To some the long-abandoned cement factory in American Canyon is an opportunity to create a town center for a city lacking a true urban core. To others the “ruins,” as they are locally known, represent a commercial opportunity to make money.
For urban art lovers, however, the sprawling collection of crumbling concrete walls is a “mecca” worth preserving all on its own.
The Standard Portland Cement Company facility, built just after the turn of the 20th century, provided concrete for decades to Bay Area projects, including the rebuilding of San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake.
The plant was shuttered in the 1970s, resulting in the gradual decay of its silos and manufacturing structures.
Over the next four decades, graffiti artists discovered the vacant site and began to transform it into an urban canvas of spray-painted characters and creations.
Few local residents have had the chance to see this artwork. But on Saturday, the ruins were opened to the public as part of American Canyon’s Arts in April festivities to allow people and artists from the Bay Area to tour the factory grounds.
“This place seems wonderful because you can spend a long time here,” said Amanda Lynn, a San Francisco-based fine art muralist who has worked with street artists.
“This is the mecca of art and the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” she said after the tour.
Lynn was invited to view the graffiti by the developers of Watson Ranch who want to transform the ruins into a town center featuring shops, art and entertainment, as well as build more than 1,200 new homes nearby. The plan for this project is still being developed and has yet to be approved by the City Council.
There are ongoing discussions between Lynn and the developers to commission murals for the century-old factory walls, some of which would be preserved as part of the proposed commercial center.
City Councilmember Mark Joseph, a supporter of Watson Ranch, says some of the existing graffiti may be kept if the town center is created.
“We’re talking about it because from a graffiti artist’s perspective, these are great walls,” said Joseph. “It’s a great canvas.”
“The graffiti provides a distinction from the rest of the valley,” said Joseph, who sees the development of the center, called the Napa Valley Ruins and Gardens, as a potential major tourist attraction and game-changer for the city.
Some of the visitors on Saturday, like Petaluma artist Tristy Taylor, would be pleased if the city left the site as is with its graffiti, towering weeds and abundant plant life.
“I think it’s beautiful,” said Taylor, whose own work includes painting, sculpting and embroidery.
“I’m glad I got to see it now, today, in this decaying archaic form. It really reminds me of visiting the Greek ruins.”
Hearing that the development project may include new art on the site, Taylor said she’s happy that commissioned work is part of the plan.
But that’s not the same thing as having “free-form, revolutionary, out-of-the-box, in-the-moment creativity displayed on the walls here.”
“I’m glad they’re thinking about including artists in the new development,” said Taylor. “But it’s not going to feel like this feels, and that’s a loss.”
Lynn can sympathize with Taylor. The muralist, who has worked alongside graffiti artists on projects authorized by building owners throughout her 15-year career, sees the ruins as “a beautiful place you can paint anything.”
According to Lynn, the ruins have served as a place for both established and aspiring urban painters to practice their craft.
As she walked through the site, she recognized the works of many graffiti specialists who, from what she could see, have traveled from Oakland and San Francisco to this “dream” location to work.
She also could see the efforts of new artists doing what fledgling painters have always done: copy the work of others while trying to find their own vision and style.
“It’s like a weird history lesson,” said Lynn of the ruins, “seeing where people are trying to go with it.”
The same is true of the graffiti itself and what ultimately will become of it if Watson Ranch does move forward and redevelops the landscape that is now “a graffiti or muralist’s dream,” said Lynn.