A Longreads Member Exclusive: 
Deconstructing Mare Island

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This week, we have a Longreads Member Exclusive recommended by one of our members, Boston Review Web Editor David V. Johnson. His pick is Richard White's "Deconstructing Mare Island: Reconnaissance in the Ruins," published in Boom: A Journal of California.

David writes: 

"When it comes to city magazines, America is a land of plenty. When it comes to state and regional magazines, not so much. Sure, Texas Monthly is first rate, and the South also brags the Oxford American and Garden & Gun. But the genre doesn't appear to be as vibrant as it should be. Take California, whose tales have been told by some of America's best writers: Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, Carey McWilliams, Philip K. Dick, Mike Davis and Rebecca Solnit, to name a few favorites. It's no surprise that a state with such a diverse population, huge economy, rich history, and geographic expanse would be the wellspring of great stories. But what is surprising is that despite coming from an immense world, all these tales seem to share a golden essence that make them uniquely Californian, whether they're found north or south of the Orange Curtain, in Silicon Valley or the San Joaquin Valley. California stories are about utopia—about a paradise found, a paradise lost, or a paradise regained. I've long anticipated a magazine to collect these stories, like so many nuggets waiting to be unearthed.
"Eureka! Boom: A Journal of California launched in the Spring of 2011. The quality of writing and artwork has been absolutely superb. There are so many articles I could recommend, including one by the aforementioned Solnit, but I was especially captivated recently by 'Deconstructing Mare Island: Reconnaissance in the Ruins,' a piece on the Carquinez Strait by American West historian and MacArthur 'Genius' Grant recipient Richard White. Before reading the story, I had experienced the Strait exactly the way White says most Californians do: by driving over it. Little did I know that in that body of water and its environs you can trace the rise and fall of California and the nation. White tells of the American Century on Mare Island collapsing into heaps and being sold off as scrap metal to China, to be recast and sold back to us on credit (perhaps as bolts for the new Bay Bridge we can't seem to build ourselves). It also covers the real estate bubble (California's latest one), environmental remediation, sky-high tuition, and municipal bankruptcy. It makes for a profoundly sad read. But don't despair: it also has exquisite ruin porn to rival the Rust Belt's best smut. Enjoy."

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Deconstructing Mare Island: Reconnaissance in the RuinsRichard White | Boom: A Journal of California | Summer 2012 | 18 minutes (4,455 words)

Photos by Jesse White

The Carquinez Strait has become driveover country. Beginning around Vallejo and running roughly six miles to Suisun Bay, Grizzly Bay, and the Sacramento River Delta, the Strait has, in the daily life of California, reduced down to the Carquinez and Benicia-Martinez bridges. Motorists are as likely to be searching for their toll as looking at the land and water below. Few will exit the interstates. Why stop at Martinez, Benicia, Vallejo, Crockett, or Port Costa? They are going west to Napa or San Francisco or east to Sacramento. Like travelers' destinations, California's future also appears to lie elsewhere. Once, much of what moved out of Northern California came through these communities, but now the Strait seems left with only the detritus of California's past.
The detritus still possesses a grim grandeur. To the east, the Mothball Fleet— originally composed of transports and battleships that helped win World War II— cluster tightly together, toxic and rusting, in Suisun Bay. Just west of the bridges, Mare Island (really a peninsula with a slough running through it) sits across the mouth of the Napa River. The United States established a naval base and shipyard there in 1854, and the island remained central to US military efforts from the Civil War through Vietnam. When base closures washed across California, Mare Island Naval Shipyard shut its gates for good in 1996. The Navy transferred most of the island to Vallejo, and over the last decade the base has declined into a kind of industrial Pompeii. A recent quixotic attempt to make it a national park went nowhere: the National Park Service considered even a mostly cleaned-up island too toxic to touch.
Mare Island is a partial ruin among other ruins. Some are inconspicuous, like the lines of posts along the shore at Benicia and Port Costa that once held wharves along which nineteenth-century workers carried bagged wheat to load on schooners bound for England. Others advertise themselves. The Sperry Mill across from Mare Island closed in 2004. A sign across it reads: "For Sale: 707-863-0188." The Sperry Mill succeeded the Starr Mill, which Carleton Watkins photographed in 1869. The Starr Mill had become part of Sperry Mills and then General Mills, before burning down in a spectacular fire in 1934.
All along the Carquinez Strait, past and present cohabit in a grand, confusing jumble. The ugly and the beautiful are not so much juxtaposed as combined. Let the light change, or step back a few yards, and what seemed sad and derelict becomes enchanting. The Carquinez Strait can appear exhausted and worn down, but like California as a whole, it is a resilient place.

Originally published in Boom: A Journal of California, vol. 2, no. 2, Summer 2012. © 2012 by the Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press.

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