by S. Auden
Twenty years ago, the city of San Francisco moved thousands of its homeless and low-income residents into former military housing on Treasure Island, a small artificial land mass whose 55 years as a Navy base left it covered in toxic radiation. Today, construction on the island has it on track to becoming a bustling, upscale extension of the city.
The problem is, some of those residents from 20 years ago are still there. So are thousands of others who have moved in since. So is the radiation.
As Treasure Island sits in the middle of the Bay, its current moment in history sits in the middle of these factors. While construction starts on one end of the island, the Navy is still conducting testing and cleanup operations of potentially toxic areas at the other. Island residents fear the land they live on could be harmful to them, but many have nowhere else to go.
The Treasure Island Development Authority’s plans require the eventual demolition of all current housing units on the island, calling for mass evictions with limited options for relocation. The result of all this is a battle – one that’s quiet, but fierce – between the island’s future and the community that makes up its past and present.
“Finding this place was a complete accident,” said one resident who moved onto the island in 2005. “There was hardly anything here. You had to go into the city to do any of your grocery shopping at all. But it was relatively inexpensive. They pay the utilities and there’s rent control, and those are two of the greatest things ever.”
It seemed like the perfect plan: People who, in many cases, would otherwise live in shelters or on the streets now had access to affordable housing in a quiet, idyllic neighborhood set to a backdrop of breathtaking views. The Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative, a result of the Base Closure Community Redevelopment Act of 1994, designated a third of the island’s housing units to homeless and low-income individuals and families after the base closed in 1997.
Another third was allocated to several different nonprofit organizations to rent out as HUD-subsidized transitional housing. The remaining 220 homes were put under the control of the John Stewart Co., which continues to rent them out at market rate.
The impression many residents had of the island was that, compared to the rest of the city, their new neighborhood looked like a tiny slice of suburban America. The apartments and houses are all surrounded by regularly-maintained swaths of lawn. They have garages, driveways, and backyards. Between sets of units are large grassy plots of open space. A private security company patrols the streets 24/7, and everyone’s utility bill is covered by the city. To the average San Franciscan, this sounds like a dream.
While all of that is still there (for now), the neighborhood has undergone an alarming change since civilians started moving in. Today, sets of townhouses around the island are boarded up, and much of the open space is fenced off. Some streets have been entirely removed, their units all torn down.
Signs on the fences warn people not to enter, with phrases like “CAUTION: Area under environmental investigation for hazardous substances,” or “Controlled area: Authorized personnel only.” Other signs are more straightforward, referring to the land as “radiologically controlled” or noting the presence of asbestos and the hazards of cancer and lung disease that come with it.
Behind the fences are piles of dirt and demolition rubble, some covered by black plastic tarps. Occasionally there are workers in safety vests holding geiger counters, instruments used for measuring radiation. None of them are allowed to talk to the public about any of the work they’re doing.
“The Navy tells workers not to explain to people what they are doing,” said Carol Harvey, an investigative journalist for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper who’s covered environmental and civil rights issues on the island since 2014. “They have special hoops for media to jump through that delays and stops answers.”
Despite this secrecy, the public became aware of harmful radiation on the island in 2007, when the Navy hired the contractor New World Environmental to perform routine tests for radiation there. What they found was daunting: The ground at the most toxic part of the island, a cul-de-sac called Bigelow Court nestled in a cluster of houses and apartments, had a measurement of ionizing radiation at a million times higher than the EPA’s level for human toleration.
According to a report published by the Department of Energy, ionizing radiation contains enough energy to create ions by knocking electrons out of atoms and molecules. These ions move in streams at rapid speeds, and can radiate from underground.
“With the size of the island, nothing’s very far away,” said Harvey. “And the half-life of any radiation is very long. So that radiation is still there, and it’s still emitting radiation, but the Navy denies it.”
This means the toxins at Bigelow Court, as well as at other radioactive sites around the island, are spreading. They’re moving through the air and soil, clinging to people’s shoes, getting tracked into homes. Most concerningly, they may be making people sick.
Harvey has recorded hundreds of short videos documenting nearly every aspect of recent Treasure Island history, shown mostly through her ground research and in clips of public meetings. These videos are uploaded to her YouTube channel. In one video, originally shot in February 2016 and posted online in May 2018, she sits with a resident named Andre Patterson in his apartment as he lifts up his shirt to reveal two bulbous tumors jutting from his ribs and back. When Harvey asks what he thinks caused them, he replies immediately: “Radiation.”
“We’ve had some people move into this unit right downstairs,” he says. “One lady died. Another lady moved in; she died. Another lady moved in, and she’s sick.” Toward the end of the video, Patterson’s fiancé Felita Sample states that 1101 Bigelow Court, which tested a million times too high for radiation, sits directly behind the apartment building, almost functioning as her backyard.
While there’s no documented proof that the radiation on the island is what’s making Patterson and his neighbors sick, there’s enough evidence to warrant suspicion.
Berthed on the island during a large portion of its Navy years were ships used as radiological training schools, where sailors were taught how to decontaminate vessels in the event of a nuclear attack. Radioactive isotopes, according to a radiological assessment of the island published by the Navy in 2014, were used during this training “to more realistically simulate radioactive fallout.” Contaminated water from these activities “was initially allowed to soak into the soil,” and afterward, “holding tanks used to store contaminated water were possibly left in place and backfilled.”
“For years, they washed cesium 137 off the hulls of boats and into the soil,” Harvey said, referring to a deadly isotope formed from nuclear fission. “And it’s still there. You can’t get rid of it once it’s liquefied in the soil.”
This happened at the north end of the island, where all the housing units are today. The island’s entire residential portion is designated by the Navy as radiologically impacted.
Once the housing units are torn down, TIDA plans to turn the island’s north end into an open space wetlands area designated for “limited land use.” The planned 8,000 new housing units, 500 hotel rooms, and 550,000 square feet of commercial space will be closer to the island’s entry point, away from radiologically impacted areas.
“They want to build this enclave for the rich,” said Harvey. “They don’t want people to know how toxic Treasure Island really is, because if people know that, nobody is going to buy the condos. And if they can get rid of the people and the businesses that are there now, there’s not going to be anyone around to talk about it.”
Getting rid of those people and businesses will be no easy feat. A document published by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2017 estimates the cost of evicting or relocating all Treasure Island residents to be $1.25 million of the roughly $6 billion project. People who moved to the island before June 2011 are entitled to either a spot in a new affordable housing unit or a cash buyout of $6,286 per adult and $4,191 per underage, elderly, or disabled person.
Deeper in that document is the mention of a funding shortfall of over $380 million for the finance and construction of new affordable housing units – a shortfall that has yet to be accounted for. Some people speculate that to alleviate costs and prepare the island for redevelopment, TIDA has been evicting Treasure Island tenants unfairly.
“I don’t see a lot of people who I used to see anymore,” said island resident Jeannette Adejobi, “and it makes me wonder if they were evicted. I feel like since they’re getting very close to kicking everyone out, they will evict people for the slightest things. That’s one of the ways that they get rid of people.”
Dr. Smadar Lavie, a UC Berkeley anthropologist and former resident of the island, posted in an online eviction mapping project a collection of entries titled “The Treasure Island Race Chronicles.” In them are detailed accounts of her eviction from her home on the island.
“I am being targeted because I’m a whistleblower,” Lavie wrote in one entry. “I’m being evicted for alleged ‘no cause’ probably because I have written several times in the Next Door Neighbor discussion group that we, Islanders, suffer from infra-structural racism.”
The moderator of that discussion group, Lavie said, demanded that she remove every mention of the word “race” from her posts. She didn’t do this, and her posts were deleted. Not long afterwards, she came home from vacation to a 60-day eviction notice taped to her front door.
“The TIDA policy is to evict us one by one,” Lavie wrote, “as they engineer the future racial makeup of those who will purchase the lucrative apartments in the new development.”
Census data currently ranks Treasure Island as the third most diverse neighborhood in the country, second only to Irving in Dallas and Queens Village in New York City. After the majority of the island’s residents have been evicted and thousands of people begin moving into the newly-built luxury homes and high-rise condos, that statistic will inevitably change.
“They’re using us to get everything in order for the people to come,” said Adejobi. “The frustrating thing is, it would only take one person in power to shake things up and say, hey, we’re doing wrong. The elite should say, cut it out; let’s give these people a chance. But nobody will.”
At a Treasure Island Mobility Management Authority meeting last week, Supervisor Jane Kim smirked while allocating the final part of the agenda to what she called “robust public comment.” During this time, people lined up behind the podium to voice their feelings toward the meeting’s focus: a proposed toll that would charge $3.50 to anyone driving on or off the island.
“It’s outrageous to force residents of a San Francisco neighborhood to pay a toll upon entering and exiting that neighborhood,” said Cristoff Oppermann, a resident of Yerba Buena Island and Treasure Island for 19 years.
“I know children who are bedridden on the island,” said Jasmine Harvey, a mother and resident. “Will their aides and homecare workers have to pay to come take care of them?”
Toward the end of the public comment section, Jeannette Adejobi stepped up to the podium. In a shaky voice, she addressed the Board of Supervisors.
“Treasure Island, for us, is not a luxury,” she said through tears. “We can’t afford to be anywhere else. For that to be taken from us for people who could live anywhere they want – it’s wrong. It’s completely wrong.”
As Adejobi spoke, Supervisor Kim fiddled with a laptop and scrolled through her phone. Several other Board members did the same.
Through sobs, Adejobi continued: “This is our livelihood. This is where we can afford to live. I don’t have nowhere else to go.”
At her comment’s two-minute mark, she was cut off mid-sentence. There was a scattered applause, and the meeting continued.
Supervisor Kim didn’t look up until the public comments section was over.
Former Treasure Island resident S. Auden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.