Shaped like a lobster bathing in the waters of LA Harbor to the Southwest and Long Beach Harbor to the East, Terminal Island is the neglected site of a rich history that unfortunately seems to be unknown to most Angelites today. Conservancy groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Los Angeles Conservancy are now warning that the island’s history will be further buried under new plans by the Port of Los Angeles to demolish some the of the remaining buildings and landmarks that speak to its unique past. In fact, on June 6, The National Trust added Terminal Island to its 2012 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The island filled varied and noteworthy roles throughout the 20th century. In the early 1900s, Terminal Island became home to a strong community of Japanese-American fishermen and their families who were crucial pioneers leading the development of the fishing and canning industries in the Southwestern US. In February 1942, these residents were among the first Japanese Americans to be forcibly removed and sent to internment camps following the Pearl Harbor attacks of December 1941. Their homes on Terminal Island were razed and today there is little evidence of this once thriving community (Los Angeles Conservancy; National Park Services).
However, the cannery buildings of the Chicken of the Sea, Pan Pacific, and StarKist Tuna companies as well as Canner’s Steam Plan, remain standing. Though abandoned, they continue to speak as historical vestiges of the formerly bustling canning industry. The buildings were among 10 Terminal Island canneries that employed 1,800 workers and 4,800 fishermen during the booming years of the tuna industry in the 1920s and ‘30s. According to LA Conservancy, the remaining 3 canning buildings and the steam plant are up for full or partial demolition under the new Port of LA’s Terminal Island Land Use Plan. The map provided by LA Conservancy and obtained from the Port’s new land use plans shows realignment of the existing Barracuda Road so that it bisects all 3 cannery buildings in the future.
Along with the cannery buildings, structures that were part of a major shipbuilding center during both World Wars such as the Al Larson Boat Shop Complex are also facing limited reuse and in some cases demolition under the new land use plan. In its heyday, the shipbuilding complex on Terminal Island set world records for quick and efficient production of ships as part of the war efforts. It also established LA as a world port. South Seaside Avenue, the main road in Southwest Marine – home to the former shipbuilding complex – will also be realigned to pass through what used to be Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the producer of 40 destroyers during WWII.
Today, Terminal Island stands between two worlds. When I visited the island on a sunny Saturday morning, the past was clearly visible in the fenced-off shaggy buildings; the black-and-white pictures of Japanese men, women, and children and their descendants’ tribute at the Japanese Memorial; the names of streets like Tuna, Cannery, and Sardine; and the overwhelming smell of fish along the wharf overlooking the old cannery buildings.
In the present, most of these buildings are abandoned and unused. The homes of the families have long been razed and replaced by a field covered in weeds. But some activity exists, maintaining Terminal Island alive. There is an operating restaurant on Tuna Street, in the same area of the former Japanese American Commercial Village. Al Larson Boat Shop Complex is still open, but there’s no ship building now. Instead, it has become a fueling depot. The island presently sees plenty of trucks – the kinds that carry freight in their green cargo containers. Some commercial fishing and processing also continues today, mainly in the northeast corner of the Fish Harbor.
The new Terminal Island Land Use Plan commissioned by the Port of LA and created in consultation with current tenants on the island is meant to retain and expand existing uses including container loading, truck storage and fueling, commercial fishing and fish processing, waterfront access, and historic resources. Much attention is given to expanding current industrial and other tenant uses throughout the 78-page report, but the historic resources consideration occupies a mere 3-sentence paragraph on page 21. The report does not mention details on projected changes to these resources but instead states that, “Specific changes will be considered as new projects arise during the study period.”
It is thus up to groups such as LA Conservancy and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to lead a more elaborate discussion of historic resource re-purpose and maintenance as part of the new plans. The Trust and LA Conservancy have successfully given a voice to six other endangered Los Angeles-area historic sites — the Century Plaza Hotel, the Ennis House, Santa Anita Racetrack, St. Vibiana Cathedral, Downey’s original McDonald’s restaurant and a South Pasadena area targeted for freeway expansion. All of these sites remain standing today. How much of Terminal Island’s history will also survive?