Terminal Island: Touring The Edge of America

Terminal Island is an artificial landmass in the heart of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, and was the subject of an exhibit at the CLUI Los Angeles from March 31 to May 30th, 2005. The exhibit looked at Terminal Island as a sort of organismic, flowing, landscape machine, composed of five separate terminal activities that occur on the island: importation, exportation, excretion, deportation and expulsion. Each one of these activities was described in text, and depicted through video captured by CLUI personnel over the months prior to the exhibit.

594 Looming overhead, Evergreen's container cranes take a break. CLUI photoThe Center's tour of Terminal Island, an artificial landscape in the heart of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, was organized as part of an exhibit about this remarkable place, on view at CLUI Los Angeles from March 31 to May 30th, 2005. But however vivid an exhibit can be there is still nothing like being there, so on the morning of May 14, we loaded up a bus with 50 paying passengers and headed south on the 405 freeway, to our terminal destination.

The tour really started even before the bus arrived to pick up the passengers, in the form of anticipation, uncertain expectations, and preconceptions. If Terminal Island exists at all in one’s imagination, it is most likely as a neglected place, a place that people forget about, or ignore, quietly nagging at one’s subconscious. It is a sort of noir space, a doppelganger to Los Angeles, more "Chinatown" then Chinatown. And perhaps too it exists in the imagination because it is a frequent film location, playing, as was suggested by the manager of a shipyard that is one of Terminal Island’s busiest filming locations, “every port in the world but itself.”

The cinematic, noir qualities of ports in general may be partially due to recollections of filmic depictions of nefarious deals going down between ship and shore, or of dockworkers violently opposing management, or corrupt unions, à la On the Waterfront. This is partially a symptom of our lack of better images to give form to the port, something this tour was hoping to address.

Part One

The metropolitan gaze no longer falls upon the waterfront, and a cognitive blankness follows. Thus despite increasing international mercantile dependence on ocean transport, and despite advances in oceanography and marine biology, the sea is in many respects less comprehensible to today’s elites than it was before 1945, in the nineteenth-century, or even during the Enlightenment.
-Allan Sekula, Fish Story

As the bus passed through the “South Bay Curtain”the invisible, cultural barrier that keeps a lot of people in Los Angeles from venturing south of LAXwe entered into the Port’s realm of influence: the first of the refineries connected to the port; the satellite manufacturers; the north American headquarters for Toyota and Nissan. We turned south onto the Harbor Freeway, getting closer.

Terminal Island originated as a fraction of land, in the form of a barrier of sediment in the estuary of the Los Angeles River and the Dominguez Slough, called Rattlesnake Island. In 1891, the Terminal Land Company purchased the island and a railway was built on to its east side by the Los Angeles Terminal Railroad Company. The area was renamed Terminal Island, and was expected to become a terminus for a rail system linking the nation’s interior via the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. Gradually the island grew, as dredges deepened the channels of the harbor, and dumped the spoils onto its expanding margins.

Phineas Banning is often cited as the “Father of the harbor.” He established one of the first transport companies in the area, based at Wilmington, a town he founded in 1858 and named after his home town in Delaware. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, with no natural deep harbor in the region, several Southern California seaside communities were hoping to establish a major port on their shoreline, most notably at places along Santa Monica Bay. Banning, however, had successfully lobbied Congress for money to dredge the channel from the ocean to Wilmington, allowing ships to dock along what is now the port’s Main Channel, and establishing San Pedro/Wilmington as the favored site for the port. Harbor deepening continues to be a large program at the port, and is still mostly supported by the federal government. Currently the Army Corps of Engineers is engaged in a multi-year $253 million program to deepen the port’s channels from 45 feet deep to 53 feet deep to accommodate the ever increasing sizes of ships that ply the Pacific.

At the base of the Harbor Freeway, after passing the Unocal Refinery, and the first of many sets of looming hammerhead container cranes, at the Yang Ming Line berths, the bus transitioned onto the ramp of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, which soars over the main port channel, and offers a sweeping, panoramic view of the port, before plummeting down onto Terminal Island itself.

At the first exit on the island we passed by the under-utilzed Customs House (most of the Port’s customs offices are now at the Port of Long Beach) with its beautiful federal eagle medallion flying over its unused modernist portico (all services enter by vehicle through the back – there are no pedestrians on the public streets of Terminal Island anymore). We then picked up the first terminal thread of the day, the Los Angeles Export Terminal (LAXT), one of the visually dominant structures on the island. LAXT opened with much fanfare in 1997 as yet another emblem of the new, hyper-mechanized global port of the future. Coal from the western United States was shipped by rail to LAXT, stored in massive pads outside, then transported by a covered conveyor across the island to a giant, specialized conveyor crane, which loaded the coal onto ships, bound for power plants in the orient. That was the idea. Soon after opening, the global market for coal changed, and coal from Australia and other places in Asia much closer to where it was needed became available. LAXT has since been bound up in law suits, conflict of interest battles, and other quarrels amongst its 37 corporate partners, which include the Port of Los Angeles, a public entity, which has complicated things further.

595 CLUI photoLAXT’s future, for now, seems to be in petroleum coke, collected from the area’s refineries, and shipped to Japan for use in steel and cement making. At the “backland” side of LAXT, next to the Customs House, inside the two massive hemispheric domes (that nearly everyone whose work takes them to Terminal Island regularly, has a similar, feminine anatomical name for), petroleum coke from Chevron’s refinery at El Segundo is stored awaiting shipment. A company called Savage Pacific Services, out of Utah, operates the backland area, while the national pipeline and terminal operator company Kinder Morgan operates the conveyor and berth part of LAXT.

The bus followed the snaking conveyor from dome to berth, then veered into the old fish cannery part of the island, on short streets with names like Sardine and Tuna, past large empty looking former cannery buildingsa “for lease” sign on the Chicken of the Sea building. The canneries were next to Fish Harbor, a small port within the port, once used by the fishing fleet. Though fishing boats can still be seen docked around the port, the only operating cannery left on Terminal Island is Starkist, at the end of Barracuda Street, across from the Impress can factory. The rest of the old cannery buildings seem to have been taken over as movie sets, and exhibit strange, irregular patinas of fake grime and smoke. On Tuna Street is the only remaining retail establishment on the island, a small Korean grocery.

From this small scale, historic, and dense development around Fish Harbor, we crossed Terminal Way for a brief look into the container operations that cover most of the land at Terminal Island. Each of the major shipping company’s container berth area covers over a hundred acres of asphalt with hardly any fixed buildings. It’s a landscape of movement. While we will visit this aspect of the port in greater detail later in the tour, in an effort to drive on every public road on the island, we looped around through narrow gauntlets of chain link and k-rail, to a turn around area under the Vincent Thomas Bridge, with a good view of the Evergreen and Yusen container operations. We could see the hammerhead cranes lifting 40 foot containers out of the holds of ships, lowering them onto trailers pulled by trucks, that shuttle them onto rail cars. From one mode of travel to another, to another, then away.

596 Dave Gumaer of the Terminal Island Treatment Plant explains it all. CLUI photo by Steve RowellExcrete Treat
The next stop on the tour was the Terminal Island Treatment Plant, one of two wastewater treatment plants operated by the City of Los Angeles that discharge directly to the ocean. As the end of the line for the fluids of the city, the plant serves a very terminal function. Dave Gumaer, plant operations manager, boarded the bus and gave a rousing, spirited talk about the history and importance of waste treatment. He then guided the bus through the facility, pointing out its features and describing their functions. The group then disembarked and soaked up the sights and smells of the bubbling bacteria tanks before them, a network of odiferous fountains of public waste. What isn’t processed as liquid and emitted through a submerged discharge pipe off Terminal Island is trucked up to the City of LA sludge ranch in Kern County where it is used as fertilizer for feedcrops.

597 Tour guests taking in the sights at the treatment plant. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

598 Bus, Coast Guard, Coast Guard admin building, and fog. CLUI photo by Steve RowellStaying on the Los Angeles side of the Island, we next headed to the only piece of land on the island not owned by the Port, a rectangular projection owned by the federal government. Three federal facilities operate on this extremity, sometimes referred to as Reservation Point. On one side is the Coast Guard’s Integrated Support Command, San Pedro, where 500 people work keeping an eye on the Port of LA/Long Beach, and the nearby coast. We picked up Anita Abbott, an Executive Officer for the Coast Guard, our local briefer, who guided us through the otherwise restricted land of Reservation Point. She described the function of the various facilities on the coast guard side, then we dropped her off, and headed back down Seaside Avenue, the main road of the peninsula. On our right was the Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island, whose razor wire was close enough to touch. This notorious, seaside prison, dubbed “Club Fed,” was built in the 1930’s and has housed notables like Al Capone and Charlie Manson. It was designed for 500 prisoners, but like most prisons in California, it has more than twice its designed capacity of inmates.

The third federal facility on Reservation Point is especially terminal. It is where particularly undesirable unauthorized aliens are kept before being deported to their nation of origin. Officially, it is the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention and Removal Operations Service Processing Center, and is one of eight in the nation, all in border states. By the time a person gets here, Terminal Island will probably be the last place they will know in the USA.

After passing back out the gates of Federalland, we pass a number of notable sites, including a boathouse for one of the Port’s fireboats, and a memorial to the Japanese fishing community that once thrived here on Terminal Island, before being uprooted and shipped to internment camps for the duration of WWII. The community of nearly 3,000 people was given 48 hours to pack up and leave Terminal Island. Those that returned here after the war found that Terminal Island had been utterly transformed by war production, with newly built terminal areas and tank farms to supply the war effort, and four major ship building yards that were hurriedly constructed, employing 90,000 people at their peak. We headed through the gates into what, until two weeks before, was the only remaining operating shipyard at the port, called Southwest Marine, the remnants of what used to be the Bethlehem Shipyard. Now that it was closed, it could devote itself to its already established parallel existence, as filming location.

599 Prison entrance, barbed wire, crane, and more fog. CLUI photo by Steve RowellAs we arrived, the yard was filled with lighting and grip equipment, tents, props, flats, and craft servicesthe movies were filming somewhere nearby. As we circled the yard in the bus, we watched a clip from Eraser on the bus monitors, a 1996 film that depicts a typical use of Southwest Marine as generic port location. In the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger is after the bad guys who are loading secret, stolen superguns onto an Eastern Bloc ship. Aided by mobster friends, pretending to be angry unionized dockworkers, Schwarzenegger leads the denoument, and the large metal shed building he is being hunted in blows up energetically. This is the building immediately in front of us on the bus, and the repairs to the building are clearly visible. Schwarzenegger then goes on to fight James Caan on top of a shipping container dangling in the air, but we are getting hungry, and its time to go. The bus headed back over the Vincent Thomas Bridge to Ports O’ Call Village, a worse for wear New England style portside tourist development in San Pedro, where mobs of people were eating huge piles of seafood on the boardwalk. We soon took our place in line at the Crusty Crab.

Part Two

600 The good ship Scorpio. CLUI photo The Boat Tour

After lunch, the group headed down the gangway to board the Scorpio, a small tourboat chartered by the CLUI. As part of World Trade Week, a regional festival of global trade organized every year by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the Port of LA, indisputably at the center of World Trade in the Los Angeles area, was offering free boat tours of the port, on the hour, which explained the crowds. These tours were limited to just a fraction of the port, and even then, just the Los Angeles side. We were determined to circle all of Terminal Island, and to provide as complete a view of it as we could. We waved goodbye to the port PR people, and set off to prove to ourselves that it really was still an island.

The view from the water was very different than from land. At first everything seems larger, denser, and closer, then, as we entered the outer harbor, things spread out so much we lost our bearings. After leaving Ports O’ Call, we passed by the Evergreen Terminal, and Yusen, with ships piled high with containers. Through the east basin, and into the narrow Cerritos Channel, past Hugo Neu Proler, one of two large scrap metal export yards on Terminal Island, which uses shipping containers as retaining walls for the piles of rusty steel. Next to that a big empty container yard, left in this state when Matson Lines moved to a better location at the Port of Long Beach. Matson was at this location for 32 years, staying longer in one place than any other major shipping company at the port, as indicated by the dated lettering and design of the old terminal control tower and office building. Based in Oakland, Matson was the first west coast shipping company to convert to containers. Their business is, as it has been for over 100 years, focused on linking the continent to Hawaii and the near Pacific, though all passenger service ceased in 1976.

When Matson moved to Long Beach, the Port of LA announced that they wanted to develop the former Matson terminal into a new “green terminal,” that showcased the many ways the shipping industry could save on emissions and other harmful and wasteful behaviors, as the port is regularly cited as the worst air polluter in Southern California. That was a few years ago now, and though several companies claim to have submitted viable, green proposals, which include commitments to plug ships in to electricity while in port so they don’t have to keep their engines running, none of them has been accepted by the port. Some have claimed that the port is playing favorites, and politics, waiting for an acceptable proposal from one of its existing tenants. Whether it will end up being green or some other color, in the meantime the old Matson terminal is in stasis, and the only shipping terminal on the island whose gates stand open and unguarded.

After Matson, the tourboat, invisibly, entered the waters of the Port of Long Beach. As we passed the Vopak and the former Dow chemical storage tanks, the captain of the Scorpio called ahead on the radio to the bridge tender to have the rail bridge raised so our little boat could pass through. For a brief moment, Terminal Island’s rail link to the world was severed, though the captain assured us that if there was a train full of shipping containers that needed to get through, it is us who would wait.

As with the Port of LA, most of the berths of the Port of Long Beach are along channels and peninsulas not on Terminal Island. Yet the Island straddles both jurisdictions, sharing in both of their policies and schemes.

601 An ideal vantage point of Terminal Island's import operations. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

One difference visible from the boat is oil production. Long Beach still permits the Tidelands Oil Company to operate walking beam oil pumps in the interstitial parts of the Island. Unlike LA, Long Beach has producing oil wells working all over the port, even on artificial islands built for this purpose. At Terminal Island, Long Beach’s enthusiasm for oil led to a massive land subsidence, that continued through the 1950’s. As oil was removed, the ground above the oil sank to fill the oils’ place. Eventually the land sunk more than 25 feet below sea level, and levees had to be built to keep that part of the island from flooding. The entity that suffered most was the largest occupant of Long Beach’s side of Terminal Island, the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, whose buildings and infrastructure was threatened. Ultimately the federal government stepped in, authorizing millions of dollars for a program to inject water into the oil wells, a process that worked, and reversed much of the damage.

The subsidence areas came into view after we passed under the Badger Bridge. The former oil fields are empty and barren, having been purchased by the port just ten years ago, and have been undergoing extensive clean up before being turned into more container space in the future. As we rounded the northeast corner of Terminal Island, we entered the Port of Long Beach’s turning basin and headed into one of the main channels of the port. On the Terminal Island side the Long Beach Generating Station loomed, an old (for southern California) power plant, built in 1927 to help power Long Beach. It runs on natural gas, and is one of two plants on the island. We passed under the Gerald Desmond Bridge at the location of the first bridge that linked Terminal Island to the shore, part of the project that brought the island its name.

Then Pacific Coast Recycling came into view, the second of the two metal scrap yards on the island. This yard deals mostly in ferrous metals like varieties of steel and iron. Several visible piles have different textures and shades, based on their constituents, and the degree to which the scrap has been processed. One pile has pale colors and a glossy sheen, and seems to be composed of cubed appliances, like washing machines and refrigerators. Another is coarser, dull, and rust colored, fragments of demolished industrial operations, perhaps. Another is a pile of shredded metal flakes, with the occasional identifiable fragment of a bicycle or toaster. Several different machines are at work here, including a giant clipper, a compacter/chopper, movable booms with electromagnetic lifters, bucket loaders, and excavators with large buckets. But most of the sorting and processing goes on elsewhere, at yards in the Valley and the Inland Empire. The material is brought here by trucks with large metal bins that say things like "Ecology Auto Parts," the name of one of the largest scrap metal processors in the state. This is the final stop for many spent consumer products and vehicles. From here, the material is loaded onto ships bound for places like South Korea, where it is likely to be remade into products that are shipped back to the port in a form of international recycling. Many of the ships loaded at the Pacific Coast Recycling berth take the scrap to China, where it is formed back into products and infrastructure that generally stays there, absorbed into that nation.

The export of this man-made raw material of shredded and pressed metal objects takes place on a part of Terminal Island that deals with bulk cargo that is not containerized. Next to Pacific Coast Recycling, are berth areas that are used for the importation of raw material from the Pacific Northwest, Pacific Canada and Alaska, lingering evidence of these areas’ historic, colonial relationship with the rest of North America. At the BP terminal, crude oil from the Alaskan Pipeline is pumped out of tankers and delivered by buried pipes to BPs refinery north of the port, at Carson, turned into gas, and burned on the highways. Lumber from the Northwest was the first major imported product at the Port; that region’s trees compose the architecture of the generally treeless Southland, and this continues today. The stacked wood visible here at the Weyerhaueuser and Fremont Forest Products berths finds its way into new housing construction and Home Depots across Southern California.

After a brief span of open water, the boat heads for the tip of the Navy Mole, a long pier that juts out of the island’s mass, and projects in a faceted arc back towards Long Beach. The Mole was built to protect the Long Beach Shipyards, and to provide more berthing space for the naval ships kept here. Now these ships, as well as the shipyard and the rest of the Navy, are gone. What has taken its place out on the end of the mole is the only commercial satellite launching system in the United StatesSea Launch.

Sea Launch is a very unusual operation. The satellites launched by the systemgenerally communication satellites built at Southern California Boeing facilitiesare brought by truck out to the Sea Launch building on the tip of the mole where they are engineered with the rocket that will deliver them into space. The delivery rocket and its payload are loaded onto a custom made ship, called the Sea Launch Commander. Before a launch, the launch platform, a converted Norwegian floating oil rig, slowly propels itself from its berth here in Long Beach to a designated ocean launch area, usually in the middle of the equatorial Pacific, taking around a week to get there. It is met at the site by the Sea Launch Commander, which then transfers the rocket and payload to the platform. The rocket is lifted into vertical position, then the platform is evacuated. The Commander moves some distance away, and controls the launch remotely. Since the first test launch in 1999, several communication satellites have been sent into orbit in this manner, including, most recently, the third satellite in the XM Satellite Radio network. Sea Launch is a joint project of Russian, Ukranian, and Norwegian companies, and is primarily owned and operated by Boeing.

The little Scorpio tourboat nestled up as close as it dared to the looming Commander and even more towering launch platform, parked side by side, and the tourists aboard took in this exotic industrial sea creature. Surely this represents the ultimate terminal form at Terminal Island: a set of structures, based at the Island’s extremity, that expels objects into space!

602 Peering beyond the breakwater and into the present (and future) of commerce, industry, and empire. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell Next, Scorpio headed into the Outer Harbor, and into a sort of space-like void. Fifteen years ago you could make a beeline from the tip of the Navy Mole to the Coast Guard at Reservation Point, and back into the Port of LA’s main channel. In the intervening years, the port built its newest and largest landmass at the port, Pier 400, which projects far into the outer harbor. To continue a clockwise loop around the island, Scorpio had to round the tip of Pier 400, and to do so it had to cross vast and empty stretches of water. As we set out, the fog intensified, until the boat was completely enveloped, and the captain was navigating completely by the blobby forms on his small radar screen. We were in a world of our own, chugging along in the dampened visual hush of sea fog.

After an unknown time where our eyes strained to find an anchor, a form began to emerge out of the opaque atmosphere, directly in front of us. Its slowly emerging forms were confusing; some straight horizontals, long, then some verticals, extending to an unknown height. Its identity was elusive, but even more unsettling was the uncertainty of its scale and proximity. As we approached, it became more distinct, and finally, though its edges remained out of focus, we could make out its whole scale and form, which came with a nearly simultaneous, palpable shock to everyone on board. The object was a large ocean-going ship with a long deck that was improbably close to the water’s surface. On the deck, and overwhelming the vessel were two mostly assembled hammerhead cranes, with the full extent of their booms projecting like wings over the water off either side of the ship. It seemed poised in the stillness of a delicate bAllance, an improbable apparition.

The tourboat continued on after a halting consideration of this global port ghost ship. The Federal breakwater, made of rock quarried at Catalina Island, envelops the whole of the port of LA and Long Beach, and separates the outer harbor from the open ocean, appeared as a recurring mass on one edge of the radar screen, enabling the captain to navigate. The fog began to thin out, enough to see the clusters of sea lions lounging on the buoys that mark a submerged dredge spoils pile. We approached one of the three gaps in the seven mile long federal breakwater. This one is called Angels Gate, and is the main entrance into the Port of Los Angeles. It is marked with an unmanned lighthouse, said to be listing slightly from the great storm of 1939. At the gate we turned right, entering the path of the main channel, like a ship arriving from a 10 day journey crossing the Pacific, heading towards port.

As we approached the seaward tip of Reservation Point, we could see the comfortable homes of the prison warden and the Coast Guard Commander, surrounded by greenery. Then the industrial port begins. On the left, across from Coast Guard station on Terminal Island, are the docks of the LA Port Pilots, who head out to take the helm of approaching ships, in order to steer them through the cramped port channels to the correct berth. Next to that is the worse for wear Warehouse Number One, a large multi-story building that was built in 1917 to house lumber from the Pacific Northwest. For years it was used as a customs warehouse for holding transitional objects in quarantinethings that are here, but not hereincluding exotic animals in transit from South America to zoos and circuses in Asia, and visa versa. It is called the oldest active warehouse on the waterfront, though its main activity today is as a fire training site and filming location, and to not fall down before it is torn down. A water tower on its roof is now a greeting sign for the international port, with the world “welcome” painted in twelve different languages. As we approached the Ports O’ Call, one of the port’s fireboats was spraying its jets into the air in a giant peacock fan of white, proud of being the most powerful fireboat in the West, happy to be celebrating World Trade Week, and relieved that nothing was on fire. We disembarked at the dock, having completed the loop around Terminal Island in under two hours, though it seemed like a trip around the Pacific Rim.

603 Scrap piles and stacks of containers line the coast of the island. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell Back on the Bus
The last phase of the tour took the bus to the parts of Terminal Island that we hadn’t visited yet, mostly on the Port of Long Beach side, and to try to fathom the issues and implications of containerization. To do this, the bus headed out to Pier 300 and 400, two new landmasses that were added to the port just a few years ago, nearly doubling the port’s container handling capacity. These two terminals were extracted from the ocean floor over several years of dredge and fill, and were capped in 600 acres of asphalt, composed largely of gravel dug out of the town of Irwindale, 30 miles inland.

Pier 300, also called the Global Gateway South, is 262 acres of asphalt and railway lines, and cost $270 million for the port to build. It opened in 1997, as one of the largest shipping container yards in the world that is fully integrated with multitrack on-dock rail yards with double-stack capability. Meaning it can, at one location, unload a ship and build transcontinental trains that, with one container stacked on top of the other on a single rail car, doubles the train’s capacity, which is increasingly the norm in long distance container rail hauling. Pier 300 also has 12 of the latest hammerhead cranes, capable of unloading the largest container ships now plying the seas. These ships are known as Super Post-Panamax ships, as they are even larger still than the first generation of ships that were intentionally built to be too large to fit through the Panama Canal. The significance of this is not so much that the Panama Canal is too small (1,000 feet by 110 feet is the largest a ship can be and still fit through its locks), but that, increasingly, it doesn’t matter: trade between Asia and the Pacific Coast of the US is brisk enough that these boats never need to enter the Atlantic, as distribution from ports on the west coast of the US has the capacity to move these goods, by rail and truck, into the interior and across the continent (though half of the imports to the Port of LA stay west of the Rockies). Ships are now like conveyors, going back and forth between the same two points, one on either side of the Pacific, and the bigger the boat, the cheaper the freight, due to the economy of scale. One Super Post-Panamax ship can hold as much as eight thousand 20’ shipping containers.

Containers
Shipping containers started coming to the Port of LA in 1958, two years after the world’s first container ship, owned by Malcom McLean’s revolutionary new company, Sea-Land, made its maiden voyage, from Newark to Houston. McLean’s simple observation was that if you could lift the box of a truck onto a ship, you needn’t spend the time, energy, or manpower to load and unload it every time you did so. And if you could load the same box onto a rail car, you eliminated the need to load and unload the box no matter how many times the shipment changed methods of transport. In order for this intermodal transport system to sweep the world, standardization was critical, and companies, led by Sea-Land, soon settled on the international unit size of 8’x8’x 20.’ Though twice as large 40 foot containers are now more common than the 20 footers, the standard for measuring container volume is still Twenty-foot Equivalent Units, or “TEUs.”

But volume does not mean material. In 2004, the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest container port in the nation (even without Long Beach) received a total of four million TEUs from overseas in 2004 (63,000 of which were empty, for some reason). Of these 4 million TEUs, 3.3 million TEUs were shipped back out (leaving 700,000 more TEUs to wander around the nation for a while, or find their way into trendy architectural experiments). More surprisingly, of these 3.3 million that were shipped out, almost 2.2 million were shipped out empty. This is a direct expression of our trade deficit.*

The top five containerized imports at the Port of LA in 2003 were, in descending order, furniture, apparel, electronic products, toys, and computer equipment. Compare this to the top five containerized exports: by far the most is wastepaper, followed by synthetic resins (plastics), fabrics (and raw cotton), animal feed, and scrap metal. As we saw at Pacific Terminal Island, scrap metal is also exported as bulk in large volumes. The scrap metal that gets containerized is generally of higher value and lighter weight, such as aluminum. The Port’s biggest trading partner by a significant degree, for both import and export is China, followed by Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea.All the land in the Port of LA (with the exception of the Federal Peninsula) is owned by the port (a proprietary department of the city of Los Angeles), and leased to private companies which outfit the land to fit their needs. Pier 300, for example, is operated by Eagle Marine Services, a terminal operating company, for the lease holder, American President Lines (APL), America’s oldest major shipping company, which became, in 1997, a subsidiary of Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines (NOL). NOL started as Singapore’s national shipping company, and has diversified to become one of the largest international shippers in the world. Most of the containerized shipping companies operating at the port of LA/Long Beach are based in the Asian nations that trade the most with the USA, such as China, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan.

There are around 15 major container terminals in the port of LA/Long Beach (six of which are on Terminal Island), which together have around 6,000 ship visits per year. Typically, the company that leases the terminal space, also has a fleet of containers (hundreds of thousands) and ships (on average about 75) and hammerhead cranes (four to twelve), all bearing its name. A typical terminal with four cranes working a ship simultaneously can unload a ship in a day, though it is more common for ships to be there for a few days to be unloaded and loaded. Traveling around 25 mph, it takes these ships around 10 days to travel between ports in the east and the west.

Though the two adjacent ports of LA and Long Beach are intensely competitive, and usually consider themselves separately, if measured together the port of LA/Long Beach is the third largest container port in world, after Hong Kong and Singapore (measured separately they are the first and second busiest container ports in the nation).** In area, LA/Long Beach is one of the largest manmade harbors in the world, and it just got a lot bigger, and even closer to China, with the addition of Pier 400.

It being Saturday, the multi-lane road accessing Pier 400 is relatively free of trucks. On board, the position of our bus was being tracked by a GPS receiver, and our location moving about the streets of Terminal Island was indicated in realtime on an electronic topographical map shown on the bus’s overhead TV monitors. As we traveled a little further onto the access road, according to the latest edition of the USGS map, last updated in 1978, the bus began heading out to sea. Overhead, digital signs for directing trucks, and towering light stanchions; on our left parallel lines of intermodal railcars, and a mile up ahead, this narrow corridor fans out into the 600 acre peninsula, Pier 400. None of this existed a decade ago.

Pier 400 may be the largest single addition to America’s coastline in history. Construction started in 1994, along with Pier 300. Several years and 11 million metric tons of rock later, the nation is larger than it used to be by one and a half square miles. Environmental mitigation projects funded by the port at Seal Beach and Bolsa Chica, miles away in Orange County, appeased the normally restrictive California Coastal Commission.

It has one lesee, the Danish shipping giant APM (the A. P. Moller–Maersk group) owners of the familiar brand Maersk-SeAlland (formed by a recent merger between Maersk and Sea-Land, the American company that pioneered containerization). With 300 ships, nearly a million containers, and 20,000 employees, Maersk-SeAlland is probably accurate in its claim to be the largest shipping company in the world. APL’s Pier 400 is the largest proprietary container terminal in the world. It has 12 Super Post-panamax cranes, and is capable of working on three ships at once. Parts of it are still being worked on, and more cranes may be coming in the future. Despite their towering size, most of the cranes at the port were manufactured overseas, in Japan or South Korea, and were shipped mostly assembled, on special crane-carrying ships that can lower their decks by filling their holds with water, allowing the cranes to be wheeled from ship to pier. The ghost ship we approached in the fog was one of these ships, and with the fog now gone, the ship was distinctly visible from Pier 400.

Though we traversed the length of the Pier 400 landmass on public roads, the operational parts of the pier were off limits to the tourbus. Despite repeated and dogged attempts over the preceeding weeks, none of the container companies on Terminal Island agreed to permit the bus on sitewe had to stick to access roads, which offered fine views anyways. As we skirted the fenced sea of containers, of intermodal rail cars and shuttle trucks, we read again from Allan Sekula’s Fish Story:

If the stock market is the site in which the abstract character of money rules, the harbor is the site in which the material goods appear in bulk, in the very flux of exchange....But the more regularized, literally containerized, the movement of goods in harbors, that is, the more rationalized and automated, the more the harbor comes to resemble the stock market. A crucial phenomenological point here is the suppression of smell. Goods that once reekedguano, gypsum, steamed tuna, hemp, molassesnow flow or are boxed. The boxes, viewed in vertical elevation, have the proportions of slightly elongated banknotes. The contents anonymous: electronic components, the worldly belongings of military dependents, cocaine, scrap paper (who could know?) hidden behind the corrugated sheet steel walls emblazoned with the logos of the global shipping corporations...

604 CLUI photo by Steve RowellHeading back towards the main part of Terminal Island on the access road illustrates a curious quality of the island: its shape is largely determined by the fact that it is owned by two generally uncooperative and competing ports. The Pier 400 access road and its accompanying rail line, as well as a portion of the pier itself, were landfill projects built right on the city boundary for over a mile. On the other side of the line, Long Beach’s Navy Mole, another large landfill project made decades earlier, runs along the same part of the line for just under a mile. The result are adjacent linear landforms that ignore each other, and split off towards their own projections.

While driving the length of the Navy Mole, we watched Sea Launch’s descriptive corporate video on the bus monitors, then we got out to take a look at Sea Launch up close from the shore. Next to Sea Launch, two U.S Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD) transport ships are berthed. Large grey MARAD ships can be found berthed at ports up and down both coasts of the USA, and even in some mothball fleets. These ships are part of a nationally scattered “response fleet,” standing by to move vehicles, people, relief supplies, or military equipment in the event of some national, international, or global situation, where the nation’s military fleet is either insufficient, inappropriate, or otherwise occupied. Each of the home ported MARAD ships has a crew that live in the area, or on the ship, standing by, ready to put to sea within a weeks notice, or less.

Back down the Mole, the bus made a little side trip to take a look at the abandoned Matson Terminal, with its elegant, early ‘60s control tower/office which will no doubt be removed when the new tenants are finally chosen. Back on Ocean Boulevard, the main road through the spine of Terminal Island, we passed by the second power plant on the island, the Montenary Power Plant, which is also known as SERRFthe Southeast Resource Recovery Facility, as the plant is as much an waste incinerator as it is a power plant, if not more (its an incinerator that makes electricity too). Over a thousand tons of trash per day is burned here, aided by natural gas, and enough electricity to power approximately 35,000 homes is produced. Another interesting function of the facility is that law enforcement agencies in the region burn confiscated narcotics in the plant, an average of 17,000 pounds of it per month. The left over ash from the plant is turned into road bed material.

There is just one road left for us to travel before heading off the island, and we exit at Pier T, just before the Desmond Bridge, which heads into Long Beach. Pier T is the largest container terminal on the Long Beach side of the island. It is leased to the Hanjin Company, a large shipping company owned by the Cho family of South Korea, who own other shipping lines too, and over 100 ships. With fourteen cranes, as many as a million containers are handled at this terminal every year.

Even more remarkable however is what is no longer visible at Terminal T: the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. The shipyard and its adjacent Naval Station was one of the major Navy complexes of the West Coast. 16,000 people worked at the shipyards at its peak in WWII, and 8,000 during the Korean and Vietnam wars. It was an intensely industrialized and built up area, spanning the length of the Long Beach side of Terminal Island. Major facilities included the largest drydock south of Puget Sound, over 1,000 feet long, and capable of servicing aircraft carriers, which it did. Looming over the shipyard was “Herman the German,” the largest self-propelled floating crane in the world, captured from the Nazis, and brought over from Germany. Next door, the Long Beach Naval Station was also a fully developed site, but more like a modernist college campus. One of two of the lead architects that designed the station was Paul O. Williams, a noted local architect, who designed Los Angeles landmarks like the Theme building at LAX and the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The Station and the Shipyard were closed by the federal government in 1994 and 1997, and the land given back to the Port of Long Beach. Though there were efforts to preserve some of its historic and significant buildings (a lawsuit was even filed by normally sunny Huell Howser, of the TV show California’s Gold), in a matter of just a few years the entire site was razed, with buildings bulldozed into the drydocks, and the site paved over to become the Hanjin Terminal. The law suits were either dismissed or settled out of court, with the City paying $4.5 million into a fund for local historic projects. Pier T opened in 2003, after Hanjin signed a 25 year lease for $1 billion. This was possibly the fastest conversion of a major industrialized military site to civilian use in recent history.

While watching, on the monitors on the bus, part of a documentary portrayal of the Naval Complex, made by the Port just before it was demolished, we drove onto Pier Echo, the edge of Terminal Island, and of the old shipyard, where the only remaining building from the navy base remains: a large metal maintenance building, building 303, marginally and temporarily being used by the port fire department. The port expects that it too will be torn down soon, when the rest of the 25 acre Pier Echo is developed into a major liquefied natural gas import facility, as they hope it will, despite developing controversy over the plan.

On the way out, we passed the Fremont Forest Products yard, BPs Alaskan Crude terminal, Pacific Coast Recycling (well hidden from the street by a tall steel wall), Weyerhaueuser’s yard, the Long Beach Power Plant, then Ocean Boulevard, and over the Commodore Schuyler F. Heim Bridge, and onto Highway 103, the Terminal Island Freeway, a scenic industrial highway that passes through the Wilmington refinery (operated by Valero), and past vistas of bright yellow sulfur piles. Unfortunately, it may also be the shortest limited access freeway in the state.

We were now following the main rail lines from the port, taking the route a shipping container takes as it is dispersed into the hinterlands. Because trucks are considered inefficient, polluting, damaging to streets, and unpopular amongst the local residents, the port has been struggling to find ways to reduce the amount of trucks on the road, and to get as many of the containers onto rail lines as they can. This is what led to the large and expensive redevelopments, in the late 1990’s, of the on-dock rail transfer facilities at Evergreen/Yusen, and at Pier 300 and 400. This incentive also led to the development of the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility, a near-port rail transfer yard opened in 1986 to help the shipping lines get their containers onto trains as close to the port as they can.

The ICTF has handled over 10 million containers since opening, moving them from truck to rail and rail to rail with six rolling gantry cranes. It is operated by Union Pacific, and allows trains to be assembled for long journeys across the country, or the short trip to one of the two other, larger intermodal yards near downtown. The movement of rail traffic at the ICTF and at the dockside terminals at the rest of the port, is controlled by the Centralized Traffic Control center, operated by the Pacific Harbor Lines company, located in a building on the north edge of the port. Similarly, ship traffic is also centrally monitored and controlled, by the Marine Exchange, which operates the Vessel Traffic Center, a radar tracking station overlooking the harbor from a hill above San Pedro.

The ICTF is located on a spur of land that is part of the City of LA, though immediately surrounded by Carson and Long Beach. This spur is connected to the thin corridor of City of LA jurisdiction that connects the bulk of the city to the north, to the port, like a piece of chewing gum being pulled out from clenched teeth. In 1906, soon after the City announced that it would be building the Los Angeles Aqueduct, bringing vast amounts of water to everyone within its jurisdiction, the already established seaside towns of Wilmington and San Pedro joined the City of Los Angeles, giving the landlocked city, built on an unnavigable river, its port. Between them is the 20 mile long strip, mostly just a few blocks wide, following the path of the first railroad built in Southern California, the Los Angeles San Pedro.

This “tail of the devil” as it is sometimes called, developed into an industrial corridor of salvage yards, warehouses, factories, and metal shops, generally following Alameda Street, passing through Compton, Lynwood, Watts, Southgate, Huntington Park, and Vernon (the most “industrialized” city in Southern California, with less than 50 official residents, and 40,000 workers). Then, in the mid 1990s, one of the largest public works projects in the country was announced, the Alameda Corridor, which the port hoped would get even more trucks off the streets, and further improve capacity, efficiency, and business in general for the city and port. The $2.4 billion project, completed in 2002, involved the consolidation of a few different rail lines into one central rail corridor, and the rerouting of traffic, with the elimination of 200 railroad crossings, along the length of the 20 mile long “tail.” The centerpiece of the project was the creation of a trench for the railway 10 miles long, 30 feet deep, and 50 feet wide, which reduces the impact of the trains on the communities it passes through to just a series of migrating plumes of smoke, coming from below grade.

The bus pulled out of the ICTF, and headed up the Alameda Corridor for a few blocks, just to get a feel for it. The containers travel on trains on the surface here, next to the road, then submerge into the trench a few miles further ahead. They emerge again east of downtown, on the LA River, at the two adjacent intermodel yards: the Union Pacific railyard at the City of Commerce, and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railyard in Vernon.

Though the trains run pretty regularly along the corridor, most of the containers going to and from the port are still freighted by trucks. Instead of following the corridor to its termination at the yards, near the intersection of Interstates 5 and the 710, we got on to Interstate 405, and headed back to home port at the CLUI. It seems that the interstates are just too convenient for everyone.

*It also suggests that the material imported by this country in the greatest quantity, when measured by volume, is air. Think about all that air surroundingand for that matter insidethat $99 DVD player, sealed into the box when it was packed in South Korea, or how much space is saved when that microwave oven is finally crushed at Hugo Neu Proler!

**The Port of New York/New Jersey is the third largest container port in the country, with the Elizabeth, NJ part handling most of the containers. Another way to measure freight is by the value of freight handled (which includes people). Using this measurement, the Port of LA still reigns, handling $122 billion in goods in 2003. JFK airport was second at $112B, Detroit, interestingly is third at $102B, the port of NY/NJ fourth at $101B, Port of Long Beach fifth at $96B.