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Held Fast: How Renegade "Squatters" Won Sausalito's Houseboat Wars 

Wednesday, Sep 16 2015
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Liquid slowly trickled into the translucent gun. Most splashed around the small hole on top of what would have been the trigger. But we were determined — three boys without shame, stuffed into a small bathroom — and drop-by-drop the little plastic pistol became heavy. When it was full, we carried the gun, warm and heavy with urine, like a bomb that might go off. Thus armed, we clambered off my boat, the Delta Queen, down the dock, and across Bridgeway Street's double yellow lines in search of our adversaries.

We found our enemies — a group of "hill kids" we'd been skirmishing with for days — near the library. We opened fire, but they only laughed when the low-pressure gun's weak spray misted them. Then came the payoff: "That's our piss!" we cawed, while scrambling for the safety of a locked pilothouse nearby, laughing in their desperate, ammonia-scented faces as they tried to break in.

The three of us — Roan, Noah, and me — were only eight or nine years old at the time, but we loathed those hill kids — and their entire families. We had good reason to hate. Our parents had taught us to see them and their kind as our enemy.

From the early 1970s until this century, the hill kids and us were on opposite sides of an unusual real estate battle that took place on the Sausalito waterfront where we lived.

Developers and their allies on the hill wrangled with renegades (including my family) over the houseboats anchored in Richardson Bay, as well as over the land and water on which we lived for next to nothing — and, in some cases, for free.

"Imagine if you can, a mile of waterfront property in the tourist mecca of Sausalito, Marin County, occupied by pirates, artists, fishermen, counterculture and other social ne'er-do-wells, living on all manner of floating objects with the permission and approval of the property owner," wrote Jeff Costello, a combatant in the wars and a family friend, in the Anderson Valley Advertiser: "A lot of valuable real estate was going to waste. That is the crux of the matter."

While lawyers and politicians squabbled in courtrooms and legislative chambers over the prime real estate we'd occupied and then raised families on, out on the docks, the matter became a literal battle.

Barges were scuttled in the water to block development, while developers' thugs dismantled warehouses under the cover of darkness. Bulldozers destroyed homes, in some cases with people still in them, and sheriff's deputies arrested those who stood in the way.

What happened in Sausalito during the "Houseboat Wars" is happening today in the Bay Area, where cutthroat developers eye East Palo Alto trailer parks, Market Street artists' lofts, and other offbeat enclaves as lucrative "opportunities."

The setting is different — tony Sausalito is on the Marin County waterfront, only minutes from some of America's richest zip codes — but our fight is familiar to anyone engaged in the struggle over the future of the Bay Area's funky, artistic, and poor.

Except in our case, the bums won.

Today, two waterfront communities of past and former "squatters" — both co-ops — remain on the Sausalito shoreline. Now prized by the town as proof that Sausalito has soul, hoseboats are also testament to our victory.

This is the story of my childhood among anarchist pirates, and their time on the front lines of a war waged against developers, elected officials, and townsfolk who wanted us gone.


My earliest memories are of a warren of rickety docks stretching across the low tide to our boat, a single room structure built by my father.

The smell of burning kerosene lanterns, our only light, choked the air. Packs of wild dogs roved the waterfront, fucking and fighting at all hours.

Our neighbors were bearded pirate men like my father, with high boots and long knives; beautiful, half-naked women; and children as feral as the dogs, all keeping a wary distance from the drunks camped in the muddy parking lot in sight of our boats.

This environment fostered creativity. Philosopher Alan Watts and painter Jean Varda lived here, on the ferryboat Vallejo. Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth catalogue and co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, lived nearby. Phil Frank, the cartoonist whose San Francisco-based comic strip Farley became syndicated nationally, lived on the waterfront, as did mask maker Annie Hallatt, who operated her business from her houseboat. The Antenna Theater, the brainchild of Chris Hardman, started as a waterfront playhouse.

People were known by nicknames. There was the Green Death, Boats, and Captain Garbage. Woodstock, a leather-clad, shoeless man with a giant beard, roared down Gate 5 Road on his broad-handled bike, a Hell's Angel in spirit if not in fact. Deep Diving Doug (who was indeed a diver), once took me pigeon hunting under the pier with a pitchfork. Barefoot Dawn, enigmatic behind midnight-colored sunglasses, once came upon me just after a fist-sized rusty piling staple had stuck me in the chest and lodged just milliliters from a lung.

Dawn simply plucked it out and drove me home, delivering me and the staple to my mom.

This was life in Richardson Bay, an array of shacks, boat yards, and other ramshackle structures that covered Sausalito's northern edges and jutted into the water. Beached, anchored, and rotting boats formed a chaotic residential fleet. Decommissioned ferry boats beached in mud flats served as townhomes, and makeshift docks rambled around what was a vast floating village.

This village's beginnings can be traced to World War II and the war effort's insatiable appetite for ships.

Within a year of the attack on Pearl Harbor, sleepy Sausalito had been transformed into a giant shipyard. Bechtel Co., then and now a key defense contractor, seized nearby land and, with two weeks' notice, displaced local residents in order to build "Marinship," where 20,000 workers would toil over Liberty ships and oil tankers. By war's end, nearly 100 ships had been built.


About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

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