Friday, February 11, 2011

In transit

The Docks. / Bill Sharpsteen. Published by University of California Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-520-26193-8. 310 p. Photographs by the author.

“The intention … is to introduce readers to the world at the Port of Los Angeles through my eyes as much as possible... p. xi.

A good writer is fascinated by the detail in real-life situations, can absorb and render it from a widely cast perspective. The Docks by Bill Sharpsteen tells a multi-faceted story of the Port of Los Angeles in vibrant and captivating terms. From our vantage point, a commercial port so large appears to be at rest, its scale so huge that we cannot discern either activity or drama. However, through Sharpsteen’s words we view the energy and daily work of the Port of Los Angeles in accounts of the people who pilot ships down the channel into berths, run political opposition to diesel fuel and become activists for clean air, the unions, dockworkers, security, importers, buyers, land-based cargo movers, workers in ships’ holds, women’s struggles for jobs on the docks and more. Every chapter is based on personal interviews between the author and an array of personnel driving the transfer of goods from container-ship over land to retailers’ shelves.

“His style reminds me of McPhee, in “Looking for a Ship” – where the author actually accompanies his subjects on container ships. That being said, the downturn in the economy has altered the “Lord of the Docks” persona – many of the casuals and longshoremen found they were not being offered the amount of hours they had in the past. This may be picking up lately, but it was certainly true in 2010.”
--- Marifrances Trivelli, Los Angeles Maritime Museum Director.

Shaarpsteen connects the landscape of the port, the part on land that we see being lots of containers and cranes, with the progression of human activity and the technology moving the goods. Seen from the keenly observant eyes of a photographer, the book inspects the objects and tools of the trades, the social and political aspects that create history and keep the narrative alive every day. You are there in the unfolding story, and you can read it again for discreet facts, names of people and organizations, and still again for that aspect of social commentary that the workings of a port have on our culture and the heartbeat of commerce. The References section, p. 279-303, lists by chapter, resources for persons, organizations, news articles and documents referred to in the text. An Index follows, giving the location of names, etc. that do not have printed references.

These quotations may lend an idea of the depth encountered in Sharpsteen’s The Docks:

Chapter 9: the Shipper

“As for goods going out of the country, food products account for more than half of all U.S. exports… Four of the top U.S. exporters sell paper, mostly to China.” p.161

Chapter 10: Los Troqueros

“… owner-operator truckers… people who work in dryage (picking up cargo and short-hauling it to a near-by location) …”

Chapter 11: The Hold Men --- Interview with Art Almeida
“… soldiers… gladiators, the sweaty, muscled foundation of shipping…” “… working in the hold of ships to unload everything from cotton bales to lumber to heavy oil barrels to poisonous cyanide in drums and DDT insecticide in leaky sacks.”

Chapter 12: the Women

“She was the first woman casual clerk, in 1974, and as such the direct catalyst for women now working on the docks.”
--- of Gretchen Williams

Books in the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Research Library are available for borrowing by Museum members. See the book The Docks / by Bill Sharpsteen in our online catalog.

More new book titles in the Library can be viewed in the Library at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum or online at
New books and pamphlet this month!