In San Pedro, a battle over “Sunken City”

A view of Sunken City’s trails and graffiti-covered ruins. Photos by Avishay Artsy.
A view of Sunken City’s trails and graffiti-covered ruins. Photos by Avishay Artsy.

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.

Mohammed Sharif Jali lives down the street from Sunken City. “Sometimes you see dolphins and whales out here,” he said.
Mohammed Sharif Jali lives down the street from Sunken City. “Sometimes you see dolphins and whales out here,” he said.

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.”

Graffiti offers a splash of color on this stretch of Southern California coastline.
Graffiti offers a splash of color on this stretch of Southern California coastline.

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 that, when 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 the fence in 1987 to keep out partiers, but that hasn’t done much to stem the tide. There are “No Trespassing” signs all over Sunken City. To get in, you have to either climb under or around an eight-foot-tall wrought iron fence, or find a break in the fence.

“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.

Yvonne and Al Borgo live down the street from Sunken City, and are fed up with late-night revelers making noise and leaving trash and graffiti behind.
Yvonne and Al Borgo live down the street from Sunken City, and are fed up with late-night revelers making noise and leaving trash and graffiti behind.

Not all of Sunken City’s visitors are so easy-going. 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. 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,” Armstrong added.

A man and his dog stop to take in the view at Sunken City.
A man and his dog stop to take in the view at Sunken City.

The local neighborhood council and residents’ association have asked the LA Department of Recreation and Parks, which oversees the area, to consider opening the area 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. Samira Silva was at the counter, 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,” Silva said.

Anthony Bora likes to explore Sunken City’s winding trails and graffiti, and admire the view. “This is one of the most beautiful views that I’ve seen in Southern California,” he said.
Anthony Bora likes to explore Sunken City’s winding trails and graffiti, and admire the view. “This is one of the most beautiful views that I’ve seen in Southern California,” he 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 kinda 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,” Bora said.

Whether Sunken City remains officially off limits or not, curious visitors will no doubt continue to find a way in.