Episode 1: Welcome to Global Capitalism

Alexis C. Madrigal
Published in
24 min readApr 7, 2017


As promised, I’m getting up the transcripts of all the episodes here in this Medium collection. It’s always better to *go listen* to hear the magic that Jonathan Hirsch brings to the show, but hey, for posterity, for accessibility, for searchability, here you go.

Welcome to Containers, an 8-part radio documentary presented by Flexport. This podcast is all about how global trade has transformed the economy and ourselves. I’m Alexis Madrigal and I’m gonna lead you through the world of ships and sailors, tugboats and warehouses, cranes and containers.

Containers are those big boxes you see on cargo ships and on semi-trucks. Almost every consumer item you buy once traveled in one of them. They’re the embodiment, basically, of global capitalism. So, my proposition is that, if you want understand how the world of commerce works, there’s no better microcosm than the system that moves containers around the globe.

Oakland International Container Terminal

So how did this version of global trade get started? To understand that, we gotta head back 40 years to two places separated by the Pacific, Vietnam and California.

Gabby: This is a story that I’ve grown up with and even though over and over again my whole life, I may get it wrong, so apologies, in advance, especially to my mom, who I’m sure will find some cracks in the story, but…

This is Gabby Miller, an artist here in Oakland. She wears her hair short, usually under a hat, and I don’t know that I’ve seen her wear any pants other than her carpenter jeans.

Gabby: It’s 1973 and my father has been in Vietnam for about 6 years. When he was 30 years old, he started reading these stories, particularly by Martha Gellhorn, about the civilian casualties or people being killed in Vietnam.

Gellhorn was one of the 20th century’s toughest, best war correspondents.

Gabby: So, he quit his job as a lawyer in New York City and moved over to Vietnam to try and start a hospital for children. He ended up getting funds from the US government to run this project, to bring kids who were hurt and give them plastic surgery and help them, basically, live. And my mom is 26 years old. She was born in Vietnam but raised in Europe and New York City and she’s just finished getting a master’s in anthropology at UC Berkeley..

Then she went on Jeopardy, like the game show Jeopardy, and she won a bunch of money… But instead of buying a home or a car, she decides to go to Vietnam — at the height of the war — to do humanitarian aid. That’s where she met Gabby’s father, and they hit it off.

Gabby: There is a wild connection.

Her parents immediately began working together to expose corruption, and it bonded them quickly and deeply.

Gabby: It founded their relationship that they were in opposition to US imperialism and they were very much in Vietnam to do humanitarian aid and falling wildly in love. Within 2 or 3 weeks of meeting each other, they decide to get married. And it’s been 40 years now.

They even had an article about them in The New York Times in which they had the most intense candid conversation about each other.

Gabby: It did bring tears to my eyes even though I’ve heard the story a million times. There’s this one part where my mom is describing being in the audience while my dad is receiving this award for doing his humanitarian aid in Vietnam. And, I’ll read from it?

Alexis: Yeah, read from it.

Gabby: This is my Mom Nhu saying, “When Tom was awarded from the American Jaycees for being a humanitarian in Vietnam, I sat in the audience sobbing. The US was trying to destroy my country and the Jaycees were recognizing Tom for trying to save lives. So absurd! This was also what made loving Tom acutely painful. He embodied everything that was kind and decent in America, which was sowing death and destruction. Those of us who came of age in the 1960s are sharply aware of this terrible dichotomy.”

This is what, you know, 40 years down the line, I’ve been spending my whole life trying to make sense of. It’s a beautiful and painful thing to try to make sense of. At a certain point, I realized I don’t have a choice to try and understand this, our family emerging out of such a brutal thing as the Vietnam War. It’s a story that all of us are embedded in, but it’s a hard one for me to ignore.

And one day, November 2, 2011, to be exact, she walked onto the Port of Oakland with 40,000 other Occupy Oakland protesters. Though she didn’t know it yet, she’d found a key location in the story of the Vietnam War.

Gabby: That was the first time I had been in the port. And that was the first time I had been in the port. I loved this idea that the imagination together, something beyond one of us, when we’re all together, there’s something bigger that can happen. And that materialized in a really beautiful way as the sun is setting and Angela Davis is walking to my left and every single person that I went to elementary school with is somewhere in the crowd of this giant dream scene, but it was real and human beings were stopping these giant machines. “What is happening here?”

Gabby picked up a book called The Box, and soon discovered that the place she was raised, the San Francisco Bay, wasn’t just one of the major sites of protest against the war. She knew that activist history of Berkeley students and the Black Panthers from her parents.

The surprising thing is that Oakland enabled the military to send more troops to Vietnam. The Port became the departure point for a new kind of transport that changed military logistics: the container ship. In fact, we can pinpoint the exact spot where Oakland helped the Vietnam War buildup.

Next time you’re at the foot of the Bay Bridge, look south and you’ll see three cranes that look different from the rest. They’re small, gray, and like look railroad bridges turned into vertical machines. That’s where it all began.

Original Sealand cranes (gray)

Marc Levinson is probably the world’s expert on the development of container shipping. He wrote the book on it: it’s called The Box. And he notes that in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson had promised to expand the war in Vietnam, but had proven unable to do so.

Levinson: The military buildup in Vietnam became a scandal just because of the poor logistics.

There was no domestic or international shipping or distribution infrastructure in Vietnam at that time.

Levinson: There were a few docks along the Saigon river and that was pretty much it. So this raised the question of how do you feed and equip an army in a place that has no facilities to transport cargo or to import cargo. Vessels from the United States would show up pretty much unscheduled in Saigon, they would offload their cargo onto the docks in Saigon and it would sit there.

So cargo was being shipped all the way around the world and the military units in the field didn’t even know their supplies were in the country. Stuff was piling up on the piers and Congress was getting fed up.

Levinson: And so the defense department started asking people in the shipping industry, “How do we deal with this? What do we do?”

And Malcolm Maclean, the founder of Sealand, the first container shipping line, said, “I can fix your problem,” so the government gave him a contract. But there was no container business across the Pacific, so Maclean had to set up the whole system.

Levinson: He had to set up ports on the US Pacific Coast, mainly Oakland, to send this cargo out. And this really contributed to Oakland’s growth as a port. Oakland really became the major depot for outbound shipments of cargo during the Vietnam war. And he actually had to build a port in Vietnam, Cam Ranh Bay, to handle this cargo.

Archival Vietnam Audio: Some of the more notable innovations in solving the logistical problems of Vietnam have been in the field of containerization. Here we see a Sealand ship which transports 500 containers, the size of the 35 foot semitrailers which deliver them to the ship and onto which they are offloaded at the port in Vietnam.

Levinson: By the peak of Sealand’s business in Vietnam, which was roughly 1970/1971, the Vietnam probably accounted for close to half of Sealand’s business.

And what’s really wild is that the Oakland side of that operation is still standing, if not operational. The cranes that loaded the cargo being sent to Cam Ranh Bay are right there in the outer harbor, which is the part of the port that’s closest to the Bay Bridge. I wanted to see them, to stand under them. So Kyle Brunelle, who manages cranes for the Port, drove me out.

Looking up at one of these giants, even these ones, which are smaller than their descendants, is sublime both in the current sense of awe-inspiring, but also in the old sense of a kind of nobility-inducing terror.

Kyle: What I find interesting is that these that were developed in the 60s, essentially they’re the same today, just larger and more advanced…

The key structures are in place. There’s the boom. If they were dinosaurs, that’d be the neck part. They’re long, so they can extend the width of the big ships. If they’re working, they sit flat. At rest, they put them up at that 45-degree angle.

Other early Port cranes are visible through the Sealand cranes.

The legs, which sit on rails, are 50 feet apart, so that trucks can drive underneath them. A rectangular mechanism dangles from the crane, orange in this case. That’s the spreader, which locks onto the corners of the boxes to hoist them skyward.

Kyle: You can see that white structure. That’s the operator’s cab. And when the boom’s down, he’ll travel out over the ship and using the spreader, he’ll off-load the ship.

The operator literally looks through his or her legs and down through a glass floor to the containers below. And from the late 1960s until today, this has been how the system has worked.

Looking down through my legs from an operator’s cab.

Each piece of this system had to be refined, had to be standardized: The box, the crane, the ship, the operations of the yard, the locking mechanisms that allow the boxes to be moved from ship to truck chassis to rail car. And each component has to work with all the others all over the world. This whole system is what people mean when they say “containerization.”

What this allowed was trade at a ridiculous, preposterous, global economy-reshaping scale. About 500 million tons of stuff moved around the ocean in 1950 to 4 billion tons in the early 1990s and now the number is almost 10 billion tons. That’s 10 billion times 2000 pounds worth of stuff.

I don’t think anybody would say that containerization wouldn’t have happened without the Vietnam War, but it sure did speed things along, especially across the Pacific, which became the route that created vast new economic possibilities for Asian manufacturers and American importers and retailers. The Sealand ships soon started stopped by Japanese ports on their way back home from Vietnam to pick up electronics for American markets. Soon, Japanese officials were visiting Oakland, then they were building their own container ports with sister facilities in Oakland. Then came the Korean and Taiwanese and Chinese companies. The Pacific was open for business.

The revolution at the Port transformed the city and the day-to-day lives of many people in Oakland. I wanted to get a feel for how people were thinking and talking about the changes in those days. And looking through newspaper clippings, you can practically smell the excitement wafting up from the local archives.

I am looking at 4 manila folders worth of stuff labeled Oakland, Port of Oakland. This is interesting. This is early, early stuff here. This is from the Oakland Tribune, January, 5, 1956. “Port of Oakland shows definite strides in ’55.” They are talking about a motel, the First and Last Chance Saloon in Jack London, that there’d be a cotton warehouse. This is before containerization and there is mention of the port being a significant player in the world.

January 23, 1966 in the Oakland Tribune. “Oakland hub for transport.” “Cities have traditionally grown where means of transportation meet. For this reason, there was never a better place for a city than Oakland, at the hub of the Eastbay and indeed the Bay Area.”

There is a guy they talk to here, Harry Gilbertson, manager of Pacific Operations for Sealand service, and he had this to say, “In the next 20 years, all significant trade routes will either containerize or be killed,” Gilbertson predicts.

What that means to the Eastbay is that Oakland will dominate Bay Area shipping. “San Francisco docks are so congested, so clobbered up, that no container operation with half a mind would go near it. They’ll come to Oakland.”

This is from March 20, 1969. This is where you get some good chest beating from the Tribune. “Oakland now ranked 2nd among container ports in the world in terms of tonnage of cargo moved and facilities available… [Robert] Mortensen, who recently returned from an international conference of harbor operators in Melbourne, Australia, said there was amazement at Oakland’s emergence as a top port. The port president said, “Many of them asked, ‘Where’s Oakland? And what do you have there?’ He added, “They know now.”

You see a lot of this kind of stuff: Old white men with skinny ties standing in front of planning documents.

Paper from 1970. This is the Sunday Tribune. Big headline! Profit comes in containers. Success greater in “going global.” Here’s how this one starts off: today’s prosperity on the Oakland waterfront is based on a box.

And they give you a nice little nut graf here. Thanks Tribune! “Until the 1950s, ships carried freight within the hull of the ship in cavernous holds. Bulk materials such as rice and scrap metals or cartons of manufactured goods could be shoveled or poured or carried into place. Bulky materials could be carried on on deck. The ship was, in effect, the container, and it had to be laboriously loaded piece by piece at dock.”

“Since port activities are estimated to have generated a total economic impact on the metropolitan Oakland area of $100 million on the year, the box is a pretty valuable idea.”


Containerization is one of the most significant economic forces of the last 100 years. Suddenly, it made corporate sense to make things where the labor was cheap and simply ship them to the rich places. Suddenly, all the things were being made in different, usually Asian, countries. Containerization was a necessary component of the globalization we know now.

Marc Levinson would say that it changed the economic geography of the world.

But then there are guys like Herb Mills, a longshoremen as well as a political scientist, a kind of worker-philosopher. As you might imagine, he has a less positive view of containerization. Mills thinks containers destroyed manufacturing in this country by making it too easy to import goods from other countries. For example, just look at the auto industry, which used to make components like brakes and transmissions here in the United States.

Herb Mills: Because you can bet your sweet ass if all them transmissions was being hand-handled out of the hold of a ship and put on a pallet board and sent ashore, rather than 20 tons of transmissions being in a goddamn container box, transmissions would still be built in Detroit. So the container has been the physical means of exploiting cheap labor throughout the world. None of that shit would have happened except with containers and container ships.

Mills had seen the change up close. He was an old-school San Francisco dock worker, deeply involved in the powerful and influential International Longshore and Warehouse Union. They’re the people who load and unload cargo from ships. And almost no one was hit harder by containerization than the longshoremen.

Here’s how it felt to witness that. This is an recording made around the docks by Brian Nelson of his uncle, Eric Nelson. Both were longshoremen who were deeply disturbed by the automation of their industry.

Eric: In the old days there would be great numbers of men. Now it’s like a tomb here. There’s nobody around, just one or two stray people. But if you can think back when you saw hundreds of cars people, looking for a place to park along here. Take a given dock, Pier 15, you walk into Pier 15, there would be gangs working, hundreds of trucks and hundreds of people in and out. Paint gangs, repair people, laundry being brought back. There was a hustle and bustle. There would be cargoes from all around the world. Exposed to your view. Stacks of pepper, spices, flour, grain. That was not mechanized.

And it wasn’t just the longshoremen who were affected. Large chunks of the world’s biggest and most important places got hollowed out.

Longshoremen, 1927, NYPL

Levinson: Containerization contributed to the decline of a lot of port cities around the world.

This is Marc Levinson again.

It’s hard to remember now but the port cities, by and large, were manufacturing centers. This is where manufacturers needed to be to bring their inputs in and to ship their finished goods out. So, typically in a major port, you had a row of piers along the waterfront and behind them you had warehouses and factories. And you had lots and lots of workers whose jobs were tied to the port, either because they worked on the docks and in the warehouses or because they worked in the factories that were very close to the port. Containerization changed this, really transformed the ports within the span of about 15 years probably.

The Wharves from Brooklyn Bridge, NYPL.

First of all, containerization itself didn’t make sense in a port city. The container needed space. The container port needed a patio to store containers. And you didn’t have that in the middle of a big port city. It needed good access in and out by land, via truck or rail. And the port cities were not very good for that. And so typically the container ports were built on the edge of town.

That’d be Newark, not Manhattan or Brooklyn. That’d be Newport News down in Virginia. And that’s be of course Oakland, not San Francisco.

Newark, before it became a major container port, NYPL.

But that was OK for the industry because the container changed the economics of shipping such that factories didn’t need to be by the port anymore. So, industry was able to decentralize. You didn’t need all these factories to be right at the port.

They didn’t have to be near the ports, so they set up shop in the cheaper suburbs and exurbs, taking those jobs with them outside the cities. Meanwhile, containerized cargo required way fewer hours of human labor than what was called breakbulk cargo. So the longshoremen’s jobs disappeared, too.

Levinson: In New York, somewhere close to 90% of the dockworkers lost their jobs within the span of about 15 years after the container come into being. And you saw much the same thing in San Francisco, saw much the same thing in London.

The dockworkers in most cities lived not far from the docks. So these neighborhoods really suffered. Their main income source from the dock labor was gone. The factories that provided jobs to a lot of people who lived near the waterfront were gone. And these neighborhoods just hollowed out. People moved away because there was no economic base anymore.

New York, 1979.

Keep in mind, these were neighborhoods in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, in San Francisco, in London. We’re not talking about the Rust Belt.

The Trump Administration has been promising to bring manufacturing jobs back. And maybe strongarming a factory here or there might work. But the port cities are never going to be what they once were. Cargo will never be handled by hand again. And most of the jobs that people think have gone to Mexico or elsewhere have actually just been made obsolete by automation.

If there’s one lesson from all this history, it’s that when something as big as containerization happens, everything in the economy changes. And no executive order or tariff can turn the clock back and recreate the old economic systems.

Which is why there should probably be a plaque or even a museum out there by those three old cranes. One could make a pretty good argument that no single location was as important in jumpstarting containerization and the economic model that trailed right behind it than that spot.

It could be that there was simply too much going on during that era in the Bay Area. It’s almost unbelievable how many of the foundational innovations of our time had their roots in this 5 or so years in the Bay Area. Intel was founded in Mountain View by Bob Noyce, a co-creator of the microchip in 1968, and the ARPANET, the precursor to the modern Internet, was switched on 1969, with the Stanford Research Institute as one of its first four nodes. A couple years later, biologists at Stanford and the University of California managed the first successful genetic engineering. Pick a realm of science or technology and you find people in the Bay creating fundamentally new things. And none of this to mention the cultural ferment that created the modern hippie, Sly and the Family Stone, the Hell’s Angels, and the Black Panthers.

Seriously what was in the water back then? Probably acid, actually.


Containerization gave an incredible boost to the global economy, reducing prices for people in rich countries and creating opportunities for literally hundreds of millions of people in Asia to work their way out of poverty. In this country, trade drives the consumer economy that literally everyone in America enjoys, no matter how much we might theoretically take issue with the specifics of how it works.

Nikes, iPhones, apples in the winter, cheap pants, Ikea furniture: shipping is everything!

And also local communities and industries were wiped out. And also tens of millions of Chinese people have jobs linked to US imports. And also the labor of logistics is far less dangerous and dirty than it used to be. And also the work is more routine. And also the huge ports inflict major environmental damage on the areas that surround them. And also American cities are cleaner because the factories are polluting Beijing. And also the ships burn vast amounts of dirty bunker fuel, generating between 2 and 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And also the stuff arrives on our shores with the half the mile-ton greenhouse gas emissions of trucks or planes.

With the containerization, these local-global tensions are everywhere you look. Some people, some place bears the load of the whole system.

You remember Gabby Miller, the artist we talked with at the beginning, these are the logistical paradoxes that fascinate her. After her trip to the Port during Occupy, she kept digging deeper and deeper into the power of logistics. In her work, she explores the human and environmental impacts of trade more than the economic transformations.

Gabby: The phone, the camera, the backpack, whatever. So all these objects, if you trace it, have this violent history. It’s not just that it emerges from this moment of war, this way of doing trade, but also this degradation of the environment and using the lowest common denominator in terms of labor quality to make goods, so we can have them cheap over here.

I basically wanted in body to follow the route of goods that first crossed the Pacific, from Oakland to Vietnam. I thought that this was this unknown moment in history that had huge repercussions. So I wanted to study it, I wanted to follow it.

And also this idea of crossing the ocean. My mom is from Vietnam, my dad is white American. Like, you’re always far away from home.

Artist: Gabby Miller.

So she booked a passage aboard a container ship headed for Asia. To see how the goods actually move now, not just historically, across the ocean that connects Oakland to Asia. Like, what does it really take? What are the costs you don’t see from inside a Target or when a package arrives at your door?

Alexis: How did you actually get on the boat? I think people dream of getting on these boats.

Gabby: It’s actually way more simple than I imagined. I Googled, “How to be a passenger on a container ship” and basically there is one travel agency called Cruise People in London and you write to this AOL address, which is like, “Is this real? Cruisepeople at AOL dot com”

Alexis: And they are like, yeah, sure, just wire your money to Lagos.

Gabby: And they did! I had to do a very old school way of wiring money. It was a very antiquated, early Internet process.

Alexis: Are they used to having passengers now or are you just kind of a freak when you’re on board?

Gabby: It’s not that normal. So, when, they were telling me that when they got my papers. They were like, “What, a 30-year-old woman is coming on the ship?” They were so excited. They were like, I can’t believe this! Then I walked up the gangway, and I look pretty masculine, short hair. They were like…


Gabby: It was easy to become friends with the crewmembers and after a while, one of them was like, “You know, I’ve seen the L-word, I know what’s up.”

Gabby hopped on the ship not knowing what art she’d make. She knew she wanted it to do deal with the impacts of these huge ships, but for a while she just stared at the horizon, making notes in a journal and painting seascapes.

Artist: Gabby Miller.

Gabby: About 2 weeks into the trip, we stopped in Nakodka, which is a sister city of Oakland, to bunker for oil. And the bunkering process takes about 24 hours. There’s a bunker ship that comes ot the side of our ship and a huge hose gets pulled up the side of our ship and attached and just, I don’t’ know how many tons of oil, but it’s $3 to $5 million worth of oil get suctioned into the ship. And there has to be crewmembers that stand guard the whole time and make sure nothing happens and I was super fascinated with the process, watching all this oil come inside of the boat. And then I thought, as I was watching the oil come out and seeing this deep rich color, these drips of oil come out of the hose, I thought, “maybe you could paint with that.”

Still from Gabby Miller video.

The next thing she knew, she and some of the younger crewmembers were painting landscapes and funny portraits of each other. She wanted a jar to collect more bunker fuel. So she went to the head cook and told him what she was up.

Gabby: He was like, “That’s what you’re doing on this ship. I had no idea what you were doing here. You’re an artist. You’re here to make work. Will you paint this picture of my wife and me.” He took the picture off the wall and gave it to me. And I immediately made the image and within 5 minutes of starting, the captain of the ship came by and said, “Can you paint my kids?” It totally snowballed from there. Very quickly, I had images of every single member of the ship. 28 crewmembers requesting that I paint their loved ones. The captain was really supportive, super sweet, so he let me move into the swimming pool room. There’s a small swimming pool on deck. And it wasn’t in use. They usually use it in warmer waters, like when they’re in the Indian Ocean, they’ll suck up ocean water and swim around. So, I moved a studio into the swimming pool room and I would paint these portraits all day. And the crewmembers after they got off their shift, would come and hang out with me, they would paint, we’d all paint together and then we put on a little art show before I disembarked where everybody, all 28 crewmembers came in and saw each other’s families for the first time.

Darwin’s Son by Gabby Miller

Being on the sea for so long, I had never quite felt so much on Earth, even though … It was this very strange and disconcerting feeling, being on this beast, this oil-sucking, emission-making, garbage-carrying beast, and then being on this beautiful beautiful earth.


Like Gabby, I’d gone deep enough into the history of trade that I needed to see how it worked in the present day. Oakland is one of the largest ports in the United States, doing almost 2 million tons of importing and exporting cargo. And I thought the best place to grasp the whole of it would be from the platform on top of one of those huge white cranes you see at ports.

It’s a very long elevator ride up to about the mid-section of the crane. We’re in the old Ports America terminal, which closed down during 2016. The crane we’re in will be taken over by a company called Trapac soon, but in the meantime… Here we are. With the run of the place.

Now, it’s time to go up to the apex, where we’ll be able to look out over the whole of the Port and Bay.

We clang along walkways, tromp up stairs, and shimmy up a metal ladder. Finally, we climb one last flight of stairs to the apex. We’re 250 feet up. And we’re surrounded by nothing by an American flag and air. The Bay Bridge is to our backs. We’re looking southeast at the port and the city of Oakland.

So, the first thing to note is obvious: the Port is huge. Hundreds of acres. The second thing to know is that the Port of Oakland itself, the quasi-governmental entity ultimately controlled by the city, does not run any cargo. They’re what’s called a landlord port. They lease chunks of land and equipment to terminal operators, which do the actual loading and unloading. Those can be specialized port companies known as stevedores or shipping lines.

The place where this is most obvious is out on the 7th Street or Ben E. Nutter Terminal, which is run by Evergreen, a Taiwanese line. The reason it’s obvious is that everything is frigging green because that is the company’s color.

That terminal juts out into the Bay. It was created in the late 1960s to spur investment in container shipping. They just built an 8,630 foot wall in the middle of the Bay, and then filled in the basin with 13.5 billion pounds of dirt and rock, which had been bored out of the Berkeley hills by the BART train system.

Look at that craziness.

Directly to the left, there’s the Trapac area, which is a major stevedoring company on the west coast. They’ve just built a fully automated terminal down in Los Angeles, which makes everyone up here a little nervous. But they’re investing in Oakland, leasing more space, which is seen as a good sign by everyone.

Behind the parks, there’s a loop of the different rail lines that service the Port. Despite all the impressive tracks, the rail links down in Los Angeles and Long Beach are better. That means that the vast majority of national import cargo now flows through southern California to points east. We just get the boxes up here that carry products for northern California consumption.

Take a closer look at those rail lines.

And then stretching to the horizon is the Middle Harbor, which is directly across from the island of Alameda. If you’ve ever ridden the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco, this is the part of the Port you passed. Nowadays, this is where most of the action is for the Port. The Oakland International Container Terminal, as it is known, handles something like 70% of the boxes that flow through the city. It’s run by a different stevedoring company called SSA.

Middle Harbor/Oakland International Container Terminal.

Continuing the sweep left, there’s my fair city’s dwarf downtown, looking even shrimpier from this high up.

Downtown Oakland.

The city’s relationship with the port is cordial. The mayor appoints a board of commissioners who then run the show. Under port director Chris Lytle, who came up from Long Beach a couple years ago, the port has been doing well. It’s been a solid, respectable couple years for the port since the embarrassing scandals of previous administrations, like the time in 2012 that a previous director expensed a trip to the champagne room at a Houston strip club. Hmm…

Beyond the tangle of freeways leading in all directions, lies West Oakland, which has been the center of black life in Oakland, since long before the great migration made Oakland into one of the nation’s most important hubs of black culture and community.

And it is West Oakland which has absorbed just about all of the environmental repercussions of the Port’s success. With community prodding, the port has made huge strides reducing diesel emissions from trucks and ships. But in 2012, the life expectancy of black people in the flatlands along the water was about 72 years. For black people in the cleaner, wealthier hills, it was 81 years.

And finally, just to my left, in the foreground, there are those 3 gray cranes we stood under earlier, which began the transformation of a lot more than just this place.

CREDITS: That’s the show. Jonathan Hirsch saved my bacon by producing and editing from Los Angeles. Fusion Media Group’s executive director of audio is Mandana Mofidi. Thanks also to Brian Nelson and Chris Carlsson for the use of their recordings, Fawna Xiao for the dynamite art in the Containers logo, Oakland’s Jamal Jellyfish for composing some of the music for the show. Mike Zampa and Kyle Brunelle for taking so much time teaching me about the Port. And a very special thanks to Gabby Miller, who helped inspire this whole documentary.

Tune in next time when we meet 2 Filipino sailors and explore a Target.

Gabby: Every time I take the BART, I grow silent when we pass West Oakland. “Oh, it’s so beautiful.” It’s really awe-inspiring to drive through it. You can drive through most of the Port and you just feel, you feel so miniscule. This is another world.



Alexis C. Madrigal

Host of KQED’s Forum. Contributing writer, @TheAtlantic. Author of forthcoming book on containers, computers, coal, and collateralized debt obligations.