I have seen Vallejo's future, and its name is Major Catastrophe.
No, not that catastrophe.
Admittedly, my humble hometown did indeed become nationally, even internationally, renowned for being the largest California city ever to disappear beneath the surface of its own red ink. Although it has since surrendered that distinction to Stockton.
Faced with tax revenue ravaged by the economic meltdown and unable to chisel out a deal with its public safety unions – whose wage and benefit obligations consumed almost 80 percent of the general fund – Vallejo sought protection under Chapter 9 of the bankruptcy code, hoping a federal judge could serve as Official Adult in the Room. With strong-arm blowhards on one side, finger-wagging bean counters the other, the city became a civic laughingstock, ruining its credit, decimating services, carving down its fire and police staffing to the brutal bone, scaring off business, embittering the citizenry, paralyzing City Hall.
It took too long and cost too much, but bankruptcy did give the town the chance to "reorganize," as they say. It emerged from the proceedings wobbly but walking. Unfortunately, it had no choice but to walk right back into the same financial quagmire: the foreclosure crisis, that mirthless practical joke the financial sector, those madcap imps, inflicted on us all.
It settled on Vallejo like a fog-borne plague, creating a candy store of empty houses that lured into our midst every stoner, pimp, squatter, streetwalker and garden-variety deadbeat who could muddle his way off the interstate. Or so at least it seemed for a while.
This army of parasites took up residence in the vacant homes of their choosing, setting up shop – brothels, grow houses, meth labs – or gutting the place for its copper, its porcelain, its fixtures, its windows, its decorative stone, its doors. They dragooned their kids into the scam so the city wouldn't cut off water. They conned the banks into paying them to leave – "Cash for Keys," the geniuses call it – then trundled on to the next house and settled in again.
Vallejo's motto – City of Opportunity – devolved into its sinister cousin: Area of Opportunity, a term used by law enforcement to describe a city whose radically reduced police presence creates a magnet for skeevy out-of-towners.
Crime shot up, a stellar cop was killed, business waited on the sidelines – where are those risk-takers the pundits are always yodeling about? – while far too many of the town's citizens happily indulged in an orgy of blame: Unions pointing the finger at yuppies, evangelicals at gays, gays at gangs, old-timers at newcomers, dogs at cats.
But none of that is the Major Catastrophe of whom I cheerfully – nay, triumphantly – speak.
The very modern Major, aka Shannon O'Hare – picture a suntanned carpenter with the curly locks and pointed beard of Benjamin Disraeli – is a gentle mischievous genius who, with fellow gearheads-cum-artists Dave Wilson, Kimric Smythe and Victor John, and in conjunction with the 25-or-so merrily mad souls who make up the Traveling Academy of Unnatural Science, form the intellectual, aesthetic and mechanical oomph behind the Neverwas Project and Obtainium Works, the place where dreams – and Vallejo's future – are being born.
The Neverwas Project, the force behind the Mad Hatter Festival held the past two Christmases in downtown Vallejo, is an ad hoc collective of holy fools who've matriculated through the underground workshops and outdoor happenings of San Francisco's Cacophony Society and Survival Research Laboratories, where fire-spitting robots battled to the death in the foggy night. Over the past decade, they've moved on to the Maker Faire and the current Mecca of no-holds-barred iconoclasm, Burning Man, which O'Hare likened to "NASCAR for wackos."
On the salt-flat playa of Black Rock City north of Reno they found not just each other – and some goofy nudists – but the one place in America where fire art, mechanical oddities and large-scale installations could find a home, for at least a couple magical days.
Their manifesto is steampunk, with its magpie vision of Dickensian dress, antiquated technology, performance art chutzpah, dadaesque whimsy, sci-fi expansiveness and a big wopping dollop of whoopie.
Why have they come to Vallejo?
"Vallejo has space," O'Hare explains. "And it's affordable."
The problem with big art, when it's not on display, is it needs to be stored. With the abandoned shipyard and so many shuttered big buildings, Vallejo is an oasis of space: space to store the Flaming Lotus Ladies' mysterious installations. Space for a gallery full of altered Barbies crafted lovingly by LaVonne Sallee. Space to house Obtainium Works with its Chairway to Heaven (a motorized sofa), its Neverwas Haul (a collapsible three-story Victorian on wheels), the Parlor Car, the Monkey Cannon, the Pedal Canoe.
San Francisco and Berkeley, those bastions of so-called liberal tolerance, have aggressively forced out their artists in the service of übergentrification, causing an exodus to places like West Oakland, once a gang-plagued no man's land, and now Vallejo.
All too often artists serve as urban canaries in the coal mine, letting everyone know it's finally safe to open a restaurant, a boutique, a club, a market, a shop.
B.J. Conrad, another local artist, arrived earlier than most and almost singlehandedly transformed an entire block downtown, buying up neglected properties, renovating them handsomely, opening a gallery, providing work space for other artists.
She also spearheaded an anti-prostitution effort that finally rid her neighborhood of its notorious street trade. The V in Vallejo also stands for Vigilance.
But the special appeal of O'Hare and his oddfellows at Obtainium Works is they share common ground with the plumbers, pipefitters, carpenters and electricians who once formed the economic spine of this city, before the Navy turned its back on Mare Island.
Art can seem a little "too gay" to blue-collar wrench jockeys, unless it's in the form of a Red Flyer wagon tricked out with a hemi-headed big block Chevy V-8. These two groups speak a common language – something sadly lacking in much of Vallejo discourse. For that alone, I feel a hint of promise.
There are other grounds for optimism.
Now that the outsized personalities whose standoff created the bankruptcy have moved on, the city's relationship with the Fire Department is vastly improved, and though there's dim hope negotiations with the police in the next round of contract talks won't generate serious heat, everybody realizes what low police staffing has done to this city. The reduced force we have is top-notch – they consult nationwide on doing more with less – but excellence comes at a premium. The question is: Can we afford more cops – if so, how? The sooner everyone realizes that the answer to that question will please absolutely no one, the sooner we can get serious and maybe just bull our way a little further out of bankruptcy's shadow.
Meanwhile a gritty cadre of bow-spined locals have teamed together to reclaim their neighborhoods. Using block watch groups, phone and email trees, civil nuisance abatement actions and sheer spine, they've backed down the squatters, the scammers, the druggies, the pimps, goaded the banks into stepping up and reinvented the local social contract. V also stands for Volunteer.
Some of these folks have risen to the challenge because they have no option. Their mortgages are so far underwater moving away is out of the question. Others just refuse to cower. Together they've chosen to make a stand. I know a great many of them. They're simple, decent people. They're also heroes.
As for Major Catastrophe, he has a vision: art gardens serving as open-air display grounds for innovative large-scale installations, with nearby cafes and cantinas. Vacant buildings suddenly populated with stored artworks and hip galleries. A new civic culture blending the skills of its cast-aside tradesmen and overlooked artists. A town where the most creative, resourceful, hardworking people come together to get their callused hands dirty and have some fun.
O'Hare's no Pollyanna, he can feel the cultural undertow, the staid depressive march to mediocrity that too many consider small-town rectitude. Some will never see art and artists as anything but strange, and thus, a threat, like fan dancers and organ grinders.
But while big business plays wait-and-see and the cash-strapped city does what it can with what it has, the artists keep chirping in the coal mine.
And the Neverwas Project plans its Third Annual Mad Hatter Festival for this year's Christmas holiday. The motorized teapot's a big hit with the kids.
But it's nothing next to the Monkey Cannon.