Treasure Island: San Francisco’s Strangest Neighborhood

It's only existed for about 80 years, and big changes are in store.

A number of forlorn islands figure prominently in San Francisco’s cultural imaginary. Alcatraz, whose jail cells have been decommissioned for almost twice as long as they held prisoners, is the most famous — all the more forbidding for being so close. Known to indigenous peoples as the Islands of the Dead, the Farallons are 30 miles out to sea, covered in rodents and guano, hemmed in by an endless marine layer, and off-limits to civilians. Bizarrely, a manmade section of southwestern Alameda Island beyond the old runways, with foul ponds tinted the orange colors of an algae bloom, technically juts into the City and County of San Francisco’s waters. Signs all over Yerba Buena Island, the anchor point for the two-bridges-connected-by-a-tunnel, warn against trespassing.

The only one with an English name, Treasure Island, evokes buccaneers and x’s marking the spot. It isn’t home to great white sharks or the vestiges of a 19-month Native American occupation. It’s a 0.9-square-mile curio fashioned out of rubble for the 1939 Golden Gate Exhibition, taking shoals that had presented a hazard to passing ships and smothering them with hundreds of thousands of tons of debris.

Except for one random-looking mound of dirt with earth-moving equipment on top, it’s almost perfectly flat. Although too small to get truly lost on, its streets make little sense: There are Avenues B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, M, and N, but not A, J, K, or L. Dilapidated buildings stand next to comparatively new administrative structures, tasked with job training in a semi-neighborhood with few places of employment. Residential streets near the north end include suburban-style cul-de-sacs and idyllic names like Striped Bass Street and Halibut Court.

The houses feel like barracks, with small, paranoid windows, as if the DHARMA Initiative built them. An eerie forbidden zone in the island’s center is fenced off owing to some unspecified contamination, a few uninhabited houses standing next to their otherwise identical and presumably unaffected neighbors. It’s almost certainly radioactivity, and a physicist who evaluated the Navy’s cleanup admitted a few years ago that people should never have been allowed to live there. One company that isn’t present on the island is Treasure Island Media, a controversial hardore gay porn studio quietly headquartered elsewhere in San Francisco.

There are restaurants, several of them quite fancy, plus half a dozen wine tasting rooms and a “beer beach.” To serve the roughly 2,100 inhabitants’ daily needs, there’s a downmarket grocery store that doesn’t sell alcohol, but no drugstore. You can get a haircut but not get gas. The Bay Bridge is the only way out unless you rig your sailboat at Clipper Cove, and Muni’s 25-Treasure Island bus loops around before heading back to the city proper, mere minutes away if there’s no traffic.

The island is not desolate: There’s an Easter egg hunt scheduled for next weekend, and a habitat restoration effort on Yerba Buena Island, followed by something called a “Bioblitz” the following Wednesday. There are lots of shipping containers, and a parking lot near the hangars where bad boys peel out to do doughnuts in smoking Corvettes.

Signs of its naval past are everywhere on Treasure Island, although nowhere near the scale of Alameda or Vallejo’s Mare Island. A great deal of the military buildings look as though they were hastily erected after the attack on Pearl Harbor and allowed to decay right around the time the mothball fleet got towed into Suisun Bay. Pan Am had planned on using Treasure Island as the primary airport for its flying boats, so when the military fully took over in 1944, the airline relocated its operations to SFO.

Redevelopment is imminent, but entropy is present. This allows for further oddities, like the three Doggie Diner Heads that sit, unvandalized, opposite a military jeep. One notable standout is the curving, Streamline Moderne-style Administration Building, constructed for the Golden Gate Exhibition and later painted with a mural depicting the history of U.S. warfare in the 20th century. The crew for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade used its exterior as a stand-in for the fictitious “Berlin Airport,” from which Harrison Ford and Sean Connery attempt to escape Nazi Germany via zeppelin.

That film took place in 1938, the same year the real-life Administration Building was completed. San Francisco’s two bridges each had been finished in the years immediately prior, and while the inevitability of global conflict cast a shadow over the dynamism of the world’s fair, Treasure Island itself was as fresh as if it had been created by a submerged volcano whose eruptions finally reached the surface, as optimistic as a new world.


More Stories on Treasure Island

Where to Eat and Drink on Treasure Island
It’s not the most well-rounded restaurant ecosystem, but there’s plenty for a Sunday Funday.

The Treasure Island Music Festival Had a 10-Year Run. Now What?
T.G.I.T.I.M.F.! Producer Jordan Kurland vows it will be back this year, at a yet-to-be-disclosed location that will be announced soon.

A Treasure Trove of Open Space
As developers in S.F. pay millions for tiny vacant lots, a massive, 8,000-unit project breaks ground on Treasure Island.

TreasureFest Moves from West to East
The newly-branded Treasure Fest, with its dog sweater stalls and margaritas, has begun to resemble Renegade Craft Fair.

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