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San Pedro's shifting canvas

Artists wonder if they'll still be welcome as their sanctuary becomes increasingly gentrified.

December 10, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

Artist, art instructor and art gallery director, Ron Linden is talking about a sense of place. He is talking about the curious community of San Pedro at the far reach of Los Angeles and its appeal to the sensibilities of artists who have clustered there over the years.

What he doesn't have to talk about is what you can see for yourself: This is an off-center kind of community at land's end, bohemian, ethnic, inexpensive, historic and just a little shabby -- the mightiest industrial landscape in Los Angeles and, at the same time, among the most scenic.

In other words, it's an inspired place for artists.

Linden takes his time as he talks. On this weekday, there isn't a single customer in the atrium gallery. It's so quiet here that you cannot miss the distant sound of hammers.

The rat-a-tat echoing along 6th and 7th streets is the sound of change for central San Pedro, a low-rise pedestrian-scale business district shot through with random approaches to architecture -- some interesting, some boarded up, much of it beset with a tired feel of yesterday. The hammering tells of the coming of condos and perhaps the whole familiar package of redevelopment that has transformed so much of Southern California. For San Pedro, this is the sound of hope and of uncertainty.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Linden said with a frown. In five years, "the potential is huge" for the Warschaw Gallery, where he is director, as well as for other galleries that have struggled to take hold there.

But development tends to follow patterns too. Artists reliably foreshadow gentrification, but they don't often survive it.

"I just don't want to see it swallowed up in the suffocating sameness of development," Linden continued. "It's stifling."

He knows. A painter trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, Linden arrived in Southern California in 1972. He settled with other artists in Old Pasadena, then seedy and affordable. Then came redevelopment, which priced out artists. Linden moved into a loft in downtown Los Angeles in the 1980s. Again he lost his space as speculators began driving up property values in the city center. In 1991, he fled to San Pedro, leading a contemporary wave of artistic homesteaders.

Today, San Pedro's artists and civic leaders want to alter the outcome of this familiar cycle for the sake of the community's artsy, offbeat character. If only they can agree on how.

'I love this area!'

It's PEA-dro, not PAY-dro. The waterfront looks onto the busiest container port in the U.S., and that everyday description entirely fails to convey the colossal industrial scale and bustle of the harbor. In the other direction from downtown San Pedro, the Palos Verdes hills rise, and toward the ocean the Dover-like sea cliffs of Point Fermin Park.

Rich with the heritage of fishing, commerce and Euro-ethnic settlement, San Pedro was annexed by Los Angeles 97 years ago to ensure that the inland city 20 miles away also had control of a port. But for today's purposes, the relevant history of San Pedro is right now, as the future is being charted.

"In 20 years of redevelopment, I haven't encountered anything with such widespread support in a community," said Walter Beaumont, assistant project manager for the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles.

He is speaking about the consensus among politicians, business owners and artists to shape San Pedro's redevelopment around arts, culture and entertainment.

He recently took 28 redevelopment agency employees from other communities on a bus tour of San Pedro. "I ended up with 28 people who either wanted to work in this office or buy property or both," he said. "I love this area! In three years, it's going to be so hot and happening."

Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents San Pedro and has lived there for 15 years, counts 1,300 housing units under construction or approved, a total of $140 million of investment. The first of these units, in the five-story Center Street Lofts between 6th and 7th streets, is to open in the coming weeks.

"We are on the cusp of a renaissance in our downtown San Pedro," Hahn enthused. She is among those championing a redevelopment strategy that preserves the waterfront character and artistic ambitions of the community.

"People don't want this to become Long Beach or San Diego," she said. "We've got to keep what is unique and interesting about San Pedro."

For Andrew Silber, proprietor of the Whale & Ale pub and a civic activist, the boom is 11 years overdue. "In 1995," he recalled, "San Pedro was poised to explode. It was going to equal or eclipse Redondo Beach or Seal Beach. San Pedro was the last vestige of waterfront property in the region. Disappointingly, it didn't happen."

With the hammers thwacking away just down the block, Silber has his fingers crossed this time. "Hopefully, the waiting is about to pay off. But don't forget: I'm an optimist."

Seeking consensus

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