Our Town: A Literary History

Michael Lewis’s new book, Boomerang, is about the parts of the globe that were downgraded by the credit crisis, and my hometown of Vallejo, California, concludes his world tour like a telegraph from the end of days. From Lewis’s book, I learned that I grew up in what is now the third world. “Which city do you pity most?” Lewis asks two mayoral aides in San Jose, capital of Silicon Valley. “Vallejo!” they laugh.

I can always count on ill news from home, like springs popping from a tightly wound watch. Maybe you remember the D.C. Madam scandal, when Deborah Jeanne Palfrey threatened to blackmail her client list if they didn’t back up her story that her call girls were demure, legal escorts. She ran her prostitution ring remotely from Vallejo before being convicted of racketeering (and hanged herself before she went to prison).

Or maybe you heard that the Vallejo school district declared Chapter 9 a few years ago. But more likely you’ve read about the city’s bankruptcy, which Lewis first wrote about for Vanity Fair and which the New York Times Magazine sketched as a case study in municipal meltdown, foreshadowing nationwide urban fiscal calamity.

Vallejo’s books aren’t our only problem. During the economic boom local home prices rose, finally hitching a ride on the San Francisco Bay Area’s real estate balloon. That made us fall all the harder with the crash. When I was home visiting family last summer, the Wall Street Journal featured a local family who was renting the home they once owned from a hedge fund that now holds the note. Vallejo’s foreclosure rate was the fourth highest in the nation in 2011.

Vallejo is a small city in Northern California, about an hour from anywhere else. Most people drive Interstate 80 right through Vallejo on their way to more arresting addresses like San Francisco, Tahoe, or Berkeley, where Lewis lives. It’s Vallejo’s seeming drive-by anonymity that grabs most parachuting pundits. From this vantage, they see Vallejo as a financial and cultural tabula rasa, the short sale at the end of the universe. “Weeds surround abandoned businesses,” Lewis solemnly notes in Vallejo, as if he’d never walked down Telegraph Avenue in his own hometown.

But for a bypass city on the precipice of doom, Vallejo has a surprisingly rich literary legacy. Hidden in that legacy, and from the view of journalists looking for an easy narrative precedent for the next great municipal bankruptcy, is the economic context necessary for understanding Vallejo’s current fate. This context gives lie to their simple stories of boom and gloom.

IN HIS memoir Where White Men Fear to Tread, the American-Indian activist Russell Means dedicated an entire chapter to Vallejo, writing warmly and nostalgically of youthful freedom spent there. In I Want to Take You Higher, Jeff Kaliss writes about the Vallejo churches that nurtured Sly and the Family Stone, who started singing in a mixed-race group in my high school. In Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms, Ed Rollins, who directed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign, dedicated a chapter to Vallejo. The New York Review of Books noted last March that the 1960s is buried in Vallejo: Meredith Hunter, who was killed at the Rolling Stones’s Altamont concert in 1969, lies in an unmarked grave in the Skyview Memorial Lawn in the town. Joan Didion wrote in The White Album about driving across the Carquinez Straits on her way to San Francisco and being unable to return her Budget rental car in Vallejo, an enigmatic metaphor that appealed to me when I read it as a teenager.

I grew up next door to the town historian, Ernest Wichels, a man of elephantine memory and longevity. He served as the assistant to the commandant of Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo and published a book about the shipyard, Sidewheelers to Nuclear Power. Mare Island was named for an escaped prize mare of Mariano Vallejo, the town’s namesake and an early leader of the state.

Mare Island built the world’s first aircraft carrier deck for $500 and the first cruise-missile submarine for considerably more. It held the record for fastest ship construction during the First World War. Mare Island decommissioned the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, and refurbished the Seawolf, another nuclear sub, after it was nearly sunk while trying to tap underwater communications cables in Soviet territorial waters. I learned about the Seawolf’s secret mission from Blind Man’s Bluff, a gripping read detailing many of the yard’s Cold War exploits.

Founded before the Civil War, Mare Island was the oldest naval base on the West Coast until its closure in 1996 during a comprehensive post–Cold War military restructuring that effectively shut down every major military base in the Bay Area. I have been surprised to find this detail missing from recent reporting about Vallejo. When Mare Island closed, 25,000 jobs disappeared and $500 million in annual income evaporated from the community. While the local debate and national focus have centered on the police and fire unions and the chunk of the city budget they have absorbed, the larger macroeconomic picture has been obscured: the federal government was Vallejo’s economic dynamo. The city never really recovered.

Looking at our census data is proof enough of that. The population grew by double digits every decade after the Second World War but has stagnated since 2000 at about 115,000. The best jobs disappeared and the tax base failed to expand. After the closure the city built some roads to encourage business development, and the Navy cleaned up the yard. Some false starts followed. A ship-breaker hauled in some old hulks, declared bankruptcy, and left the wrecks to rot on our waterfront. While working for my congressman I met an entrepreneur who wanted federal funds to match shadowy Asian investors he’d lined up to build a wing-in-ground effect aircraft, a kind of souped-up flying boat, at the yard. When I told him the Soviets spent decades trying to make this aircraft work but couldn’t keep water from wrecking their engines, I never heard from him again.

Eventually a bona fide ship-breaker moved in and a few businesses along with a medical school occupied Mare Island, but they employ less than a tenth of the people who previously worked there. It doesn’t take an economist to argue that a collapse in the job base combined with static population growth would precipitate financial malaise in the best of times. But no economist I can find has argued that. Instead, the public safety unions have been tossed in with the bogey men du jour—teachers and civil servants—as the cause of our national financial troubles. Vallejo was supposed to benefit from the peace dividend—the anticipated economic benefits to communities following decreased defense spending after the Cold War—but it didn’t, and only pain has resulted.

BOOMERANG DOESN’T mention Mare Island and the lost jobs after the 1996 closure, and it doesn’t begin to comprehend how the people in this multiethnic town—one-third white, one-third Asian, one-third black—live now. To do so would undermine Lewis’s argument that we all took the ride of our lives on cheap credit during the 2000s. But without these details, we miss what Vallejo’s story really shows us: the indispensability of government services and spending, especially when entire communities are built around them.

One of Lewis’s subjects tells him that there is no reason why Vallejo shouldn’t be like one of its neighbors—something I’ve often remarked to myself and friends. It has a state university, a medical school, a theme park, a perfect climate, and an enviable location smack on San Francisco Bay. I can see Mt. Tamalpias from my old bedroom and Mt. Diablo from my brother’s. But Vallejo isn’t its neighbors. And that is probably because Mare Island was always there—a working man’s Mecca bounded by saltwater and vineyards. Vallejo is a striver’s town, a strapper’s city. And what moved people and their kids up was Mare Island.

Ed Rollins’s father worked nearly thirty years at Mare Island—the chapter in his book dedicated to his upbringing is titled “Son of a Shipyard”—and Russell Means writes that his father could always depend on work as a welder there. The Stewart family (of the Family Stone) didn’t work at Mare Island but thousands of African Americans who moved to Vallejo did, including a family friend, Jesse M. Bethel. An orphan who saw Thurgood Marshall argue a case in rural Oklahoma and dreamed of becoming a civil rights lawyer, he served as Mare Island’s first black chemist on a military deferment during the Second World War. He retired as chief of his division after three decades but not before putting his son through law school and serving four terms in local elected office. His story can be found on the official website of the Jesse M. Bethel High School in Vallejo.

When a community’s economic foundation crumbles, such upward mobility falls with it. I’m afraid that was lost when Mare Island closed.

Vallejo emerged from bankruptcy protection late last year with shrunken services, higher taxes, and fewer cops. The bankruptcy hides Vallejo’s real story, and few people have been willing to learn from it. So here is the lesson: it is damned hard business rebuilding a working town when you take all the jobs away. You can blame the unions, and the public sector, and the credit crunch, and corporate greed and stupidity, but that simple cold dumb fact keeps staring back at me. I can’t get around it and I’d like people to stop casting my city as our common lot. Vallejo’s history won’t support their prophecy of American urban decline. We’re a smarter, older, richer, deeper, and harder-luck town than that and we’ll be teaching that lesson when the next hard time comes around.

James Thomas Snyder was born at Fort Ord, California, and raised in Vallejo. A former U.S. Congressional speechwriter and member of the NATO International Staff, he lives in Virginia with his wife and children.

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