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A Shipyard With a Ghost of a Chance

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It’s been two years since they closed the old Todd Shipyards in San Pedro. Today, what was once one of the nation’s busiest shipyards is silent except for the rumble of cars and trucks crossing the nearby Vincent Thomas Bridge.

The huge administration building--the Big White House they called it--sits empty. So do a dozen other buildings where more than 5,000 welders and painters, dockworkers and engineers, worked each day for 72 years.

The place, all 112 acres of it, has the feel of a ghost town, right down to the frozen time clocks at the front gate and the abandoned coffee mugs in the machine shop, where giant lathes and other equipment are covered with dust and the feathers of pigeons nesting in the rafters.

Two years.

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The time has passed so quickly that Bill Trejo, Lorraine Pereira and others who worked at Todd can hardly believe it’s been that long. Not until they start counting up the lives shattered by the shipyard’s closure.

Like the young single mother of four whom Pereira saw each day at Todd. A hard worker. Always cheerful. The woman had a nice apartment and a new car, and her good fortune, like her disposition, was shared with her children.

“I would see her out shopping and her kids were always well-dressed, always very happy,” Pereira remembers.

No more. “I ran into her early this year. She went through all of her severance and she is on welfare,” Pereira says.

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Or the dozens of men and women who file each day into the Wilmington hall of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, Local 9. They come there to ask Trejo, the local’s executive secretary, about jobs. And when there are none, which is most days, they pass the time with cigarettes and stories.

Many, like Luis Fernandez, have been blindsided more than once by plant closures. First it was Bethlehem Shipyards, where Fernandez worked as a dockworker for 15 years. Then it was Todd, where he worked for nine.

Today, he’s working at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, itself on the threatened list at times. So it’s no surprise that Fernandez, now 49, wonders about the future of a trade he loves, the only job he’s ever known.

Still, Fernandez is one of the lucky ones. Plenty of his former co-workers haven’t found jobs. Not steady jobs anyway, the kind you can support a family on.

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“They’re looking, but they’re offered $4, $5, $6 an hour,” says Pereira. “Most say they can’t make it on that, but some are taking it.”

The rest keep waiting for the Port of Los Angeles to finally decide what it will do with the old Todd property.

Almost from the day it closed, port officials have been saying they’d like someone to reopen the yard.

Toward that end, they have talked to groups of investors from as far away as England. One group was given exclusive rights to negotiate a lease for the property. But that group, like the others, came and went without ever convincing the port it could reopen the shipyard and keep it open.

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So now, Trejo and the others figure it’s their turn.

Their plan? To reopen Todd with a ship repair, not shipbuilding, facility. They know no one builds big ships in this country anymore. For years, that work and those jobs have gone overseas.

But if they just did repairs, the former Todd workers figure they could put 500 people back to work. Maybe 1,000.

They’re so sure of it that 100 or so have already put up $250,000 to persuade the port they’re serious. They are led by a retired Navy admiral and a New York financier.

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But port officials are not convinced the group can deliver on its plan. Too much of a gamble, they say, especially because the former Todd workers have yet to recruit the big-money investors needed to back them up.

So the talks continue. But with a decision promised by month’s end on the future of the site, the former Todd workers figure time is running out.

Many remain hopeful. The rest seem braced for a final disappointment.

“I just hope they make up their minds one way or another,” says Rocco Grieco, who worked at Todd from 1974, when he arrived here from Italy, to the day it closed.

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“I want them to do something and get it over with . . . so people can get on with their lives. It’s been two years.”


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