By Matthew Bunk
VALLEJO - When Richard Lemke's ship was decommissioned at Mare Island after World War II, it was easy to fall in love with Vallejo.
Sailors and businessmen stopped along downtown streets to discuss politics and sports. Women wearing fine dresses and white gloves shopped at various department stores, which at the time included a JC Penney Co. at its fashion peak and the very stylish City of Paris boutique.
It was a thriving waterfront city with so much potential Lemke and many of his shipmates decided to stay.
Almost 60 years later, Lemke is still here. But he's seen Vallejo change from a fashionable berg and Navy outpost to a city on the mend and trying to rediscover an identity many longtime residents believe got lost along the way.
Only recently, he said, has the excitement of Old Vallejo returned. He believes the city of crossroads is about to emerge from what future generations will look back on as a dark age.
"In five years you won't recognize this part of Vallejo," Lemke said during an interview at Mr. Ric Men's Clothing, a staple on Marin Street in downtown Vallejo. "I was here when downtown was thriving, and I've watched its demise. But things have starting to turn around."
More than 10,000 jobs left Vallejo when Mare Island closed in 1996. But that loss cut deeper than just jobs, as many residents believe the city's soul - steeped in Navy tradition - became a casualty as well.
Efforts to rejuvenate the city's shopping districts, to bring industrial jobs back and to create a sense of community have had limited impact in the past several years. Large employers such as K-Mart, General Mills and others continued to cut back and close.
Now, though, it's become easier to find replacements for businesses lost. And several large commercial projects promise to bring life back to one of California's oldest cities.
Investors, too, believe again in Vallejo.
Lennar Communities has spent roughly $45 million to ready Mare Island for homes and business parks; Seattle-based developer Triad has laid the groundwork for residential and retail complexes downtown; and Callahan-De Silva is trying to unite the community behind its vision for the waterfront, a critical piece of property that has awaited major development for more than 25 years.
Beyond the city's core is the county fairgrounds, where mall builder Mills Corp. hopes to put a lifestyle center full of retail shops, restaurants and other entertainment.
City leaders have authorized spending tens of millions of dollars on redevelopment projects throughout the city, an effort business leaders expect to pay off in the next decade. Some progress is evident already, said Michael Wilson of the architecture firm Arc Inc. and incoming chairman of the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce.
"Business has been booming in the last couple of years," Wilson said. "But there's so much more potential."
Wilson wants to return Vallejo to its history. Or, rather, bring the history back to Vallejo.
"People in San Francisco used to come to Vallejo to shop," he said. "That's the kind of revitalization we're hoping to see in Vallejo's future."
Lemke and other downtown merchants want desperately to believe that will happen. They've been waiting on promises of urban renewal since the city tore down much of the waterfront district in the 1950s and 1960s to make room for development that never happened.
Disconnecting downtown from its waterfront led to the demise Lemke and others still talk about. But recent efforts to expand main roadways - the Georgia Street thoroughfare was extended last year to reconnect the two districts - may bring the commercial neighborhoods back together.
The next step will be to recreate Mare Island as an economic engine and to take advantage of the waterway between the island and the mainland, Wilson said. Instead of letting the strait separate the two areas, it could provide an aesthetic advantage that improves the flow of commerce, he said.
"Vallejo is seeing a renewal as a community to live, work and play," he said. "Something that goes with all of those is the water, which wasn't as interesting with the Navy base across the way."
The water has always been a part of what Vallejo is - once as a conduit for the Navy, and now as a visual and economic enhancement for a city trying to find itself. The city, it seems, will find its future by tweaking what it used to be.
"Vallejo is moving forward," Wilson said. "Even though, if you want to see the tangible progress, some of these things are still a few years out."
No matter how much tradition has to move out of the way to make room for what Vallejo will become, the old timers will still hold memories of the 5 p.m. rush hour of sailors and shipbuilders disembarking from Mare Island.
"In the late afternoons when Mare Island let out, you couldn't even get across the street," Lemke said with a far-away look in his eyes. "That was when everyone would stop and talk and when window shopping was a big thing.
"Now you drive around and everybody is remodeling and fixing, and it's mostly new people that I don't know - and I used to know everybody."
Reach Matthew Bunk at 425-4646 Ext. 265 or email@example.com.
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