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The Docks Paperback – November 4, 2011
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"An engaging page turner. Sharpsteen captures the feeling and interconnectedness of the Los Angeles Waterfront, the noise, the excitement, the joys, the tensions, the complexities and conflicts. I found it difficult to put down."David Wellman, author of Whitewashing Race
"Sharpsteen has almost a novelist's talent for using human interest profiles to engage an audience and present a non-fiction narrative. Here is working knowledge not only of how the Port of Los Angeles functions, but of its crucial importance to the region, nation, and world economy, and what its loss would mean."Gray Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin
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Top Customer Reviews
It all began in 1871 with the development of a $200,000 federally-financed channel 10' deep through the flats, followed soon by small barges running out to ships anchored offshore, and backed up by stagecoaches and then an S.P. railroad line. L.A. and Long Beach ports today cover nearly 20,000 acres. Today, those ships are guided by port pilots paid $150-$300,000/year to docking berths for local loading and unloading - author Sharpsteen calls it 'valet parking.' Those with bow thrusters are easier to manage and require fewer tugboats. Longshore must also come aboard to unlock containers from the deck, while others tie the ship to the dock. Most visible of all are the 8-story crane operators who load and unload the ships.
The 'hidden message here is that none of the thousands of ships calling are made in America, nor crewed by Americans - those 'markets' were lost decades ago, presaging the subsequent loss of claim to the origin of most of the cargo today. (About 75% of the containers return empty to Asia.) Today most new ships are built in China (gross tons) and South Korea (value); Japan lost its leading position in 2004. The largest cargo ships (400 meters long, 59 wide, 73 high) are now being made in South Korea, and will set new records for fuel efficiency. Thus, even though the ships entering L.A. and Long Beach fly an American 'courtesy' flag, there is little to be proud of this operation that is destroying us.
I picked this book up again after writing my original review and I feel like I was perhaps too harsh-- the book picks up nicely after you wade through the "political" chapters about the environment and labor, and it begins to fulfill more of its initial promise to be a window into the human DNA of the port. I goosed my review up a star as a result.
I quit on this book after 100 pages which is something I hate to do.
I live in L.A. and was really excited by the premise of this book. The Port is a massive presence in L.A. and it is arguably the economic heart of the nation but, like most people who live around here, I am only vaguely aware of it and know little of what actually goes on there (these points are made eloquently and admirably by the author up front.)
The book starts off wonderfully, with in-depth looks at the port itself and some of the people who work there, but then the problem starts: The author begins to insert personal politics into the narrative and it simply ruins it.
His too often snarky observations about the people who manage the port and the companies that do business there are completely out of place. If management and the employers are so objectionable, then that will be stunningly obvious to the reader-- we don't need the author's caustic opinions inserted into the mix.
Case in point, the longest chapter in the book-- Chapter 5 entitled "Diesel Death Zone"-- is an in-depth look at the environmental issues plaguing the adjacent town of San Pedro. Now, "Diesel Death Zone" is a deliciously alliterative moniker no author could or should resist for titling the chapter itself, but the author uses it continuously as if it is an accepted term of art, virtually ruling out any possibility that there might be conflicting opinions or data to support an alternate thesis about the environmental issues in San Pedro. In fact, it is not until perhaps 20% into this Chapter that he bothers to introduce a quote from management or some other representative of the "other side"-- the entire 1st section of the chapter is dedicated exclusively to laying out the case of local activists as if trying to convince readers that these individuals are the "good guys."
In the next Chapter-- entitled "The Union"-- the problem only gets worse. The author veers immediately off into an admittedly fictitious recreation of what he imagines the life of dockworkers to have been in the 1930's, all in an effort to justify the present-day tactics of the current labor union that he giddily notes, rules the docks. This is where I quit.
"The Docks" could have been a great book, but in the end, the author's insistence on putting his own politics ahead of what would likely have been a fascinating and informing look at the Port and at the people who make it go, simply ruined it. Too bad.