Once a year I do a full audit of my one year food supply and do a deep clean of the pantry. I usually have a little too much of some items I’m not going to be able to use before they expire. So after a complete inventory I donate the surplus to a local charity that directly feeds people in need.
There are great groups in nearly every community quietly doing good work that goes completely unrecognized. As the middle class continues to contract more and more families are experiencing reduced circumstanced. There are many people who once volunteered or contributed to such service organizations who now arrive (rather unexpectedly for everyone involved) looking to receive assistance instead of offer it.
This particular group functions on multiple levels. They take in donations from supermarkets as well as distributors of “ugly” produce that’s perfectly good, but not suitable for high retail. They train people in their commercial kitchen and prepare them for employment in the food service industry. And the cooked meals are served to people in need. It’s all good.
I’m fascinated by the location of this kitchen. It’s on an enormous defunct military base that dates to 1936. It played a critical role in World War II as thousands of soldiers passed through on the way to the Pacific theater across Asia. By 1945 there were 3,600 officers and 29,000 enlisted personnel.
The legacy of this base includes 2,327 acres of waterfront land sitting directly next to Oakland and right across the bay from San Francisco. There’s a tremendous amount of potential for this site, but it also has its challenges. The territory is low lying unstable landfill that’s prone to flooding and will liquify in an earthquake. And both the land and water are heavily tainted with various industrial pollutants including PCBs, chemical solvents, spilled diesel fuel, and radioactive material forming underground plumes. These conditions are particularly resistant to cost effective remediation. And this is before any political and economic realities kick in.
The remnants of old buildings and infrastructure tell a story about how the place once functioned. Private automobiles ceased to be manufactured during the war and fuel was rationed. Most cargo and passengers were moved around the country by rail or sea and military needs always took priority over civilians.
Bauhaus inspired dormitories sit vacant decade after decade. I think these are handsome buildings that could be scrubbed clean and make stylish apartments. But neither public funding nor private investment capital is available to retrofit them given the current institutional dynamics. All the studies for repurposing the base involve scraping the site and building giant master planned communities with thousands of new buildings and all new infrastructure. I might not live long enough to see it. Or I might see it and live long enough to watch it crack and sink. Like most of the area around San Francisco Bay it’s just not a great geologic spot to build a city.
The military pioneered the mass production of simple apartments that could be built in quantity using minimally skilled labor and standardized off the shelf materials. This became the dominant typology for rental accommodations after the war. I spent a chunk of my childhood in something very similar down in Los Angeles. In a premium neighborhood these cookie cutter apartments tend to be freshly painted with updated kitchens and baths and attractively landscaped. In slums, not so much. But the buildings themselves are workhorses.
Across the street are rows of tidy cottages that once housed officers. These are still occupied and well maintained. They’re administer by social services programs and provide transitional housing – mostly to women and young children. The cottages are cute and as with the Bauhaus apartments I can imagine myself living in one of them. But mostly what I see is the first iteration of Levittown and the mass produced tract homes that bloomed everywhere once the war ended. These are the grandaddy of every 4,000 square foot McMansion in the country. Build them fast. Build them cheap. Build them with heavy government subsidies. And crank ’em out by the tens of thousands on the edge of town. Looking back we’re all currently living in the army surplus of World War II.