Vallejo California rests on the Napa River, the Carquinez Strait and the San Pablo Bay as it carries over to the former U.S. Navy Shipyard on Mare Island. With more than 150 years history, its a working person’s town and a place for California dreamers and makers.
Driving into Vallejo, a roadside billboard announced E-40 Beer, the newest venture by legendary local rap artist Earl Stevens. Better known as E-40, the big guy earned his nickname due to his penchant for drinking forty-ounce beers. His new malt liquor was released in January 2016 and expands the rapper’s stake in the beverage business which includes wine, under the label Earl Stevens Selections, and a popular premixed cocktail E-40 Sluricane Hurricane.
Known for his masterful invention and use of West Coast street vernacular, E-40 began his rap career in his hometown of Vallejo in 1986 as a member of The Click, a group that included his brother D-Shot, sister Suga-T and cousin B-Legit. At first his music was underground, a combination of mob and gangsta rap that got little play outside of the Bay area. Now a platinum artist with 22 albums to his credit, E-40 is “gamed up” (meaning he’s seen and done it all) and his Vallejo rap has gained national props. Throughout his 30-year career, he has collaborated with countless other renowned and rising rappers, from Puff Daddy to a young Kendrick Lamar. His two most recent albums, released in 2014 , Sharp on All 4 Corners: Corner 1 and Corner 2, were both included in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Top 40 Rap Albums” for that year. For this week’s Listen Up, we’ve dug deep in the vaults for the E-40 single, Sprinkle Me featuring Suga-T, from his 1995 studio album In A Major Way. This video includes explicit lyrics.
Space. We all want it, need it, fill it and to some degree explore it. We’re always looking for space – a parking space, breathing space, space to stretch out, the space bar on a keyboard. The waterfront city of Vallejo California (pop. approx. 116,000) has plenty of great space to offer. Briefly the capital of California in the 1850’s, Vallejo has beautiful Victorian working man’s mansions, Spanish style homes, and modern Blu Homes. It has Craftsman bungalows and downtown lofts, storefronts flooded with light begging for a new lease on life. Mare Island has acres and acres of empty buildings from officer’s quarters to mammoth curtain-walled factories.
Vallejo has seen some tough times in the past 20 years: the city went into (and has come out of) bankruptcy, the Naval Shipyard on Mare Island was closed costing more than 10,000 people their jobs, and housing prices faltered in the Great Recession. Now the city is set to rebound – with views of the Napa River, the Carquinez Strait and San Pablo Bay that stretch all the way to San Francisco; an hour-long ferry ride that transports workers and day trippers from the Vallejo Marina (and soon Mare Island) to San Francisco’s Embarcadero; a twenty minute drive to wine country; and affordable, desirable spaces to live, work, and build a dream – Vallejo might be California’s best kept secret.
But Vallejo doesn’t need to simply fill up its space. The city needs artists, makers, doers who have the vision to re-imagine and redefine Vallejo. More than a decade ago, artist Mark Ashworth and his wife Gail (who works in San Francisco) found the perfect Vallejo space for a home, painting studio, a few stray cats and a dog named Zelda. Mark’s abstract oils remind one of a cacophony of thought bubbles or a hallucinogenic trip into Munnyworld – energetic, bursting off the wall, with a deft application of negative space. Vitality pulses through each piece – the shapes and synapses, colors and textures express thoughts racing into action, colliding, and resting in place. The creators at Blu Homes solve spatial dilemmas on a grand scale. Their adaptive reuse of the behemoth former machine shop on Mare Island (imagine a building more than 3 football fields in length) has turned the shop into the design and manufacturing center for green contemporary prefabricated houses. The Coal Shed Studios, an 8,000 square foot building originally used to store coal on Mare Island, has become gallery and workspace for painters, woodworkers, metalworkers, photographers, videographers, sculptors, and textile artists. While rap artists, musicians and poets suffuse Vallejo with a backbeat, slang, rhythm and patter.
Vallejo has always been a working person’s city, and there’s room for a diversity of new artists, makers and doers to find a space of their own and help carry on that tradition.
Start your visit to Vallejo in the Old Town section of downtown where there is a terrific stock of old storefronts, both occupied and empty. A few buildings are in the process of renovation and the terrazzo and marble floorings, large expanses of windows, and high ceilings are fantastic – it’s easy to envision new cafes, bars and restaurants finding homes in these spectacular spaces. Al Ross’ Victory Stores, an army-navy surplus and “the store with 1001 items” is a great find. The store has been family owned and operated since 1945 and now specializes in work and outdoor clothing. It also has the largest jean selection we’ve ever seen in one place. In 2013 an impressive former Masonic Temple (1917) and the adjacent City Hall (1872) were renovated and converted into the subsidized live/work Temple Art Lofts for Vallejo artists. Next to the lofts you’ll find the Empress Theater, a Beaux Arts exterior built in 1911. The interior was modernized throughout its history, with an extensive restoration and renovation as a city landmark from 2004-2008. To see the interior you will need to attend an event; e.g. you could go dancing to live music on a Wednesday night.
If you need a pick me up, stop at Java Jax, where the pastries are fresh and the chai lattes are piping hot. Take a walk along the marina, with the ferries coming and going to San Francisco and a view of Mare Island across the Napa River. Hop back in your car and tour the Heritage District of Victorian and Craftsman homes on Georgia, Capital, Sutter, York, Napa and Virginia Streets, including a 3,390 square foot home built by California’s renowned architect Julia Morgan in 1909. The house recently sold for less than one million dollars.
Across the Mare Causeway, you’ll enter Mare Island, the site of the first U.S. Naval Shipyard on the Pacific. Opened in 1854 and decommissioned in 1996, during World War II the shipyard employed nearly 50,000 people who built submarines and repaired warships. More than 600 buildings remain today including the machine shop which is now the design and manufacturing center for Blu Homes, creators of green, contemporary prefabricated houses. Call in advance to arrange a tour of the factory and view their model home in its ideal Mare Island waterfront location facing San Pablo Bay. Many of the buildings are unoccupied, but in the last 20 years more than 100 businesses have set up shop on the island (which is technically a peninsula) and in the fall of 2016 the ferry from San Francisco to downtown Vallejo will also stop at Mare Island. Make an appointment to visit St. Peter’s Chapel, which was built in 1901 and has the largest collection of Tiffany stained glass windows on the West Coast. Don’t miss the Mare Island Museum and the opportunity to explore the history of the Naval Shipyard through hundreds of artifacts and photographs.
We’d like to thank Vallejo residents Mark and Gail Ashworth for sharing all of their recommendations and insights into Vallejo and Mare Island. And we must acknowledge Joyce, the excellent docent at the Mare Island Museum, who was a font of fascinating information and living history, having worked at the shipyard most of her life.
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