Tag Archives: lifestyle

California Dreaming on the Last Hippie Houseboats


22ND JAN, 2016


Hippies and houseboats; they seem to go together almost like wine and cheese. At least, they used to, especially in California in the 1960s when a mix of old beatniks and young hippies formed a community of whimsical water homes in the Bay Area…


I found this photostory lurking in the depths of the LIFE archives, titled “Floating-Houses-California” by Michael Rougier. No other information provided. It took me a moment to figure out exactly where Mr. Rougier had taken these images by trying to identify at least one of the quirky floating structures he’d photographed through a Google search of various marinas and harbours around California.


arkIn the end, I found a grainy little photo that matched the most eccentric of the waterfront arks ↑. Its caption gave away the location: “The Madonna, built around an old pile driver, was a Gate 5 landmark until it burned in 1974”.


Gate 5 refers to the houseboat community on the site of a WWII era ship building company in Richardson Bay, Sausalito. After the war, thousands of people flooded into the waterfront area to work in the new shipyards. Housing was scarce, but since they were building ships anyway, the laborers got crafty and began salvaging materials from old boats to create their own make-shift homes. Not soon after, struggling artists and hippies got wind of the alternative lifestyle and liked what they saw.


They settled in during the sixties, some homes could barely float, some were perfectly navigable houseboats that floated freely around the bay, but most all of them were eccentric, fanciful and dreamy places to live.


An old article in the English magazine, The Strand, describes the quaint community:

There is an indescribable charm about the life; one has the pleasures of boating combined with the comforts of home; sea baths are at one’s very threshold; fish are caught and cooked while you wait. …The monotony of the scenery is varied by the swinging of the ark as it turns with the tide. There are neighbors, thirty or forty families of them, within easy reaching distance if one can pull a stroke, for there is always a following of rowboats lazily resting upon the water in the wake of each ark. The butcher, the baker, and others …who supply the needs of daily life each has his little boat which he sends around every morning for his customary order, and the joint for dinner and the ice cream for dessert are delivered as promptly to the ark-dwellers as they are to those who are still in the city.


The parties were endless, and several famous bohemians were part of the scene, including the drummer for the Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzman who lived there for a while. Noted California photographer Pirkle Jones captured the colorful characters of the Gates.

Gate Five #33, 1970 printed 1970

Jean Varda, collagist and close friend of Picasso on his Gate 5 houseboat with two dancers in 1970. 


More of these images here



But of course, if you build paradise, people will come. The waterside lifestyle became more popular, housing prices soared in the Bay Area and unpleasant issues such as waste discharge became a big problem. As the community’s population grew, the services provided by the marinas such as shower facilities and waste removal became overwhelmed.


A law was established by the state to make a regulate development and prepare long-term planning. Houseboat owners were soon given the choice to either bring their homes up to code and berth them on docks where they would be connected to the sewer systems– or to pack their bags. The “houseboat wars” of the 1970s began.


For a decade, it was common viewing on local news channels to see long-haired hippies defending their floating homes against sheriffs raiding homes and trying to play tough with the free-and-easy residents who refused to comply with the program. Meanwhile, just as the hippies had once infringed on the ship labourers’ community, middle class retirees and holiday makers began to make themselves at home in the marinas, with fancy new up-to-code homes complete with hot tubs and cable TV.













But even to this day, the hippies, now with a few more grey hairs than before, are still trying to keep up the fight. The Gates Co-Op represents the last of the 70’s era bohemian lifestyle, a small eclectic collection of houseboats, one called “the pirate ship” and a few built on the old WWII shipbuilding tugs. While protests are still being played out in courtrooms and hearings to this day, new development plans are likely to see these boats disappear within a few years.


floatinghomesWhile most of the original hippies have left, the bohemian spirit is still alive and well at the Sausalito waterfront. If you’re ever in the area, make sure to check out the Floating Homes Association website to see if you’re lucky enough to be there at the same time as their open homes tour.

Life Photographs by Michael Rougier, find the full story in the archives here.

Further Reading


A photograph from the wonderful 1977 book, “Houseboat: Reflections of North America’s Floating Homes … History, Architecture, and Lifestyles”, available on Amazon


RAILROAD AMERICA -the hobo life

RAILROAD AMERICA  -the hobo life

depression22Secret Hobo Signs 01hobo-symbols1



images (268)GMIL 2/06:  A hobo camp, c1913.

Hobos have played a big part in the history of America – one that’s often ignored. They were the nomadic workers who roamed the country at the start of the 20th century and through the Great Depression, taking work wherever they could and never spending too long in any one place. In their extensive travels, hobos learned to leave notes for each other, giving information on the best places to camp or find a meal, or dangers that lay ahead. This unique Hobo Code was known to the brotherhood of freight train riders and used by all to keep the community of traveling workers safe, fed and imagesNT3QMJLR

in work

lFirst, a bit of history. Today, the word hobo is often used interchangeably with “bum” or “drifter,” but hobos were a very specific type of homeless traveler. Hobos traveled around for the sole purpose of finding work in every new town they visited, having usually been forced from their homes by the lack of jobs there. Bums avoided work in favor of drinking heavily, and “tramps” worked only when it was absolutely necessary.



(images via: Railroad Police)

Because of their willingness to take the jobs that no one else wanted – and the fact that they followed a strict moral code – hobos were tolerated by some. Regardless, life as a hobo was difficult and dangerous. To help each other out, these vagabonds developed their own secret language to direct other hobos to food, water, or work – or away from dangerous situations. The Hobo Code helped add a small element of safety when traveling to new places.



(image via: D-Arch)

The pictographic Hobo Code is a fascinating system of symbols understood among the hobo community. Because hobos weren’t typically welcomed (and were often illiterate), messages left for others in the community had to be easy for hobos to read but look like little more than random markings to everyone else to maintain an element of secrecy. The code features certain elements that appear in more than one symbol, such as the circles and arrows that made up the directional symbols. Hash marks or crossed lines usually meant danger in some form.

images (268)

GMIL 2/06:  A hobo camp, c1913.



Many of the hoboglyphics were cryptic and nearly impossible for people outside of the hobo community to understand, even if they spotted them: a curly line inside a circle, for example, meant that there was a courthouse nearby. Other symbols were simplistic and easier to decipher: a cross meant that hobos who were willing to talk positively about religion would score a free meal.


The diverse symbols in the Hobo Code could be found scrawled in coal or chalk all across the country, near railyards and in other places where hobos were likely to convene. The purpose of the code was not only to help other hobos find what they needed, but to keep the entire lifestyle possible for everyone. Hobos warned each other when authorities were cracking down on vagrants or when a particular town had had its fill of beggars; such helpful messages told other hobos to lie low and avoid causing trouble until their kind was no longer quite so unwelcome in those parts.


Over the years, the hobo subculture has declined dramatically. One reason for this is that the hobo community was so intricately connected with the American railway. It’s much more difficult to hop on and off of a freight train undetected than it was a hundred years ago, so rail-loving hobos have steadily declined in number. Still, current estimates put around 20,000 people in the U.S. living the hobo lifestyle today. It’s easy to see why there’s not much specific data available about these wandering workers, but some sources suggest that the modern hobo movement is the result of a generation’s shunning of modern trappings. Much like city hipsters, modern hobos embrace fringe society…although living in train cars with no permanent home or job is taking that fringe society fetish much further than most hipsters ever dream of. The story of one group of modern American hobos is told in this remarkable photo essay (LINK NSFW).


Modern hobos may not use the complex set of codes that proved so useful for 19th century wanderers, but the always-hilarious Rob Cockerham of Cockeyed.com has come up with a modern set of symbols that might be useful for anyone who needs some covert information.


These codes are clearly tongue-in-cheek, warning modern-day hobos (and everyone else) of such dangers as parking tickets and lawn sprinklers, and promising surprises like rich dumpsters and well-stocked bathrooms. Since not many of us ride the rails these days and it’s much more common to be stuck in the urban (or suburban) jungle, maybe this is just the type of friendly information sharing we need today.






Portraits From Slab City: ‘The Last Free Place On Earth’


October 03, 201210:21 AM

People come to Slab City, a squatter campsite in the Colorado Desert in southeastern California, for many reasons. But one sentiment seems to unite many of them: They want to avoid people like photojournalist Jessica Lum. That is: City people. Taxpayers. Media types.

Which is a tough situation, if you happen to be Lum and you hope to document the people of this community.

  • Neil Mallick. A musician.
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Atreyu. A young traveler.
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Ryan. Makes moccasins and leather goods.
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Cookie. Snowbird landed.
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Jordan. In pursuit of an idea.
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Bobbie and Sara. Came to Slab City to start a life together.
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Wille Lane. With his dog Jack Russell.
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Allie Neill. The big sister who takes care of five younger siblings.
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Leonard Knight. An artist. Seen at his 80th birthday celebration.
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum
  • Salvation Mountain, located near the main road to Slab City, was built by Leonard Knight out of adobe clay. At the center, Knight sculpted the words "God Is Love" — what he says is a simple message he wanted to share with the world.
    Photos courtesy of Jessica Lum

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“People feel they can determine their level of isolation or engagement,” Lum says.

Since its establishment in the 1950s on the grounds of an abandoned World War II Marine barracks, Slab City has become known as a haven for snowbirds looking to live an independent lifestyle. It’s often called “The Last Free Place on Earth.”

Lately, it has also become a destination for journalists and film crews looking for a good story. And though the residents of Slab City don’t have trash collection or a sewage system, they have Internet access, and they follow the news about their home closely.

“A lot of people felt there were misrepresentations floating around. A lot of past articles focused more on people who were fleeing the recession or dealing with drug or alcohol abuse,” says Lum. “There are people who struggle with that, but they felt the coverage was taking on a minority and representing them as majority. “

So when Lum, a 25-year-old graduate of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a blogger for PetaPixel, started going to Slab City last year for her ongoing multimedia thesis project, Slab City Stories, she met a population that was seeking privacy but whose privacy was being consistently breached.

During a visit last August, she was taking photos with friends when she heard shouting down the road.

“We just kind of jumped in our car and left,” she says. “Maybe they were just saying hello. I don’t know.”

Guilt about her flight accounted partly for Lum’s return in October. She was also driven, as a journalist, by a desire to understand why anyone would want to live in a place like Slab City.

Cuervo. Travels by mule.

Courtesy of Jessica Lum

Then, this December, she found out for herself. She rented an RV and parked it in Slab City for three weeks. That’s when she started to build trust with her subjects, including a retired social worker turned balloon artist, the owner of a solar-powered Internet cafe, and a former carnival worker who built his own skate park.

“I think once I became a recognizable face, it sort of gave me a bit of legitimacy,” she says.

Residents let her photograph them bathing nude in the hot springs, and let her enter the social club whose sign proclaimed “No Media.” They liked that she wasn’t from a major news organization and that she’s young; they even gave her a nickname – “Berkeley.”

Unlike journalists under pressure to make deadlines and find news hooks, Lum could take her time, searching for stories on the fringe of the fringe.

“Most journalists, especially local ones, spend a couple days there, so they don’t really penetrate the community all that much,” Lum says. “They get the same characters, the same types of quotes. There was one family that was living right in front of what’s called Low Road, and that family basically got in almost every news article that I’ve read about Slab City.”

Index card by Cuervo. The text reads: “Cuervo and my Mules Houseless on Muleback for 15 years Settling down maybe here in winter ….”

Courtesy of Jessica Lum

Talking with residents about media coverage informed her journalistic process. Lum didn’t narrate her documentary videos, instead allowing the subjects to narrate their own stories. She even gave them index cards so they could describe themselves, photos of which she published alongside her portraits online.

So what’s to like about Slab City? It’s not the safest or most comfortable — it gets cold in the winter and pitch dark at night. But Lum says she didn’t mind her time living there.

“There are people who might want to rob or steal some stuff. But I never felt threatened.