from Children of Vallejo
Vallejo, California, sits at the north end of San Francisco Bay where the Napa River empties into the Carquinez Strait. For nearly all its existence, Vallejo was a blue-collar, lunch-pail town, home to Mare Island Naval Shipyard, the first shipyard established on the West Coast. The city was founded in 1850 and the shipyard in 1854, but it doesn’t matter which came first. They grew to be one and the same, their destinies inextricably linked. If you lived in Vallejo, it is likely you either worked on “the yard” or you made your living providing services to those who did.
During World War II, the ranks of civilian workers on the yard grew to more than forty-six thousand, and the work went on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The workers who flocked to the government payroll were farmers fleeing the dust bowl states, blacks escaping poverty in the rural south, and people of every conceivable ethnic composition. Their overwhelming numbers put a strain on the local housing market and the federal government responded by building housing tracts that dotted the hills around the city. The tracts had names like Federal Terrace, Carquinez Heights and Chabot Terrace, and though they were called apartments, they looked for all the world like military barracks.
The people lived and worked together, and their children went to school and played together on the playgrounds and in the recreation centers. Kids grew up tough in the federal projects, tough and hungry to achieve. Many went on to be successful in business and politics, sports and the professions, but they never forgot where they came from. They never forgot what it was like to grow up in a hard place and fight to keep what was theirs. If a true melting pot existed in America, it was there in the tenements of federal housing.
Through it all, the shipyard prospered as one of the Navy’s major repair depots for the Pacific Fleet, and it earned its stripes as a shipbuilding facility. More than five hundred naval vessels were built there, including the USS California, the only U.S. battleship built on the West Coast. On November 20, 1919, when the California slid down the shipway into the muddy Mare Island Strait, the brake lines could not hold and she continued across the channel and onto the mud flats on the city side. She would find herself settled in the mud once again, on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. But the California would rise to fight in battles all across the Pacific, a history followed with great pride by all those who touched her at Mare Island.
When ships put into Mare Island for repair, their crews headed for town and some well-deserved liberty. Waiting for them there was an amazing enterprise zone. Georgia Street, the main street of town, ran east from the waterfront, and the west end of Georgia and several adjacent streets became known as Lower Georgia. Here the sailors found a vast array of cafes and shops, bars and honky-tonks, flophouses and brothels, all eagerly waiting to serve them. Lower Georgia became notorious throughout the Pacific Fleet as a place where anything goes. The city fathers did not interfere with commerce in this city within a city. Better to have the sailors doing business on Lower Georgia than chasing their daughters in the decent neighborhoods.
World War II came to a close and the troops came home and went to school on the G.I. Bill. Before long, the Korean War began to dominate the news and it looked as if the shipyard would be kept busy indefinitely. The prosperity of the Eisenhower years arrived and the Cold War heated up, giving the shipyard yet another boost. Mare Island built a series of nuclear submarines—seventeen in all—and sent them out to keep an eye on those pesky Soviets.
The city grew to the east, beyond Highway 40, which soon became Interstate 80. New housing tracts popped up everywhere and the shipyard workers began to buy the new two- and three-bedroom homes and move out of government housing. There was one catch: those leaving the barracks/apartments were white and those staying behind were, for the most part, black. Redlining wasn’t invented in Vallejo, but it certainly flourished there. And so, the former melting pot morphed into a ghetto and racial tensions at times reached the breaking point.
That was Vallejo during and after World War II. But all things considered, it was a good place to grow up. The city hummed to the rhythm of the shipyard, and every kid knew when the five o’clock whistle blew it was time to head home for dinner. The playgrounds and parks and gyms were busy with whatever sport was in season. There were miles of shoreline—from Southampton Bay, to the Carquinez Strait, and up the Napa River—to be fished for striped bass, sturgeon, and the lowly flounder. The hills to the north and east were there for hiking or hunting ground squirrels and jackrabbits, and there were a half-dozen abandoned mines to be explored—if you dared.
And if none of that was appealing, well, you could always invent your own adventure. Not a difficult task for the Children of Vallejo.
Can you go home again? With all due respect to Thomas Wolfe, sure you can. Just take the Georgia Street exit from I-80 and head east a few blocks.
The streets where you played touch football are very narrow and the houses that seemed roomy then look tiny now. The church your father helped build is still there at the corner of Georgia and Cedar. And across the street is the first school you attended with its formal rotunda that fronts the auditorium, the rotunda with Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms emblazoned around the cornice: Freedom From Want, Freedom From Fear, Freedom Of Speech, Freedom Of Religion—just as you remembered. Some things never change.
Of course, there are many changes and they are obvious as you drive into Vallejo today, beginning with the major amusement park sprawled across the space once occupied by the Lake Chabot Golf Course. Upscale homes now dot the hills that surround the city, extending all the way to the water’s edge at Glen Cove. Down from the hills and the gated communities, the flatlands appear to be somewhat long in the tooth, a little worse for wear. On the campus of Vallejo High, the stately two-story main building is gone, torn down over concerns about earthquake safety. In the downtown area, there is yet another attempt to rebuild and revitalize, and it looks like the effort has gained some traction. There is an attractive waterfront walk with a great view of the shipyard. And, the notorious Lower Georgia area is long gone, cleared out decades ago.
The biggest change, the one that will require generations to absorb, is the closing of the shipyard. The Navy decided in 1996 that Mare Island’s usefulness had run its course. The decline had been underway for many years, but it’s still hard to think of Vallejo and not think of the yard. Where will people work? How does a blue-collar, lunch-pail, Navy shipbuilding town transition to a bedroom community? How will kids know when it is time to head home without the five o’clock whistle? Now efforts are underway to “convert” the yard to private industry. Similar transitions around the country have met with mixed success. One can only hope that Mare Island will flourish in the private sector.
If you were born in the Naval Hospital at Mare Island and raised in this town, and your father and your uncle and your cousin worked there, as did the parents of most of your friends, then a walk along the waterfront can tug at your emotions. You look across the water and you are struck by the fact that it still looks like the great industrial complex it once was. It has that unmistakable profile, with the docks and the massive shops and cranes and smokestacks. But two things are clearly missing. First, there are no ships in sight on a cool fall evening, something unheard of in a history that reaches back to 1854. Second, and even more striking, is the dead quiet. Dead quiet where once there was the constant hum and clank and bang and hiss and rat-a-tat-tat that happens when you are in the business of turning steel into warships.
They say a memorial is planned for Mare Island and that is a good thing. People from all over should be able to come and learn about the history of the place. They should learn about the ships built there that helped win World War II, such as the destroyer USS Ward, or the battleship California. And what about the cruiser Indianapolis, repaired there before embarking on her final voyage, a mission that would change the course of history? And let’s not forget the seventeen nuclear submarines that helped win the cold war, including the Polaris sub Mariano G. Vallejo, one of the famous “Forty-one for Freedom.” It is a rich history and it should not be forgotten. As Casey Stengel liked to say: “You could look it up.”
You can go home again, but only to visit. In the end, you feel like an outsider, one of those who left hoping for bigger and better things. And yet there is no changing the fact that this place is a part of you, probably a larger part than you realize. Someone once said, “You can take the boy out of Vallejo, but you can’t take Vallejo out of the boy.” She didn’t mean it as a compliment, but that doesn’t matter. It turns out she was right.