The Houseboat Community – A Hippie Dream Adrift

(Göteborgs-Posten (The Gothenburg Post), February 22, 2014)

They came here in the 1960s to live on a shoestring and to party on the outskirts of that no-good, mainstream, conformist, 9-to-5 society.

Janine Boneparth arrived much later, with a healthier budget that would buy her a million-dollar houseboat, but she still does her part to save the world, wearing peace earrings and picking up plastic litter from the ground each day as a friendly gesture toward the environment.

Decks and docks, wooden ships, barges, bulging flowerpots, luxurious designer homes, colliding colors and angles, electric wiring hanging perilously close to the water’s surface…

Sausalito, the small waterfront town just north of the Golden Gate Bridge leading out of San Francisco, is home to an impressive and vibrant floating homes community, the largest in the United States with more than 400 houseboats rubbing shoulders where the tide moves in and out of Richardson Bay.

Not two of them are alike. That’s why they’re all here. That’s why, as a cheerful neighbor chirps, ”this is another beautiful day in the universe”.

In 1971, London-born Penny Woodstock found her way here with husband Michael. They were hitchhiking, stumbled out of a car on the Sausalito highway, spotted an old-time ferryboat down the hill and looked at each other, overjoyed: ”This is it.”

”Michael was this big man who was a prophet,” says Penny. ”He prophesized about everything. Everything but religion.”

And so they anchored on the suburban waterfront, eventually settling on the home-built Starship, a colorful wooden structure named after the San Franciscan rock band. Penny has stayed ever since her husband was killed down in Mexico almost three decades ago. For many years she ran a local indoor flea market. Her youngest daughter Aliss, who works as a ceramics designer in the city, still lives next door, on a tiny white boat with blue window frames and walls decorated with posters from bands that once used to play in the local joint; Moby Grape, Big Brother and The Holding Company…

Although the history of Sausalito houseboats stretches all the way back to the 1800s, today’s floating homes community really grew out of the hippie dream of the 1960s.

Sheltered from the strongest Pacific winds and pretty much secluded, this waterfront had been used during World War II by the military as a shipyard for landing vessels, cargo ships, and submarine chasers. The abandoned mudflats, filled with scrap, barges and recycable materials, then caught the eyes of the countercultural dropouts looking for inexpensive, unpretentious housing. It was a peaceful occupation of former military land.

People would journey from afar to see what was happening in San Francisco in 1967, during the Summer of Love. Larry Moyer, a well-traveled artist with a camera who had been on assignments in Moscow and Beijing ten years earlier, arrived from New York with his fellow traveler, writer Shel Silverstein, to cover this psychedelic revolution for Playboy magazine.

”We did the whole hippie thing with the dope and the sex and the rock’n’roll,” 90-year old Larry explains, leaning back with his pipe and his Father Christmas beard in the easy-going chaos of his and his wife Diane’s houseboat living-room. Books and film cassettes are everywhere and time has transformed his collection of vinyl records into one single heap of brittle, ancient-looking paper scrap, making it impossible to identify any particular album cover.

”I came down to Sausalito and stepped out on the deck where people were walking around naked on these fantastic boats. They were mostly home-made. For fifty bucks you could get a landing boat and people would build cabins or whole houses on top of them. The whole community was living on recycled stuff. The mentality was completely anti-military, completely non-conformist, unregimented. There’d be all kinds of music. And I said, wow, this is where I wanna be. I want to spend the rest of my life here.”

So he did.

It was a makeshift, make-do community. Homes were constructed from debris, cardboard sheets, old planks, whatever was available nearby. Some were designed to look like birds, others emulated pirate ships.

”The nice thing about it was that nobody had any money,” smiles Larry Moyer. ”A lot of people came here because they just didn’t want to work anymore. They were unemployable. A lot of it was bartering, you’d help somebody paint and they would help you with the electricity. There were no rules, no laws, no regulations, no building codes. You could do pretty much what you wanted.”

Old times may lose themselves in a haze of nostalgia, especially if they were experienced in a place like Sausalito. Larry Moyer remembers that special mood which sets in when an entire neighborhood is lit up only by candles and kerosene, but agrees that romanticizing easily permeates parts of the memory.

”I won’t tell you about the terrible shit. There was a lot of drugs around. You know, freedom’s a weird word. But whatever it was, everybody was kind of finding it here. The sexual freedom meant that you could have as much sex as you wanted with whoever you wanted. It wasn’t a big deal.”

As the illegal community grew and showed signs of becoming permanent, the authorities moved in. A bitter fight, locally known as the houseboat wars, ensued as developers designed fancier plans for the waterfront and the police were sent in to evict the new breed of homesteaders.

”We were fighting for our whole lifestyle,” says Larry Moyer. ”But we were up against some big bucks.”

The conflict ended with a stalemate, but gradually new homes, several of them worth a million dollars or more, have appeared on the new docks while the hippie part of the community has shrunk and become a bleak reminder of the past.

Now you have the lawyers and doctors and retired literature professors, who appreciate the relaxed and somewhat alternative lifestyle, the younger professionals who commute to the city on the local ferry, and some of the old-timers who fought for a hard-to-find Utopia. Today’s mix on the docks is quite fascinating, but there are also mixed feelings about the gentrification, of course. A plan is under way to move some of the unstable and unsafe home-built boats with their totems and junk sculptures to new, safer spots, integrating them into this other world of real estate agents and interior decorators.

Still, the whole neighborhood appears like a small universe on its own, filled with luscious plants, cozy breakfast decks and a myriad of imaginative boat names such Eye on The Sky, The Louisiana Purchase, Unlimited Joy or The Train Wreck.

In the area called Gate Six, where life remains more improvised and any walk along the floating, bobbing piers is an adventure, Penny Woodstock is making plans to move her Starship to a safer harbor some hundred yards away.

”We built most of our ship ourselves. That’s why it’s so funky. When Aliss was a kid we had the tide come all the way through our living-room. The room was filled with the bay!”

Over the years, The Starship has needed constant improvements and renovation work.

”I keep trying to make it better and better. But now they’re gonna come in and rebuild the whole area.”

With her blue eyes peering into this not too distant future, the 65-year old Sausalito houseboat veteran observes:

”I’m gonna move, but I’m not gonna change. I’m too old to change.”