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Post-Apocalyptic Landscapes In Your Backyard: San Francisco's Treasure Island

Who needs theme parks when a real vision of the apocalypse is only an abandoned Navy base away?
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Publish date:
April 8, 2012
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san francisco, travel, cool places, wish you were here

Recently, I headed out to Treasure Island, my old stomping ground, with a friend.

For those not familiar with the history of Treasure Island, it’s an artificially created island that was constructed in the 1930s for the World’s Fair. It was slated for conversion to an airport after the Fair, but World War Two intervened, and the Navy took it over, creating a base that was decommissioned in 1997. I've been obsessed with it pretty much ever since.

So much so, in fact, that I used to live here.

Abandoned landscapes are par for the course

The result of TI's tumultuous history has been the creation of an amazing post-apocalpytic landscape filled with abandoned buildings and great empty stretches of road, right in the middle of San Francisco Bay. I tremble to think of the value of the real estate occupied by the Island, and so do developers, who have been salivating over it for years, and proposing various development plans that keep getting derailed.

One of the reasons they’re having trouble developing the Island is because of the economy.

The other reason is that it’s heavily contaminated, and the Navy has a lot of cleaning up to do before it can be safe for use. I’m not kidding when I say it has a post-apocalyptic feel, complete with radiation hazard signs warning of the dire effects of trespassing through the wrong fences. It’s pretty much exactly what I imagine when I think of a world after some great and epic event that totally changes life for humankind.

Which means, of course, that it's really fun to roam around in, particularly at night when everything starts to get deeply creepy. Not that I have done this, of course, but I imagine going into some of the buildings would be totally fascinating; though, naturally, perilous due to contamination so of course I wouldn't recommend it. At all.

The old bowling alley

There's a strange mix of usable housing clustered at the northern tip of the Island, decaying buildings, and random reclaimed structures being used for everything from preschools to winery storefronts. The mixed uses of Treasure Island astound me; we wandered abandoned tennis courts while listening to Little Leaguers play a game a few yards away. Plants determinedly struggle up every which way, cracking the once-immaculate sidewalks, which are caked in bits of broken glass and mysterious debris.

I got a bit nostalgic for my own time on the Island, remembering late nights sitting on the seawall, block parties, field trips to the sewage plant. Oh, what a wild life we led!

The fire department's training facility

Firefighters train on the Island and there’s a neat fenced-in area where they keep various practice structures ready for use. When I lived on the Island, I used to see them out there training sometimes, or relaxing on the tailgates of their trucks, half-dressed in bunkers, dripping with sweat, swigging water before going in for another round.

The new span of the Bay Bridge looms partially completed off to the south of the Island; they’ve started putting the cables on and they look huge from the ground, so I can’t even imagine how big they are up close and in person. We went on the weekend, when no one was working, and there was a strange air of suspended humanity about the bridge. Cars weren’t visible and the wind carried away any vehicle sounds, so it looked like an empty, abandoned bridge that was slowly crumpling into the waters of the Bay.

The end of the world

I love abandoned places.

On an intellectual level, I want to rail about them; it’s annoying to see urban sprawl when there are usable spaces that could be converted and utilized. I favor dense development for environmental and social reasons and should resent abandoned places as a symbol of waste and uselessness. Sites like Treasure Island are doubly frustrating because of the high level of contamination, which reflects decades of careless use by the military and a legacy of environmental recklessness.

But I can’t bring myself to hate abandoned spaces when I’m in them, because I love wandering through them. Their collapsing buildings and cracked sidewalks, broken glass and boarded-up structures, abandoned mysterious objects that once had a use. Plants slowly reclaiming ground, animals slinking around between the structures.

These plants laugh in the face of sea salt and pollution

It’s like a vision of the future, or at least one version of the future. I start to imagine that I’m the only person left on Earth, wandering through the relics of a totally collapsed society and fishing through these strange artifacts that people left behind. In the abandoned and unsafe Navy housing, you can find pizza delivery fliers from 1993, perfectly preserved and tossed on the counter like someone stashed them there before running out the door. There are old phone books, and photographs, and dishes that didn’t make the move.

You start to feel like you’re interrupting something or disturbing a sanctum that should have been left alone. Voyeuristic.

They aren’t going to let Treasure Island stay like this forever; the real estate is too valuable. For now, though, it’s a fascinating time capsule that goes both ways. To your left, you can look into the past, and to your right, you can see a terrifying vision of the future.

Who needs theme parks when a real vision of the apocalypse is only an abandoned Navy base away?

This area is under environmental remediation.

Getting There

Treasure Island is accessible from both San Francisco and the East Bay by car; you will be exiting the Bay Bridge on the left, though, so watch out! Both exits have a very sharp turn so get ready to go from 65 to about 15 in less than three seconds. Once you’re on the Island, follow the wraparound road to the gatehouse.

Some people like to park by the gatehouse to look at the pretty incredible view across the Bay and into downtown San Francisco. It’s especially amazing at night. You can also drive through (if there’s a guard there, stop and wave!) and wander the roads of the Island from there. Parking is, as you might imagine, plentiful, easy and free.

Via public transit, the MUNI 108 covers Treasure Island; East Bay-based adventurers will need to BART into the City and get off at Embarcadero to catch the 108 at the Transbay Temporary Terminal.The Island is largely wheelchair/scooter/stroller accessible because of the mix of large open spaces and low traffic. Do watch out for debris, which can play havoc with your tires.