As if everything that’s filthy must converge, vast quantities of garbage generated in the South Bay seem to have lit out for Alviso, the sleepy hamlet that sank well below the tidelines of economic viability a few generations ago. Its prospects were not always so bleak. Once Alviso fancied itself as a bit of a resort town, the makings of a California boom town even, so magnificently located on the San Francisco Bay! It happily participated in the boosterism of the early 20th century with no apparent inkling of ignominies to come.
Now, the canneries are closed. The marina has silted up. A houseboat sits on stilts, low but dry behind the levee, in the middle of a memory of water. A visit to Alviso feels a little bit like stepping through the looking glass–from the burnished bloat of Bay Area affluence to the mournful, hard-scrabble somnolence of rotten luck in a few easy steps–and the result is both sad and oddly magical, at once weird and all-American. A railroad car has been pressed into service as an office. The yacht club house was physically transported to the levee by the Guadalupe river, which may look like something in the wake of a rainstorm but is nothing but a reed-filled backwater the rest of the time. Every year, the few remaining boats look more hopelessly landlocked as the reeds advance on open water. A few years back, the commercial fishing fleet had dwindled to a single shrimper, more in pursuit of perseverance than profit, it would seem. Now, it wouldn’t even be possible for the smallest shrimper in the world to reach the overgrown dock.
Alviso has fallen through its own soft bottom onto very hard times. Excessive ground water pumping caused the town to end up well below the level of the Bay. A little bench along the Guadalupe notes a subsidence of about 10 feet in 50 years–just the length of two short people laid end to end but a vast distance when measured in hope and ambition.
Such bad fortune paves the way for waste. Landfill must have taken on a completely different glint under circumstances such as these, representing a double boon of income and altitude. How the townspeople will have welcomed Keasby & Mattison, manufacturers of transite pipe in search of a resting place for leftovers. I imagine drinks and maybe even dinner at Vahl’s Italian Restaurant, hearty handshakes all around, bonhomie, cigars and whiskey, feelings of accomplishment on a deal well done, self-congratulation, general rejoicing, and hope rebounding. Perhaps a few individuals benefited more than they were prepared to discuss in public, but there’s no reason to think that the deal wasn’t above-board and business as usual from beginning to end.
There’s the St. Claire landfill, dandled in the elbow of the Guadalupe, home to unseen garbage below ground and plenty of garbage above, in what the EPA kindly refers to as a truck and storage yard. There’s a debate whether Keasby & Mattison pipe ever ended up here at all.
There’s the Santos landfill, which has a mobile home park, office buildings, and a restrictive covenant which forbids residential use, hospitals, and school buildings serving persons under the age of 21. I struggle to understand how the covenant and the mobile homes relate to each other, but the EPA doesn’t seem to see the difficulty.
I believe all the other landfills lie outside the town limits, but not by a great distance. Right there, less shoreline is divvied up by more communities, and the garbage gets a little crowded in the crook of the waterfront. From a good spot on a levee, you can see the two garbage mounds that hold the Santa Clara Golf and Tennis club aloft, just across Highway 237. The three mounds of the Sunnyvale dump lie a short distance to the west, while the mounds of the Zanker Road and Newby Island fills loom in the east.
But however hard Alviso may have worked to fill in the empty space that kept opening above, it was not enough to withstand the winter rains. In 1983, following serious flooding, the landfills were raided and a levee built all around town. And so it was that all of Alviso became a superfund site. Keasby & Mattison’s pipe, it turned out, was improved with asbestos. Unfortunately, the naturally occurring serpentine rock that had been added for good measure also contained asbestos. The EPA standard for permissible levels in soil is 1%, while some of the Alviso samples contained as much as 40% asbestos.
Alviso shows that bad luck lies on a slippery slope, one greased by garbage. The asbestos contamination has been mostly cleaned up or capped and covered, to be monitored in perpetuity. But those bumps on the Alviso skyline are standing sentinel against a fundamental reversal in fortune. NIMBY-ism may not be nice, but it is so very understandable.