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Antioch–Tales of Two Cities

Now that impeachment has slid off the table into history, and the Capitol attack boasts an ongoing commission, we return to Topic A, the pandemic. Everyone agrees that the shameful disorder of our government and economy–and now even the wintry weather–made a shambles of the vaccine roll-outs. Angry citizens claim to be deprived of access to vaccine, while others are faulted for rejecting it.

Our best vaccination option was some thirty miles away in a town we had never had reason to visit.

In Antioch, California, the January sun was warm, and people, mostly men with hard hats, were eating lunch on concrete benches in the middle of a parking lot. Sutter Health Foundation anchors a modest medical mall with fueling stations such as Xtreme Burger, Subway, and Starbucks. We found an empty bench and ate burgers prepared by one small, efficient Asian man who seemed to be working alone. Unemployment in Antioch is upwards of 10 percent, highest in Contra Costa County. This figure was not available on the City of Antioch’s website, which features a photo of a dapper administrator flanked by an eye-catching but empty template. 

Sutter Health is the second largest employer in town. We passed through its glass portal to meet a receiving line of beaming young women who serially confirmed our identity and body temperature. The ratio of attendants to patients seemed about six to one. An attendant led us toward a receding corridor lined with additional young persons in pastel scrubs, smiling reassuringly as we passed. Magic Flute came to mind. In the room at the end of the corridor stood Krystelle, tall and lovely, with a crown of magnificent braids–and the vaccine. The jabs were painless, followed by a friendly question: had we been able to see anything much around Antioch? “In the summer, you can visit some sweet wineries in Brentwood,” she said. 

In fact we had arrived early, in time for a quick turn around the town and the waterfront. Near the river, a sign on a small weathered building said Vets Help Lunch and Medications. Around the corner at the Antioch Community Center, a long line, including several wheelchairs, was also moving slowly toward vaccinations. Down the road at the deserted marina, there were no boats on the river, which had once been the main shipping channel of the San Joaquin-Sacramento river route to San Francisco Bay.

Antioch had begun as Marsh Landing, after John Marsh (Harvard, 1823), one of the early American pioneer entrepreneurs. Marsh had made his way west as an Indian agent, merchant, doctor, and finally, rancher and real estate speculator. During his time in the pueblo of Los Angeles, he was the only “western-trained” medical doctor around, thanks to the illegible Latin of his Harvard diploma. Having saved a tidy amount in in-kind medical fees, he liquidated his inventory and went north.

For $500 (or $300, depending on your source) Marsh became the owner of the 13,000-acre Rancho Los Meganos, a cattle ranch east of San Francisco Bay. He soon became a promoter of the joys of California life, writing widely circulated letters to encourage emigration, statehood, and of course the purchase of homesteads on his property. This land he had acquired from the Mexican government, via Spain, which had first dibs, unless you count those indigenous tribes. The history of California as a continuing land grab is not unknown, beginning with the Franciscan missions and Indian slave labor.

For his part, John Marsh sold a piece of his river property to the Smith brothers, bearded twins unrelated either to the cough drop dynasty or my family. William Smith, a minister, wanted to give the town a biblical name. He must have known his history to have chosen the ancient Greek “Antioch,” another town located at a delta formed by two major rivers.

Not Contra Costa County

Siege of Antioch, 1098– 15th-century miniature

The original Antioch was founded by a general of Alexander the Great, near a delta of rivers opening onto the northeastern Mediterranean. It became a center of commerce and culture during the Hellenistic and Roman empires and beyond. It was also a religious center where the followers of Christ, including Peter and Paul, were first known as Christians. This history as well as its riches made it a target of the First Crusade.


Fall of Antioch in 1098, earlier version

 Ancient Antioch is now only ruins in the Turkish town of Antakya near the Syrian border. Just south of that border, in the Syrian province of Idlib, nearly everything is in ruins, both ancient and recent. In the years before the Syrian civil war, Idlib province was mainly known for the “Dead Cities,” hundreds of Byzantine settlements from the first through seventh centuries, preserved when trade routes changed.

Dead Cities in Idlib Province in 2010

Antiochus III the Great expanded the Seleucid empire in the usual way, through conquests and prudent marriages, and lost it in the usual way, by decisive military defeats–in his case as in so many others, by the Romans. But today, if the facts were more generally known, Antiochus would probably be more famous for being the father of Cleopatra than for Thermopylae.  Reflections on the transient glory of military conflicts tend to attract less interest over the centuries than tales of sex, incest and violence like Cleopatra’s—and some much more recent.

In 2009 Antioch, California became suddenly notorious with the discovery of a kidnapped girl who had been kept there in captivity for 18 years. International media feasted on the story of Antioch’s alleged 1,000 registered sex offenders in residence, with domestic variations on the theme from Anderson Cooper, Larry King, Diane Sawyer, Oprah, and Judge Judy. Jaycee Dugard received $20 million from the state of California, acknowledging defective law enforcement. She wrote a best-selling memoir and established a foundation to support other victims of rape and kidnapping.

Ten years after the Jaycee’s rescue, the streets of Antioch seem calm, but police blotters tell another story. In one week in February there were 48 adult arrests, including the alleged shooter of a firefighter and paramedic, as well as a lunchtime bank robbery the day before our vaccination visit.

Antioch, February 2021

The streets are lined mainly with working-class cottages and no-frills condominiums, but with California property inflation, the median house price is now $540K, affordable mainly for desperate commuters employed in the central Bay Area.

John Marsh got the 13,316 acres of Rancho los Meganos for the equivalent of about $3.75 an acre in 1850 dollars. California’s legislature never ceases to recognize the need for affordable housing, but voters are no more inclined to tax raises than John Marsh would have been.

On our way to vaccination in Antioch, California, we could see from the highway a green spread of regularly distributed bumps and cubes over many acres. It looks like, and is, camouflaged weapons storage, now, we are told, empty. After the horrendous Port Chicago disaster in July 1944, when thousands of pounds of naval ordnance exploded during loading, killing 320 and wounding 390 mostly black Americans, a new name and new uses were proposed for the site.

Aerial view of Concord Naval Weapons Station with Mt. Diablo

For a while it was the proving grounds for testing self-driving cars, most notably Mercedes Benz. Then in 2018 the Navy floated a plan to build a tent city there. As many as 47,000 immigrants could be detained on this somewhat toxic but isolated Superfund site. Local protests resulted, and Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, who called the plan “madness,” assured his constituents that the projected tent settlement would not be built. The Navy continues to work on decontamination in hopes of making the land salable for residential or park development. 

Some twenty minutes from the erstwhile naval weapons station, Marsh Creek State Historic Park now incorporates much of the former Rancho Los Meganos and the Marsh Home. John Marsh had lived alone in his adobe hacienda for decades, but for his new wife he planned a fairly grand stone manor with a tower to spy out cattle rustlers.

Marsh House

Construction was still underway when his wife died, and not long thereafter he was murdered by his own vaqueros after a wage dispute. “The meanest man I ever knew,” said John Bidwell, another early California pioneer.

The Marsh Creek State Park may reopen after the pandemic, but it appears that the house may be allowed to fall into ruin. And who will take responsibility for the hundreds of human burials discovered nearby, dating from 3,000 to 4,000 years ago–long before Antiochus the Great and his daughter sat uneasily on their respective thrones. 

Cleopatra, perhaps, in Altes Museum Berlin
Antiochus III, the Great, probably

In the ruins of ancient Antioch, in 1932, a consortium of American and European museums found a trove of magnificent Byzantine mosaics. Their excavations were interrupted in 1939 by the war. Half of the mosaics were immediately absorbed by the excavators’ home museums. The others were left to Antakya, and we can only hope that they are no longer on display in the Hatay Archaeological Museum, less than 90 kilometers from Idlib in the heart of Syria’s northeastern war zone.

Cupid, Psyche, and erotic missile, Antakya museum

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