Los Angeles Industry—Where the Past and Future Collide

Luis J. Rodriguez, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles,
1994 photo of Luis Rodriguez and his then 19-year-old son Ramiro.
1994 photo of Luis Rodriguez and his then 19-year-old son Ramiro.

Any good craftsman carries his tools.
Years ago they were always at the ready.
In a car. In a knapsack.
Claw hammers, crisscrossed heads,
32 ouncers. Wrenches in all sizes,
sometimes with oil caked on the teeth.
Screwdrivers with multicolored plastic handles
(what needed screwing got screwed).
I had specialty types: Allen wrenches,
torpedo levels, taps, and dies.
A trusty tape measure.
Maybe a chalk line….

In the 1970s, I labored within industrial Los Angeles—in a steel mill, a foundry, a paper mill, a refinery, in construction. I picked up important skills: truck driving, mechanics, welding, carpentry, smeltering, piping, down and dirty. When people think of the city they generally don’t conjure up steel mills or auto plants. The images tend toward Hollywood. Glittering lights. Marquees. Sunset Strip. More like beaches.

Los Angeles is that, but it’s also the country’s largest manufacturing center. Today it leads in aerospace, defense, and the so-called creative economy—movies, music, fashion, design. It has the largest commercial port in the U.S.—the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors. 

I’m now part of that creative economy—the current official poet laureate of the city with books in poetry, children’s books, fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. I became a journalist beginning in 1980 when I worked in East L.A. weekly newspapers. I later worked in a daily newspaper in San Bernardino as well as in news radio in California and Illinois. I’ve also been a freelance writer, fiction writer, essayist, publisher, and poet in Chicago, where I lived for fifteen years, and after I returned to Los Angeles in 2000. I co-founded and help run a cultural space and bookstore called Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center in the northeast San Fernando Valley, now in existence for 15 years.

But in the 1970s I was an unlikely working class hero (I was more likely a working class fool). When union-negotiated consent decrees during that time brought African Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and women into the higher-paid skilled jobs, previously dominated by white males, the Bethlehem Steel Plant in Southeast Los Angeles hired me for their “repair gang.” Previous to this I labored in unskilled drudgery. The year was 1974. I had just married my “high school sweetheart,” who received her diploma only two months before the wedding. Less than a year later, we had our son Ramiro. Two years after that, a daughter, Andrea.

Soon after getting hired, I donned my hardhat, safety glasses, steel-toed shoes, mechanic’s uniform, and stared at a mirror. My life seemed to have purpose, direction, longevity. This job consisted of rotating shifts, including “graveyard,” often double shifts (sixteen-hour days), and great pay, particularly with overtime. My bride and I had been living in the South L.A. barrio of Florence. Until then, newly wed poor.

The plant’s nineteenth-century equipment was brought over from back east around World War II, when L.A. also boasted fabrication, assembly, or refinery work in auto, tires, garments, canneries, shipbuilding, aerospace, meatpacking, oil, and more. We had GM and Ford plants, Firestone and Michelin, Boeing and Lockheed. This industry drew workers of all ethnicities from the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, Southwest, and Mexico for what were largely well-paid, mostly union jobs with pensions, health benefits, and a taste of blue-collar stability.

Despite being miles removed from the industrial powerhouses of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the like, in Los Angeles you could follow much of this industry from the northeast San Fernando Valley, to the Alameda Corridor north of downtown, down to the Harbor. Whole town with names like Commerce and Industry thrived.

What a time it was! But like most of the “American Dream,” it soon screeched to a halt. Deindustrialization began in the mid-1970s throughout the United States, hitting Los Angeles hard and picking up steam in the 1980s, mostly due to advanced technology, including robotics. Labor saving devices became labor replacing. Major industries also sought cheaper labor markets in the U.S. South, Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia—impoverished areas with little or no regulation, down to $1 day wages, and low living standards. Then during the first Reagan Administration, the worst recession since the Great Depression exploded in 1981-82 and the unemployment rate went double digits. Only the 2008 recession cut deeper.

Homelessness became a permanent feature of American life.

We all know about the Rust Belt that traversed through states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Los Angeles may not be considered part of the Rust Belt, but the impact was the same. As plants closed, the two most industrial cities—Los Angeles and Chicago—became known as the “gang capitals” of the world when drugs, guns, and gangs became key to a new, largely illicit, economy.

Mass incarceration, which heightened in the 1990s, turned into it’s own “industry” arising from the crisis. In California alone, the state went from fifteen prisons with 15,000 people in the early 1970s to a height of thirty-four prisons and up to 175,000 prisoners in the 2000’s.

The places I worked in during the height of industrial might in the 1970s went down—Bethlehem Steel in 1981, but also at various times St. Regis Paper Company, National Lead Foundry, Chevron Chemical Refinery, and others. Some 300 big mills and plants gone by the mid-1980s—and with it, any illusion of stability.

I eventually lost my job, my wife, and kids. A life-long struggle to make my way back to my children involved many moves, other marriages, a slew of mistakes. In 1985 I ended up in Chicago, which was also losing its storied industry. Besides writing, reporting, and editing, I conducted writing workshops in prisons, juvenile lockups, schools, homeless shelters. I led arts projects and gang intervention efforts.

Ramiro, unfortunately, who came to live with me at age 13, joined a Chicago gang. Involved with crime and violence, he ended up serving close to 15 years in Illinois prisons. My daughter and I over the years had sporadic periods of closeness and distance. Things shifted, so did my life, mostly now for the better.

Still, I don’t want people to forget the City of Angels as a City of Workers. My decade or so in that industry were extremely meaningful. At the same time, we can’t go back fully to that kind of work. Instead the city, the country, and world is crying out for something new and momentous—aligning our governance, the economy, environment, and culture to the possibilities of the new technology as well as the creative potential in every person, family, and community.

Today I’m reconciled with my oldest children. Ramiro is out of prison and crime free, drug free, and gang free. I’ve been married to my current wife Trini (co-founder of Tia Chucha’s) for almost 30 years. Trini and I also have two children of our own, my youngest sons Ruben and Luis. All my kids are now grown up. We also have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with another one on the way, spread between California, Illinois, Vermont, and Florida.

As the world changed, I’ve stayed active in imagining and creating that post- industrial future with healthy and thriving communities for all—truly equitable, truly just, environmentally clean, and in peace. This time around, it’s about thinking, writing, strategizing, teaching, and organizing.

I often met other travelers, their tools in tow,
and I’d say: “Go ahead, take my stereo and TV.
Take my car. Take my toys of leisure.
Just leave the tools.”
Nowadays, I don’t haul these mechanical implements.
But I still make sure to carry the tools
of my trade: words and ideas,
the kind no one can take away.
So there may not be any work today,
but when there is, I’ll be ready.
I got my tools.