“By sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called gods or spirits. A rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be sacred.”
— Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
I went to Point Richmond Park today because sometimes I want to see far, to stretch my sights beyond the land I stand on, and to see the things that usually seem so big suddenly appear so small — cities, ships, bridges. Point Richmond is at the tip of the city of Richmond and the park is at the tip of that, stretching into the San Francisco Bay and angling in towards Tiburon and San Francisco, close to the Richmond bridge that leads to San Rafael.
The park is an expanse of flat green by the sea at the bottom of tall brown and emerald hills. It has a pioneering-California-town history, starting as a lonely island inhabited by Native Americans to its “discovery” by white men, leading to land being built where it wasn’t before, railroad lines sinking rusty teeth into virgin land, oil men moving in to pull up dark bounties, and brick makers carving Richmond Red clay out of the hills to bake the blocks that constructed the buildings of history. A ferry once ran between here and the City, and during the earthquake and fire of 1906, people gathered in this park to watch San Francisco glow orange across the cool blue bay. Refugees of the disaster slept in the pious basements of Point Richmond’s churches.
Now the tracks are overgrown and fade in and out of being. The ferry terminal is broken up, abandoned and adorned with graffiti and rust, gaping windows allowing glimpses into the hollowed out inside. The dock sinks into the water, and even the sign telling visitors of the grandeur that stood here before is weathered, cracked and scribbled on.
This desolate landscape resides on the outermost point of the park, beyond the manufactured green grass and park benches, the oblong, manmade lagoon. There is something sad about it, as with all degrading things. It feels like something has been lost or denounced. But there is something beautiful, too, more beautiful than the perfection of the park proper. It is here, among the crumbling hollows of buildings and dark wood falling into dark water that a true story of place can be imagined. What was once here no longer is, and we can imagine that we, perhaps, are a part of that. A witness.
I know I am not the only one to fancy decay. As people, we idolize the deteriorating scenes of antiquated eras, attaching deep meaning to the fragments of place. Historic structures are given rights, religious sites rest outside the realm of regulation, and museums put glass and guards around artifacts with stories as mysterious as life itself. Artists of all kinds are inspired by decay, filling our senses with apocalyptic stories and scenes of abandoned theme parks and homes. Indeed, one reason I traveled to Point Richmond was to seek out this crumbling ferry terminal and to walk along the abandoned tracks to feel beyond my time and self.
Maybe that’s why this ferry building still stands, why the train tracks still dip in and out of the ground, and why during my visit today numerous people left the shaded greenery of the park to venture over to this desolate corner, stare at the flaky building and soggy dock before walking on. Maybe it is because we all seek this step outside of ourselves, this movement into the imagination. In the face of decay, a present place can seem distant, becoming a slate for a story to rest upon. And — if I can keep imagining — a place for communion, even if only with ghosts.
This is where these skeletal structures become sacred to me. Like a church or religious site, we commune beneath a piece of history to imagine ourselves amongst all the others who have been there before. Today I thought about this space in all its previous incarnations, from a time when the hills met the sea uninterrupted, to railroad workers laying tracks in the morning fog, to ladies in petticoats sauntering up the ramp to board the ferry for a trip to the city, to the many weathered years of nature reclaiming its permanence. This reach into the past made me feel a part of something greater than me, not godlike or heavenly, but the opposite: human. And this, to me, is divine.
Later, I wound up the town’s little hills, past the historic buildings downtown covered in new neon signs, and found two churches standing side by side. These are two of the original four churches built in Point Richmond, all of which still stand today. I sat across the street from them and watched for a while until a sweaty and chatty man approached me.
“Pretty church, huh?” he said. “Those windows must have cost a fortune!”
“Yeah, stained glass,” I replied, then lifted my camera to take a picture.
“Did you ask god if you could snap a photo?” he grinned, adding a hurried “just kidding.”
“I think in my way I did.”