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The Uncanny Isle
Chris Colin | Photo: Carlos Chavarria | April 1, 2014
Google’s banished barge had its mysteries. But then, so does everything that washes up on Treasure Island.
To some residents, the Google project seems to represent the tip of the spear, a first wave of transformation, even if only symbolic. Nearly everyone sort of chuckles about it. One morning I meet a middle-aged guy named Richard who is walking by the water in jean shorts. Muscular and mellow, he has the old-soul look of having lived at least a couple of lives. He’s been on T.I. 20 years, used to work security, now does home care. He laughs about the “big computer” they are building on the barge just over his shoulder. “Hope they know the power still goes out every month or so,” he says. “But it’s great here. It’s calm, and you never get tired of the views. I meditate out here every day.” His sales pitch ends with an aside: “Not many animals around either.”
To the Richards of Treasure Island, the place is a peaceful exception to urban stress. To others, it’s a laboratory for something else entirely. I spend one Sunday night in a nondescript conference room with a man who tells me unsmilingly that his vision is world domination. When he pushes a button, a swanky bar lowers from the ceiling; another button causes a white board to lift and reveal a hidden liquor collection. A clubby version of “Come Together” comes on, and cocktails appear.
We are at World Headquarters, the 25,000-square-foot space curated by entrepreneur Timothy Childs. A party is brewing, filled with fabricators, technologists, and their large and diverse creations. Childs, a Wonka-ish 50-year-old, has been an artist, a conceptual designer, a Burning Man fixture, a 3-D web pioneer, and a space shuttle contractor. He also cofounded Tcho chocolate, which helped put him on his current path: food tech. I join him and some associates as they adjourn to a room overlooking Clipper Cove. He speaks, often closing his eyes for long stretches, of creating the next San Francisco here. “I moved to the city in ’87, in that fertile time that gave rise to the web,” he says. “It was incredible. Then I saw all those creative people get booted in the boom. I want to re-create those conditions again, right here.”
To roam this place on the cusp of massive changes is to encounter a thicket of narratives—about the island’s heart, its purpose, its future—all vying for primacy. On a gray Wednesday morning, I nose my car past some boarded-up apartments and a slew of radiation warning signs to the faded development at the northern tip of the island. Kathryn Lundgren opens the door to her small townhouse with frazzled apologies. Three kids, she explains. Lundgren is an island celeb, however reluctant. She found fame in middle age, or rather it found her, in the form of radioactive waste.
I sit on Lundgren’s sofa, the blinds drawn behind me against the morning light—concealing the sweep of grass where her kids played for years before she learned about the dangerous radiation levels there. As founder of the grassroots Treasure Island Health Network, she’s gotten used to telling her story. Her family first came here nine years ago, lured by the cheap rent, safety, community, and views. But things quickly went south. An array of health issues befell her family members and neighbors alike, she says: rashes, hair loss, cancer, heart trouble, and more. Around the same time, thanks largely to the work of reporters including Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, it emerged that the navy had been less than transparent about radiation risks on T.I. During its long tenure there, the navy had used the island for nuclear decontamination training and for repairing ships possibly exposed to nuclear waste. Lundgren’s street is directly adjacent to the problem sites.
Of course, proving the connection between that history and a contemporary family’s health issues would be virtually impossible. And as a result of the navy’s secrecy, Lundgren and others have developed a kind of boundless suspicion. At one point while we chat, some workers start sawing at the sidewalk out front. Lundgren immediately assumes that it’s more radiation remediation and jokes about being the proud owner of a tinfoil hat. Later I learn that she was right—the workers are from ITSI Gilbane, one of the military’s radiation remediation contractors. Something under the sidewalk made a radiation meter chirp.
Lundgren, for her part, doesn’t say, “I told you so.” Instead a sad smile comes over her face. “I love Treasure Island. We have one of the most functional, diverse communities I’ve ever seen,” she says. “And as soon as I get a good enough offer, I’m moving as far away as I possibly can.”
I say good-bye, then wander between nearby apartment buildings through a fence to the northern edge of the island. The bay and the sky are gray, the only sound water lapping against rocks. I stand there a long time without seeing a single human being. Finally, a shuffling figure in a crimson bathrobe approaches.
Maurice is from Lebanon, he tells me, and has been living on T.I. for over a decade. I feel the urge to ask him some big-picture question about the redevelopment plan, or the barge, or his Job Corps neighbors, but communication is tough. Maybe it’s a language breakdown, or maybe it’s his hearing. “Do you worry about the radiation?” I finally ask. “Lebanon?” he responds. “No, the radiation,” I say again. He smiles. “It’s beautiful here,” he says. “It’s very quiet.”
Originally published in the April Issue of San Francisco.