Growing up in this Navy town, my friends and I could explore old piers and hulks along the waterfront, tell time by shipyard whistles, and see ships of all sorts come and go.
We’d prowl around once-notorious lower Georgia Street, peer into “Doc” Webb’s tattoo parlor, get sailors to buy us beer, or park with girlfriends--to “watch the submarine races"--along the murky Napa River, across from Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
And we’d talk about getting shipyard jobs, or going to college or joining the Navy to escape our gritty, blue-collar town, where people joked about homes painted with government-issue gray paint, where the Navy has literally and figuratively dominated the horizon since 1852.
Here more than 500 ships, submarines and other vessels have been built and thousands more have been repaired or overhauled.
I left Vallejo in 1970, and returning from time to time to visit my family, I could see a gradual ebb in shipyard activity. Still, I was surprised at the recent decision to close the oldest Navy yard on the West Coast by 1996--a casualty of peace in a town that boomed during wartime.
Old friends, former employers and city leaders say they aren’t happy, but they’ll survive. They point out the town’s dependence on the yard already has lessened and less than half the yard’s workers actually live in town.
Shipyard employment was about 40,000 during World War II, but had declined to about 12,000 by the early 1980s. Now, jobs are down to 5,600 as a result of a series of reduction in force moves. One of my brothers was among those “RIFed” three years ago.
The old downtown area had been losing business for years as malls developed elsewhere, and empty stores, banks and theaters are common. The ferry company, where I once worked as a deckhand, stopped running boats for workers in 1986 and focused on its restaurant and bar.
But optimistic city leaders are hopeful quick action can help attract new public and private employers to Mare Island, a 6,000-acre site that features everything from massive dry docks and cavernous machine shops to beautiful old mansions for top officers.
“I just don’t see that we can’t do this if we keep our heads screwed on right,” says Mayor Tony Intintoli. “The closure wasn’t the right decision, but it has been made and now we should focus on maximizing our opportunities. We can’t wallow in self-pity or anger.”
To Intintoli, a New York native, Vallejo, 30 miles north of San Francisco, is “heaven.”
“It’s gorgeous,” he says. “It has the best weather in Northern California . . . . And we are a real city of 120,000 people. We are not just another suburb.”
Asked to be photographed next to a torpedo in a waterfront park, the mayor hesitated because of the inference his city has taken a ruinous hit.
But he recovered with, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"--borrowing a line from the first Mare Island commander, David Farragut, whose brash command helped win a major Civil War sea battle.
Intintoli is heading a “futures committee” that will push for quick access to sections of the shipyard rather than waiting to get the entire property. It could take decades due to costly environmental cleanup requirements.
Private shipbuilding and seaport activity would be ideal, but there are other possibilities, such as a maritime museum or other maritime-theme ventures drawing tourists and linking with nearby Marine World-Africa USA, which now employs about 1,000 people.
Bed-and-breakfasts in the officers’ mansions or private homes in subdivision-type military housing are other possibilities. There’s also a golf course, a graveyard where Francis Scott Key’s daughter is buried, a chapel with priceless Tiffany stained-glass windows, school-type structures, pools, gyms, warehouses, huge cranes and bomb bunkers.
Even gambling has been mentioned, although that would require changes in state law. During World War II, gambling, brothels and nightclubs in the lower Georgia Street district earned the town the nickname “Little Reno.”
Jim Kent, executive director of the Vallejo Naval Historical Museum, favors uses of the property that focus on the history of Mare Island, which was purchased by the government in 1852 for $83,410.
“I wouldn’t really want to see Vallejo as a Sausalito-type tourist spot,” Kent says. “It’s not a yuppie sort of place. We may go more toward tourism, but I would hope we can preserve the historic character instead of having a Disneyland with water.”
Dennis Kelly, a shipyard worker for 19 years and vice president of the 4,000-member Navy Yard Assn., says the shutdown has left many yard workers disappointed and bitter.
But Kelly, also on the futures committee, agrees that quick conversion to new uses is best. And he’d like to see yard workers stay on to help with the environmental cleanup that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Vic Raahauge, a longtime family friend whose Mare Island Ferry Co. boats hauled workers across the Napa River for 64 years, hopes to see shipbuilding revived.
“It’s one of the most updated shipyards in the world,” Raahauge says.
Vallejo Times-Herald Publisher Jimmie Jones, whose father moved to Vallejo for a shipyard job in 1941, says that whatever happens, the most important thing is get the yard from the Navy quickly so buildings and equipment don’t deteriorate.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” says Jones, also on the futures committee.
“But the worst thing now would be to have the Navy try to hang on to the island for an extended period.”
Steve Elliott, a former classmate now in real estate, doesn’t like the potential for slow sales in a town where “For Sale” signs seem as common as the “Save our Shipyard” signs that were part of the futile effort to keep the base open.
But Elliott remains optimistic.
“In the long run, this could be the best thing to ever happen here,” he says, explaining that the closure will speed a shift from a shipyard town to a San Francisco Bay area bedroom community and a possible tourist draw.
In the meantime, problems like unemployment and crime could increase, and hinder the efforts to dump Vallejo’s old image as a rough-and-tumble town.
But Police Lt. Tony Pearsall, another school chum, says the town is “really better than it used to be. It’s not as tough.”
“Over the last five years, the major crime rates have gone down 28%,” Pearsall says. “We’re only averaging eight to 10 homicides a year. Some people think we’re up there with places like Oakland, but it’s just not true.”
How will Vallejo survive the shipyard closure?
“People must get out there and work on the transition,” Pearsall says. “That’s how we’re going to win. We do have control over our future.”