Harold Greene holds a dubious honor in San Pedro Today history.
The woodworking artist and musician is the only person to ever be bumped off the cover and out of an issue at the last minute because of a global pandemic.
True story. Greene, 67, a local custom furniture artisan who specializes in unique and functional designs, was slated to be the subject of the cover story for our April 2020 issue. The photos had been taken, interviews had been done, and we were in production about to enter our deadline week. Then COVID-19 arrived and, well… we all know what happened next.
Greene’s story was replaced by cover-to-cover coronavirus coverage. His cover portrait replaced by a photo of empty grocery shelves. COVID-19 had officially taken over all our lives in one way or another, and Greene, like all of us, has been dealing with the effects of the pandemic ever since.
Obviously, a lot has changed since I first interviewed Greene in his home woodworking shop in early March. With L.A. County’s current pandemic status unchanged, the time was right to contact him again to tell his story. I was especially curious to know how an artisan of his caliber has been handling quarantine life the last six months. So, Greene and I met outside Sirens Java & Tea in Downtown San Pedro in mid-August to catch up, both wearing sunglasses, hats, and of course, masks, each modeling the new normal as it were.
“Over 90 percent of my work is [done] in [my] shop,” says Greene. “Not going to the market and kind of shrinking down my life a little bit, I found I had more time in the shop, which is good. I had a pretty good slate of work ahead of me.”
To Greene’s surprise, his workload has actually increased during the pandemic, which he attributes to people having more time to work on their homes. Not only is Greene a custom furniture maker, producing furniture pieces out of distinctive woods that he finds from around the world, he’s also an expert craftsman when it comes to any type of woodwork.
“I felt like I was getting more calls; I was getting more work because people were at home and they needed things done,” he explains, noting that one client even asked him to make totem poles out of some cut logs. “So, my work really increased. I got a lot busier and new projects are coming in all the time. It’s fascinating and kind of baffling, but I feel very fortunate. I mean, my work is booked all the way into October, maybe a little beyond now.”
If you’re unfamiliar with his name, you’ve certainly seen his work if you’ve been down to our waterfront. Greene is responsible for designing and making all the teak furniture at the L.A. Waterfront’s Downtown Harbor and Town Square, located on Harbor Boulevard (but currently closed for construction), and the Ghost Fish plaza at the Southern Pacific Slip, near Utro’s Café. San Pedrans of a certain age may also remember Greene as a member of the popular local ‘70s music group, Titanic. He’s also quick to point out that many people just know him as Mrs. Seixas Greene’s husband from Crestwood Elementary. “Everybody will know that name,” he says smiling.
Greene has spent nearly his entire life in San Pedro. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, his family ended up moving west to Harbor City when Greene was three, eventually settling in San Pedro three years later. His father, a naval officer and writer, and his mother, a speech and language specialist for LAUSD, decided San Pedro would be the spot to raise their family.
“I began going to Bandini Street School, attending first grade,” remembers Greene. “I remember my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Golfer. I remember a woodworking session in that class. They cleared out all the desks and they set up horses, and we sawed pieces of wood. I remember that vividly.”
With his interest in woodworking piqued at an early age, it was at Dodson Middle School where he discovered other talents, including athletics. “It wasn’t just woodworking that it turned out I was good at. I also aced electronic shop, metal shop, and drafting,” he says. “I was [also] a good basketball player. I broke my leg the last week of junior high (ninth grade). I was 15, but a semester later (in 10th grade), I recovered.”
Tenth grade at San Pedro High School proved to be a seminal year for Greene. Fully recovered from his injury and knowing how good of a basketball player he was, he went out for the team and to the surprise of many, was cut.
“My basketball skills and athleticism were back, so I went out for basketball and got cut, and I couldn’t believe it,” says Greene, a member of the SPHS Class of ‘71. “I was shocked and disappointed, and I never knew why [I got cut] until many years later, maybe seven, eight years ago. Someone told me the coach didn’t want to have too many Blacks on his team.”
RACE IN SAN PEDRO
In our first interview in March, Greene skirted around the topic of race in San Pedro. At the time, it was clear it wasn’t something he wanted to get into. But between March and August, in addition to the pandemic, the country has experienced a wave of racially charged protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, stemming from the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. With the topic of racial injustice at the forefront this summer, this time Greene felt compelled to talk about it.
Growing up in San Pedro, Greene remembers his childhood as being filled with “friends of all different colors, white, Black, Japanese.”
“That’s the essence of San Pedro.” he says. “[It] was a great community in that way. People who I went to elementary and junior high and high school [with], I still know.”
Greene says he never experienced any type of overt racism while growing up here, which he attributes to the town being a melting pot of different races and ethnicities. Instead, he remembers it as being more systemic and cites his experience at Dodson in the late 1960s as an example.
“Thinking back on my life and what happened, one thing is that [when] I went to Dodson, I was a smart kid and somehow, I was placed in remedial classes,” he remembers. “I was like, what am I doing here? It was mostly Black and Hispanic kids. So, in math class, at the 10-week mark, my teacher, Mr. Kelly, saw that I didn’t belong in this class, and he got me transferred to the upper-level class there. And it was just a whole different world. It was a mostly white class, and the students were pretty well-behaved. That was one example that I could see as kind of institutionalized racism. They just automatically shuffled the Black and Mexican kids to one side and the white kids to another.”
Nonetheless, not making the basketball team in the 10th grade proved to be the moment that would change Greene’s life. “I put my energy into music, and I was playing guitar,” he says.
FINDING HIS GROOVE
While Greene considers himself a furniture maker first, his passion for music preceded his passion for woodworking. Music has been a constant outlet for creativity in his life.
“I never understood when people tell me, ‘Oh, I haven’t picked up a guitar in 25 years.’ I never got that,” he says. “Because if I don’t pick up a guitar for two weeks, something’s wrong.”
Growing up as one of five kids, Greene’s parents insisted all their children study music.
“We all studied music, classical piano, all of us, all five kids,” he says.
After the basketball team debacle, Greene channeled his energy into playing guitar. In the early ‘70s, he would end up playing lead guitar in the local rock band Titanic and fretless bass in the jazz/R&B band Magnum.
“We had Titanic, but there was Super Chicken, The Wingtips, Ambrosia,” recalls Greene. “All of these bands were playing and excelling, and we were part of that scene. It was great. High school was fantastic because I was in a popular band, and it was really fun.”
Greene has performed solo and in other groups throughout the years. A few years ago, he was performing as part of a duo called Switch Off at Sirens, playing cajón with Freddie Schreuders on guitar. When not woodworking, Greene says he’s constantly playing music. He’s hoping to perform at the coffeeshop and elsewhere after the pandemic passes.
FOLLOWING HIS PASSION
You’d think a talent such as Greene would have some sort of formal training in his profession, but you’d be wrong. “I’m self-taught. I didn’t study at any school. My first formal training was seventh grade woodshop at Dodson,” he says, proudly. “There’s so much math and geometry. When kids say, ‘I’ll never use that in life.’ All of the geometry and all of the math, those are everyday things for me.”
His older brother Jerry, who passed away in 1980, was a big influence in steering him towards his woodworking ambitions. “He was very good with his hands,” Greene says of his late brother. “He was also a musician and an artist and a brilliant mathematician. He was always building something. So, when I graduated high school, I had developed an interest in building furniture.”
While practicing his woodworking skills and playing music on the side, Greene took a detour and joined the L.A. City Fire Department for one year before realizing it was a mistake. He ended up quitting.
“People thought I was crazy,” laughs Greene. “But I felt like I didn’t want to give it a half effort. I realized that if I was going to be a firefighter, I couldn’t give [woodworking and music] the attention that [they] would need.”
Life would also come calling. During this time, he would also marry his wife Kathleen, a current teacher at Crestwood Elementary. The couple has been married for 37 years, and they have two sons, Harold, 37, and Marcus, 31.
Greene remembers his first ever custom furniture client, a lieutenant in the LAPD named George Beck.
“I think he may have seen a couple of my early things that I had made, and he asked me to make a dresser for him,” recalls Greene. “A chest of drawers. And I made it, and it came out really good, and he was really happy.”
Soon after, he opened an art gallery with his mother called The Greene Line located at 22nd and Pacific Ave. It was the first place he was able to display some of his furniture publicly.
By the early 1980s, Greene was a full-time custom furniture builder. “I was getting orders for pieces,” says Greene. “Literally, people said, ‘Hey, I need a dining set, a table, and eight chairs.’ ‘Hey, I need a bed with nightstands.’ All of the interior furniture stuff. I wound up having a couple of clients where I did everything in their house. From the kitchens, bathrooms, windows, all the built-in stuff.”
Trial, error, and experience have been Greene’s teachers as he has refined his woodworking skills through the years. His talents culminated with one of his signature creations, the Soliarc chaise lounge, which he showcased at the WestEdge Design Fair in Santa Monica in 2018.
The Soliarc is described as a “handcrafted chaise lounge that spans your world through astute design and form.” Greene only made a small batch of 100, that were sequentially signed and numbered. It’s made from Costa Rican plantation teak, described as “a durable material with a sustainable footprint.”
The chair can be viewed and purchased at B. David Levine (bdavidlevine.com) in Los Angeles.
In addition to his current workload, Greene has been planning a 40-year career retrospective that will be showcased in San Pedro at Gallery 478 in the fall of 2021. It’s a project that’s taken more than half his life to realize, and it’s an event Greene is extremely excited about.
“It will be a tremendous amount of preparation to put that show together,” he says. “It’ll be older pieces that I have in my possession, pieces that I borrow from clients, and part of the display will be drawings and one-tenth scale models.”
Looking back, even with four decades under his belt, Greene still feels the uphill struggle as a furniture designer making his way in the contemporary art world.
“Getting recognition as a furniture maker in the art world is still not easy,” explains Greene. “I would always make things that were functional; things that are beautiful and that push some of the limits of design, but they could also be used. So many of my chairs and other furniture have designs that maybe you’ve never seen anywhere else, but the key has always been that they function. That’s been my thing. I don’t look at myself as an artist creating just purely visual things. To combine something that’s really beautiful with something that’s really functional, that’s a challenge.” spt