A decade of USS Iowa in San Pedro: How a WWII battleship helped spark big changes
Daily Breeze, Torrance, Calif. July 2, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — San Pedro pulled out all the stops on June 9, 2012, when the World War II battleship USS Iowa was towed into the Port of Los Angeles, a floating tourist attraction that was welcomed amid considerable economic risk and uncertainty.
Marching bands, government officials, and crowds waving U.S. flags welcomed the historic treasure still in need of further restoration after volunteers had been working on it in Northern California.
It’s arrival a decade ago didn’t come easy.
Local supporters said the ship was destined to become San Pedro’s star tourist attraction.
But skeptics, including many within the Port of LA who were eyeing the financial bottom line, approached the prospect with wariness, knowing that similar historic ships were expensive to maintain by the nonprofits that took them over. They feared it would not be the big tourist attraction the community hoped for.
Count this risk as one, however, that — so far — has worked out well, local leaders agree.
Ten years later, the ship has become one of the region’s five top tourist draws, eagerly promoted by its once-reluctant landlord, the Port of Los Angeles. It’s the cornerstone of the port’s popular L.A. Fleet Week celebrations every year and has managed to pull in visitors by creatively offering all sorts of exhibits and holiday events, military and civilian. It now has been designated as the nation’s Surface Navy Museum.
No small amount of praise for the ship’s success has been given to Jonathan Williams, the president and CEO of the Pacific Battleship Center.
President Joe Biden visited the ship in June, drawing heavy media coverage as Biden made remarks from the main deck.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump campaigned onboard the ship in the summer of 2016.
This weekend, the Battleship Iowa marks its decade-old residency as a successful floating museum.
Despite the tough sell that was needed to get the Port of Los Angeles to sign off, the ship has become an iconic part of the San Pedro waterfront — attracting some 250,000 visitors each year and sponsoring programs for students and veterans.
But more than that, it also helped usher in what’s been a decade of movement on long-stalled plans to revitalize San Pedro’s downtown shopping district and a years-long dream of developing a world-class waterfront.
“When we were working to bring the USS Iowa to San Pedro,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, “we saw it not only as an opportunity to bring visitors to our town, but also as an anchor for the redevelopment of the entire waterfront.”
Hahn, who was the area’s congressional representative at the time but previously had been its Los Angeles City Council member, was among early supporters.
So was then newly-elected Councilman Joe Buscaino.
“You have to take risks in order to think outside the box,” Buscaino said. “This was a risk worth taking.”
Building on the Iowa’s much publicized arrival, Buscaino spent the next decade pushing for a new waterfront development — West Harbor, the new planned attraction, is set to break ground later this year — while trying to pull new business and residential units into the neighboring downtown district.
When the ship was towed up to its berth on June 9, 2012, Hahn, Buscaino, then- Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — and a host of other dignitaries — were all on board as throngs of well-wishers lined the dock.
The ship opened to the public for the first time in July, attracting more than 4,500 visitors on the first day. A “Swinging Salute” featured live 1940s swing music, vintage dress and an outdoor restaurant row in San Pedro’s downtown to celebrate. Downtown’s new overhead Tivoli lights were debuted as part of the celebration.
A week earlier, the port had also opened Crafted at the Port of Los Angeles, an arts and crafts marketplace at 22nd and Miner Streets. That drew 10,000 shoppers of the course of its first weekend.
At the time, Camilla Townsend, a former harbor commissioner and chamber president, declared that it was “the week of San Pedro’s coming out” as a future tourist destination.
That remained to be seen. After all, plans in the town had been moving at a snail’s pace for years.
An idea for a new waterfront, now branded West Harbor, already had been ongoing for more than a decade — and it would take nearly another decade to finally be ready for construction. A groundbreaking now is set for later this summer.
Still, in retrospect, Townsend’s comment seems prophetic.
With the arrival of the war ship that once ferried President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, San Pedro gathered some needed tourist credibility that rivaled its neighbor, Long Beach, where the Queen Mary had long become that city’s seaside symbol.
“Now we had a bonafide, national attraction,” said Alan Johnson, one of West Harbor’s developers. “It put us on the (L.A. tourist) map in an unarguable way.”
Steve Robbins, who headed up the downtown Business Improvement District and died in 2019, said at the time that the town would have to wait to see the impacts.
“The success of the Iowa and the downtown won’t be measured in what happened in one week,” he said in a July 10, 2012, interview, “but in what happens over a period of years.”
By many accounts, the ship’s arrival did, indeed, spark some needed momentum in bringing about changes that had long been sought.
Arley Baker, communications director for the Port of Los Angeles, has watched what often seemed like the slow-motion progression take place through the years.
“You started with the L.A. Waterfront 1.0 — with Ports O’ Call, the Fish Market, the (S.S.) Lane Victory, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium,” he said. “The Iowa and Crafted was L.A. Waterfront 2.0.
“And 3.0 will be West Harbor and Alta Sea,” a marine research campus — two projects now well underway.
But the spark that got things going?
“The Iowa and Crafted,” Baker said, “were definitely an inflection point.”
Mirroring the waterfront progress have been long-awaited improvements in downtown San Pedro — some of that thanks to the pandemic.
When the Iowa arrived, tables and chairs had to be moved out into the street for diners as plans for an outdoor dining district were being slow-walked through the city process and were still years away from becoming a reality.
When the pandemic struck, the city fast-tracked the idea, quickly making San Pedro the first alfresco dining district in the city.
The road hasn’t always been easy — or popular. Critics wonder if San Pedro won’t regret what now feels like a headlong dash into remaking much of the town and its waterfront.
Loud protests accompanied the razing of Ports O’ Call Village, an outdoor shopping attraction that opened in the early 1960s but had lost much of its viability in later decades. The demolition was needed for the new 42-acre West Harbor waterfront to move forward, with one observer comparing the process to ripping off the bandage.
Several mid-rise developments now going up in the downtown district and the town’s beloved historic art deco buildings has prompted concerns that San Pedro’s port-side charm could fade and wind up being overwhelmed and, someday, simply lost. In residential areas, 1920s Spanish bungalows are, on some blocks, giving way to multi-unit apartment buildings.
But while preservation remains a priority for residents like Johnson, the move toward a more vibrant, active waterfront and downtown are a positive sign.
“I used to get upset when people would say downtown is dead,” he said. “You don’t hear that anymore and I don’t worry about it anymore.”
The outdoor dining platforms, he sad, “have fundamentally changed downtown. It’s so much more alive, and you have all these cute little shops opening up.”
And staying open, he noted.
San Pedro’s working waterfront, he added, will add to the magic of the town’s new ambiance.
Eventually, plans call for the USS Iowa to be moved into San Pedro’s fishing slip near the southern end of what will be West Harbor.
An amphitheater will also be part of the project that Buscaino envisions as an entertainment district with water views.
“We’re now past the point of return,” Buscaino said of the progress. “This is a town that is going to thrive.”
As for the USS Iowa, this weekend’s celebration of its arrival a decade ago was modest. Donors and crew members gathered on Friday night to recall and swap stories about the long journey.
And the ship at 200 N. Harbor Boulevard near the Vincent Thomas Bridge, of course, will be open for regular 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. tours throughout the Fourth of July weekend as fireworks displays explode over the harbor.
After 10 years, the battleship that many say jump-started some of the changes in San Pedro seems very much embraced and at home in San Pedro.
“It’s ours now,” Johnson said. “Can you imagine anyone saying, ‘Let’s get rid of the Iowa?’”
Sign up for The Localist, our daily email newsletter with handpicked stories relevant to where you live. Subscribe here.
(c)2022 Daily Breeze, Torrance, Calif.
Visit Daily Breeze, Torrance, Calif. at www.dailybreeze.com/
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.