In 1929 the ground began slipping out from under a California neighborhood. The neighborhood was just a small cluster of homes in San Pedro, at the very southern tip of Los Angeles, and the ground only moved about 11 inches a day.
Still, that was enough; two houses went tumbling into the ocean and the rest were lifted off their foundations and relocated. Eventually the entire cliff gave way, forming a bowl-shaped depression in the land, but chunks of streets and sidewalks survived and became what’s known as Sunken City.
Today, Sunken City is a collection of ruins and gnarled concrete that has become a kind of art gallery and hang out spot. Footpaths crisscross the area and lead down from an upper cliff — where there are a few old foundations and part of a road — into the bowl, where there is a tangle of ruined sidewalks, gutters, streets, and other debris.
Over the decades, Sunken City has become a destination for graffiti artists. During my first visit a few months ago, There were half a dozen people tagging the ruined concrete. No one seemed to mind that they were there, and they didn’t mind me watching them work.
The next time I went, a few months later I was a little sad to see some of my favorite works had been painted over, but I guess that’s the nature of graffiti. In any case, the graffiti is part of the draw, elevating Sunken City from simple ruins to a living space that changes with each visit.
And the draw is significant. Each time I’ve gone, there have been several couples watching the sunset, a few teenagers climbing on the rocks, and even families. The views are incredible, the air cool and salty, and far in the distance freighters inch across the horizon.
Unfortunately, as Sunken City has become more popular it has also created some friction with the surrounding neighborhood. People living nearby have complained that visitors are noisy and leave trash, and KQED reported that some neighbors describe it as a “lawless area.”
That friction is also producing pressure to do something official with the area. Right now, Sunken City is technically closed, and it’s illegal to enter. People — families, couples on dates, artists — still go, and calling it an “open secret” is being generous; the place has a 4.5 star rating and 97 reviews on Yelp, after all. Still, there is talk of turning it into an official park that would be opened during specific hours.
In the meantime, getting in can be a little tricky. During my first visit, I found a gap in the metal fence that was big enough to slip through. However, when I visited again, someone had welded an irregular piece of metal into that gab and closed it. (It didn’t look like an official job, so I can only guess it was a frustrated neighbor.) So instead, I hopped over the fence at the very end of Pacific street.
Other people seem to have shimmied under the fence, or climbed over in other spots. The Yelp reviews actually have a few suggestions, but as my experience shows, conditions change often and openings come and go. I’ve had some luck asking people on the inside how they got through the fence.
If you go: This is illegal, so I’m officially telling you not to go. But if you do find yourself at Sunken City, I recommend bringing good walking/hiking clothes and shoes.
To find it, just type “Sunken City Trail” into Google Maps (the trail parallels the site and the fence.)
I’ve been in the afternoon and at dusk and did not feel unsafe, but I haven’t been late at night so I can’t say what it would be like then. Also remember that this is a treasured little place that is causing some frustration for the neighbors, so be cool and don’t ruin it for everyone. Here’s a map:
— Jim Dalrymple II