Sometimes you can smell Wilmington before you see it. It might be the scent of the wells, tucked in between houses and neighborhood streets, pumping the last drops of oil from the giant Wilmington oil field, the third-largest petroleum field in the contiguous United States; it might be the odor of one of the refineries -- either the massive Valero oil plant, turning heavy crude into jet fuel and gasoline, or perhaps Valero's asphalt refinery, or maybe the Tesoro (formerly Shell) facility, or perhaps the ConocoPhillips (formerly Union Oil) refinery right there in Wilmington or its companion just across the line in Carson.
It could be flares -- the routine or emergency burn-off of excess toxic gases that make eyes itch and breathing difficult and that have been implicated in asthma and cancer; it could be the uncovered mounds of sulfur, the residue of impurities removed from petroleum; it could be fumes from the trucks, trains and other heavy equipment or the solvents and other chemicals wafting from the recycling centers that stretch along the Alameda Corridor or a leak in one of the many underground pipelines.
Less and less, promise officials of the Port of Los Angeles, is it diesel exhaust from heavy container ships or cruise ships, some of which already have converted to electric power while idling, or (starting Jan. 1) from trucks moving into and out of the port that fail to meet the 2007 Federal Clean Truck Emissions Standards.
And every now and then, fighting its way past the noxious odors, it is the scent of the sea.
Wilmington is one of the large Los Angeles neighborhoods, or rather collection of neighborhoods, that make up the 15th Council District, where LAPD officer Joe Buscaino (born and raised in San Pedro) and state Assemblyman Warren Furutani (a resident of Harbor Gateway but with a Gardena postal address) are facing off in a Jan. 17 runoff. Unlike the parts of the district that have the words "harbor" in their names but aren't actually on or even all that near the harbor -- Harbor City and Harbor Gateway -- Wilmington is directly on the inner harbor and suffers the consequences and occasionally reaps the benefits of its location.
It's named after the largest city in Delaware, which had been the birthplace and childhood home of California transplant Phineas Banning. Banning arrived in the 1850s as a dockworker and soon began driving stagecoaches from the waterfront to Los Angeles, 20 miles north. He and his business partners incorporated Wilmington as a city, and it grew as a sort of twin to neighboring San Pedro.
He began building Southern California's first railroad -- from his new city on the harbor to Los Angeles -- at just about the time the Central Pacific was linking Northern California to the rest of the nation. The rail line and a Southern Pacific connection north made the port and Wilmington essential real estate. Only later did the rails reach San Pedro.
The cities of Wilmington and San Pedro were consolidated into Los Angeles in 1909 after L.A. offered a library, a school and other amenities. Federal money built a breakwater, and the former muddy harbor was built into the one of the world's largest and busiest ports. The oil field was discovered and developed in 1932.
But for all the heavy industry in the area, there are parts of Wilmington that are barely developed, with no sidewalks, streets virtually unpaved, unlighted alleys. Elected officials in far-off City Hall -- even representatives of the 15th District, who invariably have been residents of better-connected San Pedro -- have found it convenient to view Wilmington as a freight yard or transportation corridor rather than a community of families living among the industrial goliaths.
Poverty is commonplace, directly affecting at least a quarter of the residents. About a third of local jobs involve transportation, warehousing and goods movement. The harsh economy means job loss -- and additional pressure to ignore environmental standards to keep people employed and food on the tables.
Evolving housing policies have made over the Dana Strand Village federal public housing project, which once sheltered World War II-era workers and later became a dreary complex beset by drug sales and violence. After a bulldozing and a redesign, Harbor View Place Garden Apartments and another New Dana complex are tidy and relatively comfortable and safe.
Neglect has helped drive gang violence, and although it persists, the once-common clashes between the East Wilmas and West Wilmas have quieted and allowed the area to nurture, and become a center of, art, murals, poetry, journalism (see the extraordinary Wilmington Wire) and other expressions of the area's multi-generational local culture.
Amid the heavy industry and chemicals, Wilmington has also become a center of a reinvigorated fight for cleanup and for environmental justice. Residents gave the city a high profile in 2010 as they protested against Valero's and Tesoro's support for Proposition 23, which would have pushed back California's landmark AB 32 anti-global-warming mandates. Still, the air can be so bad that schools have installed filters in classrooms as part of a settlement in an environmental suit over port expansion.
The Port of Los Angeles, which is overseen by Los Angeles' Board of Harbor Commissioners, has been in the forefront of both the pollution and (when prodded) the cleanup effort. And after residents protested plans for a high wall to cut them off from the waterfront -- and keep the refinery fumes in but shut the cleansing sea breezes out -- the port instead built a park that buffers the community from the harbor while still embracing it. The park opened last year.
But Wilmington residents say they still get too little in return from the shipping and freight companies that make the area their backyard, and the refineries that make it their furnace. Community activists say San Pedro gets the attention. As far as Wilmington has come, a glance at voting and political fundraising stats show that it has a long way to go before being able to demand the attention from an elected official that San Pedro now gets.
Writing on the Los Angeles Times' Mapping L.A. comments page for Wilmington, commenter Carol said:
I grew up in Wilmington. I still have two sons living there but I really can't say it is beautiful. It looked better when I was growing up. Once you have moved outside the area you see what is Beautiful.
Click on the map above to get a closer view and to be connected to Wilmington demographics, crime and school data.
MORE FROM THIS SERIES:
Watts and Not-Watts
Harbor Gateway, the city on a shoestring
Harbor City, the city not on the harbor
-- Robert Greene
Photos: Top, the ConocoPhillips refinery looms over Wilmington homes. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times. Center, a parking lot mural. Credit: Robert Greene / Los Angeles Times. Bottom, a No-on-23 demonstration in Wilmington in October 2010. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.