It’s astonishing how few locals have taken the off-ramp towards Point Molate, the final westbound exit before the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Those who do immediately find themselves in an eerie and often deserted peninsula, offering few visible clues about its epic history.
Long ago settled by the Ohlone and Miwok tribes, the Point San Pablo peninsula was later the site of a Chinese shrimp camp, the historic Winehaven winery (closed down by Prohibition), the country’s last whaling station, and a fuel depot for the U.S. Navy. Driving past the unoccupied buildings and crisping barracks, perched on what must be some of the most valuable real estate in North America, I feel I’m driving through a time tunnel.
Continuing north, I take a right-hand turn up a steep, winding, but well-paved hill, I round the summit and my destination—Point San Pablo Harbor—unfurls below. The view across San Pablo Bay, from Point Pinole to coastal Marin, is thrilling. It’s like coming in for a landing in a seaplane.
Point San Pablo Harbor began to take shape as a marina in 1930 when ferry boat captain Raymond Clark was grounded here by a Christmas Day storm. The setting, understandably, inspired him. Steel ships were sunk to form the breakwater, and a yacht harbor was built. The 30-acre parcel changed hands several times until December 2016, when local builder Rob Fyfe and his partner Yaella Frankel learned it was for sale. They purchased it with their colleague Daryl Henline, who became Harbor Master.
“It was a beautiful spot, a beautiful piece of the Bay,” Fyfe recalls, “but in derelict condition—the type of place where people allow broken cars, broken equipment, and all manner of junk to be left, somehow thinking that maybe some piece of it will be useful someday.”
Rob and Yaella, both longtime regulars at Burning Man (where they first met in 2007) envisioned a new life for the land. Serendipitously, the pieces came together at a Burning Man fundraising event. Rob met a man who worked with ‘We Are From Dust,’ a non-profit dedicated to bringing large-scale art to interesting places. “Not to big downtown centers,” explains Rob, “but to non-festival environments, where that transformational power of art can be shared with a greater portion of the community.”
The new owners got to work cleaning up the place. Today, Point San Pablo Harbor is a jumble of distractions and a great place for a sunny day trip. There’s a thriving produce garden, a goat farm, a sporadic music series, and several special event venues. The Harbor’s best-known draw is the Black Star Pirate Barbeque, where you can expect a daunting line on weekends (it’s open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 11-7).
And to my joy and delight, there’s the emerging Burning Man sculpture park, with a changing menagerie of large-scale artworks that all began life as installations in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Rob purchased some as permanent fixtures, while others are on lease.
It’s refreshing to see these artworks away from the context of the alkaline desert and realize that they have a life beyond Burning Man. Approaching the Harbor, the first one you’ll see is Peter Hazel’s vividly tiled Niloticus (i.e., crocodile), irresistible to anyone who likes sticking their heads in long-toothed mouths.
Weekday afternoons are generally pretty quiet: Except for a couple with a stroller, my friend and I have the place pretty much to ourselves. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much going on, but much is revealed with exploration. At the end of a spit of land adjoining a small, dog-friendly beach (follow the path past the Black Star Pirate Barbeque and the floating homes) sits Michael Christian’s Asterpod: a bud-shaped web of hand-formed steel. Visitors are invited to “enter the seed before the moment when it will be lifted by the winds.” Easier said than done; I opted out, choosing instead to recline in the luxury of the nearby Sunset Swing.
The newest addition to the collection is La Victrola, built by an art collective in Oakland. It’s a 35’ high horn for a giant’s Gramophone. I first saw La Victrola in 2017 at Burning Man, where its helipad-sized base served as a stage for a motley symphony. Now it’ll host the “On the Waterfront” concerts.
My personal favorite is New York artist Kate Raudenbush’s Futures Past. There’s no doubt that this Steam Punk monument of laser-cut steel, with its crowning metal tree and hallucinatory interior, will one day be the subject of doctoral theses by alien anthropologists.
They’ll probably unearth some goat skeletons, too. About 20 resident goats wander the hillside, transforming the landscape’s gnarly profusion of scrub, scotch broom, blackberries, and poison oak into fertilizer for the community garden.
As sunset nears I duck into the Clubhouse to meet the effervescent Yaella. She and Rob live aboard one of the floating homes, and when I ask her the best part about living out here, her answer surprises me.
“Oh my gosh. Well, part of my experience of life here has been connecting to the Moon, and the tides, to a degree that I never have before. I now have a very clear visualization of how the waters around the earth are pulling, almost yearning, towards the moon.”
I’ve never seen the moon from here. I did come out one night last fall for a concert by Conspiracy of Beards, a brilliant all-male a cappella choir that performs exclusively Leonard Cohen songs (and was co-created by Harbor Master Daryl Henline). A chilling fog blew in over the Golden Gate; it wasn’t very comfortable, but it was magical.
Now, in the late afternoon light, Point San Pablo Harbor feels wild and desolate, like an abandoned movie set for a post-apocalyptic thriller. Everything appears in high relief: the rusty, incongruous train tracks leading nowhere; the bleached skeletons (fake…I think) on the roof of the Black Star Pirate; the beat-up soft-serve ice cream truck painted in primary colors.
“Point San Pablo Harbor is a place where people can come to have an experience they won’t have anywhere else,” says Yaella. “It creates a memory that’s distinct in their minds.”
She’s right. Like a trip to the Black Rock playa, it leaves an indelible impression—and definitely qualifies as a journey.
Point San Pablo Harbor is located off Interstate 580 on Point Molate at 1900 Stenmark Drive, Richmond. (510) 233-3224. Open 365 days a year from 8:00 a.m. until sundown. Check the website for directions and event calendar. Black Star Pirate BBQ is open Friday-Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. with live music in the afternoon. Rob is looking for help with his ongoing project to revitalize the area. If you’re interested, contact him at [email protected].
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