this is what came before


I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge today. The passage through and out of the city is loathsome up until the the red steel towers of the GGB become visible, rising out of the cold blue waters—a reliably redemptive sight, it never gets old.

I got off on the exit right after the bridge, which I don’t think I’ve ever taken up until today, and drove through a long stretch of a dark tunnel that used to be a military connection between Fort Baker with Fort Barry—the first artillery posts established on the north side of the Golden Gate. Despite the tunnel’s disuse and dilapidation—it was built in 1918, and the last of the Coast Artillery troops left Fort Barry in 1946—, driving through it felt precarious and lonely and doomed, a one-way passage of darkness, longer than you would have expected, on all sides dirty white concrete so stained and bleak—it looked like someone had smeared ashes across its surface. That it was longer in length than most tunnels created a sensation of awakening from a nuclear bomb shelter upon exit. I thought about the movie Blast from the Past, in which Brendan Fraser plays a man named Adam (spoiler alert: he meets a woman named Eve—90s movies got away with shit like that), who is thrust into civilization after spending twenty-something years raised in a bomb shelter. First look at daylight after being underground for so long—the shock of progress! That moment of seeing daylight for the first time, of seeing the passage of time not incrementally but in one fell swoop, the passing years felt most palpably in the absence of the old, and the presence of the strange and foreign and new.

(Also, why do inane pop culture references contaminate everything?)


I visited Headlands Art Center today, which is housed in the old Fort Barry buildings—military barracks—hovering above the Rodeo Lagoon, which empties into the Pacific Ocean. The barracks were rehabilitated and renovated in the 80s—partially renovated, I should say. Physical traces of the military establishment still remain, the artifacts of old looking strangely like pieces of art themselves. Military signage with missing letters resembling the work of Jasper Johns, the pastel paint peeled and crackled on the wall looking suspiciously like a retro throwback proclaiming its aura of authenticity. The rooms and spaces—the mess hall, the officers’ room—still structurally intact. Reformatted, but still named and noted for their original architectural intent. You're stepping into an erstwhile chamber, which was once filled with the noise and chatter of vigilant men. A room now vacated for something entirely new, though remnants are preserved out of respect or out of necessity. Sometimes you get an eerie feeling of haunting, the possible presence of ghostly souls. I feel this sometimes at Alcatraz or Treasure Island too. The vacancy that comes with desertion but not destruction.

I didn’t stay there long, but for the little while I was there, I felt a sense of precedence everywhere around me. Merely the sense was striking and affecting. I didn’t need to read about Fort Barry's history or understand exactly what each building was used for and which men inhabited these dwellings—I just knew that I wasn’t the first one here, that we, this generation, were not the first ones here, and that feeling was significant; the arts center was a descendant, not an originator. Wide open space and empty used chambers. Certainly a stark contrast from the city just over the bridge, where construction is ubiquitous, where buildings are being razed down and replaced with newness, plushness, richness. Destroying the old makes way for the new. Progress the king precludes any thought for what came before. I've noticed so many fires as of late—accidental, perhaps—but the reduction of decades-old building seems to strangely coincide with incoming Babylonian erections. Every month we see a new multi-million-dollar sky-rise, stylized, sumptuous, luxurious.

Where is what came before? How beautiful, really, is progress? Man glories in being the first one everywhere—the pride of the intrepid explorer, touching down; only conquest will sate his hunger; we must land on the moon first before the Russians; the Santa Maria sailed into the dock, setting its eyes on the new world, my new world. Here in America we celebrate ownership. We celebrate the realization of dreams and ideas and the self-made man—made of course, at the expense of the quiet dwellings, the humble and the luckless. Sometimes history appears to be invisible. We can’t find it anywhere (we’re not looking hard enough; we’re not staying in a place long enough). But blindness is safe. Who wants to open his eyes to see the havoc he’s wreaking in the world?


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