This isn’t a new story. It’s an old story that is evolving before our very eyes.
Having been brought up in, around and on sailboats, we find that when we’re not sailing, we enjoy prowling the waterfront to check out boats, boatyards, marinas and whatever connects humans on land to life at sea. These days, it often feels like being an anthropologist looking for a lost civilization. But what if it’s just forgotten and not lost?
The former Cryer & Sons Boatyard has become one of those relics of the Bay Area’s yesteryear. Founded in the 1890s by Englishman William Cryer, the yard was originally located in San Francisco before moving to Oakland, and eventually resided in Brooklyn Basin, near the southeast end of the bridge to Coast Guard Island. From 1907 to 1989, Cryer & Sons was a thriving boatyard building dozens of vessels in the 30- to 80-foot range, and employing over 100 workers — its largest project was a 130-ft motoryacht built for Oakland automaker R. Clifford Durant. Now all that remains of Cryer’s is an empty building, a littered beach, and rails to nowhere. A homeless encampment has also sprung up where the yard used to be. We think it’s sad to see people living in such desperate conditions in the center of one of the wealthiest metropolises in the country.
Apparently, the Port of Oakland now owns the site of the boatyard, which is leased to the City of Oakland. It’s become a minor tourist attraction (for the unique brand of sightseers such as ourselves) with the requisite plaque to commemorate the site’s maritime heritage. The city is now “in the process” of deciding whether it is possible to upgrade the building for some community use. Here’s an idea: how about a maritime trade school? While much diminished over the years, the maritime trades are still a vibrant, highly skilled trade that’s difficult to “offshore.” We’ve heard many yard owners and industry experts say that there’s a dearth of skilled tradespeople.
Oakland is home to abundant shores graced with warm, sunny weather. It has a rich maritime history, with a namesake waterfront named after one of its native sailing sons. But Oakland (whose teachers happen to be on their third day of striking today) faces challenging obstacles to reintegrate and upgrade the city to the uses for which it is so well-suited, and with which its history is so rich. The now trendy Jack London Square, Brooklyn Basin — where a 200-slip marina is slated to be built at the northwest end of Coast Guard Island — and other parts of rapidly gentrifying Oakland are, undeniably, increasing access to and rehabilitating the Oakland waterfront.
But here lies the perilous push and pull. There are plans for more marinas, but there are fewer and fewer boatyards for all of those boats. There are people living, homeless and jobless, on the streets of the waterfront, which has had a measurable impact on marinas in the form of theft from cars and boats and vandalism at public facilities. And then there’s that lack of tradespeople filling the yard jobs that are left (to say nothing about existing tradespeople being priced out by the Bay Area’s skyrocketing cost of living).
The railways at Cryer & Sons are a rusting reminder of a glorious past. Wouldn’t it be cool to see it come alive as a maritime center again with skills training and employment opportunities for those living under tarps and pallets outside? Perhaps it’s a pipe dream, but it seems a far better use for a waterfront than walking paths, views and park benches. We only hope all the redevelopment plans include genuine access to the art, craft, industry and pleasure of sailing on the Bay.