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Will the ruins of San Pedro’s Sunken City finally open to the public?

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A new report finds it’s technically possible but financially tricky

Sunken City in San Pedro has been fenced off since the late 1980s, but that hasn’t kept people out.
Photos by Sterling Davis

A December rockslide at San Pedro’s Sunken City serves as a reminder of just how dangerous the site can be. But it’s also reinvigorating a movement to safely sanction public access to the urban ruins.

When city engineers visited the bluffs last month to investigate the landslide, they spotted “several unauthorized people... within the ‘prohibited’ Sunken City landslide area,” and several more were seen hopping over a section of a fence designed to block visitors. They documented what they saw in a report released Tuesday.

That documented flow of trespassers lines up with what many San Pedro residents say is the problem with the fence: It doesn’t work—so why not take it down?

In response to the report, Los Angeles City Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who represents the area, reaffirmed his support for safely opening part of the urban ruin to the public.

Buscaino says he’s working with recreation and parks, the bureau of engineering, and a handful of other city departments “to create and adopt a plan to clean-up portions of Sunken City, making it a safer and legally accessible extension of Pt. Fermin Park.”

Doing so “would change the current character of the location,” says the councilmember, and would “give permitted access to more of the public while making the area safer.”

Sunken City was not always an urban ruin. The six-acre “sunken” site marks the spot where, in 1929, a bungalow community began to slowly slip into the sea—so slowly, in fact, that “all but two of the homes” were moved to a different location before the community fell into the water, says the Daily Breeze.

Old tracks leftover from the Pacific Electric Red Cars and concrete from bygone roads and building foundations are still visible, fractured and covered in graffiti left by visitors over the decades.

Since the late 1980s, a fence has unsuccessfully kept out curious sightseers.

Noel Gould, chairperson of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council’s coastline and parks committee, says that the area “is de facto open,” and that there are always people there. Gould admits he used to go down there himself years ago.

“It’s ludicrous to say [Sunken City] is closed off,” says June Smith, a 50-year resident of San Pedro.

Smith, longstanding president of the Point Fermin Residents Association, says the area’s official closure to the public and the fence intended to keep people out “makes it a place you’re not supposed to go, [and that] has made it attractive.”

Smith says since the area is officially closed and people aren’t supposed to be there, there has been no impetus for the city to make it safer.

In the last two years, at least four people have been found dead at the base of the area.

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A geological study commissioned last year by the city’s recreation and parks department found that—with improvements—safe public access to the site is possible in an area referred to as the “upper terrace.” That section, far from the edge of the bluffs, is the most geologically stable portion of Sunken City.

The area would need “significant mitigation” first, including re-grading and drainage control.

The geological study found that the areas closest to the jagged bluffs and the ocean were very unstable and unsafe for the public to access now, and it didn’t identify a way to make these areas safe for future access. (That December rockslide happened in an area that the report had classified as an “extreme hazard zone.”)

In order to do the “intense research” necessary to move forward—and design and implement the recommendations of the report—the recreation and parks department needs money, says general manager Michael Shull.

But funding hasn’t been identified. Even councilmember Buscaino noted twice in his short statement today that money has not been allocated for the project.

That doesn’t seem to bode well for the official reopening of the Sunken City, because as Shull said, “There’s a lot of work that needs to happen here before it becomes safe.”