California’s Treasure Island

“It looks like a zombie apocalypse out here.”

More than one local says this of San Francisco’s Treasure Island, an often ignored artificial isle built on dredged sand. And at first sight of the mysterious island, reached halfway across the Bay Bridge, I have to agree.

Around me, on wide empty streets, I see paint peeling off rows of glum pre-fab wood buildings with boarded-up windows. The squat gray building rimmed with barbed wire turns out to be an old jail. Most of the 2,000 or so residents here live in weary carport duplexes past a towering pile of landfill. (At least, I see no zombies.)

But that’s just the limited view of Treasure Island.

Another takes in the view itself (its west-facing palm-lined walkway offers probably the best look at San Francisco you’ve never seen). Or, deeper below the surface, you can glimpse a budding entrepreneurial spirit, evident in a handful of wineries, distilleries, and art studios. Together these trailblazers hope to direct an island still undergoing a transition from military hands to city control. Or show how “Made in San Francisco” is a possibility.

“What we want to do out here is show how you can still make stuff in San Francisco,” says Jim Mirowski of Treasure Island Wines. “The city wants more than just high-tech kids. And here you have a little more space and freedom to show a model of what that can be.”

In 2007, Jim founded this winery/incubator out of a 11,000-square-foot commissary built during WWII when the island processed 4.5 million soldiers bound for the Pacific. It’s “pretty funky,” Jim says. (A co-worker cheekily offers an umbrella when I notice the buckets catching water from one of the leaks from the roof.) Despite that, five urban wineries share it, including baseball manager Dusty Baker’s new foray into wine.

“People still don’t know you even can come on Treasure Island. But it’s changing,” Jim says, particularly on weekends when half a dozen tasting rooms on the island are open. Or for its popular flea market on the last weekend of the month or during the music festival in October.

For years I didn’t know you could come here. Fifteen years ago I lived in San Francisco and worked in Oakland; by my estimate, I crossed that big Bay Bridge at least 2,200 times without once detouring off onto Treasure Island via its attached neighbor, Yerba Buena Island.

For my debut now, I make my first stop at the island’s first stop. Down the road from the bridge turnoff, I immediately spot the curving facade of 1 Avenue of the Palms, an art deco stunner built to be a terminal for San Francisco’s airport in 1938. For a couple of years Pan Am’s “China Clippers” began a six-day ride to Asia from here, but the U.S. Navy took over the island after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and SFO was born farther south.

Inside a sprawling entry hall (which served as a Berlin airport in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), I breeze past historic panels of the island’s mostly defunct museum and eye dramatic murals above. Below, sitting alone in the vast space, is Stu, a guard in a blue jacket and scarf. I pause to chat.

“Most people know about other WPA projects, like the Hoover Dam, but not realize the Bay Bridge was one too,” he says proudly. “The city wanted to celebrate by hosting a world’s fair, but New York already was hosting it. They didn’t let that stop them.”

He’s talking about the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40. During the expo, Judy Garland came to sing in an “entertainment zone” that featured such delights as Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch (semi-nude cowgirls) and an eerie Europe map with adjustable borders to reflect the latest Nazi invasions.

Afterwards I walk past a bayside churro stand on the well-named Avenue of the Palms, looking back to see that San Francisco is enduring rain while I enjoy pockets of sun. A couple hundred yards down the path, I see the 45-foot “Bliss,” a 2011 stainless steel mesh figure of a dancing woman built by artist Marco Cochrane, who works on the island. (A year ago, rust started to wear on its skeleton and the artist raised nearly $20,000 to add a coating protecting it from the sea air.)

Signs around the island point to a handful of locations to hunt out: mostly tasting rooms and a pizza place, but also the island’s newest option, Aracely, a surprisingly slick brunch spot in an unlikely back street between housing and a park used for rugby games.

I go for a garlic-heavy pork-belly benedict and a kale shake. Firefighters, who train on the island, drop by for coffee as I speak with owner Linda Edson, who recently moved her business here from San Francisco’s Potrero Hill after her restaurant site was “demolished to build a condo.”

She says, “I like it here a lot actually. It’s just so different. There’s parking. And the people are just so thankful to have us.”

That night I venture into the Teabag, as locals like calling the boxy Treasure Island Bar & Grill by the pocket marina. I order a burrito and a beer and restlessly thumb through Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, while keeping an eye on an Oakland Raiders game.

“Can I ask about this book? Sorry.” The voice is attached to a thirty-something guy in work clothes and a knock-off designer rain jacket. “Just to ask why you’re reading it. Is it for Kerouac? Or for Big Sur?”

That’s a tough one, so I invited Byron to sit. He’s from Montana, a former “egotist,” who’s lived on Yerba Buena for four years.

“May I?”

He picks up the book, opens it to my bookmark. “Oh section 14? Good, my favorite number.” He weighs it in his palms, almost like a preacher valuing the word of a Bible, then returns to his beer. He’s never read Kerouac.

“Something on your path has brought you to this place,” he guesses, and I gamely listen. “I’m not sure what it’s in this book. But it’s here,” he says, meaning the island. “It’s a magical place.”

Part of it is that Mother Nature, as Byron puts it, “turns and appears” in various places. “Like in Vienna, from 1895 to 1910 or 1915,” he says specifically, and surprisingly soberly. “And for whatever reason it’s been here, around San Francisco, since 1960. You know this.”

I’m not sure I do. Or whether I should make my exit.

“You clearly have a perception of places more than most people.”

All right, go on.

He draws me a map, outlining a trail to take across Yerba Buena Island, on paths in the eucalyptus trees, looking across the Bay Bridge on either side, and toward two cities—San Francisco and Oakland—who scarcely know people live here.

“Promise me you’ll do this.” I promise. (And, the next morning, I do take the Byron walk, getting my boots muddy on a path called Goat Way.)

Then Byron lets me go with a question. “How can you know a place by just driving by?”

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Getting There
From San Francisco, there’s no toll to cross half the Bay Bridge to reach Yerba Buena and Treasure Island. (Stick to the left lane, and watch for that suddenly swerving exit!) Otherwise MUNI Bus No. 108 connects the island with downtown.

A bike trail connecting Oakland is set to open in 2015.

The island is spread out, and easiest handled by bike or car.

What to See
The Treasure Island Museum is at 1 Avenue of the Palms, with panels telling of the island’s creation, the world expo that transformed it, and the long naval period.

The “Bliss” statue is remarkable, backed by the San Francisco skyline and the western span of the Bay Bridge.

On Yerba Buena Island, you can follow the signs to Nimitz Mansion, where the WWII fleet admiral lived (and died) after the war. There’s no plaque or entrance. Not sure what Nimitz would have made of the direct views of the new Bay Bridge from his porch.

Closer to the road heading into Treasure Island are steep steps leading down to a small beach on the island’s northeastern shore. Definitely can’t see that from the bridge.

What to Eat and Drink
The Treasure Island Bar & Grill (60 Clipper Cove Way) serves burgers, burritos, and fish sandwiches, and fills with after-work drinkers. Across the island, at 13th Street, Aracely is open for lunch only.

Treasure Island Wines is the best place to see local wine being made—and to taste it, on weekends. There’s also The Winery-San Francisco—you can’t miss its hangar location behind the museum.

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