Tour the obscure California city that's suddenly the hottest housing market in America
Aug 1, 2017, 20:10 IST
Melia Robinson/Business Insider
Welcome to Vallejo, California.
Vallejo, California, a small city across the bay from San Francisco, was named the hottest housing market in America by Realtor.com in June.
It's the last place that many Bay Area locals might expect to take the title. Vallejo, which briefly hosted the state capital between 1852 and 1853, became the largest city in California to declare bankruptcy in 2008. Its reputation for crime and squalor has previously landed the "Up Bay" city on Forbes' list of most miserable cities and Newsweek's list of dying cities.
I recently spent the day in Vallejo to see how a downtrodden city became a top real-estate destination in less than 10 years.
"Everyone wants something different for Vallejo," Fortner said, referring to the ongoing efforts to revitalize the downtown. "But everyone can agree, beer is good for the island."
The next year, Fortner and his business partner, Ryan Gibbons, started brewing beer out of an old shed on the naval base that once stored coal for steam ships.
Brewer Kent Fortner's company, Mare Island Brewing Co., is considered the crown jewel of Vallejo's rebirth. Fortner moved his family to Vallejo when they outgrew their house in Napa.
I ended my day in Vallejo on a high note — with beer.
Even tech companies can't resist the low prices. Factory OS, a modular-home startup that builds units like LEGO structures, moved into a warehouse formerly owned by the Navy.
Those days are over — the median home sale price reached $376,000 in July, according to Trulia.com. Vallejo remains one of the most affordable markets in the Bay Area, however.
While the revitalization of Vallejo remains a work in progress, real estate prices are already climbing. Ten years ago, people could buy a modest home in Vallejo for $100,000.
A stroll down Vallejo's Georgia Street might also yield a B-list celebrity sighting these days — Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" returned there to film its second season along the main drag.
When I stopped to admire some empty storefronts on the fringes of downtown Vallejo, I noticed that the windows feature work from local artists. The Vallejo Art Windows project is a community-driven effort to increase foot traffic and approve the aesthetic appeal of the retail corridor.
A few blocks away, the Empress Theater hosts a variety of live music and theater events. The 400-seat house wants to become a cultural center of Vallejo, according to the theater's assistant manager, David Constantino, but it doesn't have the budget for big-name acts.
On the second Friday of every month, the Hub stays open late for the citywide "Art Walk," which invites the public to grab food and shop pop-up galleries on the sidewalks.
I walked up and down the city's downtown for signs that Vallejo has become a destination in its own right. One fairly new fixture is an art gallery and event space called The Hub.
That is, stuff to do beyond Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. The city's northern end is home to a popular 135-acre theme park complete with roller coasters and a marine-life exhibit.
Overall, Prather said he likes the changes he sees in Vallejo. As young professionals working in San Francisco migrate to the outer reaches of the Bay Area, new shops, restaurants, and art galleries move in alongside them. That means there's new stuff to do in Vallejo.
Across the street from Gracie's, a military surplus store buzzed with customers shopping for Carhartt apparel, Levi's jeans, and flame-resistant, two-piece overalls.
But the people of Vallejo have refused to give up on their city, according to several community organizers and small-business owners who I spoke with.
Vallejo has long been a stronghold for the middle- and working-class.
The main drag on Georgia Street gave off kind of a ghost-town vibe. I passed abandoned storefronts, homeless people, and a handful of police officers on their morning patrol.
When I walked down the streets of Vallejo, I found it wasn't the gentrified urban playground for tech workers that I expected.
Vallejo is 30 miles north of San Francisco, but for many city residents, it might as well be a world away.
When I boarded a Vallejo-bound ferry, I expected to find a hipster enclave complete with artisanal coffee roasters and yoga studios on the other side.