Place explores archival repositories and examines local landmarks as they appear in the archival record.
This edition features the Port of Los Angeles and is written by Nicholas Beyelia who has led the recent advocacy efforts to save the Port’s historic materials following the sudden shutdown of its archival program in 2015.
Words by Nicholas Beyelia
The Los Angeles Harbor Department, a.k.a. the Port of Los Angeles (POLA), was established by Los Angeles city officials in 1907 to get a foothold on the booming commercial development that was taking place in early Los Angeles.
Prior to 1907, private enterprise had dominated maritime commerce in San Pedro and Wilmington. By the 1870s, men like Phineas Banning had made a fortune by developing the harbor to support his shipping and railroad business. Banning’s success allowed early L.A. businessmen to view Wilmington and San Pedro as a fledgling seaport ready to be developed. After a vicious battle over the location for the primary commercial port for Los Angeles (which came to be known as the “Free Harbor Fight”) all eyes were fixed on San Pedro when it won U.S. Congressional approval for development.
In its infancy, the Harbor Department had little power or influence over port development. The city’s main objective was simply to capitalize off the burgeoning development in and around the port. The Los Angeles Harbor Commission was created by city officials to oversee the development of the port and regulate policy, but it had no money to do so. It was also drawn into direct conflict with the Los Angeles Board of Public Works who were given control of (and demanded approval over) any construction projects that took place within the City of Los Angeles. A power struggle ensued that led most of the first Harbor Commissioners to resign. To complicate matters, the City of San Pedro had remained an independent entity until it was incorporated into the City of Los Angeles in 1909.
In the interim, San Pedro city officials had rented most of the waterfront property to various businesses through binding long-term leases. Adding to the problem, the overgrown sandbar known as Rattlesnake Island had slowly evolved into Terminal Island, home to Brighton Beach, the most alluring resort community in early twentieth century Los Angeles. Terminal Island had an established settlement of Los Angeles socialites with extravagant weekend homes as well as a community of squatters who lived in seaside shacks and were prepared to fight for their homes. By 1911, when the state gave the City of Los Angeles control of the waterfront through the Tidelands Act it still had no municipal facilities to engage in commercial activity. It was clear that the Harbor Department was facing an uphill battle, and, with the impending construction of the Panama Canal, the future of Los Angeles’ primary commercial seaport was in the air.
However, through a series of compromises, luck, brute force, and serendipity, the Harbor Department gained its footing and, against all odds, became the largest commercial port in the United States.
The port completed the construction of municipal facilities in 1914 (which included a municipal dock and Warehouse One) just in time to greet ships arriving via the Panama Canal. In most instances, the businesses with long term leases either folded, were sold, or renewed leases with the City of Los Angeles. The resort community slowly died as commercial activity began to flourish and, in an echo of Bunker Hill’s ill-fated history, the grand weekend mansions became boarding houses for the working class. Squatters were removed through a mix of resignation, forced eviction, and dubious incidents that claimed their homes. The only community to thrive on the island after 1930 would be Japanese cannery workers and fishermen who were able to carve out a distinct Japanese American neighborhood that was erased through internment during World War II.
In 1934, a man named Arthur Eldridge was appointed as General Manager of the Port and guided the Harbor Department through some of its darkest hours, principally the Great Depression and World War II. Eldridge served as manager for over twenty years and found ways to keep the port operating and profitable even when the Navy took control of POLA during the War. By the 1950s, the Port of Los Angeles had found its path to success, but it came at a price. The rich cultural history of the Harbor communities would be buried in the course of this commercial development and economic progress, a pattern that continues to this day.
It is difficult to point to an exact moment when I realized the Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives were in trouble. There had been a lot of changes taking place following the election of Mayor Eric Garcetti, and it was clear that the Department was now accountable to a government model where profits were the bottom line.
The archives of the Port of Los Angeles began operations in 2010 at the urging of then Executive Director, Geraldine Knatz. Knatz, a biologist who began her career at the Port of Los Angeles in the late 1970s, left POLA in the 1980s for a lucrative career at the Port of Long Beach. In 2006, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tapped Knatz to head the Port of Los Angeles, making her the first woman to be the Executive Director of POLA. From her previous work at POLA, Knatz was aware of the rich history of the Port and had firsthand knowledge of the poor conditions that most of its historic resources were subject to. Knatz urged the Harbor Commission to establish a historic archives and argued the merits of making these resources available to the public. The commission agreed. A Director of Archives and Collections was hired in 2010 and a building on POLA property extensively renovated to be utilized as a research facility and archival repository.
After the establishment of the Port’s archives program in 2010, the historic resources were transferred from various locations throughout the Port, principally Berth 93 and Warehouse One where they had been kept for decade, and brought to the Archives Building in Wilmington to be cataloged and rehoused.
I began working as a Student Professional Worker at the Harbor Department in 2012, while I was still working on my MLIS degree. I was brought on because I was interested in a career in archives and special collections, and frankly, the archives didn’t have the budget to afford even a part-time processing archivist. The historic resources were transferred from various locations throughout the Port (principally Berth 93 and Warehouse One where they had been kept for decades) and brought to the Archives Building in Wilmington to be cataloged and rehoused. As somebody just starting out in the profession, it was an incredible opportunity: I was getting experience in the profession, and over a three year period I was able to rescue and catalog hundreds of the Port’s historic resources. In the process, I made some genuinely stunning discoveries about the port’s history.
The scope and content of the Port’s historic resources was staggering: I found materials related to the Brighton Beach resort, the East San Pedro squatters (including the exact location of Charles Lummis’ waterfront shack, Jib-O-Jib); the Japanese American community that was wrongly removed from Terminal Island during internment; the extinct Terminal Island airport, Allen Field; plans for an underground tunnel (in lieu of the iconic Vincent Thomas Bridge) that would connect San Pedro to Terminal Island; a plethora of maps dating as far back as the 1880s which showed Dominguez family lands, land parcels owned by the Banning Family (before they were seized through the Tidelands Act), the Lower Reservation of Fort MacArthur (before demolition) and San Pedro & Wilmington prior to commercial development. There are also alternative design plans for Los Angeles Harbor, the San Pedro Waterfront, Cabrillo Beach, and Terminal Island that were changed at the last minute or never fully realized. The Port’s historic resources are at the heart of Los Angeles History.
The 2013 election of Mayor Garcetti changed a lot of things throughout the City of Los Angeles. The Mayor is allowed to appoint anyone he sees fit to select positions throughout the city departments and he exercised this right. He required the heads of each department to re-apply for their positions and he made several city-wide changes. Amidst these changes, Knatz announced her retirement by the end of 2013 and thus the Port Archives lost their staunchest advocate. With Knatz gone, the archives went through some challenging times. Fortunately, the director of the archives was savvy enough to navigate much of the shifting politics, but the fact that Harbor Department officials had no clue about archives or historic resources compounded the challenges and stress facing the director and the archives.
In January 2015, the Director of the Archives and Collections departed POLA for another position. I was told that I would be transferred to the Port’s Records Management division, as Records Management would take over handling the Port’s historic resources. The plan was for me to continue to work as the processing archivist until my graduation in June. I had a substantial conversation with the Senior Records Clerk (my new boss) about what I would need in order to keep processing materials, and she was very obliging and even supportive. Then, on Monday, March 30, 2015, senior management at the Port including the new Deputy Director Doane Liu and Chief Records Clerk (the head of records at the port), held a meeting, and by the time I returned on Tuesday, I learned all the plans for the historic resources had changed.
I was told that all resources would be returned to their original locations and all activities involving the archives had been ended. The closure had taken place without input from the community it was meant to serve and it was done clandestinely in order to avoid calling attention to it. The test lab that held the photo archives was to remain operating, but everything else had ceased. The archives building in Wilmington would likely be demolished later in the year and in the meantime would house various contractors that the port employed. The Chief Records Clerk and the Senior Records Clerk asked for my advice regarding where the resources should be stored; the only plea I made was that they not be returned to Warehouse One. I reminded them of the time and effort involved in eliminating the records’ bug infestation problem and the ongoing issue with feral cats entering the Warehouse and urinating on records boxes. For all intents and purposes, it appeared that they
made an effort to follow my suggestions and began looking around the Port for alternative venues to keep the records. Later we toured the Department of Water and Power (DWP) records and archives facility in South Los Angeles which made me optimistic that Records Management was interested in properly managing the archival materials, but I soon learned that wasn’t the case. The Chief Records Clerk in particular made it a point to placate my concerns, but I learned quickly that they fell on deaf ears. The fact was that she wasn’t interested in doing anything that might complicate her job. Later, I was asked to lead the efforts to transfer the historic resources from the archives building to Warehouse One. I refused. I was crestfallen.
The next few months were rough. I completed my requirements for graduation and was waiting out the remainder of the time I was eligible to work as a Student Worker while simultaneously looking for a stable employment. The situation with the Port’s archival resources weighed heavily upon my conscience, and I considered what to do. Ignoring the matter was never an option for me. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I just walked away. I knew that I had to be extremely careful about who I approached because if it ever got back to Port officials, I could be in serious trouble. My first action was to contact my former history professors at Cal State Los Angeles. Mark Wild, a Professor of Los Angeles history, took an interest in the situation. He offered to contact Todd Gaydowski at the Los Angeles City Clerk’s office, with whom he had a working relationship. Gaydowski is the Los Angeles City Records Manager and is President of the Los Angeles City Historical Society (in an ironic twist, Gaydowski, on behalf of the Historical Society, had previously presented Geraldine Knatz with a special award for her work in creating the Port Archives and working to preserve the Port’s historic resources). I was hesitant, fearing that I would be outed, but relented after Wild agreed to not mention my name. Gaydowski’s response showed concern for the situation, but he acknowledged that there was not much he could do. He suggested going to the Harbor Commission, but I knew that would immediately out me so I decided to find another way.
The reason that the City Clerk’s office has no dominion over these records goes back to the 1980s when the Los Angeles City Archives at C. Erwin Piper Technical Center was formally established. Mayor Tom Bradley issued an order that all of the departments within the city, save for the proprietary departments (departments that operate independently because they generate their own revenue, i.e., DWP, LAX and the Harbor Dept.), should send their records (including archival records) to Piper Tech. The logic, although never directly stated in the order, was that the proprietary departments could afford to take care of their own resources. While I can’t personally speak to the situation at LAX, I know that DWP has an impressive facility with a warehouse for records and a climate controlled room for archival resources.
After striking out with the City Clerk’s office, I decided to reach out to archivists. The next person I contacted was Sarah Quigley, Chair of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Issues and Advocacy Roundtable. She was incredibly supportive and made some suggestions, but told me that I needed to get in touch with local organizations who may be more cognizant of options that are available at both a local and state level. She suggested the Society of California Archivists and the Los Angeles Archivists Collective (LAAC). My conversations with Courtney, Angel, and Jennifer of LAAC helped me a lot because what I needed at this point in time was basic support and encouragement. It really made the difference in my ability to continue with this effort and I will always be thankful for that.
We didn't have the capacity to take everything at once from Berth 93, so it was decided to take a few at a time week by week. I would go in there and pull anywhere from 20 to 60 maps/plans from the cubbies. I tried to pull the oldest as well as the ones in very poor condition. The wooden cubbies are the same wooden cubbies in the images from the 1920s. All of the plans have burn marks from long term exposure to the wood and they are extremely brittle along the exposed edge. At last count I was able to rescue around 500 maps/plans but, as you can see, that was a drop of water in an ocean.
During this period, I was still employed at the Port and I realized I could only go so far before I would have to go public, thus outing myself. I began documenting the situation through photographs and kept a journal that detailed every instance of incompetence, mishandling, and ignorance surrounding the records. I managed to finish out my time at the Port without incident though my disposition over the remaining months was decidedly less than agreeable.
I kept trying to bring attention to the problem to anyone who would listen, but I was dismissed again and again. I spoke to the Assistant Director of Human Resources who told me that the archives were generally considered to be a whim of
Geraldine Knatz and were altogether irrelevant to Port operations. I was told by another port employee that “history belongs in the past” and I should focus on other things. On one occasion, Gene Seroka, the New Executive Director, took public questions at a town hall forum for Port employees. I stood up and asked him why he had closed down the archives and stopped the program to protect and preserve the Port’s historic resources? He stated that he wasn’t sure what I was referring to, and that he would talk to me after the town hall when, inevitably, he was nowhere to be found. I decided to send him an email outlining the details of the situation, but I received no response. My last day at the Port was September 4, 2015.
After I left the Port I knew I was free to be public about the situation, but I had no idea how to bring this situation to the public’s attention. I was also deeply concerned that being vocal would taint my job prospects. I didn’t want institutions to view me as a troublemaker or to gain a reputation for being unable to maintain an institution’s privacy. After a long internal debate, I came to the realization that I made an active decision to uphold the SAA’s code of ethics and core values and I needed to live up to that. I was ready to go public, but I needed to find the right people to help deliver that message.
In mid-September, a close friend purchased tickets for Esotouric Tour’s “Weird West Adams” bus tour. One of my former professors had mentioned the tour guides, married couple Richard Schave and Kim Cooper, in conjunction with my situation with the archives, but I quickly forgot as I was waiting out the remainder of my time at the Port. Two things became clear on that tour: Richard and Kim are well versed on L.A. History, and more importantly, they genuinely care about it. Their activism is well documented and they have connections that reach far and wide. I contacted Kim the following day via Facebook and let her know the story. They were both floored. A week later I met Richard and Kim and they began laying out a strategy for making this story public. In October, Richard created a website and established a Change.org petition. They also sent a newsletter out via email. Simultaneously, I contacted nearly everyone I knew about the situation including LAAC who helped spread the word. I also sent emails to the Harbor Commission, Councilman Joe Buscaino, and Mayor Eric Garcetti letting them know that there was a situation going on with records at the Port.
From what I have learned recently, the Port was scrambling to cover itself in the days after the petition and website went public. Doane Liu, the Deputy Director at the Port who was behind the closure of the archives, drafted an email that went out to Port employees five days after the petition went online. The email did not deny any of my allegations but attempted to deflect from the fact that the paper records were in peril by emphasizing that the photo collection was being properly maintained at the test lab in Wilmington. He also attempted to suggest that the Chief Records Clerk was in control of the situation and was a qualified records manager based solely on her affiliation with ARMA International; she has no professional degree in the Records or Information fields.
My advocacy efforts were, admittedly, sidelined for a while. In October I was able to find work in the information field and I put all my energy into my new job. A bout of appendicitis in November also took me out of commission for a while, and if I’m being completely honest, I was tired. By January I had been dealing with the situation for nearly a year. There had been no real response from the Port other than an interview a local reporter did in conjunction with a phone call I made to her. Kim emailed me to let me know that someone was asking what was going on. I confessed that I was at the end of my rope and I didn’t know how to proceed. Richard immediately suggested that I contact a man named David Roberts, one of L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaiano’s Deputy Directors. To my surprise, Roberts agreed to meet with me on February 17, 2016.
My meeting with David Roberts seemed fruitful. I explained the situation, showed him the photographs I had taken, and explained that my only goal in this matter was to see that the Port either transfer these records to a university that will properly care for them or build an archival facility and hire a qualified archivist to care for them. His suggestion was that I get “authorities” within the history and archives communities to bombard him, Councilman Buscaino, the Harbor Commission, and Gene Seroka with letters advocating that the Port build an archival facility or transfer the records to a university. Shortly after I returned home, I began emailing everyone I had been communicating with. The email campaign began on March 14 and continued into April. To date emails have been sent from LAAC, the American Historical Association, the Society of American Archivists, as well as faculty and staff from USC, UCLA, UC Irvine, CSU Los Angeles, Stanford, and the Smithsonian Institution, to name a few.
On April 11, I contacted Roberts to find out if he had a chance to review the matter any further and to find out if Port officials had said anything to him. He told me that he had been busy and he hoped to review the matter the following week. He told me, “I believe I may have received two letters.”
On April 19, I met with the LA as Subject group in order to ask for an official letter from them in support of my actions. The lingering question the group had was why I thought the archives had closed. For the first time I shared with an audience my opinion as to why the Port had shut down its program to protect and preserve its historical resources and why those resources were no longer available to the public: we had become a legal liability.
We were gradually uncovering information that had been long forgotten and were making it accessible to the public for the first time ever. As information professionals, we believed we were doing the community a service by sharing unique resources and information about an agency that had unquestionably shaped Los Angeles history, but I don’t believe that the new administration saw it that way. Among our patrons were lawyers who were engaged in litigation against the Port; they were using many of the resources we had uncovered to aid in their lawsuits. While closing the archives won’t end any legal action taken against the Port of Los Angeles, it curtailed what may have been construed as complicity in those actions by the archives. I’m convinced this is the reason that the Port Archives were ultimately closed and why the Port’s historic resources are now in danger.
As of April 27, I have yet to hear from anyone related to either the Port or the City of Los Angeles.
The Port of L.A.’s historic materials document more than 100 years of Port history and the unique histories of the communities that once thrived in and around Los Angeles Harbor. An estimated 25,000 linear feet of historic materials have been identified, an enormous collection practically unknown to scholars and researchers.
To get involved in the efforts to save the Port of L.A.’s historic materials, sign the petition, and write to the Los Angeles representatives listed here asking that they reinstate an archival program under the direction of a qualified archivist or transfer the historic resources to an archival facility that can properly care for them.
Councilman Joe Buscaino, Representative for L.A.’s 15th Council District: email@example.com
Deputy David Roberts, Economic Development and Planning Director for L.A.’s 15th Council District: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gene Seroka, Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles: email@example.com
L.A. Harbor Commission, the five-member board which oversees the management and operation of the Port of Los Angeles: firstname.lastname@example.org