Teenage Wasteland: San Pedro’s Sunken City

Courtesy Wikipedia
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By Jake Strickler, Editor-in-Chief

All photos by my dear, old friend Derrick Monks. Please check out his wonderful work.

T-Birds are an adventurous lot. That’s the most reductive and unnecessary string of words I’ve ever put together but I had to start this thing somehow and if your week has been anything like mine then your creative juices are likely flowing a bit sluggishly as well. So allow me, for a moment, to crib some school recruitment boilerplate.

The author committing some light B&E. Photo by D.M.

In the (greatest) movie (of all time) Repo Man, Harry Dean Stanton’s character tells Emilio Estevez’s, “Look, kid, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.” The repo man is the Thunderbird’s spiritual cognate; we kick against the goads and choose the road less traveled because by doing so we gain perspective and experience. We T-Birds cross borders and venture boldly into the unknown and hack away the kudzu with our well-seasoned machetes to forge our own paths through the jungle.  Put a wall in front of us, and we climb over it or, in the case I’m about to tell you about, crawl under it (see photo at right).

But enough hyperbole and sermonizing (unless the marketing department wants to hire me to spruce up some pamphlets) because the tale I’m going to tell isn’t as exciting as trekking through the Amazon. But it is cool. Before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not condoning or recommending making this trek because it is A) not completely legal, and, B) completely dangerous. But sometimes one must accept a degree of risk in order to do and see the things that the ordinary people only know through Instagram; summiting Everest isn’t necessarily safe, after all.

Not even the trees are safe. Photo by D.M.
Not even the trees are safe. Photo by D.M.

This discovery took place on a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles in which three T-Birds (myself, Walter Arias MAGAM ’17, and Leah Funk MAGAM ’16…with a special guest appearance by Tomás Thomas MAGAM ’17) piled into a car on a Friday morning and returned to their desert homeland about 56 hours later, haggard, bloodied, and unslept.  In the interim they invoked the suspicion of the Church of Scientology, left virtually no Los Angeles landmark unseen, and even bumped into ex-MTV-star Andy Milonakis (don’t call him a pea-head!).

Now, whenever I visit a city, it’s my custom to head to Google and run a search for “weird things to do in X.” For Los Angeles, this query returns a list that stretches from here to the moon, but one particular item caught my eye: a stretch of beach that has been called the “Atlantis of California.” A bit of history: in the early 1920s, the land around the cliffs that form the southernmost point of San Pedro was developed, and luxury home construction boomed. The developers who bankrolled the construction were evidently unaware that the two surest ways to make God laugh are to make a plan and to build a mansion beside a cliff.

Living life on the ledge. Photo by D.M.
Living life on the ledge. Photo by D.M.

In 1929, a slow-motion landslide began, and land holding houses, roads, and infrastructure began moving toward the waves crashing below. From the time at which the slide began, the ground shifted nearly a foot per day, breaking water and gas lines and forcing the evacuation of many of the residences. Most houses were moved to safety, but a handful were caught in the slide, along with 10.5 acres of land, creating a beach at the base of the cliff consisting of rubble, building materials, and large, flat expanses of concrete.

Over the years, the beach became a haven for California youth seeking a playground away from the watchful eyes of parents and police. Beer cans and marijuana cigarette butts littered the area, and graffiti covered every flat surface. It became Makeout Point meets Mad Max, a post-apocalyptic landscape where the forbidden pleasures and petty crimes of the young were allowable. But it also became an incredibly dangerous public nuisance.

The author risking life and limb for the thrill of it. Photo by D.M.
The author risking life and limb for the thrill of it. Photo by D.M.

A mind-boggling volume of deaths from falling led to the area’s official designation as private property and closure to the public in 1987.  A tall and difficult to scale fence was erected around the perimeter at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. But by then, the area had become iconic; the presumed property of the area’s youth, and a fence wasn’t going to keep the Sunken City’s inhabitants out. A large chunk of earth was dug out below the fence not long after its construction, easily allowing visitors to pass underneath. In addition, two bars of the wrought-iron fence were bent outwards, like prison bars with a wet towel compressed around them, creating a narrow secondary opening. Both entrances were still accessible when I visited in January of this year.

Despite over twenty deaths since the fence went up, countless broken bones and sprained ankles, and a preponderance of nuisance crimes, vandalism, and reported gang activity taking place on a virtually daily basis, the site remains incredibly popular. Director Martin Scorsese has repeatedly advocated for the public opening of the beach, and a recent episode of The Walking Dead was filmed there. On the day I visited, at sunset on a Saturday, there were easily over one hundred other visitors; some listening to music, some openly smoking marijuana and drinking beer, some covering up ages of layered graffiti with their own tags, and some just sitting and watching the sun slowly sink into the Pacific.

The freedom of youth, the freedom of the sea. Photo by D.M.
The freedom of youth, the freedom of the sea. Photo by D.M.

Two police cars sat near the entrance with bubble lights flashing. This was, honestly, about all that could be done, short of arresting each of the thousands of visitors who climb down the cliffs each month. The tunnel under the fence can be sealed with concrete, the bent bars can be repaired, but each morning the gaps will assuredly be found reopened (perhaps a worthwhile case study for the incoming administration and its plans for the US-Mexico border). Sunken City is an institution, a place that cannot be erased from history. It’s gritty, it’s anarchic, it’s a magnet for bad behavior, and it’s enormously, outrageously dangerous. I couldn’t have loved it more.

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