PORT TOWN REDUX
By: George Lee Cunningham
Former Long Beach Harbor Commissioner Doris Topsy-Elvord is not happy with us. She doesn’t think her service on the harbor board from March 2003 to June 2008 was sufficiently recognized in Port Town, the history book the Port of Long Beach commissioned us to write in 2013.
Ms. Topsy-Elvord has taken her case to port commissioners, gotten coverage of her issues on the front and editorial pages of the Press-Telegram newspaper, and even threatened to hire an attorney.
It was not a mistake that we left Ms. Topsy-Elvord and other commissioners out of Port Town, at least by name. From the beginning, we knew that the last chapters would be the most challenging. There are several points in the writing of such a history – especially a history that has been commissioned by the entity being written about – that present challenges. We were assured at the beginning of the project that the port desired an authentic history, not one colored by the political sensibilities or politics of the present day.
That is a lot of trust to place on authors and a lot of responsibility. We were determined to live up to that trust.
In doing an extensive history of an institution, there are some sensitive landmarks the writers pass along the way. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to write about dead people than about people who are still alive. Dead people don’t care about what you say about them. People who are still alive – especially high-achieving people with strong egos – have their own version of their contributions, sometimes much inflated from reality and how others may view them.
Even if those people are still alive, however, if enough time has passed, it becomes much easier to recognize the outcome of their actions and write about it.
Commissioner George Talin, who left the commission in disgrace in 1991 after the District Attorney accused him of using his position to strong-arm port tenants into buying tires from his company, is a good example. Enough time has passed and Talin’s damaged reputation has been well enough established to include in the narrative.
The closer the narrative advances toward the present day, however, the stronger the ego sensitivities become. The harbor commission indeed moved its agenda forward during the past 20 years. All the commissioners made their contributions to the whole, although some were clearly stronger leaders than others.
Commissioner Carmen Perez – a power in the Democratic Party – was appointed in the 1990s to a Harbor Commission that included four Republican businessmen. It makes sense to have businessmen on the Harbor Commission. The port is a big business that deals in negotiations with tenants and it’s important to keep an eye of the bottom line. But it’s also a political institution that relies on government support and direction. In a strongly Democratic state, Ms. Perez was able to advance the port’s political and funding agenda in ways the other four commissioners were not capable of achieving.
Ms. Topsy-Elvord mentions former harbor commissioner Mario Cordero, now chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission. Mr. Cordero was clearly a strong voice for an environmental ethic at the port. So was former commissioner and former city manager Jim Hankla, who as director of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority oversaw one of the most successful environmental transportation projects ever undertaken in California.
Attorney Susan Anderson Wise was steadfast in her service on the board. Engineer Nick Sramek was successful in getting political and legal support for his neighborhood, which had been heavily impacted by the Union Pacific’s Intermodal Container Transfer Facility next door. David Hauser, Alex Bellehumeur, Roy Hearrean, John Hancock, former city attorney John Calhoun, accountant George Murchison, and educator Dr. Mike Walter all served with distinction.
And, of course, Ms. Topsy-Elvord herself.
We knew that former and present harbor commissioners would be disappointed not to see their individual contributions recognized by name, but that was a decision we made as the authors. Our job was not to massage the egos of the various political appointees to the board, but to tell the story of the port and of the accomplishments – and sometimes the failures – of the board as a whole.
The truth is that all the members of the harbor commission contributed to the success of the port programs – some more so and some less so. For us to define which members deserved how much of the credit for each success was an impossible task and far beyond the scope of the book.
Over the years, there have been 67 harbor commissioners, 20 of them in the last 20 years, including the five commissioners currently occupying those seats. Most of them were decent people who took their jobs on the harbor commission seriously and did what they felt was best for the port and the city.
That does not mean they didn’t sometimes disagree with one another – sometimes strongly disagree – but in the end, they made their cases to the full board, they voted as a board on new policies and direction, and the port moved forward in the manner in which the board as a whole decided.
They were indeed a diverse group, both ethnically and in the perspective they brought to the table. They included several businessmen, several former government administrators and workers, one college professor, five lawyers, one physician, and a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
There were Carmen Perez, the second woman to sit on the board and the first Hispanic commissioner; Dr. John Kashiwabara, the first Japanese-American and second medical doctor to so serve; Doris Topsy-Elvord, the first African-American commissioner; Mario Cordero, the first Hispanic man to sit on the board, Thomas Fields, the first African-American man on the board and the first African-American harbor commissioner to be fired by the City Council; and Susan E. Anderson Wise, the fourth woman to sit on the board.
The present commission includes Doug Drummond, a former Long Beach police officer and councilman; Richard T. Dines, the first union longshoreman; and Lori Ann Guzman, Lou Anne Bynum, and Tracy J. Egoscue, the fifth, sixth, and seventh women on the board. It is also the first board with a female majority.
There was one commissioner whose name we had included in the last chapter of the book, and that was Commissioner Thomas Fields. The submitted draft included a very short mention that Fields had been fired by the city council. We thought it was significant to include because it marked the end to a battle between two factions on the port board. With Fields gone, fellow Commissioner Nick Sramek resigned, clearing the way for a change in the board’s approach. That item was removed from the manuscript at the insistence of Mayor Robert Garcia’s office.
PUTTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
The Press-Telegram has treated us very well on Port Town, but we must take issue with some of the points made in the recent Press-Telegram editorial on the book.
One, “much of the 21st century is given short shrift.”
For the Port of Long Beach, the 21st Century is a work in progress. If one were writing a history of the Revolutionary War, for instance, that story is complete. The history of the Revolution can be told from the dumping of tea in the Boston Harbor in 1773 to the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Unlike the Revolutionary War, the history of the Port of Long Beach is not over yet. The challenge was always how does one end an ongoing story. And the answer is that you end it imperfectly. It is similar to the old science fiction movies in which giant mutant grasshoppers have been exposed to radiation and are now destroying the city, until a few brave souls find a way to stop them. And when it’s all over, the words “The End,” appear on the screen, followed by a big question mark.
Now, as always, there are many challenges and question marks facing the port. Everybody is clamoring to take credit for the clean truck program, but the price of the program was huge and the final level of success is yet to be determined.
The volume of containerized cargo coming through the port is only now beginning to reach the level that it was when the great recession hit in 2006. Progress is not always pretty. History lurches forward as the people who make the history attempt to find new solutions to both old and new problems.
There are many issues ahead, including the replacement of longshore workers with computerized and robotic equipment. The union is concerned about the jobs of its members, and well it should be. In fact, all of us should be concerned. Those healthy longshore pay checks end up supporting a lot of folks in the community, from shoe stores to supermarkets and from dog groomers to the kids working at McDonalds. If those longshore jobs start to disappear, the pain will spread like ripples through the local economy.
While we can – and did – identify those emerging issues, they are for future historians to examine fully and provide perspective.
Two: “While the Cunninghams wrote the book, they can’t be fully blamed for these holes. At one point it looks as if the Cunninghams, almost apologetically, try to explain why they don’t get deep in the weeds of modern history for fear that “the narrative ceases to be history and becomes instead a short-sighted journalism.”
We are responsible for the book as it is written. We shift that responsibility to no one. If we gave the impression that we were apologetic, that was not our intent. We did say that as history approaches present day, it ceases to be history and becomes merely journalism. That is correct. Journalism is by its very nature short-sighted. We remain proud of the book and the decision we made. We offer no apologies.
Three: Another chapter could be written and run in any reprint of the book. Or, a companion, part-two book could be written about the last four decades at the port and the people behind it.
This idea opens a Pandora’s box. Since such a chapter would be written to appease Ms. Topsy-Elvord, would she have approval rights over it? And if she does, shouldn’t every other living former and current harbor commissioner also be offered the opportunity to approve or disapprove of this proposed new chapter? Can you imagine a messier exercise in self-congratulation?
In a separate note: We should have included a list of all the commissioners at the end of the book – not just Ms. Topsy-Elvord. Each one of them brought their own special talents and flaws to the table, and they do deserve recognition for that. There is such a list on the port website.
When we started this project, we met on numerous occasions to discuss the book with Commissioner Drummond and now-former Commissioner Susan Anderson Wise. One of the things we discussed at those meetings was using the book as the foundation for continued education and research – possibly through the local universities, colleges and high schools.
At the time, we thought that was a wonderful idea, and we still do.
For instance, California State University, Long Beach has numerous oral histories – interviews with long-time community leaders – that are posted online. We believe that the port should work with Cal State to create an oral history with port commissioners that would be the forum for them to tell the inside story of their contributions to the community the way they see it. A volume of such interviews could be both printed and posted online, so that folks could read or listen to individual commissioners’ unique perspectives on their contributions and their time on the board. And if the stories conflict with one another, that’s OK too.
Our goal with Port Town was to create a comprehensive historical foundation of information about our port. We believe we did that, and we hope that the book both informs and inspires bright students and professors to look at the future issues facing the port in order to push forward the ongoing discussion both on the board and in the community.
–George and Carmela Cunningham
Press-Telegram July 22 story by Rich Archbold on publication of Port Town.
Press-Telegram Columnist Tim Grobaty’s Aug. 28 column on Doris Topsy-Elvord complaint
Press-Telegram Sept. 11 Editorial on Doris Topsy-Elvord complaint
List of harbor commissioners on port website.