Bird’s eye view: San Francisco Bay as seen from the air

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An aerial view of the Berkeley Pier, one of the photographs in the new book “Around the Bay: Man-made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region.’ Photo: CLUI

The eyes of the Bay Area have been on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge this week. The self-supported suspension span, conceived after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, took 24 years of planning and building, and $6.4 billion, to complete.

But man has been building on the shores of San Francisco Bay for hundreds of years, and a new book and exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California documents those changes and pushes viewers to ask whether it has been for the good.

Matthew Coolidge, one of the founders of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a research and education organization that uses art and other methods to explore and examine landscape issues, is fascinated with man’s impact on the land. The organization got its start in an office in Jack London Square in Oakland in 1994, but now has offices and exhibition space in Los Angeles, and residency and research outposts in Wendover, Utah, the Mojave Desert, and Kansas.  

Coolidge’s previous book explored the Hudson River shoreline from New York City to Troy, New York. His new book, Around the Bay: Man-made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Regionwhich will be released by Blast Books on Sept. 10, details the shoreline of San Francisco Bay. Using aerial photography, Coolidge shows the reader unexpected views of familiar areas, from the Berkeley pier to the Albany Bulb, to the salt flats of the Bay.


CLUI has also made a three-hour “landscan” documentary of its work that is part of the Oakland Museum’s new exhibit Above and Below: Stories from Our Changing Bay. Coolidge will be at the museum to talk about his work on Sept 13 at 6:30 p.m. Berkeleyside caught up with him to ask about the premise of his photographs and what he hopes people will take away.

What interested you in the man-made installations on San Francisco Bay?

Coolidge: Like most urbanized waterscapes, the Bay Area shoreline is completely constructed by humans. As a human artifact, part intentionally constructed, part incidentally constructed, it embodies an expression of the people that created it, and the community it is in – in this case the Bay Area. In some ways the bay is a hole in the middle of one of the largest metropolitan regions in the country. In other ways it is mirror, reflecting the industries, culture, and economies along its shores. In all cases, examining the shoreline reveals a story, told through places and objects, about the inhabitants and history, and even the values, of a collective region.

An aerial view of the Albany Bulb. Photo: CLUI
An aerial view of the Albany Bulb. Photo: CLUI

How did you come up with this idea?

Coolidge: The Center for Land Use Interpretation does this sort of thing all over, but we are especially interested in the Bay Area, as it a place of great importance to the nation’s identity, our past and culture. The Center’s original office was in Oakland, at a site on the waterfront (at the end of 5th Ave, south of Jack London Square), so its been of interest since the beginning of the organization too.

Aerial view of the east landing of the Bay Bridge, before the opening of the new span. Photo: CLUI
Aerial view of the east landing of the Bay Bridge, before the opening of the new span. Photo: CLUI

Have there been any changes over time in man’s attitude and use towards reshaping the bay’s edges? Can you see any progression in environmental sensitivity towards the land?

Coolidge: Seems like it. You can see the promontories of fill, like the marina at Berkeley, and the Albany Bulb, both of which are extensions out into the Bay as part of an attempt to form a new “outer” shoreline, in deeper water. The space between them was never filled in though, as things like the Reber plan were considered too disruptive. The extensive diking of the marsh at the southern end of the Bay by Leslie/Cargill salt is sort of being reversed, for ecological (and political) reasons. The days of filling in the marsh are pretty much over, in favor of habitat restoration and scenic recreation. Even the dumps are becoming parks.

Aerial view of Pt. Molate in Richmond. Photo: CLUI
Aerial view of Pt. Molate in Richmond. Photo: CLUI

Has the Bay Area reformed the bay’s edges more heavily than other metropolitan regions? Can you extrapolate any notions of this area’s relationship to the land from your observations?

Coolidge: The Bay Area was the most militarized shoreline on the West Coast, and possibly the entire nation, as it was the epicenter of our historic conquests into the Pacific region. And much of what was industrialized for WW2, stayed that way for decades: Hunters Point; Moffett Field; Alameda; Treasure Island; Mare Island; Concord Weapons Center; Hamilton Field… Now it’s the most DE-militarized shoreline in the country – nearly all of these sites are closed, and are undergoing decades of remediation and redevelopment. At Hamilton Field, the most evolved of these former defense sites, much of the marsh has been restored, and the runway erased. And at Skaggs Island, the buildings on base were all removed a few years ago, and that land is going wild again.

Who took the photos? How long did it take to collect all the images? How many did you take all together and how many ended up in the book?

Coolidge: We have been photographing the Bay shoreline from the air for years, starting with a project we did with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2000, called Back to the Bay (which produced a guidebook with black and white images). We have thousands of image of the Bay Area, aerial and on the the ground. This latest round was done over a two-year period, for this new book, “Around the Bay.” The book is the second in the American Regional Landscape Series we are doing with the publisher, Blast Books, in the same format. The first one was about the Hudson River shoreline, from New York City to the first dam, at Troy. The Bay Area shore is kind of like the Hudson in some ways. Both house historic portals for America, one for the Atlantic, one for the Pacific. Both contain things like the industries, quarries, power plants, and sewage plants that make the urban areas we enjoy possible. They both also contain latent and potential sites of meaning and revelation, and overlooked histories.

What would you like people to come away with after reading the book? What questions do you hope they may ask themselves?

Coolidge: What we do, and what we encourage others to do, is to ask things like “What’s that? Where did it come from? Why is it there? Who owns it? Why do we think this way or that way about it?” The land around us is our home, our shared and limited habitat. We want people to understand it better, and be engaged with it. The macrocosmic view that aerial photography provides enables things to be seen on more of systematic scale, showing relationships, and seeing entire regions as interconnected. Which they are. Even, and perhaps especially, as the connective entity is a big wet hole, so to speak.

Around the Bay: Man-made Sites of Interest Around the San Francisco Bay Region is now available from Blast Books. Above and Below: Stories from Our Changing Bay, opened at the Oakland Museum on Aug. 31. It runs until Feb. 23, 2014.

Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Be a part of it. Register on the Uncharted website