When the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln dropped anchor in the Port of Los Angeles on Monday and disgorged thousands of sailors for Navy Week, the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce greeted the crew with broad smiles and a commemorative plaque.
But chamber members had barely left the dock before they started to get a sinking feeling.
“Off the ship, we get these phone calls that the sailors were getting maps with all of downtown San Pedro and two other areas red-marked,” said chamber president Camilla Townsend. “It was recommended they not go into those areas.”
Sure enough, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent (not Mark Harmon, who merely plays one on TV) had included the map as part of a liberty security briefing. Disembarking sailors were warned that the highlighted areas were notorious for drug dealing and drug use.
And — as if to rub more brine into the wounds of San Pedro’s retailers and restaurateurs — the map’s flip side featured a list of attractions in the neighboring city of Long Beach.
In recent years, San Pedro business boosters have worked hard to recast their once rough-and-tumble downtown as an arts, cultural and entertainment district. They weren’t about to turn the other cheek when confronted with this perceived slight.
Merchants quickly assembled a guide to the city, with discounts for sailors at downtown establishments, and provided newly renovated trolleys to take visitors through town.
“Since Monday, we’ve had … volunteers down by the Lincoln giving information about San Pedro and answering questions,” said Katherine Gray, who owns a downtown shop with her husband and recently helped start the San Pedro Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The interesting thing is they’re walking off the ship with a flier saying ‘Don’t go near San Pedro,’ yet at the same time the Navy is letting us hand them information saying, ‘No, it’s OK.’ ”
The Navy routinely briefs sailors about crime and other conditions in foreign and stateside ports.
The NCIS said in a statement about the map that sailors were “simply urged to use extra caution in those areas, which according to crime statistics have had a higher incidence of criminal activity. The areas … were not chosen arbitrarily.”
San Pedro, which decades ago was notorious for its bars and brothels, is no stranger to law enforcement activity. In April, authorities arrested hundreds of people on suspicion of illegal weapons possession and drug dealing. The sweep concluded a 2 1/2-year investigation into local gangs, including one named for the Rancho San Pedro project just north of downtown.
Merchants assert that San Pedro is no dodgier than many other parts of the region, including Long Beach.
“You don’t get away with anything here. You get caught,” said Scott Gray, co-owner of the Maritime Research Center & Nautical Shop, which moved from Long Beach to San Pedro three years ago. Gray noted that San Pedro is served by the Los Angeles Police Department, the Port Police and a private security firm hired by the local business improvement district.
Capt. William Hayes, who commands the LAPD’s Harbor Area station, acknowledged that the north end of town is “one area where you have to be careful.” But overall, he said, “I think San Pedro’s a safe community. I go there for dinner with my family on a regular basis.”
Among the organizations that made note of the San Pedro shore leave fracas was the Military Times. In its online edition, the newspaper pondered how sailors might view the warnings: “While the Navy certainly wants sailors to avoid any sort of illegal activity while on shore, isn’t this map also a kind of guide on how to find trouble?”
In the meantime, irate merchants said they wanted to give the NCIS a piece of their mind but couldn’t figure out whom to contact.
“I say let’s blame Mark Harmon,” Scott Gray said. “He’s as convenient a target as any.”