Quick, before it gentrifies beyond recognition: Lars Åberg and Lars Strandberg have produced an inviting look into the Bay Area counterculture houseboat community of Sausalito.
Is it possible that a Swedish American West-loving publishing duo can take the pulse of a compellingly Californian houseboat community outside of San Francisco and get the beat right? In its review of Lars Åberg’s and Lars Strandberg’s new book, the San Francisco Chronicle said absolutely. The Chron ought to know. Sausalito is in its backyard — right across the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Åberg is the author of a handsome and invaluable new large-format art book, Floating in Sausalito, released by German publisher Kerber Verlag,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote. “Full of vibrant photographs [more than 100] by fellow Swede Lars Strandberg, the book documents the one-of-a-kind community of more than 400 houseboats that dot Richardson Bay, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.”
C&I talked with Aberg and Strandberg about their unique portrait of the colorful houseboat community, where 1960s hippie culture continues to thrive, even as it slowly gives way to a more affluent alternative lifestyle.
Cowboys & Indians: You followed up your book West with Floating in Sausalito. How did you discover Sausalito?
Lars Åberg and Lars Strandberg: When we were working on the West project we stayed in San Francisco on several occasions and once ended up in Sausalito as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and felt it was time for a break. Sitting down at this outdoor bar near the docks, we overheard a lady in shades and a big floating hat who was asked by an acquaintance how she was, and she responded: ”Well, it’s just another beautiful day in the universe.” In that very instant, we knew that this would be a place worth exploring.
C&I: Before the Golden Gate Bridge was finished in 1933, Sausalito was a rail and ferry terminus with homes dating back to the mid-1800s. It saw a lot of diverse history well before hippies made it a counterculture community in the 1960s, including some years as a bootlegging center during Prohibition. What particularly fascinated you about Sausalito’s history?
Åberg and Strandberg: There has apparently been a houseboat tradition in the Bay Area since the late 1800s, and an old fascination with fancy vessels decorated with colored lights and filled with party-goers in their best summer dresses. History took another turn when Pearl Harbor was attacked and Sausalito hastily became home to a wartime shipyard. It is quite interesting to see how the modern houseboat lifestyle builds both on that older, somewhat romantic notion of life on the water and the scraps and leftovers from World War II that supplied the ’60 homesteaders with the material foundation for their new community. In quite an extreme way, it became a small do-it-yourself society, reusing stuff from a military system they weren’t particularly keen on.
C&I: What was it about the place, and the people, that made you think it would make a cool book?
Åberg and Strandberg: The houseboat community immediately struck a chord with us: the artistic, fun, and sometimes freaky architecture of the boats, the individuals we encountered, the general ambience of the place, and, after a while, the realization that this was a place closely linked to our own youthful history and the kind of music we listened to as young guys.
C&I: How long did the project take and how did you go about getting the pictures and stories from houseboat residents?
Åberg and Strandberg: We made preparations during our stays in San Francisco and having decided that we wanted to portray the houseboat community more thoroughly, we contacted some of the residents and told them what was to come. With everything geared up, we flew from Sweden and spent a few weeks in the neighborhood, working tirelessly around the clock and continuously running into new people who wanted to tell their stories. For the photographs, it was also important to be present at different times of the day, with the light coming from differing angles.
C&I: What, if anything, was there in the attitudes of the Sausalito houseboat folks that reminded you of the folks you met in the American West while researching West?
Åberg and Strandberg: The free spirit. The early residents were homesteaders in their own strange way, and even though the community is becoming gentrified, there is still a sense of independence in the air. You run into many strong characters with a desire to run their own lives, just like in the West.
C&I: Do any similar counterculture artistic havens exist on the water in Sweden or elsewhere in Europe?
Åberg and Strandberg: There are smaller houseboat communities in different European cities, but, to our knowledge, nothing of the size of Sausalito. And the cultural history of that place is also very special.
C&I: Why would a book about a houseboat culture outside of San Francisco appeal to Swedes/Europeans in general?
Åberg and Strandberg: We believe that the book’s main audience is American. But the culture of San Francisco, and the freewheeling notion about this city, is also deeply rooted in people like us, from abroad, who have grown up with the beat and hippie cultures and immersed ourselves in the music, literature, films, and images of those eras. Neither of us had a houseboat, but we did go to concerts with many of the rock groups from the Bay Area when they toured Europe. As very young guys we hung out in Copenhagen, Denmark, with the likes of Jefferson Airplane and our respective collections of vinyl albums from that period are quite impressive.
Through Floating in Sausalito runs another story, too — the one about a generation that wanted to change the world, but didn’t really achieve everything it set out to do. The dreams and the disappointment — this is definitely a story that resonates with a lot of people in California, in the United States as a whole, and in Europe. And we know from the reactions here in Sweden that quite a lot of people have become inspired to look for alternative ways of living, on or off the water.
C&I: What are a couple of your favorite stories about people you met and photographed for the book? The man on the cover, for instance ...
Åberg and Strandberg: Larry Moyer, who is on the cover, sadly passed away in early 2016, before the book was published. He was 92. His life story is so full of adventures, from China to Haight Ashbury, that you really need to take time to read it. At first, he didn’t want to talk to us and the neighbors told us he was old and unsociable; tired of people from the outside asking dumb questions. Somehow, we decided to slip a copy of West under his front door. When we called him the next day he was completely enthusiastic and asked us to come over immediately. We could have stayed and listened for days on end — he really opened his heart.
There are also other strong personalities, like the guy who once helped to put a man on the moon and the woman who made a citizen’s arrest of one of George W. Bush’s closest associates.
C&I: What’s next for you guys?
Åberg and Strandberg: In terms of joint projects, we have just published a children’s book about beekeeping and a booklet and a short film about golfing as a way of rehabilitating people who suffer from stroke and Parkinson’s disease. We also have a lot of unpublished material from our many journeys throughout the U.S., especially from the Southwest, and hopefully we will be able to put out yet another book in English in the not-too-distant future.
Floating in Sausalito is available from most online bookstores, including Amazon.com.