Vernon - “Exclusively Industrial”

What can I say about Vernon that hasn’t been said before? Actually a lot I would guess. Vernon is not the type of place that would inspire many people to prose, but I found it interesting enough to make several trips to photograph what I consider a pretty bizarre place. I first mentioned Vernon here a few weeks ago when I posted about the Toxic Tour, much of which took place in Vernon. It is a strange place because it is a completely industrialized town, according to the last census it has a population of 91, and you would be hard pressed to find them. What you do find is street after street of factories, food processing plants, warehouses, railroad tracks and abandoned buildings. People are very scarce except at closing time, when one or two intersections host a few folks waiting for a bus or a ride home. Just so you know, Vernon’s official slogan is “Exclusively Industrial”.

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The town of Vernon along the Los Angeles River with downtown LA in the background

Vernon almost from the beginning was fated to be an industrialized city, the site of the town was picked because of the confluence of railroad lines. Founded in 1905, by the 1920’s twenty-seven slaughterhouses lined Vernon Avenue and major industries such as Bethlehem Steel, Alcoa glass and Studebaker made their home there. Needless to say there is a vested interest in keeping the town industrial as the tax revenue from Vernon is quite a bit higher than equal sized residential communities. Leonis C. Malburg, the grandson of the city's founder John B. Leonis, was Vernon’s Mayor for over fifty years until he was convicted of among other things, voter fraud, and had to resign last year. There is a lot of money to be made in a town like Vernon, but you gotta hand it to a guy who tries his hand at voter fraud in a city of less than a hundred.

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Old Water tower in train yards on Vernon illuminated by moonlight

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Old warehouse and railroad tracks in Vernon

There is an old water tower that looms above everything else, and although I could not get a lot of historical background on it, I would guess that the tower was the center of town at some point and is the last vestige of what was. I’m a sucker for old railroad tracks and if you throw in an old water tower I’m a happy fellow. I always found my way back there trying to get the best light or angle for a shot that would capture it, and the last night I was there a full moon helped with the lighting and mood, and I was happy.

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Mural on the side of the Farmer John meat processing plant

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Sara Lee plant with large bagels on the side of the silos.

It is also home to many of your favorite food processing plants, Sara Lee, Farmer John Hot Dogs (a Dodger Stadium favorite) all cook up their special goodness in Vernon. The Sara Lee plant intrigued me, as it looks like they are storing some humongous (my son’s favorite new word) bagels in their giant silos. The Farmer John plant has a mural that adorns its perimeter with strange pastoral images of pigs, farms, pastures and even a Daisy Mae look alike reminiscent of Lil’ Abner. The mural was actually commissioned in 1957 and a movie set painter named Les Grimes worked on it for eleven years until he died from a fall from his fifty-foot scaffolding.

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Malburg Generating Station, Vernon Power Plant.

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O-I Plastic Products.

The only time I actually talked to someone in Vernon was when a couple of cops pulled up to where I was photographing the Malburg Generator plant. I can’t blame any cop who checks me out, if I saw me photographing half the things I photograph, I would want me checked out too. A few years ago the City of Vernon had proposed a large new 943 megawatt  power plant at a location nearby the Malburg plant to supply more juice to its industrial residents. The new plant would have spewed millions of tons of emissions into the nearby residential communities of Maywood, Bell Gardens and Huntington Park. Last September, the efforts of community groups and environmental organizations such as CBE, forced the town to withdraw the application of the new plant, a big victory and proof that the little guy can sometimes win in the protection of their community.

Toxic Tour

Last year I spent a day taking the Toxic Tour, far removed from anything you would take at Universal Studios, this illuminating, and sometime nose burning journey is offered a few times a year by CBE – Communities for a Better Environment. It was a strange and fascinating day which included visits to chemical sites, refineries and brownfields, which are abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facilities. Don’t bring the kids!

Roberto Cabrales talks about toxic sites at CBE headquarters at beginning of Toxic Tour.

CBE’s focus is on environmental health and justice, whereby they offer legal assistance, research and organizing help to poor and working class communities of color that suffer from environmental pollution and toxins due to proximity to industrial polluters. In fact shortly after arriving we were shown a map of Los Angeles with neighborhoods broken down by people of color and toxic facilities. I’m sure you can guess how many toxic sites were located in Malibu and Brentwood compared to South Central. The only thing that was surprising was how staggeringly disproportionate it truly was. CBE’s southern California headquarters is located in Huntington Park, right next to Vernon, the most industrialized city in the United States. Whereas Vernon is almost completely industrialized (it has a population of  91 according to the last Census), Huntington Park is a very residential community, and its proximity to Vernon and its emissions has given it the unfortunate nickname of "Asthma Town" due to the high incidence of respiratory illness afflicting its residents.

Overpowering smell from the the lead rendering plant in the background.

We spent most of the morning with our tour guide, Roberto Cabrales, viewing a number of successful examples of CBE and the local residents kicking out and  shutting down toxic facilities in and around Huntington Park, Vernon, Maywood and Bell gardens, all communities a short distance from the downtown Los Angeles. It was a gray day, not the best for picture taking, which was fine, as it is sometimes hard to listen and shoot at the same time. The day ended in Wilmington, an area in San Pedro, near Long Beach, that some people might recognize as the town along the 110 freeway with the gargantuan oil refinery in the shadow of Rancho Palos Verdes. As someone who grew in New York City and spent way too many trips holding my nose as I passed by the oil refineries in Elizabeth, NJ, I can say that this one gives anything I have seen a run for its money.

Young latino boy plays in the shadow of Wilmington oil refinery.

The tour definitely saves the most dramatic for last. Where most of the examples we had seen were closed sites, the situation in Wilmington is ongoing, and for me the most striking thing was how close the residential houses were to the refinery. Street after street of modest, but nice single-family homes were literally a stones throw away from the belching smokestacks of the facility. Children played on the streets and people carried on with normal neighborhood activities as they would anywhere, except the background was not some mountain range, lake or even a mall, it was a giant, active oil refinery.

Residential houses next to ConocoPhillips refinery at Wilmington.

The dramatic juxtaposition of the homes next to the refinery was worth another trip, so I waited a few days for clearer weather and returned in late afternoon. As I was setting up my camera on an embankment next to the freeway, a van pulled up with several young men. The driver leaned out his window and asked if I was with the press. Now the press is not always welcome, but it can lend some legitimacy to some situations, and since I do carry LA County press credentials, I replied that I was. The question I received was not the obvious one I expected about when someone was going to do something about the stinky oil refinery in the neighborhood, but rather he wanted to know if I was there to do a story about trees the city had planted along the embankment that I was on. It seems the trees were planted a little while back and no one has come back to care for them. I took a glance at the sickly looking saplings he was referring to and said that I was sorry, but no. I think I mumbled something about the refinery, at which point he became disinterested and drove off.

A residential street next to ConocoPhillips refinery at Wilmington.

I stood there wondering how someone could care more about these neglected trees than the more blatant health hazard of the refinery. Not that caring about the trees isn’t a legitimate concern, but relative to the greater danger, it made no sense. But then again living in this neighborhood and the nearby streets made no sense to me either, and yet this type of scenario is repeated thousands of times around the country and the world. Why do people live next to or near toxic sites? Much of the time they have no choice, poverty or the necessity of a nearby job limit choices. But these were nice lower middle class houses that many people would normally be happy to call their home.

There is no one answer I suppose, a combination of denial mixed in with the desire to own an affordable home (this area is definitely below market value), and possibly a certain resignation to the inevitability of that toxins are everywhere, so if this doesn’t get you, something else will. There is certain amount of truth to that, but I would say that it is still a relative case.

The Toxic Tour is given both in Los Angeles (the next one is May 15) and at CBE’s other headquarters in Oakland.