Ghosts and cats of Pier 70

There are feral kitty pictures at the end of this post. You can scroll on down there now if you like. But before I join you there, I’m going to tell some ghost stories about Pier 70.Dogpatch Ghost ship

First, a generic ghost story for the vehicular dead:

One day years ago I got chatting on the phone with a City Tow dispatcher. It seemed worth asking how she dealt with sexism from the drivers. Not difficult, she said. She had control of the jobs. If a guy gave her trouble she sent him out on a tough job, like an awkward dolly tow. Or an ugly job, like one with a dead body.

A dead body? Well, yes, she said. There are car crashes, and sometimes foul play, and sometimes people just die and get found long after it happens.

Words to that effect, I mean. It has been a long time since the actual conversation. The point is, it was an introduction to the knowledge that tow yards are fateful places.

I don’t believe in ghosts. Not literally. Not your actual ectoplasm. I do believe architecture and memories can haunt a place. That’s arguably what people mean when they talk about haunting, really: memories of the dead, anxiety over past lives’ unfinished business, pride or regret over their stories, social memory of why a place frames local continuing lives in its own particular way.

But ghosts — several particular ghosts — came to mind when I ran into a mention on the Dogpatch Howler‘s Twitter about a “Ghost Ship” coming to Pier 70.

I’m not even sure it matters that the occasion at hand sounds more cute or trendy than numinous. What it’s about, really, is, a Halloween-themed party-throwing posse has gotten permission to build a grand “Big Art” pirate ship in one of the barnlike former plant buildings at Pier 70, a place known as Building 12. They’ll do a kids’ party on the side but the main event will be an adults-only $50-per-ticket Halloween club night.

This “Ghost Ship” operation turns out to have its own story: it’s a group of club promoters and Burning Man types seeking refuge from the city’s Castro Halloween crackdowns. Bringing with them, I presume, their own fraught collection of tensions and grievances, their own individually earned senses of the macabre, their own dead. A ghost-themed party is a way of mourning one’s dead too. However goofy the decor may be, it’s still a kind of wake, isn’t it?

For those who haven’t seen Pier 70, it’s the former Union Iron Works plant off 20th and Illinois Streets. You might think of a pier as a dock to fish from. Not this. It’s a monster chunk of ex-industrial landscape sticking out on fill and pilings into San Francisco Bay.

I imagine it already had ghosts when it closed as a steel plant and became ghostly itself. Work with steel is not safe, nor easy. I don’t know the stories but surely they’re out there.

And then it became the tow yard. Or rather, part of it did.

IMG_0305scaledCars and trucks and RVs towed by the City and County of San Francisco used to fill maybe half of Pier 70’s weedy lots and broken-windowed barn-warehouse buildings. At first the tow contractor was City Tow. Then tales of corruption and laxity at Pier 70 began to spread and, slowly, to be noticed. In 2003 the SF Chronicle and the city caught up with the scandal, and the contract changed over to Auto Return. Auto Return continued to use some of the same storage areas until recently. But when I called there today, a dispatcher said no more impounded vehicles are stored at Pier 70 — she said they’re all down in Bayshore these days.

Part of the rest of Pier 70 has been a functioning ship repair yard all along. Otherwise — vacant lots, workshops, studios, metal recycling, other industrial uses.

Mostly, ten IMG_0295scaledto 15 years ago, as a volunteer legal advocate, I knew Pier 70 as the place vehicular residents went to recover their RVs or vans after city police had them towed as part of a development-driven campaign against campers. Or if they couldn’t recover their homes, they went to Pier 70 to salvage their possessions — or, once in a while, to recover pets towed inside of their vehicles. Especially cats. When a tow truck comes, a dog will announce itself and get taken to Animal Control. A cat, often as not, will hide. I know of one for certain that escaped from its owner’s RV in the tow yard and never came back to him.

An impounded and crushed RV, one that was somebody’s home, that the owner intended to keep — does an RV leave a ghost behind?

That whole Pier 70 area used to be a backwater. You didn’t go there unless you worked there, or knew someone there, or wanted to buy or beg back your vehicle and/or its contents, or wanted to buy someone else’s impounded car at auction, the bad karma be damned. Or had a serious jones for history or photography. Ruin porn wasn’t the general fashion yet.

There were also different kinds of thieves and unofficial presences at Pier 70. In the City Tow era the fences around the impound lots were reputedly porous. I’ve even seen a 1999 police report describing a druggy party of campers allegedly found sitting at ease in a long-term encampment *inside of* a storage building then leased by City Tow.

Somewhere around that time — I forget which year — a security guard at the shipyard told me that he worried about the foolhardy metal monsters who climbed up in the rusting mobile dry docks moored alongside the pier. One day, he said, someone’s going to cut the wrong thing at random in there and get mushed. I don’t know if it happened to anyone, but can we take a spare moment, here, to think of the stupid risks taken and the stupid or painful reasons for taking them and the lost valued possessions from the cars and the entropic cynicism of such thefts and — I don’t know — the brokenness of it all?

I don’t know anyone in Dogpatch anymore. Everyone I knew there had to move. Some got into stable housing. Some are dead. Some I don’t know what happened to them.

And now Pier 70 is on its way to becoming the next Cannery Row. With similar ironies given its former role in the former pre-gentrification Dogpatch neighborhood.

Not to say Dogpatch and Cannery Row were the same by any means: Dogpatch hadn’t been actually crowded with industrial workers in many, many years. But it was a place on the edge of a bigger town that had a little live-and-let-live to it for a while. There was this tiny remaining breath of the Gold Rush there. My husband used to say all the people I knew in Dogpatch seemed to have one name and all the dogs seemed to have three.

With all this as background, my mind caught on the idea of a “Ghost Ship” sailing in to Pier 70. Kept coming back to it for a couple of days. Who or what would be on that ship?

One train of thought went to “When The Ship Comes In,” Bob Dylan’s fierce Brecht-inspired fantasy of triumph by the unrespected.

Another thought went to a too-real ghost story: recently I heard of the death of an ex-client, younger than me, as a result of a dragged-out sequence of hellishness that started in RVs on the Dogpatch and Bayview waterfront. (The flip side of the live-and-let-live was, sometimes people died of it.) Her unquiet spirit would stand high in the rigging of any ship of ghosts that came to Dogpatch. With others mourned but not named here.

So I’m almost up to the part with the cat pictures now.

Wendy MacNaughton’s wonderful cartoon report on Pier 70 had suggested some cats were still living out there. I decided to walk over and look for them. Also to ask which was the “Building 12” where the announcement said the Ghost Ship would be built.

As it happened I didn’t locate Building 12 until I came home from that walk. Today, looking at the developer’s map online, I figured out Building 12 is the monster industrial barn at the back of the old open City Tow impound lot. I’m pretty sure City Tow used that barn as a roofed additional storage area. If so, I was in there at least once to help someone inspect a towed vehicle. My memory is of cars and trucks lined up as in any parking lot, but framed and overhung by something older that was built for heavier use. Shadows, broken windows, rust. A kind of place you try to touch nothing for fear of tetanus and spiders. They’ve probably cleaned it up since.
This past Monday, when I showed up, the security guard at the shipyard entrance thought Building 12 might be the Noonan Building out at the end of the drive. I walked out there and found out it wasn’t. (I think on the map the Noonan is Building 11. Still not sure.)
IMG_0308detailAs I say, I didn’t ever get to Building 12. Instead I was lucky to stumble on the Pier 70 cats’ dinnertime. As I walked up, two people were filling big plastic bowls with kibble and canned Friskies. Cats were coming in for dinner out of a big vacant lot full of concrete rubble and wild fennel. As in Wendy MacNaughton’s report that the stray cats of Pier 70 are “Fed daily by Sylvia and Robert.”

The cats don’t look “stray” exactly. They look like they live there. Nobody told them it isn’t a real place to live.

IMG_0311detailSylvia Ortiz gave me her card: she and Robert Shipman used to have a workshop on Pier 70 for their custom furniture business. Now their shop is in Oakland but they come back to feed the cats.

I said they must get a lot of looky-lous like me on Pier 70. With kind obliquity, she answered that it must be one of the most photographed places in the city.

She’s worried about the cats of course. She says their numbers on Pier 70 have increased as development has closed in all around. Now the vacant-lot space on Pier 70 itself is to be built up. Where will the cats go then?


She said they try to arrange to keep the cats spayed and fixed. There were a few kittens with their mother. Three kittens I think. Adorable of course.



FYI, developers: This beast is on your side.

Truth be told, I think the developers will be needing the cats. Maybe they can arrive at some arrangement about what simply has to be a bodacious rat situation.

In our own neighborhood, South of Market, we lived next to a warehouse while it was being gut-rehabbed and condo-converted. The mice and rats came over to our apartment and all our neighbors’ apartments. I would shudder to begin to estimate the sheer tonnage of mouse and rat life contained in the pilings and buildings and vacant lots and remaining rotting vehicles of Pier 70.

I hope, though not with much hope, that the developers will reach a mutually beneficial settlement with the cats.

I hope the hounded-out former campers and dogs of Dogpatch will get their due in public memory if not in life.

I hope the Ghost Ship people have a nice Halloween party.

I’m still trying to imagine the day when Pier 70’s ship comes in.



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