Piro Caro and the Houseboat Wars

By Larry Clinton

Last week we told the story of how Piro Caro became the father of the early houseboat community.  He emerged as a community leader during the infamous Houseboat Wars of the mid-70’s.  A 1977 article in the Berkeley Barb mentioned that as early as 1969 “the county ordered the removal of 60 houseboats on grounds that they were in violation of building codes and therefore unfit to live in. The community challenged the order in court and lost. But the county’s legal victory was meaningless, as the boat owners simply chose to ignore the order to move.” In the ensuing struggles, Caro fought for the rights of houseboat residents, organizing protests and filing court actions to prevent Marin County officials from evicting them from Richardson’s Bay.

Piro being manhandled by sheriff’s deputies (© Bruce Forrester)

Piro being manhandled by sheriff’s deputies (© Bruce Forrester)

Joe Tate, another veteran of those wars, has published a blog, www.theredlegs.com,  which includes a statement Caro made to the Marin Board of Supervisors in 1973, at the first public hearing on a new houseboat building code ordinance designed to eliminate the nonconformist Gate 5 and 6 community:

 “...I’ve lived on the waterfront for more than twenty years... For more than those twenty years on that mud flat, a very important, a very healthy community has come into existence... [Young people come here] to find a world in which they can operate and they can move. The reason that they come is because the world, your world, cannot accommodate their needs. They either have too much energy, or too much talent, or too much rebellion. In any case, they’re the young, and accommodations have to be made for them...

“Well, you can build more hospitals, you can build more jails, you can hire more police. You can have more social workers, probation officers... That’s what would have happened if these people had not come onto this waterfront.

“As it is, for twenty years I’ve watched these people come in. And now they’re all my old friends. A young man comes in and makes himself a home, finds a chick, and has kids; the kids are now grown up and in high school and college. It’s a very healthy and excellent community, where people live freely and well... I sincerely hope you do not pass this ordinance.”

The County ignored Caro’s eloquent testimony, and passed the ordinance.  That led Caro to become a spokesman for the Waterfront Preservation Association (WPA), a civic league seeking to halt construction of Waldo Point Harbor, which he called “odious and intolerable,” according to the Berkeley Barb. Vowing to use physical confrontation if necessary. Caro told the Barb, “We will continue to oppose this redevelopment project bodily,”

And he backed up his words when the going got tough.  A video on www.sfgate.com/video/article/Forgotten-6386114.php reports that on July 15, 1977: “Marin County sheriff’s deputies got more than they bargained for when they tried to arrest the Father of the Sausalito houseboat community, Piro Caro. Caro was accused of organizing a blockade on some land that was supposed to be bulldozed and developed.

“The usually peaceful residents of the houseboat community erupted into a full riot, throwing tires and debris after a deputy’s handcuffs accidentally cut Caro’s left wrist.

“Despite the reinforcements from the Mill Valley and Sausalito police departments, the 100-plus demonstrators forced the lawmen to retreat with only 12 people in custody, but not Caro.”

Caro’s beloved ferryboat San Rafael was eventually demolished, but the pilothouses and parts of the upper deck were put on a barge, which was renamed “Son of San Rafael.” Caro lived on it for several years before dying in 1984 at the age of 83.

At his passing, Caro’s godson and namesake, Piro Patton, who had lived with him for the last 2-1/2 years, recalled “He was one of the few very great men I’ve ever met. He was a spiritual leader to many, many people on the waterfront. He led the fight against the developers and really organized the waterfront community.”