What’s It Like to Live on a Houseboat in Mission Creek

Please don't change the channel, this tight-knit neighborhood of 20 houseboats asks. But Mission Bay is on the move.

Mission Creek is a perverse waterway: The length that exists today is largely artificial, a channel cut through fill in what was originally part of the Bay. Meanwhile, the “real” creek as it existed pre-1849 has long been culverted all the way from the former Laguna Dolores — Mission Dolores’ source of fresh water — to San Francisco’s original shoreline, not far from where I-280 swoops over the butt end of Sixth Street. Although Mission Creek flows through the basement of the Armory in an eerie, Ghostbusters II-river-of-slime kind of way, almost no one gets to see it as it once was.

Yet people live on it. A community of 20 variegated houseboats, moored on docks, has been there since the early 1960s, when the city relocated them from Islais Creek two miles south. What is now Mission Bay was a 300-acre rail yard servicing an increasingly quiet port. The houseboats’ existence is hardly a quirky afterthought; rather, they and their aquatic thoroughfare require inventive workarounds for Mission Bay’s growth. For instance, the Downtown Rail Extension (DTX), which will eventually link Caltrain to the new Transbay Terminal, faced a dilemma regarding the creek. It couldn’t tunnel under it without becoming cost-prohibitive or disrupting the waterway’s mandated navigability. (On top of that, the route became tortuous, and an underground tunnel can’t have curves on more than one axis.) So planners found another rail alignment.

SF Weekly spoke with three longtime residents about living on the water, a bucolic setting that’s much less polluted than it once was, although certainly filled with freeway noise. Although each politely wished not to be quoted for attribution — one of them rather grandly, as if declining interviews were part of the daily routine of creek life — they described their unusual addresses with good cheer.

The three had lived there for decades, two as a couple, and seen the skyline change so that their view of the Transamerica Pyramid had largely disappeared. (One noted that he could still see a “sliver” of City Hall, but didn’t expect that vista to survive Central SoMa’s imminent upzoning.)

Their boats don’t move much — they’re not motorhomes, as one said, and you wouldn’t want to expose your house and everything in it to the threat of sinking, now, would you? — although one sunk in 2004. Demand for the berths is high, and turnover low. Another owner had towed their floating digs to a houseboat community in Sausalito several years back, and the neighborhood is tightly knit enough that someone who’s been there for four or five years might never wash off that perpetual-newcomer taint.

Sea-level rise is a concern, although issues with fresh water — meaning household effluents, apparently — are a bigger, more practical worry. The residents agreed that they liked Mission Bay just fine the way it was before the 1998 master plan that will ultimately give rise to 6,000 units of housing and many thousands more medical and biotech workers. (“It’s growing too fast,” one said.) But they appreciate having bars, a public library, and a Safeway within walking distance. Shorebirds abound, from egrets and herons to gulls hunting for fish. (Whether those fish were smelt or herring is a matter of debate.) Manta rays swim in the creek, and a few times a year, they’ll get a sea lion.

Technically, these people live on Channel Street. At one end, it nominally intersects with Sixth Street, which might be the most relentlessly urban street in the city. It didn’t used to have postindustrial parkland, block-long buildings, or a traffic circle on it. But the houseboat-dwellers don’t recall a landscape filled with rusting locomotives, roundhouses, and wyes. They called it a prairie.

 

Read more from SF Weekly‘s Mission Bay issue:

Mission Bay: The Most Misunderstood Neighborhood
What do you make of a place whose crowning aesthetic achievement is a 10-story parking garage?

Mission Bay Has More Parks Than You Think
In a rare push for green spaces, 40 acres of parks are planned for residents of the 6,400 new housing units in Mission Bay.

Bio Companies Are at the Root of Mission Bay’s Growth
Before the Golden State Warriors staked claim on Mission Bay with a new arena, biotechnology companies and healthcare providers spent two decades turning it into a medical hub.

The Lefty O’Doul Bridge: A Feat of Steel and Engineering
The drawbridge that connects SoMa to Mission Bay was built before the Golden Gate Bridge even broke ground.

The 10 Best Places to Eat and Drink in Mission Bay
Food trucks and fine dining in a neighborhood that doesn’t always get a lot of love.

 

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