Burglary, vagrancy and grand larceny are the charges listed under photos of alleged Vallejo criminals. With defiant eyes and grim expressions, they look like rough characters. But, these aren’t wanted posters hanging in the post office. These are art pieces displayed at The Works, a screen printing studio in historic downtown Vallejo.
Thomas Wojak owns this screen printing business, which was priced out of San Francisco in 2002. But when Wojak went looking for a new city to set-up shop, Vallejo certainly wasn’t at the top of his list.
“I had driven by Vallejo for thirty years. I just thought of it as a rough, crime-ridden place,” said Wojak.
But a visit to Vallejo revealed ample opportunities to Wojak, and a live/work ordinance passed by the city in 2001 meant that Wojak could save even more by combining home and studio.
Wojak’s prints featuring mug shots taken in Vallejo from 1909 to 1930, encourage viewers to reconsider their perceptions of the city, just like he did fourteen years ago. But he’s not the only one who’s reconsidering Vallejo.
Ask any of the many artists in downtown Vallejo how they ended up there, and most of them will tell you a story about being priced out of San Francisco or Oakland. With some 28 art spaces in Vallejo the art scene is beginning to bloom, but it might not last. The real estate market in Vallejo is one of the hottest in the nation, and artists are already feeling the squeeze.
Half a mile from downtown Vallejo, just across the Napa River, the economic engine of old Vallejo sits abandoned. For over 100 years, workers at the Mare Island shipyards built ships and submarines for the U.S. naval fleet. In 1996 the naval base was de-commissioned and the builders were out of work.
The closure of the Mare Island shipyards was not the only disruptive event to the traditional blue-collar economy in Vallejo, but in the minds of residents, it may be the most symbolic.
“Mare Island is a part of the collective unconscious of Vallejo. People just keep praying and hoping the industry will come back," said Vallejo-based sculptor Mark Treuenfels.
Truenfels was one of the first artists to find his way to Vallejo. He moved there in 2000 after returning from a stint with the Peace Corps in Jamaica. He bought a foreclosed mobile home and started working on a series of clay busts based on the likenesses of his Jamaican friends.
One Saturday morning in October, Truenfels threaded his way through the thick crowds at the weekly farmer’s market downtown.
“You’ll get the wrong idea being out here today,” said Truenfels. “Six out of seven days a week this street is deserted.”
Truenfels made his way to The Hub a downtown gallery and art cooperative. He had been asked to come in and collect his Jamaican busts. They had been on display for a year without a single sale. Truenfels was disappointed, but not surprised.
“The art scene in Vallejo is anemic,” said Truenfels. “There just aren’t any buyers here.”
Truenfels sells most of his work out of town, and he’s not as enthusiastic as Wojak about the burgeoning art scene in Vallejo. After living in the city for sixteen years, Truenfels thinks it’s time to move on. Truenfels says his mobile home is worth five or six times what he paid for it, and he thinks it’s time to cash in.
Lisa Gueron thinks Truenfels is right. Gueron, a Solano County realtor says that the housing market in Vallejo is booming.
“Vallejo is just on fire!” said Gueron. “I’ve seen houses go on the market and sell the next day with multiple offers.”
Gueron’s experience indicates how far Vallejo has come in a very short time. Vallejo was hit hard by the Great Recession, going so far as to declare bankruptcy in 2008. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 8.7 percent of the houses in Vallejo were vacant in 2010. But these days, Gueron says that Vallejo has a housing supply shortage.
Thanks to high demand and short supply, in the summer of 2016, Vallejo was listed as the “hottest” market in the country by the National Association of Realtors.
So, what’s behind this demand?
It’s a common notion that the arrival of artists in low-income areas is the first sign of gentrification. Some argue that artists initiate the process by making run down neighborhoods more appealing. Thomas Wojak certainly doesn’t mind taking credit for the real estate boom in Vallejo.
“We don’t affect the economics much, but we do change perceptions, and over the years, we’ve really changed the perception of Vallejo,” said Wojak.
Guerin admits that there may be something to that idea, but she doesn’t spend too much time thinking about the arts when she’s making a sale. Guerin focuses on the price point.
“People from San Francisco don’t mind paying over asking when they can buy a charming Tudor style home with a 10,000-foot lot for $350,000,” said Guerin.
With established artists like Wojak spreading the word about the vibrant arts and culture scene in Vallejo, and realtors like Guerin promoting the booming housing market, some fledgling artists are starting to worry about their place in town.
Edgar-Arturo Camacho-Gonzalez grew up in Mexico, but Vallejo has been his home for about 10 years. He started El Comalito Collective with his husband in January of this year.
The mission of El Comalito is to exhibit the work of artists from marginalized communities. The front room of the small space on Georgia Street is filled with Dia De Los Muertos paraphernalia. At the back of the store is a gallery space.
Camacho-Gonzalez is emblematic of not just the art scene in Vallejo, but of the changing population as well. In 1990, half of Vallejo residents were white, according to US Census Bureau data. But by 2010, the population was one of the most diverse in the nation, approximately 32percent white, 22 percent black, 24 percent Asian, and 22 percent Hispanic. Only Oakland could claim to be more diverse.
Diversity was one of the main reasons that Camacho-Gonzalez decided to open El Comalito Collective in Vallejo. There were marginalized artists in the community who needed a place to exhibit.
Camacho-Gonzalez said their first year was quite successful, but as the gallery approaches its one-year anniversary, he still worries about the future.
“Gentrification is real, and it’s a worry,” said Camacho-Gonzalez.
El Comalito Collective has not been able to secure a long-term lease, and Camacho-Gonzalez has heard that rents are rising throughout Vallejo. He invested a lot of money into altering the storefront, so he’s a little worried about the possibility of losing the space.
Camacho-Gonzalez is not alone. According to Gretchen Zimmermann, who organizes an annual arts festival called Vallejo Open Studios, gentrification is a big concern among Vallejo artists.
Zimmermann said that the best solution for Vallejo artists would be to actually buy commercial space, which is unlikely as most of the artists are just scraping by now. She said that local artists were trying out some new ideas, like legally incorporating their cooperatives, but she laughingly admitted that artists often find it difficult to cooperate and organize.
“We need to start talking about rent control now, not after everybody’s kicked out,” said Zimmerman.