home Features Treasure Island: Past, Present, and Future

Treasure Island: Past, Present, and Future

Written by: Ella Rook

Photos by: Sofya Shatalova

Map of the Golden Gate International Exposition.

No one really knows what to make of Treasure Island. When you think about the history of the island, do you remember the Golden Gate International Exposition, for which the island was built, or the Navy, who later took over and chased visitors away with guns? When you look at the present day island do you think about the condemned buildings, full of asbestos and radiation, or the small businesses thriving on cheap real estate? Looking to the future, do you see vibrant plans for redevelopment, or residents being kicked out in preparation for the imposing gentrification? The history of the island is just as interesting as its future.

Treasure Island was initially built as a tourist attraction. After the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco struggled to rebuild, and by the 1930s the city needed more money. With the completion of the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1936 and 1937, both considered marvels of engineering, the city had found their next tourist attractions. However, there was a problem; the city wanted tourists to be able to see both bridges at the same time. Berkeley allowed you to see the Bay Bridge, but the Golden Gate was often shrouded in fog. Sausalito gave views of the Bay Bridge, but not the Golden Gate, so eventually eyes fell to a patch of rocky shoal next to Yerba Buena Island. Using building materials dredged from the bay, the artificial Treasure Island was built. In 1939 the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island opened, and tourists came to see the bridges, as well as the carnival-like attractions the island hosted.

Ella Rook sitting on an original statue that was displayed at the exposition.

Initially, Treasure Island was designed to become San Francisco International Airport after the exposition was over. This quickly changed with the US’s impending involvement in World War II, and the Navy took over. As you enter the island, you see an old entrance gate, the kind that looks like you would have to stop and buy a parking ticket. This was the security gate, where, according to Desmond Crisis, a resident of Treasure Island and college professor, “the Navy would chase off unwelcome visitors with guns.” There are other relics on the island that harken back to the Navy’s involvement. Touring the island you see abandoned barracks and aircraft hangars which are boarded up and display “Danger Asbestos” and “Restricted Area, Authorized Personnel Only” with radiation symbols. There are rumors that the radiation is caused by the Navy cleaning ships which hosted radioactive material, but Crisis believes there is a much simpler explanation: “All the old watch faces, gun sights, airplane dials were hand painted with radium paint so they would glow in the dark.” He believes the Navy dumped all of the equipment with radioactive paint in certain landfill sites, resulting in parts of the island having have trace amounts of radiation.

Derelict buildings on Treasure Island.

Treasure Island also dipped its foot in the film industry. The aircraft hangars were used as sound stages for films such as The Parent Trap and The Matrix. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade used the eloquently named “building one” as the Nazi base for the film. Legend has it that when the admiral on the island found out that the film crew wanted to display Nazi flags on a naval base, he put his foot down and refused to let it happen. It is thought that The Last Crusade is the first movie to ever use CGI, because the Nazi flags had to be added in post production.

“Building 1” used as the Nazi Command Center.

Today, Treasure Island is an odd mix of low income housing, abandoned buildings, and thriving businesses. One of the best cafes on the island, Aracely, nestled between an unkempt field and derelict buildings, seems out of place. Its beautifully landscaped garden and rustic chic interior contrasts with the island’s broken windows and graffiti. One of the staff members at Aracely, Nikki Pourshayegan, has lived on the island for 12 years. She said that her parents moved to Treasure Island when they were “hit pretty hard by the economic recession”, but that she now finds the island “pretty comfortable.”

Aracely Cafe on Treasure Island.















Other establishments embrace the history of the island. The Fat Grape Winery opened its doors in an old Navy brig refitted to act as a jail on the island. The owner, Patrick Bowen, recalled that “the [inmates’] beds were bolted to the floor. When I moved in, I had to cut off the two-inch bolts and sand them all down.” He was worried that someone would trip and hit their head on a bolt.

The restrooms for the winery are located in the reception area of the jail, along with a smashed TV, broken pool table, and cracked windows.

Bathroom at the Fat Grape Winery.
Abandoned building on Treasure Island.














Luke Austin, the owner of the woodshop, Oak & Wood, likes the island because it’s so quiet, and the real estate is cheap. However, because of the redevelopment of the island, “[his] woodshop’s going to get closed down.”

The City of San Francisco is planning a full redevelopment of Treasure Island, complete with high rises and shopping. According to Crisis, reporters come to the island wanting a dramatic story about the Treasure Island community, writing articles about how they will be forgotten or made homeless, with nowhere to go. Crisis says they don’t understand that in reality the city “is taking care of us.” Under the Treasure Island Pre Disposition and Development Agreement, people who moved to island before 2011 will be relocated to new houses on the island, while people who moved after 2011 were told that they would not be able to stay after the redevelopment. The new development is expected to take the island’s small population of 2,000 and increase it tenfold to 20,000 people by 2032. With spectacular views of the Bay, who wouldn’t want to live there?

View of San Francisco from Treasure Island

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