The Port of Los Angeles, the busiest container port in the Western Hemisphere, has long been a powerful economic engine and a catalyst for employment. Few people might realize, however, that employment at the port peaked about 70 years ago, when as many as 100,000 people descended on the waterfront every day, to the fishing boats, canneries, shipyards and labor-intensive cargo docks.
The advent of containerized cargo, combined with other economic and social changes, has since reduced our daily workforce at the port to about 15,000, although the global logistics chain creates tens of thousands of jobs across our region and beyond. Our vision is to use past lessons from this great seaport community to not only grow the core business of containerized cargo but also bring thousands of new jobs in fields like marine research, academics, green technology and tourism.
More than a century ago, Italian, Croatian and Japanese emigrants settled in San Pedro and Wilmington to start a new life around the port’s natural bay because it reminded them of their European and Asian homelands. In the decades that followed, the port had a close connection to the community. Whether building ships for World War II, creating the largest tuna fishing and canning industry or loading bales of cotton onto ships, those employed along the docks lived in the community and had an inseparable bond with the port.
The postwar era saw a decline in the port workforce. Local fisheries were depleted, reducing our fishing fleets. Waning demand for naval ships and global economic conditions led to shipyard closures here and across the United States. Containerized cargo required less labor on the docks. New logistics jobs were filled by fewer employees often sitting at computers miles from the port. While the port’s role as an economic engine has continued to increase, the number of longshoremen and logistics personnel from the surrounding communities declined.
The decline in jobs damaged the local economy. In the 1960s, the port had a reputation as a place to visit, shop and spend the day. A million visitors a year would frequent Ports O’ Call Village. But the loss of local jobs caused declines in local and out-of-area visitors.
While L.A. and Pacific Rim trade grew exponentially through the end of the 20th century, many residents no longer had a personal connection to the port. Many saw it as a sprawling industrial complex and a poor neighbor. The bond between the port and the community had been broken.
As tension grew and lawsuits mounted, the Port of Los Angeles joined with the neighboring Port of Long Beach to develop an ambitious plan to reduce air pollution. The Clean Air Action Plan went into effect in 2006, with the port using its powers as a landlord to set more aggressive air quality standards than established by local, state or federal law. As a result, diesel particulate matter has been reduced by 79 percent between 2005 and 2012. And with the help of the community, the port began to exercise good planning principles that deindustrialized the community-adjacent waterfront and focused heavy industry largely on Terminal Island.
But clean air alone will not re-create the strong bond with the community. We need to again be the place where thousands more wake up every morning and come into the port. The port recognizes the need to generate new water-dependent and maritime-related job clusters to augment our core mission of cargo handling. The strategy will not only maximize use of land and water assets, it will create potential for adding knowledge-based job opportunities to a predominantly blue-collar workforce. The port is actively engaged on a number of fronts to build these job clusters.
We recently announced plans to transform the port’s oldest and unused municipal pier into an urban marine research and innovation center called AltaSea. The project represents a public-private partnership investment of more than $500 million and will be an academic magnet that draws researchers and scientists from major universities, government agencies and private industry to our docks to develop solutions to ocean-related challenges.
The port is committed to creating waterfront jobs related to green technologies. Our Technology Advancement Program fosters local development and testing of emission-reduction technologies for ships, trucks, trains and cargo-handling equipment. PortTechLA, a port-funded business incubator, is also attracting entrepreneurs who have environmental, energy, security and logistic solutions. Already, 11 companies with a wide range of technologies have partnered with PortTechLA.
Tourism and recreation is another critical job cluster. The vision behind the port’s strategy is that with the port’s development of visitor-friendly waterfront infrastructure, commercial investment will follow. The strategy is proving successful. The battleship Iowa landed at the port last year and drew more than 330,000 visitors. Crafted at the Port of Los Angeles, a vibrant marketplace for artisans in a converted historic warehouse, drew almost 90,000 visitors in its first year. In addition, the port is in exclusive negotiations with the L.A. Waterfront Alliance – a collaboration between Ratkovich Co. and Jerico Development – to redevelop the 30-acre Ports O’ Call Village and strengthen connections between the waterfront and San Pedro’s historic downtown business district.
Providing these new job opportunities is vital to the future of the port and its neighboring communities. Our vision is that the port becomes the place where thousands more will come every day to work, to play, to study and to invent. By creating diverse job clusters that include research, academic and “green-collar” jobs, we can help create a self-sustaining job center on the L.A. waterfront that withstands the changes in economic conditions.
Geraldine Knatz is executive director at the Port of Los Angeles.