San Pedro residents push to open up Sunken City for public use

By Donna Littlejohn, Daily Breeze

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Sunken City area of San Pedro between Gaffey Street and Pacific Avenue along the cliffs. Oct. 21, 2014. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

There’s an allure about Sunken City that’s hard to resist.

Explorers from as far away as Europe are drawn to the post-apocalyptic landscaped ruins, the collapsed remains of what once was a San Pedro neighborhood offering an edge-of-the-world view of the vast Pacific Ocean.

The 6-acre property at the eastern end of Point Fermin Park is dotted with “No Trespassing” signs — often scrawled over with graffiti — because it’s also dangerous. Many people have fallen to their deaths after getting too close to the cliff’s edge.

But now a group of residents in the Point Fermin area wants the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, which owns the land, to reopen the area, saying much of it has been stable for decades.

Built in 1987 at the cost of $140,000, a permanent wrought-iron fence that surrounds the property is already easily breached by young people who come to the area by the dozens, although police have stepped up surveillance. Fines for those caught trespassing can be as high as $1,000.

“You cannot close an attractive nuisance that’s also a beautiful part of San Pedro,” Graham Robertson said during a presentation at this week’s Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council meeting. “The kids are enjoying it and the rest of us are excluded.”

Robertson heads up Sunken City Watch, a local group that advocates for opening the area to the public.

The council is seeking discussions with the city on possibly opening at least part of Sunken City — located south of Shepard Street between Pacific Avenue and Gaffey Street — for general access. June Burlingame Smith, a council member and longtime Point Fermin resident, has long suggested that the area could even provide a home for a permanent dog park, a project that’s eluded San Pedro for years.

Octaviano Rios, the Harbor Area representative for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, said he would take the information back to City Hall but added that the safety issue will be a priority.

“That doesn’t mean (it will be closed) forever,” Rios told the board. “In the future I think we’re hopeful we can work together.”

But liability issues loom large for city officials, who worry that opening it up will only lead to more injuries.

“Right now, the department’s position is that Sunken City is closed and that the fence will remain up,” said Mark Mariscal, Recreation and Parks region superintendent. “There’s a legal liability issue that the City Attorney’s Office is focused on.”

He added, however, that the city’s positions on issues have changed before.

“There’s no question that as of today our position has been that it is closed,” Mariscal said. “But our department has moved on positions many a time.”

Bungalow homes once sat on the point overlooking the ocean, a housing tract owned by Harbor Area developer George Peck before it all began sliding toward the ocean in 1929.

Waves below had gradually weakened the bluff’s stability. The clay bentonite soil in the bluffs added to the instability when it became wet.

All but two of the homes on the farthest edge were moved in time. The ruins below include old Red Car tracks and slabs of concrete that once were parts of the sidewalks and streets. Many of the pieces are covered with elaborate graffiti designs and the area is a popular spot for filmmakers.

In July 2009, a chunk of the Sunken City cliff near the ocean collapsed, sending a large cloud of dust into the air. No one was hurt.

Robertson and others, however, argue that Sunken City essentially hasn’t moved in decades and is a treasured part of San Pedro history, providing a popular lookout point for generations of people growing up in the port community.

Young people still frequent the area, with many visitors also drawn to it after reading write-ups on social media (it received a four-and-a-half-star rating on Yelp). Many dig holes and slip under the fence — or they simply walk down the steep cliffside part way to slip around what is the end of the fence.

“It’s part of San Pedro culture to go down there,” said one San Pedro High School student who attended the neighborhood council meeting.

James Dimon, president of the neighborhood council, said he often played at Sunken City while he was growing up.

“I was there every single day,” he said, urging the talks to continue. “This conversation is not over.”

Opening the area for public use also would do away with many of the problems that plague the area, such as late-night partying, Smith said, adding that the fence also is a coastal anomaly.

“Where else on the whole coast of California is there a fence like this for safety?” she said.

Smith said there’s a lesson to be learned from New York.

“For years New York City had a huge problem in Central Park with safety issues,” she said. “(The community) decided to take it back. We want to look at this area as an asset, not a liability, and right now it’s an attractive nuisance that’s gotten out of hand.”

Many would like to see the trails down to the shoreline also restored and made safe, recalling they once were well hiked.

“Instead of spending money to try to keep people out, it might be better to spend that money to make it safe,” said one neighbor who stays out of the area because it is illegal. “People are coming from all over to see this.”

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