I have set “The Project” in the city of Vallejo, Ca. I don’t remember ever reading an urban fantasy set in Vallejo. Vallejo occupies an odd bit of geography in northern coastal California, and stakes out an uncomfortable place in our state’s collective narrative and psyche. It’s a perfect place, in other words, for an urban fantasy.
Vallejo sits at the edge of San Pablo Bay which is part of the vast Golden Gate estuary. So, is it the northern tip of the East Bay? I don’t know. The town was founded where the sweet water of the Napa River converges with the salt bay. To the northeast, golden brown hills provide a backdrop, while the west provides an unimpeded vista of the wetlands. Directly across the river from downtown sit the remains of the historic Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
In spite of this interstitial location and the prettiness of the town (plenty of Victorians and elegant stucco 1930s bungalows) Vallejo is usually a town people pass through—or alongside—on the freeway on their way to somewhere else. They might come to Vallejo if they want to go to the Six Flags theme park, which is highly, and I mean highly, visible from Highway 37.
My experience was almost completely the drive-by-on-the-freeway one, so I asked teacher, writer and friend David Corbett to help me identify some locations. David lives in Vallejo and a couple of his novels are set there. (If you haven’t read The Mercy of the Night… well, why haven’t you?) If anyone could give me the necessary locations, and provide a taste of the city’s ambience it was David.
Vallejo has taken some big hits over the past few decades. The shipyard closure ordered in 1993 was one, a decision many people, including me, think was simply an act of realpolitik vengeance against a Congressional Representative who was too liberal. Vallejo was a Navy town, Navy was in its DNA, and the base closure was not only a devastating hit to the economy, it was a loss of identity. In 1999, the town made national news again with the abduction and murder of a little girl. In 2008, Vallejo filed for bankruptcy, which also made national news. What was once a thriving blue-collar city slid into the shadowy part of the psychic map designated “failure.” And we don’t like failure.
The shadow of “failure” makes this city the perfect place to plant an urban fantasy, especially a story that is, somewhat, about intersections, with a Main Character who is experiencing failure, and struggling to define — or reinvent — herself.
As David showed me, the city is reinventing itself. The naval roots push up through the ground in several places, like the set of refurbished barracks that are now apartments. The buildings are colorful and nice, but their ordered symmetry as they march across the blocks gives away their lineage. The eastern curve of the town tends to have more strip malls and boxy stores (“strip mall” was one of the items on my list), while the Georgia Street area leading to the ferry landing, waterfront and transit hub, has the buildings from the 1920s and 30s, and earlier, like the Victorians on Officers’ Row. Downtown is reinventing itself as a center for art and creativity, and the entire town in entangled in the necessary discussion of what comes next. “We need jobs,” is true, but some people want to snatch at projects that provide work for a year or eighteen months only. Smart projects with long-term jobs are what’s needed, say others. The city’s discussion with Farraday Futures, an electric car company who wants to build a manufacturing site in one of the abandoned Mare Island buildings, seems like a good start.
None of that will affect “The Project” unless I have to reimagine the ending because the building I want to use gets taken by Farraday Futures. I gave David a list of about eight things I needed; he delivered on all eight. One surprised me. I asked him to find me a low-end (cheap) apartment complex. I assumed it would be somewhere on the east side of I-80, on the flats. In fact, I’d already written several scenes with that idea in mind. The perfect apartment complex, somewhat surprisingly, was on top of a hill. The roads up to it aren’t very good, there are no shoulders, but the view from the top is about 320 degrees; west, an unobstructed view of the river and the shimmering wetlands all the way to highway 121; north and east, a view of the hills and the valley. Who knew?
And now I have many places by characters can meet and plan when they aren’t being pursued by demons, or whatever; the farmers market, the My Homestyle Café, the Java Jax coffee house and the community art center. At some quiet moment in the story, my MC can pause and look over the sparkling water of the Napa River to the imposing red brick buildings on Mare Island. I think I can write that scene right now. Oh, no, I forgot… right now she has to go pick up her car.