On Saturday, December first, in the cool crisp morning, I went walking from Hercules to Crockett with my friend Charlie:
These used to be the support for the many docks that lined the bay. This is a good reminder that the trains are only one small part of the story. If I were doing this walk 100 years ago, the many freight trains would be accompanied by fleets of ferries and barges taking freight and people all around the area.
Charlie commented on the presence of lots of concrete blocks on the bay shore, a lot of it with rebar still inside. Were thes pieces brought here from somewhere? Were they part of a structure that used to stand nearby??
Another idea that came up early on was that of perspective. I've been taking a sociology methods class, and we talk a lot about how the method you choose of gathering data determines what it is you'll find out. In my case, the notion of perspective is very literal. In this particular spot, I was able to have a fine view of Hercules:
But to focus my thoughts here, the thing I am *really* looking at lately is what might be called "vernacular use" of the space around the railroad. That is to say, how do people make use of a path, even if it's only designed for big locomotives to travel upon it. In my school-head, I look for theoretical grounding for this manner of thinking. A big influence is DeCerteau's The Practice of Everyday Life, particularly the essay "Walking in the City." In this essay, he writes about how the city isn't really a "thing" until we animate the space, particularly by walking:
The long poem of walking manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be: it is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them.) It creates shadows and ambiguities within them. It inserts its multitudinous references and citations into them (social models, cultural mores, personal factors.) (p.101)
A note about talking to people: You may have noticed that I don't report on it very much and that's because I don't *do* it very much. My friend Andrew put it well:
"speaking of stories, i'd be very interested in reading stories/interviews with people who live and work in the areas you're exploring. your own observations and thoughts are wonderful, but an insider's perspective would add a wonderful dimension."
But I don't do it for two reasons.
One is that I didn't get "human subjects" clearance from my University. This is a way of writing up your proposal and getting it certified so that the university can make sure you are behaving ethically towards human subjects. This certification, done by each university's Internal Review Board (IRB) was originally conceived in response to physical and psychological experiments performed on consenting and unconsenting subjects (the most egregious of these being the Tuskeegee experiments in which African-American men went untreated for syphyils to "see what happens.) Now everybody has to go through it, including anthropologists and sociologists doing field work. On one hand, it is a really important stance for research institutions to take. On the other, the way they go about it isn't always appropriate to the kinds of work being done. In any case, I don't have it and it's a long process. Furthermore, I don't know what kinds of talking to people is and isn't allowed in my current research, and I have to find out from my advisors. In the meantime, I don't talk to people much, which is a bummer because they know a lot about the places where they live.
The other reason, however, is in response to just this issue. Because people know so much about the places where they live, I could easily get sucked into doing interviews (which are a very time-intensive process) and this project does *not* need more pieces. These are the kinds of decisions we make in research: what to leave in, what to leave out.
I wonder when it stopped operating. Especially because (as we shall see) there are a lot of other fishing spots further down the rail. Also, I wonder if anybody is trying to buy it (especially the county), sitting as it does just on the edge of a piece of the regional park system.
The next thing we saw a lot of were homeless encampments. Both photographing these and posting the images poses an ethical question for me. I wrote this for the same sociology methods class mentioned above:
I am concerned here with the uses of the margins as such and by investigating them and broadcasting those results, they could easily become un-marginal, taken away from the communities that use them either through outsider use or, in the worst case, law enforcement. That is to say that, through research, I could destroy the very phenomenon which I seek to investigate. The disruption of my own investigation, furthermore, is not so much the ethical problem as is the possiblity of my research causing someone’s place for daily life to be wrested from them.
In fact, we met the man who lives in the second dwelling. He was walking his dog by the tracks and we said hello. He asked us if we were from LA 201 which, he told us, is a class in Landscape Architecture at UC Berkeley that is doing a site assessment of the area to recommend (real or fictionally?) a promenade along the bay. In any case, he told us that there is an organization called "project hope" (I think) that gives out good-quality tents and camping equipment to people like him who are camped out in the area. Would I like to interview this guy more? Absolutely. But I had to keep on moving.
Charlie wanted to know how often they repace them, and how. I speculated that they don't get replaced too often because they are soaked in creosote, and put in piles of crushed rock to prevent decay, and weeds from growing. This is part of the reason that old railyards are called "brownfields." The tracks themselves pollute the earth where they lay, not to mention the fuel and freight that drip from the cars.
Next up was the oil refinery (refineries?) -- a place I've been curious about for some time. I'm not sure what any one building does, but I do wonder how much people in the area think about the whole structure. Do they work there? Do they worry about the health effects of having it next door?
I was mostly suprised to find out how much formal use there is around the factory. From the train, it's all freight tracks and refinery, but the front gates of the sugar factory are right in the town. There's also this seafood restaurant right on the water:
This last bit (of a long entry!) is my favorite part: the old Crockett train station. It was decommissioned when Amtrak took over passenger train service in the 1970s and decided it was more economical to have fewer stations. The C&H people now own it, but they let some local groups use it.
They are open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays and they run trains. When we went in, there were three men running the trains, one probably in his 70s, another in his 50s, and a younger guy maybe in his 20s who was wearing a conductor's hat with a train society patch and buttons on it, and a t-shirt with a train on it. The room they operated in was part of the administration of the old train station, and the window looked out on the tracks. The trains running yesterday were a freight train and an exact replica of the California Zephyr (a line that Amtrak runs from Emeryville to Chicago.) The men talked to us about how long of a train could run on the tracks, and about a yellow train we had seen earlier that day. I assumed all passenger trains were owned by Amtrak, but this one, they told me, belonged to Union Pacific who used it to transport important people on the tracks.
I think about how many train enthusiasts there must be all over the country, people who keep hobby shops going by running intricately detailed model trains in their basements and in clubs like these. In fact, aren't clubs like these the basis for the most grassroots sort of community cohesion we speak about so much in community development seminars?
I wonder why people *love* trains so much. Unlike cars, the trains can't ever, even in fantasy, belong to these people. They are innately public vehicles. And they know SO much about them.
The other side of the train station is a museum of Crockett history. It was full of all sorts of old odds and ends from people's basements and attics. Four or five older men sat around the place. There were lots of lists of veterans from different wars and lots of paraphanelia from the history of the refinery. A whole room is devoted to photocopies of the senior classes of the high school from the thirties until now:
Many of the other items are things that might be sold at a local flea market, and Charlie and I talked a bit about how museums can transform things from "merchandise" to "artifact." The strangest piece on display was a full scale model of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Washington DC that you could peer into through a hole in the front and it was completely decorated inside too.
When I asked about it, the man behind the counter told me that it was donated by some people who had lived in Crockett whose father had been in a TB sanitarium and had built it together with his roommate. Eerie.
I also asked the man at the counter if people in Crockett still worked in the refinery. He told me that they employ about 500 people, and he'd guess that no more than 5 or 10 percent of them live in Crockett -- in fact, he doesn't think they can afford to on the factory's salary. Most of them, he says, commute from places like Fairfield or Vallejo.
Charlie and I were blown away by both of these places -- funny little corners of the earth that we never really could have imagined. I don't mean for this project to be about how precious small towns and their people are, and how nice it is to visit; besides being lame, such an assessment would also be essentializing and inaccurate.
At this point, it was getting late and we were tired. By the way, I'm *never* so tired as when I walk on the tracks.
Next stop: Martinez. All aboard!