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The now-evicted Google barge.

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Serenity, Treasure Island-style.

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Serenity, Treasure Island-style.

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Serenity, Treasure Island-style.

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Serenity, Treasure Island-style.

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Serenity, Treasure Island-style.

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Serenity, Treasure Island-style.

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The Uncanny Isle

Chris Colin | April 1, 2014 | Story Real Estate

When you picture yourself sneaking past security to board the giant floating toaster known as the Google Barge, you picture some Michael Bay shit. Facial recognition software trained on you from the heavens. Missile-armed drones buzzing overhead. Fields of lasers requiring Catherine Zeta-Jones–style spandex for some reason.

Instead, I find old razor wire. Behind it stretches an ordinary concrete pier with an ordinary security guard at the end, leaning comfortably against an SUV. We eye each other from a hundred yards, bit players in an awkward little interlude in San Francisco history. In a few weeks, the Google-funded vessel that I observe under construction at Treasure Island will be booted to Stockton, its mystery-shrouded purpose eventually revealed. But for a brief few months, it has given locals something specific to wonder about—what cool or nefarious thing are they building?—at a time when broader and thornier questions about technology are rattling the city. Anyway, sneaking aboard seems like a good idea.

I play it cool for the guard, like classified tech barges are just one of many things I check out on my Treasure Island strolls. I focus on some old shrimp cracker wrappers on the rocks by the water’s edge, then the dozen Caspian terns bobbing idly off shore. The barge itself? It is slightly exciting to behold, in the way that it’s exciting to spot Sean Penn at the airport—that pleasant jolt of encountering something you’ve seen only in photos. But celebrity barges, like celebrity humans, are smaller in person. Worse, nothing particularly Dr. Evil-ish leaps out. It’s a rectangle draped in netting, the kind you’d use for a major home renovation (or when trying to drum up curiosity about your big retail rollout). Thwarted by the razor wire, I consider diving in and Navy SEAL-ing my way onto the barge. It seems vaguely plausible, and surely heroic in the retelling. But then another thought comes to me.

That thought is: Screw this. Nothing personal, Google—lovely corporation you’ve got. But wading around that fence wouldn’t just mean hassling this poor security guard. It would mean taking some easy marketing bait, when in fact a far superior option exists. The Googliest thing, I realize, would be to not give a whit about the barge and realign with the company’s excellent core purpose—the one where you explore the world, not Google itself.

Mystery barges come and go. (Mainly go, especially when the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission notes their lack of permits, as the body did in February.) But what remains is the mystery of Treasure Island itself, a place long cloaked in the fog of an uncertain future. To visit T.I. now is to walk in on a palpable limbo, somewhere between today’s windswept, underpopulated ex–navy base and the aspirational aqua-urban dreamscape on the not-too-distant horizon. The only certainty most residents have about the coming changes is that they’ll be total.

For the rest of the day, and then over the course of the next several weeks, I walk as much of the island as I can. I come to think of it as manually Googling the place. It isn’t a thorough dissection; I just want a street view, so to speak, of whatever dramas are brewing—not the grandiose, mega-capitalized kind surrounded by razor wire, but the small and human variety, hiding in plain sight. They strike me as the ones we routinely overlook, no matter how robust our search engines.

Until the 1930’s there was no Treasure Island, just a forbidding shoal on nautical maps. Then the bridges went up and the Bay Area needed to celebrate. In February 1936, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commenced building: 287,000 tons of rock, 20 million cubic yards of fill. They could hustle then—by January 1939, they’d built an island. The very next month, the Golden Gate International Exposition welcomed the world to a heretofore nonexistent chunk of San Francisco. One report had 17 million visitors pouring through before the fair ended. The numbers have dropped off a bit. The monthly flea market and annual music festival are big draws, the winery scene budding, but T.I. is to most an idle glance from the bridge. The 2,000 or so residents scarcely fill its 400-plus acres, and the available services feel containment zone–like; one islander enthused that, after years, she could finally order pizza. Outwardly the place isn’t just dead, but apocalyptically so—Walking Dead dead.

But emptiness (and a spectacular view) always beckons a certain type, and I begin to see the island as a proving ground for outsider visions. Here is a startup drone company working out of a shipping container. There, a guy restoring the old Doggie Diner heads. Low-income families welcome the alternative to the Section 8 options on the mainland. Older city cops angle to get sent here for a cushier beat, one tells me. One night this winter, the folks from Hive, a leadership training enterprise, come here for a big dinner to celebrate the conclusion of their first Global Leaders Program. When I peek in, I see young people from various countries, including an Olympic medalist. On another visit, I chat with three young men scouting the waterfront for hip-hop video sets. “We want to give back to the community,” they mention 80 or 90 times. You get variety anywhere in the polyglot Bay Area, of course, but it’s somehow more striking here, where everyone’s squeezed into the same rowboat.

One morning I find myself in a nondescript apartment building, chatting with Leo Joslin. We sit in a small, carpeted room as men and women come and go around us. Joslin, a calm fellow with bushy eyebrows, is the clinical director of Swords to Plowshares, which has provided veterans with transitional housing on the island since 2000. Here, on a quiet residential cul-de-sac, 60 to 70 vets ranging from 22 to 84 years old have found support, community, and an alternative to homelessness. “It’s a safe and tranquil setting,” Joslin says. “Not only are they away from many stressors out here, but if a veteran’s in crisis, one of our counselors can walk him down to the rocks, by the water. It’s very healing.”

On another windy morning, Corey Block and I stand on the acre of farmland she runs. In this formerly vacant lot there are now chickens, bees, 70 fruit trees, bed after bed of organic vegetables—and, remarkably, a tiny, man-made pond with a dozen young sturgeon. When the fish are big enough, Block will help a cadre of low-income youths convert them into dinner. Welcome to the Michelle Obama Treasure Island Job Corps Green Acre, just blocks from the Google Barge. “I’d never heard of Job Corps before I started,” Block tells me, referring to her employer. “Now I think of it as one of the most effective federal programs in existence.”

Nearly a third of the 472 participants here are enrolled in the Corps’ culinary program, and Block, their upbeat and occasionally muddy urban farm coordinator, introduces them to the farm-to-table ethos necessary for landing good restaurant jobs in California. Quince, Salt House, Town Hall, Bar Agricole—these and others have hired Job Corps grads. It’s yet another Treasure Island secret, she says. “The views, the wineries, the flea market— all these things most San Franciscans never see, and now it all could change dramatically.”

Block is talking, of course, about the massive development plan that Mayor Willie Brown began floating in 1995. The specific vision has changed considerably over time (Brown’s plan included transforming the island’s brig into a women’s jail), but what has finally taken shape is a kind of ecotopian fantasy: 8,000 residential units—25 percent affordable housing—plus 240,000 square feet of office, commercial, and retail space; three hotels; a ferry terminal; 300 acres of parks and open space; thousands of jobs; and all manner of environmentally progressive urban planning. Financing woes have scuttled progress at times (and the prospect of rising seas has raised equally pressing questions), leaving tenants with only the vaguest sense of a timetable. Bob Beck, director of the Treasure Island Development Authority, tells me that the current goal is for the navy to transfer 40 percent of Treasure Island and half of adjoining Yerba Buena Island to the agency by the end of the year (the whole island will be transferred over by 2021), and for the first phase of construction to begin as soon as the first quarter of 2015. Rather than securing financing for the entire project up front, he says, the new approach will be to finance it piecemeal. I find few residents who share his confidence in the development’s imminence, but all seem to agree on this: Sooner or later, the island will become unrecognizable.

Next page: Radiation warnings and wanderers.

To some residents, the Google project seems to represent the tip of the spear, a first wave of transformation, even if only symbolic. Nearly everyone sort of chuckles about it. One morning I meet a middle-aged guy named Richard who is walking by the water in jean shorts. Muscular and mellow, he has the old-soul look of having lived at least a couple of lives. He’s been on T.I. 20 years, used to work security, now does home care. He laughs about the “big computer” they are building on the barge just over his shoulder. “Hope they know the power still goes out every month or so,” he says. “But it’s great here. It’s calm, and you never get tired of the views. I meditate out here every day.” His sales pitch ends with an aside: “Not many animals around either.”

To the Richards of Treasure Island, the place is a peaceful exception to urban stress. To others, it’s a laboratory for something else entirely. I spend one Sunday night in a nondescript conference room with a man who tells me unsmilingly that his vision is world domination. When he pushes a button, a swanky bar lowers from the ceiling; another button causes a white board to lift and reveal a hidden liquor collection. A clubby version of “Come Together” comes on, and cocktails appear.

We are at World Headquarters, the 25,000-square-foot space curated by entrepreneur Timothy Childs. A party is brewing, filled with fabricators, technologists, and their large and diverse creations. Childs, a Wonka-ish 50-year-old, has been an artist, a conceptual designer, a Burning Man fixture, a 3-D web pioneer, and a space shuttle contractor. He also cofounded Tcho chocolate, which helped put him on his current path: food tech. I join him and some associates as they adjourn to a room overlooking Clipper Cove. He speaks, often closing his eyes for long stretches, of creating the next San Francisco here. “I moved to the city in ’87, in that fertile time that gave rise to the web,” he says. “It was incredible. Then I saw all those creative people get booted in the boom. I want to re-create those conditions again, right here.”

To roam this place on the cusp of massive changes is to encounter a thicket of narratives—about the island’s heart, its purpose, its future—all vying for primacy. On a gray Wednesday morning, I nose my car past some boarded-up apartments and a slew of radiation warning signs to the faded development at the northern tip of the island. Kathryn Lundgren opens the door to her small townhouse with frazzled apologies. Three kids, she explains. Lundgren is an island celeb, however reluctant. She found fame in middle age, or rather it found her, in the form of radioactive waste.

I sit on Lundgren’s sofa, the blinds drawn behind me against the morning light—concealing the sweep of grass where her kids played for years before she learned about the dangerous radiation levels there. As founder of the grassroots Treasure Island Health Network, she’s gotten used to telling her story. Her family first came here nine years ago, lured by the cheap rent, safety, community, and views. But things quickly went south. An array of health issues befell her family members and neighbors alike, she says: rashes, hair loss, cancer, heart trouble, and more. Around the same time, thanks largely to the work of reporters including Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, it emerged that the navy had been less than transparent about radiation risks on T.I. During its long tenure there, the navy had used the island for nuclear decontamination training and for repairing ships possibly exposed to nuclear waste. Lundgren’s street is directly adjacent to the problem sites.

Of course, proving the connection between that history and a contemporary family’s health issues would be virtually impossible. And as a result of the navy’s secrecy, Lundgren and others have developed a kind of boundless suspicion. At one point while we chat, some workers start sawing at the sidewalk out front. Lundgren immediately assumes that it’s more radiation remediation and jokes about being the proud owner of a tinfoil hat. Later I learn that she was right—the workers are from ITSI Gilbane, one of the military’s radiation remediation contractors. Something under the sidewalk made a radiation meter chirp.

Lundgren, for her part, doesn’t say, “I told you so.” Instead a sad smile comes over her face. “I love Treasure Island. We have one of the most functional, diverse communities I’ve ever seen,” she says. “And as soon as I get a good enough offer, I’m moving as far away as I possibly can.”

I say good-bye, then wander between nearby apartment buildings through a fence to the northern edge of the island. The bay and the sky are gray, the only sound water lapping against rocks. I stand there a long time without seeing a single human being. Finally, a shuffling figure in a crimson bathrobe approaches.

Maurice is from Lebanon, he tells me, and has been living on T.I. for over a decade. I feel the urge to ask him some big-picture question about the redevelopment plan, or the barge, or his Job Corps neighbors, but communication is tough. Maybe it’s a language breakdown, or maybe it’s his hearing. “Do you worry about the radiation?” I finally ask. “Lebanon?” he responds. “No, the radiation,” I say again. He smiles. “It’s beautiful here,” he says. “It’s very quiet.”

Originally published in the April Issue of San Francisco.

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