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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Radicals in City Hall: An American Tradition

Socialist Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle City Council in November 2013 made national news, a kind of “man bites dog” story that the media found shocking and irresistible. The Los Angeles Times’s front-page article described Sawant as “41-year-old software-engineer-turned-far-left-sweetheart.” The Seattle Times called her “the council’s first socialist member in modern history.”

In fact, the United States has a long tradition of municipal socialism. One hundred years ago, at the Socialist Party’s high point, about 1,200 party members held public office in 340 cities, including seventy‑nine mayors in cities such as Milwaukee, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Reading, and Schenectady. (Before Sawant, the last socialist to get elected in Seattle was journalist Anna Louise Strong, who won a seat on the School Board in 1916). These local leaders, whose ranks included working-class labor union members and middle-class radicals such as teachers, clergy, and lawyers, worked alongside progressive reformers to improve living and working conditions in the nation’s burgeoning cities. In today’s hyper-capitalist economy, their experience may still offer some lessons for contemporary activists.

Seattle political analysts are still trying to assess how Sawant—who beat sixteen-year incumbent Richard Conlin by a slim margin despite being outspent more than two to one—managed to pull off her remarkable upset. Her effective grassroots campaign and knack for proposing policy ideas that seemed both radical and reasonable played a key role. But Sawant’s victory is also a result of the growing unease—in Seattle and across the country—with widening inequality and the growing influence of big business in politics. Much of this was expressed by the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in September 2011, but while Occupy activists have generally eschewed electoral politics as a strategy for change, their message has continued to resonate with the American public, and many mainstream politicians and pundits have embraced the “1 percent vs. 99 percent” theme.

On the same day that Sawant won her city council seat, progressives and radicals around the country won a number of significant local victories. The most celebrated was Bill de Blasio’s landslide election to the New York City mayoralty on a platform challenging the city’s growing inequality and gentrification. Minneapolis voters elected City Council member Betsy Hodges—a longtime activist with the progressive grassroots group Take Action Minnesota who called on people to “free ourselves from the fear that keeps us locked into patterns of inequality”—as their new mayor. Another longtime Take Action Minnesota member, Dai Thao, became the first Hmong city council member in the St. Paul’s history. In Minneapolis, Ty Moore, an Occupy organizer and Socialist Alternative candidate, narrowly lost a contest for City Council. Meanwhile, Boston voters catapulted union leader and state legislator Martin Walsh into the mayor’s office, despite business-led efforts to lambast him as a radical.

One of Sawant’s key campaign platforms was a pledge to push for a $15-an-hour municipal minimum wage. This might have seemed outrageous a year ago, but on the same day Seattle voters elected Sawant, voters in the adjacent suburb of Seatac approved that same minimum wage for about 6,000 workers at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and airport-related businesses, including hotels, car-rental agencies, and parking lots. Both Seattle’s defeated incumbent mayor, Mike McGinn, and his successor Ed Murray endorsed the Seatac initiative and raised the possibility of doing the same thing in Washington’s largest city. (San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque already have municipal minimum wages).

Neither Sawant’s affiliation with the small Trotskyist group Socialist Alternative—a branch of the British-based Committee for a Workers International—nor her immigrant background seem to have impeded her campaign. Sawant grew up in Mumbai, India, where she received a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and in 1994 moved to the United States with her husband, abandoning her career in computers for a Ph.D. in economics. She became a U.S. citizen in 2010 and teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College.

Sawant was well-known in Seattle’s activist community long before winning public office. After city officials removed Occupy protesters from Westlake Park, Sawant helped them find a friendlier, though temporary, home on the SCCC campus. She was also one of several Occupy activists arrested for blocking King County sheriff’s deputies from evicting a man from his home and a regular participant at protests led by striking fast-food workers and cab drivers. Her activism shaped her campaign platform. In addition to calling for a citywide minimum wage, Sawant also called for rent control to address Seattle’s skyrocketing housing costs, a millionaire’s tax to fund mass transit and education, and universal pre-school.

None of these pronouncements distinguish Sawant from what many other progressives have called for. But Sawant’s political program goes a step further, calling for what Michael Harrington once called the “left wing of the possible.” For example, in response to Boeing’s threat to move its airplane production operation out of Seattle unless it gets major concessions from the machinists union and large tax breaks from the state legislature, Sawant joined with union members who boldly rejected the company’s give-back demands. “We don’t need the executives!” she said at the union rally. “We need Boeing to be under democratic public ownership by workers—by the community.”

As the only socialist on the nine-member City Council, Sawant isn’t about to transform Seattle into a Pacific Northwest replica of Sweden. Indeed, it isn’t clear yet whether she has the patience, pragmatism, or political skill to successfully walk the tightrope of a being a radical in municipal government—of being an insider and an outsider at the same time. Her effectiveness will depend on her ability to work with Seattle’s progressives—unions, community organizing groups, environmentalists, and others—to mobilize support for a common agenda, and then to push her liberal colleagues on the City Council as well as newly-elected Mayor Murray, also a liberal, to embrace a bolder vision of urban progressivism.

That was the strategy adopted a century ago by America’s urban progressives and socialists. In the first decades of the twentieth century, new technologies made possible new industries, which generated great riches for the fortunate few at the expense of workers, many of them immigrants, who worked long hours, under dangerous conditions and for little pay, in the nation’s burgeoning cities. Out of the poverty, slums, child labor, epidemics, sweatshops, and ethnic conflict that afflicted America’s industrializing cities emerged a coalition of immigrants, unionists, radicalized farmers, middle-class suffragists, clergy, and upper-class philanthropists. Progressive reformers fought alongside radical socialists to champion child labor laws, women’s suffrage, and the establishment of public hospitals and clinics while leashing the power of landlords, banks, railroads, and utility companies.

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