The Sunken City
In 1929 a natural landslide caused several beachside homes in the Pt. Fermin area of San Pedro, CA, to slide into the ocean. The site was dubbed “Sunken City”. The development of cliffside homes and exclusive bungalows was established in the 1920s by George Peck to attract people who wanted to live with a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean. Experts investigating the landslide said that the ground was shifting at a rate of 11 inches per day. The landslide occurred at the southern tip of San Pedro sending nearly 40,000 square feet of land into the Pacific Ocean.
The first reports of damage occurred on January 2, 1929, a waterline broke underneath the Ocean View Inn hotel on Paseo Del Mar, and a few days later a gas line broke under the same building. Most of the houses on the 600 block of Paseo Del Mar were evacuated and relocated before the collapse. There was not enough time to move two houses, which ultimately slid into the ocean.[unreliable source?] Part of the adjoining Point Fermin Park also fell. The slide displaced houses, commercial buildings, streets, and sidewalks.
On May 18,1929 the Los Angeles Times reported the first geographical information about the landslide. It was reported that a crack ran from Point Fermin’s inland sea cliffs for half of a block to the corner of Pacific Avenue and Paseo Del Mar. The crack caved in five acres and caused breaks in gas and water lines throughout the neighborhood. Waves undercutting the cliff caused water to seep into the bentonite layer of the cliff. Bentonite is a form of absorbent clay formed by the breakdown of volcanic ash. The ash layer became water logged, destabilizing the cliff. On the day of the initial slide, the Los Angeles Times reported a crack that resulted in a deep hole ten feet long and three feet across in front of one of the houses.
In coastal California, landslides are common due to an active tectonic environment. Some geologists have identified the name for landslides that push land into the ocean as a “slump.” Landslides tend to be more common in places where rocks are weak and slopes are steep, which is how most of the coastal areas in Southern California are structured. The Paseo Del Mar neighborhood was a perfect example of this geographical issue. After the landslide disaster, geologists looked into the Fermin Point land structure and found very little record of geotechnical inspection or investigation. There were no geologic or soil reports regarding instabilities within the site, which means that no proper research was done to determine whether or not it was safe to build a community on the grounds. The steep cliffs and loose rocks are the reason that the Sunken City beach is fenced off from the public. The geographical composition of the land makes it unsafe and potentially hazardous to people’s safety, even if people are experienced in hiking or other outdoor activities.
Another aspect that makes Sunken City unsafe is that the land is continuing to move, although not as drastically as during the 1929 incident. In recent years multiple landslides have caused major cracks in adjacent highways. In 2011, a roadway crumbled into pieces then fell into gaping holes near the White Point Nature Preserve in San Pedro, and part of the roadway descended into the ocean. In Rancho Palos Verdes, an area about four miles up the coast from Sunken City beach, an estimated $500,000 USD per year is spent in repairs to stabilize land that is constantly moving and dropping off into the ocean. The City of Los Angeles’s engineers and political representatives are conflicted about whether or not to spend public money to replace the part of Paseo Del Mar destroyed at Sunken City, or to leave it as a memorial of the disaster. In the years after landslide in 1929, Sunken City was abandoned and known only to locals. Sunken City’s street address is 500 W. Paseo Del Mar, San Pedro, CA, 90731.
The area is fenced off and technically not open to the public. A large “No Trespassing” sign was placed on the beach in 1987 due to a string of deaths and injuries that occurred at the location. There have been at least eighteen deaths in the last five years at or near the cliffs of San Pedro and at Sunken City. In 2003, there were five cliffside deaths, two of which happened within a three-day span. In 2006, four people fell or threw themselves from the cliffs onto the rocks below and died. In January 2007, Mario Danelo, a kicker on the USC football team, fell over 100 feet from the cliffs to his death in San Pedro. In the same year, 19 year old, Megan Maynard, lost her footing on unstable rocks and plunged over 50 feet to her death at Sunken City. Three more people died in the same year from falls from the cliffs. Aside from deaths at Sunken City and areas near it, a number of injuries requiring hospitalization have resulted from trespassing past the gate and hiking the area. This is the reason Sunken City has not been opened to public access. Sunken City is one of the only landslide areas along the coastline of San Pedro that remains closed to the public. However, it is a hidden tourist attraction. Sunken City has a beautiful view of the Pacific ocean and also the remains of concrete foundations, curbsides, sanitation, and piping from the neighborhood that once thrived on the San Pedro cliff. Graffiti artists have covered most of the existing concrete structures. The beach also offers views of Catalina Island and the cranes of the port of San Pedro. Illegal access is made through a small hole in the fence that separates the public from the hiking trail that leads to the attraction. It is also accessed by climbing the fence.
Social media presence
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As the word about Sunken City spread, the beach began to gain a presence on social media and online websites. Sunken City beach has its own Facebook page where people form a sort of community of fans. The Facebook page has photos, information, maps, and videos of the beach shared by people enjoyed their experiences at Sunken City. The “sunkencity” hashtag on Instagram has over 19,000 tags.[page needed] There was even a movie titled “Sunken City” produced in 2012, about a San Pedro cop who is assigned an investigation at the site after a woman’s dead body washes ashore. Sunken City was also used and featured in the season finale of the spinoff series, Fear The Walking Dead. Many of the fans of the show recognized the famous area and expressed excitement by tweeting about it on Twitter. Sunken City has been reviewed on multiple websites such as Yelp, AtlasObscura, Alltrails, and multiple blogs and sites with guides for places to go hiking and sight-seeing in Los Angeles. Businesses in San Pedro have named their businesses after the beach because it has become a tourist attraction.
Proposal for public access
In May 2015, fans of the off-limit beach conducted an online petition asking for the public opening of Sunken City. The petitioners asked for the opening of the beach during daylight hours and policing by night, adding lighting, cameras, and ticketing to maintain safety. Director Martin Scorsese, has been a vocal advocate for opening the beach up to the public. San Pedro’s City Councilman Joe Buscaino, has put forward a proposition for opening the area for the public to enjoy without the risk of being fined by the police. Buscaino’s proposal would involve keeping the large wrought iron fence. However, the proposal would require the park officials to install a gate in the fence that would mechanically close and bar off the area at sunset.
The thought process behind Councilman Buscaino’s proposition is that compared to many other coastline areas, the Sunken City has been one of the only coastal areas that has continued to be restricted for public access. Because the proposition would allow the public to enter the area freely, the main concern is the possibility of potential liability for injuries that could occur. While Buscaino has been a vocal advocate, there is no set timeline for initiation of the proposal process. Furthermore, even though Buscaino’s plan would keep the fence up, many argue that the fence serves no purpose, as they claim that today people who have an interest in exploring the area either crawl under the fence or simply walk down the cliff-side of the area to avoid the fence.
Past proposal for public access
Overall, the proposal to open Sunken City up to the public is not a new idea. In 1989 there was a plan to open up the surrounding area so that the community could have regulated recreational access with a developed nature trail. This plan was supposed to be enacted with the installment of the wrought iron fence that now restricts the area. The plan was proposed by then-City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, however, the design for adding the gates to the fence was never implemented. In addition, the original plans to open Sunken City to public recreational access seemed to have been lost and forgotten, but with the new proposal being presented by Joe Buscaino, the Coastal Commission has begun a search for the original proposal. Sunken City has largely become a tourist site attracting locals and visitors from as far away as Europe have come to catch a glimpse of the graveyard of a San Pedro neighborhood. Sunken City has become so popular in fact, that many of the residents of the Point Fermin area have demanded that the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks open the area, claiming that the Sunken City area has been stable for many years now. Even the head of the Sunken City Watch group has advocated for the area to be opened up to the public. Advocates sought a legal opinion, hiring the Hermosa Beach law firm of Chatten-Brown & Carstens LLP. It was determined that the city would face little to no liability if the area was open to access. Today, if caught trespassing, violators can face a hefty fine of up to a $1000.
While Sunken City is one of the main attractions in San Pedro, nearby are other historic areas that also draw the public in. Within a short walk from the west of Sunken City is Point Fermin Park, which includes a large park of green meadows that lead to the Point Fermin Lighthouse. In addition, just north of the park is the Korean Friendship Bell, which was donated from Korea to the United States in 1976. Sunken City offers many visual sights to enjoy, as you can find tide pools that are filled with purple urchins and sunbathing seals. In addition, visitors can view Catalina Island, and ships sailing in and out of the port.
Sunken City has had a history of incidents occur both criminal and noncriminal. In 1986, there were various complaints and reports filed from local residents reporting people sneaking into the restricted area and having loud parties after hours. The residents also reported to police gang activity, including vandalizing and theft.
In 1982, a teenager fell from the cliffs of Sunken City while trying to escape from the police who were rounding up trespassers within the area. This incident led to the replacement of the chain-linked fence with a more permanent wrought iron fence, installed in 1987. The expense for the new fence was more than $200,000 USD and it was thought that it would finally solve the trespassing problems of the area. However, incidents continue to occur even with the sturdier fence in place. In 2013, a woman was found dead by the Sunken City area. That same year a 10 year old girl suffered head injuries from falling off the cliff. In July 2015, a woman fell 20 feet from one of the cliffs and was injured.
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