Palm trees and graffiti-covered concrete slabs dot the landscape of San Pedro’s Sunken City. (Avishay Artsy/KQED)
It might look like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but it’s in the city of Los Angeles. The ruins of Sunken City are part of the community of San Pedro, at LA’s southernmost tip.
Even though it’s closed to the public, Sunken City is a haven for graffiti artists and young people looking to party. Some residents want to open the area to the public during daylight hours, but others worry it’ll just lead to more noise, trash and rowdy behavior.
Sunken City is a sprawl of broken pieces of sidewalk and foundations of houses covered in thick, colorful splashes of graffiti. Pipes and railroad lines jut out at odd angles. The dirt trails are littered with broken glass and trash. But it’s oddly serene. Palm trees sway in the light breeze coming off the ocean, and seagulls fly overhead.
“I come out here because I get away from the city. It’s not as busy,” said Anthony Bora, who came to scope out the area on a recent Saturday afternoon with his girlfriend. "This is one of the most beautiful views that I’ve seen in Southern California.”
A 1929 landslide caused the ground to shift slowly, about 11 inches a day. It was slow enough to allow most of the homes to be moved safely, although two actually did fall into the ocean. Geologists say the ground continues to erode because of bentonite clay in the soil, which combined with water makes the land unstable.
Sunken City has been a forbidden playground for decades. Accidental falls and suicides also happen frequently. The city installed a fence in 1987 to keep out partiers, but that hasn’t done much to stem the tide. There are “no trespassing” signs all over. To get in, you have to either climb under or around an 8-foot-tall wrought iron fence, or find a break in it.
“Sometimes you see dolphins and whales out here, you know, for free. And people come here sometimes, young kids, they drink and, you know, do bonfires,” said Mohammed Sharif Jali, who lives down the street and comes to Sunken City to practice guitar and relax.
Not all of Sunken City’s visitors are so easygoing. Neighbors say visitors get loud and obnoxious at night. Yvonne Borgo has had enough.
“We live about three doors from Sunken City,” Borgo said. “There’s kids here all times of day and night, dropping trash, partying, coming up at four in the morning from being down on the cliffs. It’s really tough.”
Some other neighbors, George Armstrong and William Gameroz, grew up in San Pedro in the 1950s and ‘60s, when it was a quiet town. Now they say it’s become a lawless area where police don’t go.
“I don’t understand it. I’ve called the police several times, you know, about the people I hear doing drugs,” Gameroz said.
“Yeah, it’s almost a joke, asking for law enforcement to patrol the area," said Armstrong. "They don’t come down here unless there’s an absolute reason, like somebody got shot the other day or someone fell over the cliff, or they’re chasing somebody.”
The local neighborhood council and residents’ association have asked LA's Department of Recreation and Parks, which oversees the area, to consider opening it up to the public during the day, so people don’t have to break the law to go there. The proposal includes an automated gate that locks at sunset.
The parks department won’t comment until a feasibility study is finished. Supporters of the idea say coastal access is a right for everyone, and the city faces a low risk of liability.
Walker’s Cafe is just a stone’s throw from the fence separating Sunken City from the rest of San Pedro. There’s a line of Harleys parked out front. At the counter, Samira Silva is finishing her burger and fries. She’s from Brazil and lives in Fresno. She read about Sunken City on a website of exotic sites in LA and wishes it were open to the public.
“I think it’s a good idea, because I don’t like having to jump fences to get in there, and on the website it said that it was open for everybody,” she said.
But Anthony Bora said he hopes it stays off the beaten path, because that’s how he likes it.
“I think it’s the whole idea of I can go around the fence and get out here, that makes it kind of cool. It is a really quiet place, you can come relax and enjoy your day off, whereas if it’s open to the public, you’re gonna have a friggin’ dog park out here, you’re gonna have concerts, and a bunch of random stuff that people come here to get away from.”
Whether Sunken City remains officially off limits or not, curious visitors will no doubt continue to find a way in.