Trains and Ports

The port of Oakland is building (or has built) this new rail yard across from our building, and when I sit on the couch to write, I always look at the trains and it reminds me nostalgically of Indiana, which had what used to be the biggest rail yard in the midwest. It used to be the big Conrail yard where pretty much every east-west freight train was assembled or routed. That meant tons of rail traffic and getting stuck at the gates when a hundred-car train slowly clacked along. But it burned something in the back of my head, a strange reverence for rail equipment.

Conrail is long gone, Norfolk Southern built a much bigger yard in Ohio, and the Elkhart yard is one of many superfund sites in the city. Or was. I’m not sure what they’ll do in the future. The groundwater is still contaminated in places. The rail yard is still in use, I guess. Every time I go back to Elkhart, I get stuck at the gates again.

I just saw an Amtrak streak by, silver cars and high(er) speeds. One of the walks I take is up to the Emeryville station, across the tracks on the little pedestrian bridge, which involves going up four or five flights of stairs, then back down four or five flights of stairs. But in the middle of it, you walk across the narrow bridge and look down on this relatively new station built in 1993. It looks almost European, the modern concrete and side line with yellow paint on the crossings, where the sleep passenger trains arrive, and an automated announcer calls out the name of the station.

All of Emeryville surrounding the station is new condominiums and campuses of pharmaceutical research companies. I walk by one of these clusters of buildings, and found a plaque that said it was the location where scientists first sequenced the HIV-1 RNA. The campuses of Novartis and Bayer rose from what used to be chemical development facilities for Shell Petroleum, and production factories for Sherwin-Williams. Now the area is Pixar, Peet’s Coffee headquarters, and lots of little design firms and architect offices. It’s an eerie walk to do on a Sunday, when the offices are all closed. It’s especially nice in the summer, when it’s still cool out in the morning, and the air is just starting to heat up.

That rail yard across the street — the whole area around the port of Oakland used to be the Oakland army base. From WW2 to about 1999, it was the major shipping port for army materials sent to the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam. My uncle (who was career Navy) told me about being in Alameda, working on a carrier, and driving to Oakland Army Base to pick up parts. After it closed in 99, it sat empty for a dozen years, while the slow-moving Oakland political machine tried to figure out what to do with the toxic wasteland. There were nonstop rumors that it would become a movie studio, a casino, a baseball stadium. It ended up becoming more warehouses and rail facilities for the port.

There are still some remnants of the old base, the kind of two-story barracks-looking buildings the army built everywhere in the 1940s. Last year, I had to go to the TSA to get fingerprinted for a TSA Pre card, and they had a facility there. It was in an old Army building that was about to get torn down, a three-story structure that looked exactly like the same things you’d see on any military base anywhere. Yellowing ceiling tiles, large urns of burnt coffee, government posters of obscure acronyms. Most of the visitors were truckers needing some TSA paperwork. They closed the building a few months later. I haven’t walked over there recently, but the entire street has been under heavy construction for years, large swaths being bulldozed and regraded. Looking at the google maps images, it looks like they’re building pyramids there.

I was walking home the other day, past a new condo development. (Side note, I think they are insane, because they are cramming eight 1500-sqft units in a tiny lot, and they are all supposed to be “luxury” and cost over a million dollars each, and this is like a few thousand feet from a giant homeless encampment and open-air drug market.) Anyway, the construction crew was inside the recently-walled units, probably working on plumbing or electrical, and they were blasting music through the construction site, but it was like bop jazz, Thelonious Monk or something, which was surreal.

I need to go walk now, although I need to write first. It’s almost to the point where it is nice to walk again, after a lot of cold, rainy weather. The sun’s out, but it’s still in the 40s. I should probably go walk by the rail yard and see how the construction is going. I’m not one of those crazed rail fan types, but it’s nice to see them doing something out there.

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