Yesterday it was time for another trip to “The Rock” the term for Alcatraz Island that the children who grew up there abhor to this day. (See Chapter 18 of my book Chronicles of Old San Francisco to learn more about the juveniles who roamed the island during its famous penitentiary phase. The exhibit of the art of Ai Weiwei (more later) is what got my friends and me there. I had first gone in 1977 not long after the National Parks Service (NPS) took over the island; the last time was sometime in the 1980s. Click here for tickets.
It is always a thrill to get a closer view of the island and to see the bridge and the city from Alcatraz. The info panels at Pier 33 where you catch the ferry translate the word as “gulls”; my Spanish dictionary translates it as pelican or gannet. Alcatraz is the most popular attraction in the bay and the ferry people have their act down. The ferry itself is powered in part by wind (usually lots of it in the bay) and sun (a dicey proposition. There is nothing like the joie de vivre one experiences when the bay sparkles on the illumination of full sun and blue skies. But you miss part of the experience if you don’t experience the clouds of this “cool grey city of love” as poet George Sterling described it.
When you arrive at the island an NPS ranger queries your disembarking boatload.
Q: Why is the 1.5 mile swim to SF from the island so treacherous?
A: Ocean current and water temperature.
Once the last person has straggled off the boat, the ranger quickly outline the rules and the lay of the land. Then you’re free to wander on your own, take an audio tour (free) buy a $1 guide (available in many languages), or take a ranger led tour (a few bucks).
Broadway, Michigan Ave., and C-D Cell Blocks
I recommend the excellent audio guide which allows you to navigate the prison. Eight former guards and prisoners help tell the inside story of the prison which operated from 1934-1962 when Attorney General Robert Kennedy closed it due the high operation cost (e.g. laundry was shipped to SF) not to mention that the facility dumped raw sewage into the bay. You will learn about the Birdman, see the cells of the 1962 escapees who were made famous by the Clint Eastwood movie, and the 1946 “Battle of Alcatraz,” a two day siege that brought in the Marines and left two guards and three prisoners dead. You will also see panel on the infamous inmates: Al Capone, Doric Barker, Machine Gun Kelly, and Creepy Karpis and large portraits of all four wardens. More of the prison is open than ever before including the hospital and gun room.
What I didn’t find was the history of the island before the well-known federal prison period. Or a recounting of the Indian occupation from 1969-71 which despite infighting, a barrage from the government, and eventual removal, resulted in a federal act and some returns of land.
Ai Weiwei Exhibit
“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.
— Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei is a prolific, high profile artist-musician activist who is currently prohibited from leaving China, his home country due his outspoken views. He was not allowed to see the exhibit he created for a few of the buildings of Alcatraz which will be up through April 26.
My favorite creations were all in the New Industry Building: 1) Silk dragon kites one of which had round head inscribed “Every one of us is a potential convict”; 2) Wing of a bird viewed from the long narrow gun room above it; 3) A huge room full of Legos creating a posterized picture of current and famous prisoners and exiles such as Martin Luther King and Edward Snowden. The latter Ai Weiwei designed and volunteer laid out the Legos.
For more information including Ai Weiwei’s bio, over 90 of his works, exclusive articles about Ai Weiwei, as well as his exhibitions. visit Artsy’s Ai Weiwei page.
All in all, I highly recommend visiting Alcatraz for its views and history. Being in the prison with the ghosts of the past, however, makes one very glad to be able to escape, er, leave of one’s own free will.