TO: Bob Sampayan, Mayor City of Vallejo Bob.Sampayan@cityofvallejo.net (with copies to City Council and City Manager)
December 1, 2019
Dear Mayor Sampayan,
I am writing to express my consternation regarding the recent closure of the Mare Island Preserve. I recently read in a CBS San Francisco report dated October 6th of this year that the city of Vallejo plans to issue a request for qualifications to secure a “vendor” that will manage the Preserve — a shocking turn of events, to say the least. I am quite familiar with the community-managed site and its many benefits. The report of a new tenant taking over the Preserve (presumably away from community management) raises a series of questions: What land use does the city seek to impose upon this open space? Why is the community apparently in the dark about this planning process? What will the Preserve become in the future, and what would ultimately be lost?
I have visited and used the Preserve in various capacities: as a college instructor; as an artist and researcher; and, as a Bay Area resident enjoying the outdoors. As a University of California – Davis faculty member, I have brought groups of scholars and students to visit the community- managed Mare Island Preserve. We have learned irreplaceable lessons about urban ecology, environmental history, civil rights, and community planning. To be clear, given the concerns I have read about, I and everyone I have brought have (to my knowledge) always felt safe there. The Preserve has been well-managed and dutifully cared for by Ms. Myrna Hayes and the dedicated volunteers.
But it is not just about careful management. What the community has created at Mare Island is a unique non-commercial engagement with the place. Last year, I led a tour that brought scholars from several UC campuses and guest colleagues visiting from the University of Sydney, Australia. If I may summarize the general mood of that day, we were very impressed by the inclusive commitment to caring for the open space without fussiness and with attentiveness to the land as a result of its past rather than in spite of it. Yet romanticized commercialization of the historic landscape is what might happen to this property in the months and years to come, I’m afraid.
In 2013, as an instructor at UC Berkeley at the time, I brought my urban field studies undergraduate class to experience the historic bunkers and the landscape resources. We never had any problems. What we have been able to take away from Mare Island are lasting
impressions that teach us how ecological preservation can simultaneously provide historical resources, year-round cultural programming, and informal community. This invaluable combination cannot be duplicated on a university campus or classroom. The site itself is the lesson. Sacrificing what the community has slowly built over time is shortsighted at best and criminal at worst.
Furthermore, I have conducted both my own original research at Mare Island (published in several venues) as well as in collaboration with the Bancroft Library. What the community has preserved in terms of lasting knowledge of the military past has no other archive like this place itself. The architecture of the shoreline is a unique site of national and international importance. As I imagine you’re aware, the Vallejo shoreline was the setting of the 1944 Port Chicago strike taken up by segregated Black sailors as a stand against plantation-like treatment in the Navy, and, more broadly, for equal rights. Given the infrastructure of the sewage plant on the Vallejo side of the strait, the Preserve (having the original buildings of the ammunition depot, in fact) is the only setting in which to convey this vital past in direct contact with the context of that history.
Historian Richard White has written quite gracefully about Mare Island and the Preserve, saying: “These are not people expecting to make money; these are people who see something in this torn-up place and value it. Good sense, generosity, and an appreciation for the beauties of what we have are not going to get us out of the emblematic messes along the Strait; but without them, we don’t stand a chance.” I urge the mayor’s office, the city manager, the city council, and city staff to be aware of the irreplaceable accomplishments of the Preserve and what gets lost forever if the site gets turned over to a private entity to manage. I also hope that moving forward, the city can be more forthcoming about what is happening at Mare Island and what their plans are for the Preserve site. Kicking out the community from the Preserve would be a self-inflected harm on the part of the city. It also happens to affect—perhaps with irreversible consequences—the social, environmental, and historical work that many of us do in Vallejo.
There are, I’m sure, many ways we can think of making the Preserve more accessible for everyone near and far, including as a regional park or helping to open it more days of the year. The volunteers of the Preserve have demonstrated capacity and can do so right away. I urge you to reopen a dialog as public officials should, and in the meantime, to reopen the gates immediately. Please contact me if I can be of any assistance to the city in better understanding the assets that Vallejo already has, and not carelessly destroy them.
Javier Arbona, PhD
Assistant Professor, UC Davis
Departments: American Studies; Design
Affiliate Faculty: Cultural Studies; Geography; Community Development Founder / member: demilit landscape collective