Cracks in the Mirror

Sausalypso in rehearsal  |  photo from John Byrne Barry  |  post by Jim Woessner

The following is a personal opinion essay by longtime Issaquah resident Jim Woessner. It is offered here as food for thought but does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Floating Homes Association or the Floating Times.

My partner and I recently went to see a melodrama murder mystery entitled Sausalypso. The play was loosely based on the so-called Sausalito “houseboat wars” of the sixties and seventies. It was a light-hearted comedy written, directed, and performed by our neighbors. There was an abundance of in-jokes and much laughter. At the end of the play, the audience gave a rousing applause for what was truly a fun event. I laughed along with everyone else. But the laughter did not come without some sticking in my throat. And for days afterwards, the feeling I had about the play was sadness.

The murder victim in the play was a “Snidely Whiplash” character, described in the play as a “greedy developer.” His plan was to evict the “damn houseboat anarchists” who had settled rent-free in what had been the Bechtel shipyard following World War II. The crux of the story was the triumph of good over evil. The evil property developer was murdered, the mystery was solved, and the community of free-spirited citizens were victorious. Good had successfully triumphed.

In real life, however, the opposite happened. Money won the houseboat wars, as it does in most conflicts. The “idyllic” rent-paying houseboat community that the landowning interests wanted to build came to fruition, and the people who had raised a generation of children on the waterfront were either kicked out, bought out, or subsumed into the capitalist scheme. Ironically, we in the audience, nearly all of whom reside in the community that was ultimately created, were celebrating the “anarchists” in the play as if they had been victorious. We mythologized them into heroes even though they hadn’t won. They had been defeated by money. And money continues to diminish those of us who live here today, even though we are the beneficiaries of those long-ago wars.

I have lived in the houseboat community for more than thirty years and have observed the ways that wealth has changed us. First, it is expensive to live here, as it is in most of the Bay Area. Either you came long ago when houseboats were relatively cheap or you can afford to move here. In either case, we have grown in wealth due to rising property values. Second, I chafe every time I hear someone describe the houseboat community as an “art colony,” whatever that means, or even that it’s artsy or creative. It is not, any more than any other Bay Area community. It used to be, perhaps, but that was long ago when artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Lobdell, Walter Kuhlman, James Dixon, and Jean Varda lived here. Now, the houseboat community, particularly the one on the north side of Sausalito, has become like most in the Bay Area, the difference being—and it is a significant one—that we float up and down with the tide. And perhaps we are compelled to know each other a little better than people in other communities because we have to pass each other as we walk along a narrow dock to get to and from the parking lots. The thing is, one-, two-, and three-million dollar floating homes don’t tend to be compatible with the kind of mindset needed to produce what you might call “art.” Money buys a lot of things. It buys property, security, and leisure. It can buy large easels and oil paints. But it doesn’t buy creativity. Third, the mostly liberal and, might I say, “enlightened” politics that most of us once took for granted have thinned. The wealthier we are, the more conservative we tend to be. An example is that we houseboaters used to be active protesters demonstrating against our country’s various wars or inequality or racism or in favor of women’s rights. But protests these days are rare. As our country marches lockstep toward a more conservative future, many of us have been pushed ever so slightly in the same direction, swimming with the tidal current, as it were. The equation is simple: wealth is inversely proportional to humanity. It always has been. There are exceptions, of course, but generally the more money we have, the less concerned we tend to be with our neighbors.

The thing is, as much as we would like to believe otherwise, we aren’t special. The setting is certainly unique, but we’re pretty much like everyone else. We bring our values with us. And those values have changed considerably as people have moved away from the water and new, wealthier people have moved here. The changes aren’t necessarily bad, just different. Three decades ago, the parking lots were full of Volkswagens, the lifestyle was funk, and we had live music or art events nearly every week. Today the parking lot is mostly SUVs, and we speak to one another mostly in passing. An exception is the music concerts we enjoyed during covid. And there are other exceptions. But in truth, the only thing “alternative” about our lifestyle is the setting. Don’t get me wrong, it is a rich setting. But we have changed in profound ways. And I think we should acknowledge those ways.

Why do I choose to live here? Because I love the ambiance of living on the water. Because I like to wake up to seabirds crying and the racket that Canada geese make. Because my closest friends live here. And because several weeks ago, a family of river otters were seen playing on my neighbor’s float. It is a wonderful place to live. But I would encourage my neighbors to stand back a short distance and take an honest look at who they are, why they moved here, and how their lives have changed. We are not a cut above. And for heaven’s sake, let’s not mythologize those that went before us unless we are willing to honor the values that they fought for.