro High.

Lucero didn’t talk much about the war, which was typical for most veterans. He had been a sergeant in the Army Air Corps, an engineer/gunner on a B-26 Marauder medium bomber based in England, and had seen plenty of action before being gravely wounded in a mission over Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. It took years of research from his sons to get the whole story, and it turned out to be a whole lot more than even Lucero himself knew. Back in the states, recovering from his wounds, he was unaware he had been awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award exclusively for combat valor.

Nearly 70 years later, Lucero, now 89 and living in Barstow, will receive his Silver Star in a special ceremony Nov. 5.

The Dec. 23, 1944, raid on the German rail bridgehead at Arhweiler was supposed to be a “milk run” for the 391st Bombardment Group, part of the Ninth Air Force. But the fighter support for the 32 planes in the raid never materialized, and they were sitting ducks when set upon by 60 German fighters. Only 16 bombers made it back to base, and nearly every one of those was damaged, including Lucero’s. His citation for “gallantry in action” reads:

Although thrown from his position, Sgt. Lucero crawled back to his post and although his armament was inoperative, he gallantly continued to inform his pilot of enemy aircraft positions. Sgt. Lucero’s heroic determination and courage under heavy enemy antiaircraft fire despite his painful injury reflect the highest credit upon himself and his organization.

Gerald Lucero, the youngest brother and 1970 SPHS grad, told The Air Force Times what his dad remembers of that day.

“He said they were coming in at you like you wouldn’t believe – five, 10, 15 of them, just coming in at you like you wouldn’t believe. He said he was just shooting everywhere he possibly could, and then they disappeared.” Then came the flak from below.

“He said you could see these black smoke bombs coming from the bottom, and then they were just tearing at the aircraft. He said he saw several aircraft going down, and that’s all he remembered.”

Struck by cannon fire from an enemy fighter, Lucero, then 21, spent 18 months in hospitals, where part of his rib was used to rebuild his nose.

Before he left his supply job at the naval shipyard in 1972 to go to work at the Marine Corps Logistics Base outside Barstow, he saw all four sons follow his footsteps into the service. The oldest, Elroy, a ’65 graduate of Fermin Lasuen, joined the Army and served in Germany. Today, he’s an electrical engineer in San Jose. Stevan enlisted after a cousin was killed in Vietnam. The ’67 Lasuen graduate became a member of the Army Airborne’s Special Forces and fought in Vietnam from 1969-70. The San Pedro resident is a recently retired schoolteacher after a long career with Los Angeles Unified. Vincent joined the Army and served stateside. He’s a security guard in Victorville. Gerald broke with family tradition by joining the Navy. Today he’s a time-share manager in Hawaii. Gerald, point man in the effort to get his dad’s Silver Star, told The Air Force Times of the impetus behind the effort:

“We just want to make sure that my children – his grandchildren – know, and their children know, about his involvement in the war because we’ve all felt… that my dad is a hero and what he had to endure… and I now… hear about this, and it’s even more so.”

Veteran Thanks a Veteran
I got this letter in response to my Memorial Day column on Bob DeSpain, the Rancho Palos Verdes veteran who survived the sinking of the USS Hoel in WWII. It speaks for itself:

“I served aboard the USS Hoel (DDG-13) from Jan. `69-Nov. `72, a guided-missile destroyer. (On) my first WESTPAC cruise `69-70, the ship was chosen to represent the U.S.A. in New Zealand’s bicentennial celebration.

“Our course took us to Pago Pago, then to Samar and over the site of the sunken USS Hoel (DD-533). All aboard paid their respects with a ceremony and wreath casting in memory of the crew lost in the battle.

“The information from official records was read to the crew of the battle and heroism of those men lost and those that survived.

“I salute Bob DeSpain for his labor, tenacity and survival. The battle, being outgunned, was lost yet successful in slowing down the enemy.”

It was signed by William G. “Bill” Forst, a Torrance resident. To Bill, Bob, all of the Luceros and every other veteran, an early happy Veterans Day. spt