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Public Culture 12.2 (2000) 411-422

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Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool)

Allan Sekula and Dave Sinclair

Today the relationship between the sea and the land is increasingly the opposite of what it was in the nineteenth century. Sites of production become mobile, while paths of distribution become fixed and routinized. Factories are now like ships: they mutate strangely, masquerade, and sometimes sail away stealthily in the night in search of cheaper labor, leaving their former employees bewildered and jobless. And cargo ships now resemble buildings, giant floating warehouses shuttling back and forth between fixed points on an unrelenting schedule.

The contemporary maritime world offers little in the way of reassuring and nostalgic anthropomorphism, but surrenders instead to the serial discipline of the box. The cargo container, an American innovation of the mid-1950s, transforms the space and time of port cities, and makes the globalization of manufacturing possible. The container is the very coffin of remote labor power, bearing the hidden evidence of exploitation in the far reaches of the world.

The adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the biggest in the Americas; taken together they now rank third or fourth in the world in container volume. Massive "public" investments in new rail lines, bridges, and container and coal-export terminals, costing more than three billion dollars, will more than triple the cargo capacity of the port of Los Angeles. These infrastructure projects are largely hidden from public scrutiny, and the port remains unrecognized and [End Page 411] invisible. In this sense, the port of Los Angeles is the very exemplar of the postmodern port: vast functionalized tracts for container operations built upon ever expanding landfill, far from the metropolitan center. No one would describe Los Angeles as a maritime city. A port with a present and an optimistic future, but oddly indifferent to its own past.

Plans for Los Angeles port expansion were based on optimistic projections of continued manufacturing growth in East and South Asia. The recent Asian economic crisis has called these projections into question. Falling currencies may raise hopes of export-driven "recovery" on the backs of impoverished workers, but the complex global logistics of the system creates new blockages and economic sinkholes. The balance of trade slips radically, with many containers returning to Asia from Los Angeles holding nothing but air.

Crisis or boom, with its low wages, south China is now a primary industrial hinterland for the port of Los Angeles. The delirious (or cynical) official claim that the sunken rail lines of the new Alameda corridor "promise to create 700,000 jobs" rings hollow and begs the question, Where?

As one Los Angeles dockworker put it, gazing out at the rising bulwark of Pier 400, dredged up from the bottom muck of the outer harbor, "Pretty soon they'll just drive the containers over from China."

* * *

It would be too easy to say, roughly borrowing an old idea from Auden about the differences between Europeans and Americans, that the port of Liverpool embodies a past without a present, while the port of Los Angeles embodies a present without a past (this being known to optimists and official boosters as the future).

Los Angeles holds its own pasts in the shadow-zones of official memory: evicted native coastal fishers converted into mission slaves for the early-nineteenth-century Spanish and Mexican hide trade, hooded Klansmen attacking anarcho-syndicalists outside the Wobbly hall in 1923, striking longshoremen shot and herded into pens by the Los Angeles police in 1934, Japanese immigrant fishermen sent packing to desert internment camps in 1942, most of these last never to fish again. Of this avaricious and often bloody coastal past, we have some [End Page 412] souvenirs, including a large billboard looming over Hollywood, a phalanx of slim young models wearing "Dockers" trousers, a fitting counterpoint to Ronald Reagan's pseudomemories of a secret longshoremen's plot to take over the Hollywood studio unions in the name of international communism.

And Liverpool has its own version of a Los Angeles-style "invisible" maritime...


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pp. 411-422
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Archived 2004
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