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

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.

THe GaTeS

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.

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Then came the pirates.

“After the war, the owner, Donlon Arques, did basically nothing with the property and let nature take its course,” wrote Costello in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. “People drifted in. The curious, the disenfranchised, bohemians…The shipyard was a treasure trove of junk, boats and barges in all possible conditions, a still-functioning marine ways. In the eyes of the square, 'normal' Americans, it was a mess. To the creative, i.e., 'abnormal' brain, it was a wonderland of seemingly unlimited potential.”

When my aunt and mother arrived in the late 1960s from Los Angeles, the place was wide open and lawless.

“There was nobody there to say 'no,'” said my mother, Heather Wilcoxon.

“It wasn't a hippie scene, you really had to hold your own, you had to toughen up a bit,” my aunt Cici Wilcoxon told me. “You didn't have to dress like the magazines told you to dress. You didn't have to follow this prescribed idea of what someone in your generation was doing.”

My parents certainly didn't. My dad, Chris Lamb, migrated from New Jersey and later set up a carpentry shop near the bay. He moved onto the water after buying a former landing craft for $1500 from a guy named Rupert “Pickles.”

“It was wild. It was all that you'd want it to be,” he told me. “Some would be junkies and die, some would do great music, some would sacrifice themselves to politics. A lot of that was some kind of freedom and a more encompassing look at the world.”

While the place had many names over time, the one that stuck came from the war years: the Gates. When the place was all about ship building, there were six launching pads, or ways, for newly minted Liberty ships. Each was numbered, one through six. Each was called a gate.

We Gaters mostly kept to our side of town along the waterfront, separated from the rest of town by a set of abandoned railroad tracks. Our walk home from school in Marin City was a fast sprint to the safe side of the tracks.

If we moved too slowly, we risked running into the crowd of Marin City kids, tough products of public housing, under the freeway underpass where our chances of getting bullied were high.

The other group of kids in town — the “hill kids” — lived in what seemed like palatial houses with central heating and running water. Their parents drove new cars and worked white collar jobs in San Francisco.

As soon as we'd safely crossed Bridgeway, a weirdly curved concrete wall and a looming paddlewheel — all that remained of the ferry boat Charles Van Damme after it was torn down in 1983 — marked our territory: Gate 6.

A short walk along a line of sycamore trees led us to the start of Gate 5 Road, past the Vallejo and San Rafael, both old decommissioned ferryboats. Ruben's mother fed me my first kiwi at Gate 5; I thought it was some poison-seeded fruit.

An empty office building and a fence led to Gate 3 with its boat hulls, shacks, and dirt road. My father had worked on boats on its ways, Noah's father had built his sailboat here. The Bradleys — all five kids — lived in some kind of warehouse where their elevated, open air bathtub was perched atop a flight of stairs.

A hole in the fence took us past another parking lot and an office park. Then we passed more of the ubiquitous arch-roofed boat-building structures that rose above the waterfront — leftovers from the war. The nearby dirt lots and sheds were where my father and uncle had their carpentry workshop.

The Houseboat Wars

By the late 1960s, city and county officials were already growing restless about the freewheeling community springing up around the multi-storied Charles Van Damme, which had been beached there since 1960.

As Costello tells it, the opening salvo in what would become a three-decade fight over the waterfront came from a building inspector who started red-tagging houseboats for violating building codes — none of which applied to boats.

Nobody took the “abatement notices seriously until the day when the county sheriffs came to tow away the first houseboat. It was called Joe's Camel,” according to Costello's account.

Joe tried to cut the tow line and was nearly shot by deputies for his trouble. A news clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle shows the deputies aiming their pistols at the man.

A series of attacks by the county followed — much of the waterfront at the time abutted county land — for code violations, water pollution, and other nuisances. Eventually, sheriff's deputies were called in to haul away boats the department had deemed dangerous.

The waterfront fought back.

News footage and newspaper images from the time capture a raucous battle. Heavily-armed sheriff's deputies, ill equipped for balance on tippy docks and small boats, faced off against a ragtag fleet of oar-bearing Gaters.

The removal effort stalled, but plans were afoot to develop the area.

In the early 1970s, Arques was forced to sell his land after the county threatened him with criminal sanctions for letting “illegal acts” occur there, said Paul Kayfetz, who represented the waterfront in court for two years.

The buyers were a development group called the Waldo Point Harbor. Over the ensuing decade, the fight intensified as the developers tried to turn a profit.

“The real, always unspoken reasons were the anarchy factor and more to the point, money. Millions of dollars awaited those who would develop the property and start collecting rent and selling wildly expensive 'floating homes' built on concrete barges and tied up to nice, neat, orderly docks,” wrote Costello. “Plans were being drawn for Waldo Point Harbor, which would comprise five new docks for the planned 'floating homes' which would gentrify the area and bring it into synch with the generally perceived Marin County aesthetic.”

In 1977, the developers started work on Waldo Point Harbor. Gaters sought a temporary restraining order but were denied by a judge, Kayfetz said.

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When the developers brought in a pile driver to pound wood pilings into the mud so new docks could be built, the waterfront mobilized.

“Within minutes, everyone knew and everybody was in the water in their boats,” said my aunt Cici.

A chaotic melee ensued. Cops were on the water trying to clear boats out of the way. My mom was maced. My dad, wearing a wetsuit and armed with a knife, was blasted out of the bay and onto land by water from a fireboat's hose. Suddenly, the hose goes dry, after “someone flies by the fireboat and cuts the fireboat hose with a hatchet,” he recalled

After the skirmish, a giant barge, christened the Red Barge, was towed in under the cover of night and scuttled in the pile driver's way. On its sides, someone painted a taunting message: “Midnight TRO.” (TRO is legal shorthand for temporary restraining order.)

Kayfetz was dragged into court soon after by the judge and cited for contempt of court. The barge drifting into the pile driver was an act of God, he argued.

The Red Barge stayed put for years, partly because of legal machinations, partly because of the hole in its hull. Kayfetz argued successfully that neither the government nor the developers could move the thing because of federal maritime law governing salvage.

Then the developers tried another tactic, suing about 150 residents for contract interference, said Kayfetz. But that effort was soon gummed up, too.

When one of the defendants was scheduled for a deposition in the Transamerica Pyramid, Kayfetz plotted an offensive. He persuaded about 100 Gaters to don hip waders and jump in the mud before they caravanned to the city. When they marched to the front door of the building, a ragged posse caked in drying mud, security wouldn't let them in. So Kayfetz called the judge. On threat of contempt of court, the muddy Gaters were let inside the building, where they turned the deposition into a circus.

Soon after, another barge — the Isle of Contempt — was moved in near the Red Barge, and a bunch of Gaters arrayed their boats around the thing to form yet another obstacle. To develop would require “[going] through some people with kids,” my father said.

Indeed, for several years during my early childhood, our houseboat sat tied to the barge, and I ran around the place as a mostly naked toddler.

A peaceful stalemate lasted only a few years. After developers' dock dreams were scuttled, the owners of another property south of Gate 6, then called Bob's Boatyard, opened a new front. Heavy machinery began tearing down occupied warehouses early one morning, without permits or warning.

“The bulldozers came at 6 a.m. and started to demolish the buildings, and people were still inside of them,” said Donna Bragg, who still lives on a boat in Sausalito.

The Galilee, a still-intact old schooner topped with a pilothouse, was chopped up that day with chainsaws so it couldn't be inhabited, said Annie Hallat, who lived on the waterfront for years.

The developers were different, but the parameters of the fight were much the same as they'd been in Gate 6.

Soon after these violent events — my dad was nearly hit in the head when a developer thug swung a sledgehammer at him — Bob's Boat Yard turned into a co-op, much like Gate 6, and called itself Galilee Harbor.

Three years later, the Charles Van Damme was torn down in front of Gate 6. The old ferry was a dangerous structure, said my aunt Cici. Still, it was the end of an era. My parents took me to Gate 6 that wet day to watch as the heart of the Gates was destroyed.

“It's like your world is being completely demolished,” my mother told me about the ferry's demolition.

Still, Gate 6 and its families remained and had even been given money from the San Francisco Foundation and federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to buy the land where their docks met the water. Not far to the south sat a nascent Galilee Harbor.

What followed was a war of legal attrition.

The efforts to physically remove people's boats had gone too far and had ultimately failed, said Jane Koestel, a longtime Gate 6 resident who lived next door to my family on the Isle of Contempt. “We refused to leave and we kept talking,” she said.

But efforts to make life hard for people on the water continued. In 1987, for instance, the county passed an ordinance outlawing longterm anchor-outs (the term for people living for free on boats anchored off offshore) in Richardson Bay.

Enforcement never came to much, but the idea came across plain as day. They still wanted us gone.

Meanwhile, other arguments for the removal of Gaters came in the guise of environmentalism.

The state sued people living on boats through the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, arguing that live-aboards were essentially mud or “bay fill.”

The organization, set up to protect the bay from development, had made strides in stopping developers and cities from filling in the bay. But when it came to the waterfront, that logic was twisted to apply to humans living on their boats, and resulted in fines of $5,000 a day on each resident the BCDC considered bay fill.

In the eyes of the government, we were officially mud.

But mud can be overwhelming.

BaY FiLL

A short old lady, her grayish blue hair only marginally increasing her stature, was complaining. She didn't like the rough people, the drug dealers, who she said lived on the Sausalito waterfront.

Then a tall blond man stoodup and said much the same: the place was full of miscreants and deadbeats. When he'd lived there, he said, he'd paid his rent with a bag of weed.

Both were talking at a panel of BCDC bureaucrats in a Novato board room in November 1995. All of this invective was directed at Galilee Harbor, whose fate that panel would decide. The BCDC was voting over whether or not they would allow the roughly 30 vessels to stay where they had been for years.

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As more people lined up my anger grew. I wanted to shout down each and every one one of them. They were liars.

I was one of the last people to speak that day. When I stood up behind the lectern, I was shaking.

“Today is my 17th birthday,” I began. If the things the other people had said about the place I grew up in were true, then I too was was a miscreant, a deviant, I said.

The minutes from the meeting are not complete but they convey the tone.

“Jonah Lamb, a 17-year-old, born and raised in Sausalito in this community, thought that if this were taken away, it would be a great loss to him and to the rest of the community because it is a unique place. He resented deeply some of the things previous speakers had said, because they were lies. Mr. Lamb said his father is a carpenter, his mother an artist; and if there were no place like this, he wouldn't know where to live. He believed that BCDC should approve this and make the right choice.”

The board voted to allow Galilee to stay.

A few years later, after Waldo Point Harbor tried and failed to evict Gate 6 in a jury trial, both the Gaters and Galilee Harbor had settled with local and state authorities. The hot part of the “Houseboat Wars” had mostly come to an end.

For both communities, “settlement” meant an end to lawlessness. We had to replace the falling down docks, modernize, and clean up.

The victory for Galilee and Gate 6 came from a combination of factors. Committed activism put bodies in the way of bulldozers. Legal efforts from lawyers — some of whom gave their time for free — blocked developers, community outreach educated the once-hostile townsfolk, and low-income housing funds helped Galilee and Gate 6 purchase the land its docks stood on.

But most say what won the wars was solidarity.

“People don't really evict groups of people,” said former Marin County supervisor and Galilee resident Annette Rose. “People might evict an individual, and do, but you gotta stick together. I thought we won for sure, or we wouldn't be there.”

Another key tactic, at least for Galilee, was making allies out of our enemies.

That meant making peace with the people we'd doused with piss.

At one point in the 1980s, Galilee Harbor's members received about 1600 signatures from the hill people supporting our continued existence. In an effort to show the harbor's human side, we eventually built a float for the townies' Fourth of July parade.

“I think it was hard for us,” my mom told me. “We had to do a huge reaching out. It was hard for us because we weren't like them. We were trying to do something really different.”

Jane Koestel says that every effort to make us leave failed because at heart we had a legal right to be there for a variety of reasons: we'd been there as long as anyone else, and we'd played by the rules by and large.

“They couldn't evict us, because we'd done everything they'd asked us,” she said.

Gate 6 had to fight a longer battle. Now it is being disassembled and the majority of its residents are being given new docks.

“We've defeated them in the fact that they couldn't get rid of us,” Koestel said.

epilogue

Every August, Sausalito's Art Festival draws crowds to a several-days affair. A once small, local event has become big business. The town is inundated. Tents go up. Traffic is so thick it can take an hour to reach Highway 101.

To mark the occasion, the city places banners along Bridgeway, the main thoroughfare and the old dividing line between the hill people and the waterfront. From one end of town to the other, a series of banners by different artists welcomes visitors. This civic effort reminds tourists that Sausalito was once an artist colony, and still has a few quirky houseboaters — now a boasted point of civic pride, as much a part of Sausalito as Victorian homes are a symbol of San Francisco.

One banner — a nearly abstract picture that is all violent reds and oranges — is hard to decipher if you don't know what to look for: Little boat-like shapes are firing projectile at a mound. It's called “Conflict.” It's a kind of modern cave painting of a once violent struggle: the houseboat wars.

The original hangs in a bank a few blocks from where I was born in what used to be the Gates.

It was painted by my mother.

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