When a place gets a soul again


The morning after my husband and I moved into a brand new  townhouse on a Hamilton Field, a former Air Force base, I was in shock. I had lived, gone to college and worked in San Francisco. Black was the primary color in my wardrobe. We  made disparaging remarks about people who lived in the suburbs. When we married we moved to the East Bay, still pretty urban and its own brand of hip.

Tired of renting and ready to partake in the American Dream, we started hunting for a house to buy. This was the late 1990’s, when people were ponying up offers that far exceeded the asking price. Competition was fierce.  

A friend told us about Hamilton Field, shuttered in 1974 and turned over to the City of Novato for redevelopment. We threw our hat in the ring for one of the Mediterrean style townhouses under developement. Our offer was accepted and when the house was finished we moved to Marin County.

The day after we moved in, we took a jog along the levee that bordered a desolate, overgrown airfield that stretched nearly a mile to the Bay-how we’d overlooked this small feature of the landscape still mystifies me. The construction on several housing developments (including ours) were still underway. Hamilton Field was one enormous construction zone.

In the middle our jog I burst into tears. “What have we done!” I cried.  My husband calmly reminded me Hamilton Field was “in transition.” The  houses would be built, and restoration of the wetlands, touted in the Hamilton Housing Development marketing materials, would happen. The latter process would take time–about 20 years.  

“But there’s nothing here,” I lamented. “This place has no soul.”    

Fast foward to 2009. Construction is over and the wetlands restoration project halfway completed. The birdlife is back in all its brillant shapes and colors: Hawks, egrets, owls, blue herons, kestrel falcons, junkos, housefinch,  red-winged blackbirds to name just a handful of the species breathing new life into Hamilton. There are also deer, jack rabbits, king snakes. The place is teeming with life.

The engineers and environmental folks (the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, California State Coastal Conservancy, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission are partners in the project) deserve a big hand for their work. Piping and thousands of tons of dirt and sand have been brought in. Earthmovers have pushed and shaped the land so that when the big levee closest to the  Bay falls (deliberately) the water flows where it should and tidal habitats can be restored. For now, the changing airfield still bears the mark of this Herculean effort. Tire treads cover over the mounds of dirt and smoothed areas, some of them dry and cracked for lack of rain. But the transformation is clearly underway. 

Jogging the Hamilton Field levee these days, I’m in quiet awe of the mallard couples with ducklings on the way and paddling the waterways and ponds.  Yesterday two hawks circled the crisp blue sky like poetry in motion. I stopped running to take this in, to feel the soul of this place. It’s everywhere it turns out: in the hawks’ flight, in the pond’s ripple around the grasses, in the mottled reflection of clouds and sky.



  1. Mary Reynolds Thompson said

    Lee, I love your description of Hamilton Field. An image that captures the feel of the place for me is that of geese flying in precision overhead in the stead of military planes. Signs of Hamilton’s military past are being submerged beneath the restored wetlands. War gives way to water; bombs give way to birds. It reminds me that restoration is possible. And, yes, soulful too.

  2. lwdoyle said

    The geese, yes–what a lovely image, and so true.

  3. Marianne Gates said

    You’re a beautiful writer.

    You’re beautiful and you write beautifully.

  4. lwdoyle said

    Thank you Ms. Gates.

  5. jamie parker said

    simply….Lovely! Thank you!

  6. Mark said

    This is an amazing entry. Communicates wonderfully. If you have kept a photo journal of the transformation too, I’d say you have a built-in book on Hamilton Field that would apply to thousands of long-term projects around the world like it. Love the thought of an area of land getting its soul back. I’m glad you guys moved there, or I might not have had the chance to get to know you!

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