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August 9-15, 2006

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Hangar One

Photograph courtesy MVHA
Under Construction: This shot from Nicholas Perry's 'Mountain View' shows the building of Hangar One in 1930.

Hangers and Marshes

From Moffett Field to Alviso, two new books illuminate the byways of local history

By Gary Singh

WITH ALL the hysteria surrounding the preservation of Hanger One at Moffett Field, which I support, the time is right for yet two more books of historical photographs from Arcadia Publishing. They've already blessed us with little 128-page photo essays on downtown San Jose, Milpitas, Los Gatos and Santa Clara. But now they've cranked out ones devoted to Mountain View and Alviso. Buried in the pages of the Mountain View edition, written by Nicholas Perry, one finds a dazzling 1932 shot of Hanger One as it was being built. Once the Navy pores through the photos in this book, it will undoubtedly reconsider its decision to raze this legendary place that used to house blimps.

Wanna see what Castro Street looked like 100 years ago? It's in there. Wanna have a look-see at folks building Shoreline Amphitheatre in the 1980s? Likewise. All lawsuits aside, Shoreline remains a Mountain View landmark. When Julio Iglesias played the first show at Shoreline, exactly 20 years ago, who knew that the place would wind up in a photo book on Mountain View history?

It bears repeating ad nauseam that history is not just for crotchety old curmudgeons. It doesn't matter now old you are. As long as you're remotely familiar with the municipality of Mountain View, you'll be curious to know what the intersection of El Camino Real and Bay Street looked like in 1950. You'll take delight in a shot of the Rengstorff House in its original location or the 1940 photo of Mancini's Plymouth/DeSoto dealership, which stood at the southeast corner of El Camino and Castro. And don't even get me started on the Old Mill Six Theaters.

And speaking of blimps, in the Alviso book, by Robert Burrill and Lynn Rogers, one finds a shot of a blimp flying over that neighborhood headed for Moffett Field. As with the Mountain View book, the Alviso volume provides a whirlwind photo history of the port community that could and should have become the Sausalito of the South Bay. It could have been a bohemian enclave like no other. Experimental boat makers apparently frequented the place in the 1970s and one particular photo features this caption: "In 1978, the Bay Area Journal called Alviso 'a haven for deadbeat boat builders and rootless dreamless dreamers.' It was a time for idealists and creativity outside the box—of different boats for different folks."

Of course, that's only one particular window into Alviso's long history, one that involves the South Bay Yacht Club, the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge and several sordid tales of when Jack London hung out there. And don't forget the island of Drawbridge, out in the slough, connected to Alviso only by railroad tracks. That place represents the Bay Area's last ghost town, and although you can get a pretty good view from the Mallard Slough Trail, Drawbridge is closed to the general public these days. It's also gradually sinking.

In 1850, Alviso was the port entrance to San Jose, which in that year was California's capital. Yet another groovy photo in the book offers the caption: "Throngs of newcomers and curious crowded the wooden docks—farmers and otter fur traders, miners, gamblers and American Indians, Asian men far from home; fallen belles and churchgoing women wound their way through Alviso's heyday. For this shining period, Alviso was a great port and transportation hub."

That version of Alviso is long gone, but the bohemian nature of the place still lingers, if know where to look for it. Despite the snakelike machinations of developers who lurk on the horizon, Alviso still remains an amiable village nestled near a wildlife refuge.

And yes, the legendary Amelia Vahl of Vahl's Restaurant is included, too. As the first page of the book says, "Alviso is about trains, boats and seaplanes, a romantic haunt for the free spirit in all of us."

Mountain View by Nicholas Perry; Arcadia; 128 pages; $19.99 paper. Alviso, San Jose by Robert Burrill and Lynn Rogers; Arcadia; 128 pages; $19.99 paper.

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