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From Magic City To Toxic Island


Treasure Island is an artificial island built on a natural reef between Oakland and San Francisco. Landon Neill discovered old film footage that sent him on a mission to understand the forces that shaped the island’s history.

When local media outlets talk about treasure island, they often focus on two things: radiation and development. Officials plan to turn Treasure Island into “San Francisco’s next great neighborhood” The “master plan” includes 500 hotel rooms and about $50 million dollars worth of public artwork.

The dark side of this development project was recently turned into a satire by The San Francisco Mime Troupe. In the satire, the developers are portrayed as greedy pirates. Treasure Island is an old military base, and so the play focuses on lingering concerns about radiation. And it paints Treasure Island as an environmental time bomb. 

An Empty Theme Park Without The Charm 

But I know about Treasure Island outside plays like this and other media because I grew up there. In 2015, my dad and I moved out to the island from Los Angeles after he got a job working on the transit center. Treasure Island was one of the few affordable places left in San Francisco. 

So all of a sudden, I found myself living on an island I knew nothing about. 

It reminded me of a deserted theme park, only without the charm. The fog covered everything up. I remember a lot of abandoned houses, and a huge pile of dirt in a baseball field in the middle of the island. My dad joked it was intended to weigh Treasure Island down. 

My dad told me this place was sinking into the bay. And he warned me about not planting any food on the soil because, he said, it was radioactive. 

Welcome To The Magic City 

But then in high school, my perception of Treasure Island changed forever. I had just joined a film club and was learning all about digital media. I stumbled on archival footage that showed Treasure Island in 1940. 


The footage was shot towards the end of the Golden Gate International Exposition, the Great World Fair of the West. The video shows striking artwork and buildings, like the Elephant Towers, where abstract Burmese elephants rest on Mayan pyramids. 

Credit AP Photo
Treasure Island, site of the Golden Gate International Exposition at San Francisco in 1939, presented this spectacle when lights were turned on. The water of the lagoon reflects the East Tower.

For the longest time, I didn’t believe this video was real. It’s like when you’re digging in your attic and you find an old picture of your parents from when they were young. After seeing that footage, I knew I wanted to learn more about the history, and why it was once called “the magic city.” 

Projections Of West Coast Dominance 

“When it was built it was probably one of the largest man-made islands in the world,” says Tanu Sankalia, an art and architecture professor at the University of San Francisco. He’s also the co-editor of ‘Urban Reinventions: San Francisco’s Treasure Island.’ He says the history of Treasure Island doesn’t begin at the World’s Fair. 

In the 1930s, San Francisco wanted to build an airport to assert West Coast dominance of commerce in the Pacific. 

But there wasn’t a whole lot of room in the city for an airport. San Francisco decided to build an island from scratch out of mud dredged from the bay, Sankalia says. 

Credit Jay Galvin / Creative Commons
Creative Commons
Pacific Unity Sculptures, Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939

“They created a seawall out of huge gigantic boulders because it was flat and manmade, there was nothing on it,” Sankalia says. “Roads were constructed, plots were created. They brought in different plants from all over and trees.” 

By 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge were both finished. And San Francisco's elite wanted to show off and celebrate. So, two years later, San Francisco hosted the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. The fair was meant to showcase peace, harmony, and artwork from cultures around the Pacific Rim. But what I didn’t realize was that this celebration was happening as World War Two was beginning in Europe. 

“On a global level, it was the United States projecting its power in the Pacific Rim,” Sankalia says. “There was no doubt about that. But of course, then couching it you know in this idea of peace and harmony.” 

Credit Boston Public Library
Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, San Francisco.

The End Of Peace, Harmony, And The World’s Fair 

That image couldn’t last. By 1940, the fair was over. Sankalia says the navy soon transformed the Magic City into a military space to serve the war effort. The navy wiped out all the buildings almost immediately. The famous Japanese pavilion was even torched. 

The footage I had found in my high school film club shows Treasure Island just before all this happened. The film made me want to learn more about the island is actually really sad. And soon after I found that tape, I found this one from 1940. 

The rest of Treasure Island’s history is bleak. The Navy operated a radiological training school on the island beginning in the 1950s. The military cleaned contaminated substances off ships like the USS Pandamonium to practice for potential nuclear warfare. 

“This really became the source of all the contamination that we see you know over a period of over 50 years,” Sankalia says.

The Super Green City Of The Future 

The naval station closed down in the late 90s. San Francisco bought the island back and began plans for a massive development project. San Francisco plans to turn the island into Magic City 2.0. Only, instead of showing off cultures like in the World’s Fair, this project is meant to show off environmental sustainability. The grand vision is to transform Treasure Island into an “eco-topia” or a “super green city of the future.” 

Sankalia says Treasure Island has always been a site of contradictions. The World Fair, for example, advertised peace during a war. And now city leaders hope to turn this island --- which has a history of radiation and contamination — into a post-carbon ecotopia.

Underwater By 2050 

Because Treasure Island is made of mud, there are also questions about how it would grapple with an earthquake or the effects of climate change. 

But one thing we know is that given the rate of change that we're seeing globally in terms of sea-level rise and the melting of the ice caps,” Sankalia says. “A large part of the island could potentially be underwater by 2050.” 

Sankalia says Treasure Island is the perfect example of what he calls “urban reinvention.” 

Contamination Creeping Through 

That’s where officials take a space that already exists, try to start over, and build. But you can’t erase the past or the present. Thousands of people also already live there. 

“There’s a sort of a paradox within urban reinvention within this whole notion of erasure because you really cannot wipe everything out because contamination for example still creeps through,” he says. 

Still, officials are plowing ahead. Two years ago, the city broke ground on a huge real estate project to fill the island with about 20,000 residents by 2035. 

In Search Of A Community That Lasts 

When I look around the island now, all I can see are gated off areas and construction. My local church was forced to move off the island.

If this development project does finish up on time, I’ll be thirty-three years old by then. I don’t have high hopes. Treasure Island was a major tourist attraction during the World’s Fair. The artwork and architecture brought people together. I love that stuff, and I love watching the old footage. 

But it was temporary. What I’d really like to see in the city is a community that lasts.