Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Docks

The good folks at UC Press sent me Bill Sharpsteen's The Docks, an in-depth look at the Port of Los Angeles.

I've been fascinated with the California ports for years. I suppose it started with my oldest brother and his work. More than three decades ago, he got on as a clerk in the Southern Pacific railroad yard in Oakland, which serves the third busiest U.S. port on the west coast. He moved up through the ranks swiftly, and over the years, I've heard a lot about the longshoremen, railroaders, and Teamsters who make their living there. At one point, too, I interviewed for a communications position with the ILWU, which, as my brother likes to say, still has it locked up. And I've also been attracted to what Sharpsteen calls "the rough beauty the port exudes in all its gritty, complicated glory."

So I was pleased to learn more about the action in Los Angeles-Long Beach, by far the biggest port complex in these parts. Sharpsteen offers a series of snapshots, interviewing and hanging out with captains, pilots, shippers, longshoremen, chandlers, truckers, clerks, environmental activists, port security--just about every type of person with an interest in what goes on there. And as the book makes clear, a lot goes on there. The volume of container traffic coming through the port is staggering, as are the logistics. The economic and environmental impacts of the ports are, I think, woefully underestimated. And having ingested Sharpsteen's chapter on the Diesel Death Zone, I'm especially glad I didn't buy that loft in Emeryville.

I use the term snapshot advisedly. Sharpsteen is also an award-winning documentary producer, and his approach is to let the reader see and hear what he encounters. Remarkably, most of the book is in the present tense, presumably to lend immediacy to his account. (The most notable exception is an excursus on the ILWU and its history, which lives in the middle of the book.) Perhaps for this reason, The Docks feels like an exceptionally long magazine article.

My first reaction was that this approach somehow diminished the book's authority. Having stuck with the slide show, however, and made it to the history section, I would recommend the book to anyone who shares my interest in this unique subculture.


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