Good Intentions Headed Where?

Oakland’s Artship is an ambitious project that has long sought funding to use a surplus training ship for hybrid arts/maritime training purposes. Intriguing concept, but is it the best use of limited funds and waterfront space? Ace reporter David Fear takes a look.

Is the Artship riding the crest of the wave of Oakland’s artistic future, or could this ambitious project be little more than a water-colored daydream?

By David Fear
Published: September, 2002

If you drive down Interstate 880 heading east alongside Oakland’s waterfront district, you might not notice the large seafaring vessel silently biding its time at the 9th Avenue pier. But let’s say you were to spot it as you sped by, you might just dismiss it as an average freight temporarily docked for unloading, one of the many ships passing in the night through the busy East Bay port. If, however, you have a keen eye even while whizzing along the freeway, hopefully at a safe, state-sanctioned speed, and perhaps a small amount of historical maritime knowledge, you might notice that the beat-up behemoth resting in the bay isn’t a run-of-the-mill trawler or a beat-up old cargo ship but an aquatic anomaly, an antique luxury liner from a bygone era that seems impressive even in its current decrepit state.

Even if you weren’t aware of the ship’s status as literally the last of its breed, you’d see the once-proud craft that lurks underneath the years of rust and wear. Chances are, however, that even the most imaginative amongst us wouldn’t look at the 70-year-old boat and see an art gallery, a regional museum, a restaurant or two, a cooking school, a dance studio, a theatre space, a concert hall, and the future headquarters of maritime training for entry-level seamen in the Bay Area. Okay, the last one, possibly; but a cultural hub designed to promote education and the arts? Forget about it.

Those things, however, are exactly what local artist and East Bay resident Slobodan Dan Paich saw when he stumbled upon this member of the mothballed “Ghost Fleet” in Suisun Bay, an elephant’s graveyard for retired naval ships past their prime. Like the ship he has adopted as his pet project, it’d be easy to dismiss Paich as just another gray-haired, wild-eyed member of Oakland’s populace without a second glance. But this particular member of the populace happens to be spearheading an effort to turn the “Artship,” as the vessel has now been christened, from a swansong into a bohemian rhapsody by turning the barge into a floating Eden for the creative urge. It’s an idea that’s so crazy it just might work. That, or it could be one of the bigger boondoggles in the Bay Area’s history.

Besides being two entities that could easily fool the naked eye, both the Artship and Slobodan have long histories involving reinvention and different incarnations. The Artship began life as the Del Orleans, a luxury liner laden with art deco design schemes, upper-tax bracket passengers, and loads upon loads of coffee beans that were transported from South America to New Orleans. When World War II broke out, she morphed into the U.S.S. Crescent City, a naval transport for troops heading out to fight the bloody campaigns in the Pacific; the ship actually saw battle off the coast of Guadalcanal. After the war ended, the Crescent City was retired to Suisun Bay until 1970, when it was renamed the Golden Bear and used as a training vessel by the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo. The ship seemed destined to live out her years quietly and then fade into the oblivion of the scrap heap.

Slobodan Dan Paich was born in Yugoslavia and after seeing his first opera as a child, became enamored of the performing arts. He was a child actor, celebrity, and painter before his experimental theatre group began irking the temperamental Slavic government, forcing him to leave the country and flee to England. He worked at menial jobs such as designing sets to support himself, eventually landing a job teaching theater at a small alternative college outside of London. When the campus theatre space, a dingy closet of an auditorium practically located underneath the main buildings, was in danger of being closed by stodgy board members, Paich saved the space thanks to a conceptual design plan he submitted to an international competition. He not only won and saved the space, he was commissioned to design a school in Italy, thus jump-starting a career as an architect.

Fast forward a few years to the United States, where Slobodan was teaching architecture in Berkeley and living in Oakland. A request for neighborhood art contributions led to the “Flagpole Project,” wherein he began designing odd, cylindrical sculptures out of found objects and everyday items. He planted the pieces around his neighborhood, encouraging his fellow Oakland residents to do the same; the idea eventually caught on, turning average citizens into artistes and blocks into impromptu galleries. He then began installing avant-garde art pieces and off-the-wall fashion designs in abandoned storefront windows of Jack London Square. Nobody knew what to make of that at first, though the city was willing to indulge him. The “People and Fashion Project” helped to revitalize the Square’s economic health (the art made it seem as if these failed spaces were actually thriving; businesses apparently became interested in renting near these hip, sometimes kooky, window dressing installations), spilling into Broadway storefronts as well. At last count, over 4,000 artists had showcased their work in this highly unorthodox, yet strangely apropos, open exhibit.

We haven’t even mentioned the dance studio he helped found or the revitalization project centered around Arroyo Viejo Park, an area many residents claimed was in danger of becoming a Skid Row du jour until Paich restored a theatre there and began holding performances, breathing new life into the area. Looking over his work in the Bay Area since he arrived here close to 20 years ago, there seems to be a theme running through his endeavors: Take a neglected space or residential area, inject his personal obsession regarding the creative urge, and involve the community so that it morphs into a shared public expression of civic pride. He’s had a knack for breathing new life into property people have given up on and then turning things around. So it really shouldn’t have surprised anyone when, after mulling over a plan to create an artistic HQ that would not only house his common fixations but stand as a testament to Oakland’s history, he settled on a junked ship he found in a catalogue of forgotten vessels. You get the feeling that Slobodan, upon seeing what most would characterize as a hunk of junk, immediately recognized the venue he’d been looking for.

When I arrive at the pier to get a tour of the ship, I can see why some people in the arts community view him as a visionary and why some in the political arena might be tempted to dismiss him as a bit of a kook. A dead ringer for the late Burl Ives, Slobodan’s thick-accented voice has a tendency to remain in a gentle singsong register even as his eyes light up with passion while speaking about the possibilities the Artship, and art in general, can attain. He smiles constantly in a way that could suggest enlightenment or a need for prescription medicine. Having a conversation with him is a bit like talking with a wizened Zen master, your favorite elderly uncle, and a four-year-old child with highly tangential tendencies all at once; as we walk from his onshore office to the ship, he interrupts me in the middle of a question to point out two unused railroad tracks that run across the dock. “We have nine cats around here, and they will only use this rail as a bathroom,” he explains without provocation. “But not this other one, I’m afraid.” He grins somewhat maniacally. “It is the world’s longest litter box.”

The Artship itself looks much better than it did three years ago, when it was towed over from Benicia to the estuary in a grand christening ceremony. The ship’s exterior still bears its years on its proverbial sleeve, though considering its history as a warship, it’s remarkably free of battle scars. There’s lots of repair and restoration work that needs to be done, he’ll readily admit, before the boat is ready for the public. When you enter the inside, however, it’s obvious some work has already been accomplished. The entrance hall is done up in the ship’s original art deco style and crammed with installation pieces in various states of completion, including a commissioned piece by a German artist where pictures of various aquatic motifs have been spread across the floor. “It’s called ‘Walking on Water’,” he declares.

Throughout the tour, Paich points out his volunteer crew’s efforts to restore the many deco flourishes of the ship’s glory days as well as his vision for this future floating metaphor. The liner’s salon and passenger berths have endured a few facelifts to retain its original ’30s look, albeit one in which art of all shapes and sizes dots the walls and windows. “Here’s where the theatre space will be,” he says, pointing to an empty, musty space near the ship’s old engine room. “You’ll be able to watch a play while musicians create music up on deck.” Passing the large kitchen, he speaks of a day when cooking classes for both naval cooks and your everyday Emeril will take place. Looking over the railing of the old cargo hold, one can see a dance practice floor littered with ballet shoes. Are there performance rehearsals going on? Slobodan simply shrugs. “I don’t know, maybe,” he says.

The obvious question, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, is: Why a ship? “Large spaces like this are very hard to come by in Oakland,” he explains. “I like the symbolism of an old warship being converted into a place where peace can flourish, where art is created, where people can come and speak their mind, where freedom intermingles with ideas. Plus, it represents Oakland’s history as an international port, where many cultures mingled together.” He points to his head and gestures to a nearby whirling gear sculpture that has been incorporated into one of the ramps, his eyes widening. “This will be an international port of the mind!”

Slobodan’s vision of turning this forgotten piece of 20th century seafaring into a 21st century Eden for artists, intellectuals, and scholars is certainly ambitious. Granted, there are several elderly ships in the Bay Area that serve as reminders of the past, including the Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty Ship program running up and down the Peninsula and that armchair general’s/military aficionado’s wet dream known as the U.S.S. Hornet. And certainly, with the proposals for various floating hotels, prison ships, and (gasp!) even a water-based Starbucks that would be anchored near Pier 39’s tourist district, a tribute to the area’s historical importance and creative community is far from the most vulgar idea to sail the seven seas. But, given the problems the Artship faces in the coming months, one can reasonably wonder if this project can realistically remain afloat.

The project gained a crucial ally back in 1993 when then-Congressman Ron Dellums got the ship transferred to the Artship Foundation, the organization Slobodan and the project’s other nine community-based founders. It took five years to gain full congressional approval, and over that time the Artship Foundation worked tirelessly to convince the City of Oakland and various corporate interests that the idea would help bring a cultural and economic renaissance back to the city (to quote Paich from an earlier article, the ship is viewed as “developmental collateral”).

But in the meantime, there is quite a bit of restoration and maintenance to do before the ship is ready for public gatherings, and that, unfortunately, carries a hefty price tag. Estimates on the exact amount that’s already been spent and how much is still needed haven’t exactly been forthcoming for obvious reasons, but to pull off the kind of far-reaching ideas Paich and the foundation have in mind, i.e., a restaurant, several performance spaces, the housing of artists-in-residence, will require several million dollars. Thanks to winning several government grants, including a recent one from the U.S. Department of Economic Development to use the Artship for maritime training, and the generosity of private donors, the ship continues to work towards becoming shipshape. But it’s just one piece of a much larger economic pie regarding the project’s needs and wish list.

In addition to instituting a maritime training program, the ship is the official Bay Area campus for the International Peace University, a rather free-form international university that counts such luminaries as Nelson Mandela on its board. Based in Berlin, the university has established several campuses and sees the Artship as an ideal place to host its American base. The possibility of garnering income from enrollment and tuition seems likely, although when asked about possible fee amounts, Paich said it was still being hammered out. “Maybe some classes will just be for free, y’know?” Ah…
Some out there wonder if the ship doesn’t qualify as “fill,” meaning an immovable mass that would remain docked without the ability to move about, and thus be beholden to laws that dictate the ship not be used for commercial or recreational maritime uses on public land. In order to gain approval from, say, the S.F. Bay Conservation and Development Commission or other such entities, the Artship would have to meet certain criteria, such as being navigable. Maritime students might be able to operate the ship for such needs, but chances are you’d need a crew to run the boat if it needed to be mobile, which means wages…tack on some more income needed for that.

Plus, should the ship become mobile, environmental concerns enter the picture: Will a ship that old be using a diesel generator, and how much will that contribute to possible pollution of the Bay? And one hopes that, even in the ship’s current state of slowed-down decay prior to a complete renovation, further damage isn’t being incurred by a decades-old ship moored off the shores of Oakland and at the mercy of the elements.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the question of the ship’s current space on the 9th Avenue pier and the politics inherent in the ship staying there. Originally, there was concern that that section of the port was still considered an active terminal for Oakland’s incoming and outgoing shipping route and that the Artship would interfere with any comings and goings of normal shipping business. There has been talk of changing the terminal’s status to “inactive,” due to the narrowness of the Webster tunnel regarding passing vessels carrying large “containerized” cargo, which nullifies that problem. It does, however, open up an entirely different can of worms.

The city of Oakland has gone on record in support of both the Artship’s proposed status as a landmark for Oakland’s cultural community and as a beacon of economic revitalization for the area, going so far as to initially offer monetary contributions towards the Foundation so they might bring the ship to the port (though, as many are quick to point out, the majority of that is from grants awarded to the foundation and not the taxpayer’s money). There have been some allegations, notably in an article in the March issue of The East Bay Monthly, that the city has gone a little sour on the idea and may have possibly hindered the project from getting further funding. As the project applies for a long-term mooring permit and waits for the final OK on their environmental review with the city, the sore-spot subject of parking facilities around the 9th Avenue area is bound to become a sticking point. If the project were to press forward, a separate space for parking would be needed to accommodate the vast number of vehicles of patrons attending an Artship concert or show. This would require a definite commitment on the part of both the city and the ship’s “landlord,” the Port of Oakland, to support the project at the risk of further waterfront development.

What further development, you might be asking. Isn’t part of the point of the Artship Foundation to inject economic life into that bayside property? Yes, but the Foundation isn’t the only one eyeing the 9th Avenue property. Specifically, there’s the “Oak-to-Ninth” development plan that’s currently in the early stages of revision and would deal with turning the roughly 120 acres of land running from Oak St. to 9th Avenue into a lucrative space for business and office park development. The Port owns approximately half of that space, including the pier that Artship hopes to call home. And; while it would be inappropriate to second-guess any decisions either the city or port brass might be making at such an early, formative stage, it doesn’t take an MBA to see the possibilities of serious revenue intake that the Oak-to-Ninth plan might offer. It also doesn’t take a visionary to see that if a decision to go ahead with a comprehensive development plan along the waterfront with an eye towards bottom-line financial returns, the Artship could be in for a David vs. Goliath fight with a decidedly nonbiblical ending.

One of the advantages of the Artship being a movable feast, as opposed to just a sedentary symbol, is that should the city or port decide to use that space for reasons other than mooring, it would be able to float off and find another destination to plant its roots. But considering the money, time, and effort that have already been spent, a move might be the financial straw that would break the camel’s back. There’s also the question that many, myself included, simply dread asking: Is the Artship even a feasible, sensible idea? Or rather, does it stand a chance in hell of realistically getting off the ground?

Having lived in San Francisco for over a decade, I can attest to having personally witnessed a once vibrant cultural arts scene get systemically pushed aside and atrophy into the ether. Frankly, there’s nothing many of us Bay Area residents and survivors of this frenzied second Gold Rush would rather see than a cultural museum/classroom/performing arts space project gain momentum over yet another office park construction project. It’s about time Oakland got its Eiffel Tower, its local-artist Louvre, a naval-gazing think tank. And even those that eye the project warily and view Paich as a wide-eyed dreamer turning into a muse the rest of us can’t hear, think that if anyone could pull off the project, it would be him. His former “goofy, artsy-fartsy” ideas, to quote one Slobodan detractor, have yielded results far greater than anyone could have anticipated. His commitment to fostering community is unquestioned; other Foundation board members pay lip service to Paich as being a tireless, inspirational guiding light dedicated to bringing this project to fruition come hell or high water.

One’s inner cynic, however, wonders if the incredible free-form shape of Paich’s ambitions, the cost of trying to get this project going, and the possibility of morale-deadening adversity lurking on the horizon hasn’t put the Artship into waters too deep to maneuver safely. The difference between great dreams and pipe dreams are sometimes gossamer-thin, and the feeling that resources might be realistically better spent on something more conceptually open-ended than a creaky old ship acting as a nebulous metaphor is a hard one to shake. Visions of Fitzcarraldo dance through the head, a great intention undone by its own unwieldy bulk. The East Bay needs people like Paich to dream up inspirational ideas like this, and with a little tweaking, it just might work. How the project can stay afloat as concrete results forever drift further and further away, however, is one nagging question that might eventually, tragically sink the Artship into the drink.