Revelers Amid the Ruins : Sleepless Nights by Sunken City

Times Staff Writer

To many teen-agers and other late-night revelers, the picturesque area here known as Sunken City is the perfect place to party and romp among concrete ruins, narrow trails, jagged rocks and high cliffs.

But to police and homeowners near the city-owned property next to the historic Point Fermin Lighthouse, it has become a giant nuisance.

“You go to bed at night and you can hear them,” said Jan Kane, who for the past 16 years has lived less than a block from Sunken City. “Sometimes they make terrible noises, just terrible noises like wild animals.


“Last summer you would wake up in the morning and you would be a nervous wreck because you couldn’t sleep.”

Off-Limits to Public

For five years now, Kane said, she and some of her neighbors have been pressuring police and city officials to do something to keep the noisy nighttime intruders out of the area, which has been deemed geologically unstable and off-limits to the public.

Sunken City was once edged by a handful of residences. Trolley cars once transported picnickers and sightseers there for a panoramic view of Santa Catalina Island and the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor.

But the area, located in the Point Fermin landslide zone, has been closed to the public for more than five decades, ever since the land became unstable and homeowners were forced to move, according to Recreation and Parks Department officials. The buckled asphalt and concrete remains of a highway that once ran through Sunken City now mark its landscape.

In spite of the No Trespassing signs that have been posted and a chain-link fence that surrounds the 10-acre site, residents and police said Sunken City has become a popular late-night and early-morning gathering place where teen-agers and gang members from all parts of the South Bay congregate, listen to music and drink.

Property Vandalized

Besides creating noise, the youngsters sometimes leave residential streets strewn with beer cans and other litter and vandalize private property, residents said. One homeowner, for instance, reported to police that a portion of his white picket fence was torn down, presumably for a bonfire.

“These kids come down there and think they can cannibalize people’s houses for firewood. . . . There’s a complete disregard for the people living in the area,” said Los Angeles Police Capt. Dennis Conte.

The area’s popularity with youngsters has also prompted Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents Sal Pedro, to voice concern about potential liability problems. Four years ago, a teen-ager was seriously injured when he fell while trying to elude police who were rousting youngsters out of the area at night. The teen-ager subsequently filed a lawsuit, which is pending, against the city.

Because of residents’ complaints, the Los Angeles City Council recently agreed to replace the chain-link fence around the property with a sturdier one made of wrought iron. The plan was approved at Flores’ urging.

“I think it’s going to help a great deal,” Flores said in an interview last week. “What we want to do is keep the most people out of there as we can by making it difficult to get in.”

Residents Skeptical

Residents say the fence, which is expected to cost $150,000, should help. But they are skeptical that it will solve the problem entirely--a view shared by several people who were strolling around the area one day last week.

“You can’t fence people out of here,” said a man who identified himself only as Michael. He said he sometimes spends the night at Sunken City in a sleeping bag he keeps stashed among the cliffs.

“The kids have to have somewhere to go,” he said. “They have to get away from the adults.”

Residents maintain that in addition to the fence, the problem could be lessened if police patrolled the area more frequently and if the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, which controls the area, improved it to gain more control over it and lessen its allure to party-seekers.

“We’ve been working on this problem for years,” said Howard Watkins, who owns a fourplex on land bordering Sunken City. “Sometimes you wonder what you have to do to get things done.”

No Development Plans

But despite the area’s popularity, the department has no plans to develop it because it is geologically unstable, said Georgiann Rudder, assistant general manager for the department’s Pacific Region. At present, the department is spending $500,000 at nearby Point Fermin Park to repair and rebuild areas damaged by wave erosion, she said.

“We have had engineers look at the area and they have determined it is not feasible to develop it. . . . It is too unsafe and it would be too costly to make it safe enough to let the public in,” Rudder said.

While police generally do not cite daytime trespassers unless a complaint is made, Conte, who oversees patrol operations for the Police Department’s Harbor Division, said the department in the past has made organized nighttime sweeps of the area. As many as eight officers have been used at one time to chase people off the property, he said. No sweeps have been made since January, Conte said.

But Conte said the Harbor Division does not have enough officers to establish a special unit to combat the problem. Moreover, officers in the past have not had the time to follow through with enforcement efforts.

Under state law, trespassers can be fined up to $500 and sentenced to six months in jail, but efforts to invoke the law are difficult because suspects must be given a warning by officers before they are cited.

Signs Torn Down

“Try to remember two days or even three hours later who was given a warning,” said Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Lynn Mayo. No Trespassing signs are “are torn down just as fast as they are put up,” Mayo said.

Flores said that because the area is “a place in a million to see the harbor and the island,” people are going to be lured to it. She said she favors making some improvements in the area for daytime visitors.

“What we have to do is concentrate on making it as safe as possible,” Flores said.

Some residents said they realize that the area is attractive to visitors, and believe that people should be allowed to visit and enjoy it. “I think people should be allowed to take advantage of the scenery,” said Peggy Gameroz, who has lived near Sunken City for about 30 years.

But Gameroz and some of her neighbors said the nighttime revelers are spoiling the area for everyone. Besides leaving trash everywhere, they said, youngsters have ripped antennas off their cars and tromped on their flower beds as they make their way to Sunken City under the cover of darkness. Sometimes the noise is so bad neighbors find it difficult to sleep, they said.

Indeed, Kane said the noise problem has gotten so bad that she and her husband have been forced to move from their bedroom upstairs facing Sunken City to one downstairs facing the opposite direction, away from the ocean.

“I want my bedroom back,” Kane said.