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An art piece on a woman reaching out, made up of found objects.

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Man versus nature versus man: 50 or so years of the Albany Bulb

“It has been—often all at once—a landfill, an encampment, a community, an art installation, a museum, a music venue, a playhouse, a racetrack, and a dog park”

At the edge of the man-made world, a young mother taught her daughter how to spray-paint graffiti.

“Hold it a little farther away,” the mother told the girl, who pulled the can back. She aimed the nozzle at a curvy black heart that had been painted on the wall of a ramshackle structure, and used it as guidance to trace her own red heart over it.

“There you go,” said her mother, proudly.

It’s a Saturday morning in April and they’re spray-painting Mad Marc’s Castle, an eccentric thing made of rebar, concrete, and who-knows-what-else that’s been painted over enough times that, if you get close enough, it off-gasses potent fumes. It sits on the western edge of the Albany Bulb, an outcropping of land that has jutted out into the San Francisco Bay for roughly 50 years. During that time it has been—often all at once—a landfill, an encampment, a community, an art installation, a museum, a music venue, a playhouse, a racetrack, and a dog park.

It’s a magical chunk of land in the Bay Area, one of the few that still allows creativity to run free, with some of the best views in the world. And no one’s quite sure what’s going to happen to it next.

It’s fair to start the story of this piece of land in the 1950s, when the Bay Area shoreline played host to military and industry. When mining operations weren’t taking place, the bay’s various municipalities used their coastlines as dumping grounds, extending the land with the idea that it could be developed for expensive homes, office buildings, or commercial ventures. (If you think that’s bizarre, keep in mind that much of San Francisco’s Marina and Financial districts are built on landfill.)

A decade later, the small waterfront town of Albany—which, notably, incorporated in 1908 after a group of rifle-toting women got tired of nearby Berkeley dumping its trash in their community—decided to get in on the free real estate craze. They began a landfill of their own, to be made only of “clean debris” from construction sites—meaning asphalt, concrete, brick, metal rebar, and so on.

But, due to social change, it was a little too late for Albany.

Sylvia McLaughlin was one person who was troubled with what she saw happen to the bay from her perch in the Berkeley hills. By then, dumping had gotten so pervasive that only six miles of shoreline could be accessed by pedestrians; she also didn’t like the methane fires and debris ruining her views. Along with environmental activists Esther Gulick and Catherine Kerr, she founded nonprofit Save the Bay in 1961 to counter unchecked dumping.

The group flyered neighborhoods, held meetings, pulled political strings where they could—McLaughlin’s husband, Donald, was head of a large mining operation and former chair of the UC Board of Regents—and eventually cultivated a membership that numbered in the thousands. In 1965, they got the state to oversee the shoreline, stopping some of the landfill creation.

Still, trucks rolled out to this new, growing extension of Albany until 1984, when Robert Cheasty was elected mayor of Albany, and, alongside other environmental activists, negotiated with “city governments, two congressional districts, two assembly districts, two park districts, statewide ballot initiatives, local initiatives,” according to Cheasty, to finally end the landfill operation.

Albany was left with the landfill it had already created, an odd 33-acre heap known, because of its shape, as the Bulb.

Nature soon took over: The Bulb evolved into a collection of bushes, trees, and shrubs. Migrating birds took notice. A 2015-2016 survey of the Bulb by the Golden Gate Audubon Society found 90 species using it throughout the year as part of their migratory patterns; more recent counts by user-generated lists 177 species of birds.

“If you were a bird and were arriving from someplace that was hundreds of thousands of miles away, you’re looking for particular characteristics,” says Pam Young, chair of the East Bay Conservation Committee at the Audubon. “A somewhat sheltered micro-climate, somewhat protected, and it’s a little bit like a cove here. You’re looking for adequate protection, and the Bulb’s filled it.”

Nature brought birdwatchers, hikers, and people. The trails back then were rugged, unmaintained.

“You couldn’t push a baby stroller on them back then. You never knew where there would be a jagged metal pole sticking out, or a metal wire hanging from a branch,” says Liam O’Donoghue, a local historian who produces the podcast East Bay Yesterday. “I’ve always been attracted to the idea that this place wasn’t supposed to exist, basically this ecological disaster, but nature restored itself.”

Artists began to take notice of the open space. A collective known as Sniff began to decorate the Bulb in the 1990s with paintings on old concrete blocks and four-by-eight pieces of plywood. Others used this wild space differently: A lending library was installed. An amphitheater was created with found materials, and became the Bulb’s central event space, home to Shakespeare plays and generator punk parties, and once converted into a skate ramp for a few months. Larger works were created, perhaps most iconic the “Beseeching Woman,” a massive sculpture made of metal and wood by lawyer/activist Osha Neumann and his son-in-law Jason DeAntonis. Neumann says there wasn’t much of a plan for the sculpture; they never even gave it an official name.

“It was just, let’s make something big! To some degree, it’s shaped by the materials that are there,” he says.

As the story goes, the Bulb’s first residents floated there as a sort of “homeless navy.” They beached their ramshackle boats to rot and set up tents wherever they found space. One was a self-diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic named Mad Marc who began building his castle. And while there were some issues with the community—the same interpersonal disputes found in any group of people—some felt the Bulb was an ideal space for those with nowhere else to go.

“If you have to be homeless, you can be there with the birds and trees, it’s just an incredible way to live,” says Neumann. “And it wasn’t costing anyone a dime.”

However, as with most any plot of unclaimed land, especially one in the Bay Area with multimillion-dollar views, a battle over who belongs and who doesn’t began.

Amber Whitson is in the middle of the Bulb trying to catch a snake.

“Once on my birthday here, I caught two snakes,” she explains. “I carried them around for a while, then put them where I knew there were lots of rats. Snakes gotta eat too.”

Whitson has had seven birthdays on the Bulb because she lived on it for seven and a half years.

Originally from Santa Monica, Whitson decided to head north to Seattle when she turned 16, but made a pit stop in the Bay Area and got “sucked in by the vortex” for good. Once part of the “gutter punk scene,” she found her way to Berkeley’s People’s Park, a park near the UC campus that’s been kept as public land since the political activism of the late 1960s. It had since become a safe-ish place for those with nowhere else to go, so that’s where Whitson went. There she met Phyl, who’d become her partner, and soon, they got a hot tip about open space on the Bulb. On Halloween of 2006, the couple made the nearly five-mile trek over to the land.

The site had a history of being a place for the homeless. As Whitson wrote in a 2013 piece for Patch, “In 1993, the local law enforcement told Albany’s homeless citizens to ‘go down to the landfill’. And, they did. In 1999, after seven years of having a place to call home, the residents of the Albany Bulb were evicted.” (This eviction process was documented in the 2003 film Bum’s Paradise.)

But in 2006, when Whitson and Phyl arrived at the Bulb, it was mostly empty. They wandered until an old friend, “Drunk James,” recognized her voice and set up in the community. They made their home on the west side, near a bush-filled gully that was full of “every buzzing insect that flies.”

During a recent tour of the land, Whitson noticed that the gully had been cleared of all the bushes. Instead of buzzing, there was only silence.

“Gentrification happens in nature, too,” she says with a shrug.

Whitson gives a tour of what life here used to be like. A treehouse constructed atop old tree branches, some old Sniff paintings used for flooring. Off the shore during low tide, she found a pair of V-8 engines that she hauled out for a few bucks. She remembers seeing a gravestone of someone who died in England.

“How did his headstone end up here?” she wonders.

Once, while Phyl was wading into the water with a pipe, he struck something hard. “Clang, clang, clang,” says Whitson. “We took a breather, drank some Gatorade, got a mini-sledge, and knocked it loose.”

It was a 290-pound, 30.5-inch-tall bullet from World War II.

“Thank god there was no detonator tip.”

During Phyl and Amber’s time on the Bulb, word spread about the space, prompting additional residents. Due to its 33-acre size, that meant that, on average, one person could use 2.2 acres when the population was 15. But the acreage reduced to roughly half an acre per person when the population increased to 70.

“It was a community, you could call it that, but Phyl and I were loners,” she says. “There’s view people and there’s privacy people. We were privacy people.”

While it wasn’t always the greatest atmosphere—there were fights, and sometimes people stole from one another—the community self-policed by shunning.

“If you isolate people,” says Whitson, “the problem takes care of itself.”

Either way, it was the home they had. Amber and Phyl had dug a floor and made a wall as a protective barrier. Inside were plastic drawers for storage, a Coleman stove for cooking, and a bed. They had a fenced-in front yard, a backyard where Phyl worked on his bike, and a spot where their dog, Derby, would lie in the sun.

One time a seal carcass washed ashore. Whitson named it “Bernie” after Weekend at Bernie’s, and, feeling that “any woman worth her salt should be able to skin an animal,” she consulted a few YouTube videos and gave it a try. It was tougher than she’d figured.

“They don’t tell you it’s the oiliest thing you’re going to handle in your life,” she says.

But she pulled the skin off the dead seal, then dug out a hole to preserve the hide with rock salt and tea bags. She had hoped to make a vest out of it. It stayed in that hole for two or three years (“time kind of slips away from you out here,” she says) until it was removed during an eviction by the city of Albany.

“For seven years we were in this spot,” says Amber, pointing to the area that’s since been overgrown with bushes. “Then they came in and smashed it down.”

The battle to remove the encampment was long and litigious. Temporary shelter was offered by Albany, but campers and their advocates felt it was insufficient, and so they applied legal pressure. It resulted in a settlement that included a $3,000 payment to each camper, as well as guarantees by Berkeley Food and Housing Project to transition them into an “alternative-housing space.”

Photo by Patricia Chang

Most of the residents took this buyout carrot, the stick being that an additional strike for illegal camping would, for many, result in arrest. Amber and Phyl, with no priors, stayed on the Bulb as long as they could, until the morning of May 30, 2014.

“They’d been telling us for years to keep it clean, keep it cool, keep it quiet, that we can stay as long as we want,” she says. “But then the city switches up. Thirty cops, three agencies, moving trucks, vans, cars, dirt bikes, motorcycles, assault rifles, all at 4:30 in the morning.”

They moved onto the next place.

I asked Whitson what happened to those who’d been living on the Bulb, and she brought up a note on her phone—she’s been keeping track.

“Nearly all of us were homeless within a year of being housed,” she reads. “One household are housed without any assistance, but pretty much everyone else is back on the streets.”

Whitson currently lives nearby, in a parked recreational vehicle, and is in the midst of another municipal battle, this time against the city of Berkeley and its new anti-RV measures with a group called the “Berkeley Friends on Wheels.”

The fight for space in the Bay Area never ends.

On a weekend in May, I watch performers from Destiny Arts Center, a youth troupe based in Oakland, dance on the Bulb. Their backdrop includes San Francisco, Oakland, and the Bay Bridge in between.

It’s the opening performance of Bulbfest, an arts and dance festival on the Bulb that includes 10 art installations and performances by 11 dance groups. This year’s theme explores “the resilience of nature in the face of climate change and sea level rise as well as human resilience in the face of individual and societal changes.” This event was put on by Love the Bulb, which formed in 2016 to preserve the Bulb’s place for artistic expression.

“This is a museum of environmental destruction, but also a place where nature pushed back,” says Susan Moffat, founder of Love the Bulb. “Join with us in thinking about the way that art and performances here aren’t just decorations or entertainment, it’s a means of inquiry, of dealing with the complexities of a complicated landscape, which is what we have here.”

Complicated, indeed. The site is still owned by the city of Albany, although it’s in the midst of a long transition plan into the East Bay Regional Parks system as McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, named after one of the aforementioned Save the Bay architects.

“I thought it would take two, three, four years at most,” says former Albany Mayor Robert Cheasty. “But it’s decades later and we’re still doing things.”

An official transition plan was developed in 2002, and then voters passed Measure WW in 2008, to facilitate the Bulb’s sale from the city to the state. However, that transition has stalled due to “concerns regarding uneven ground, protruding metal, unregulated art projects, construction debris, and recent homeless encampments.”

(This transition was one of the main drivers of the evictions. As Osha Neumann points out—as a lawyer, he represented the Bulb encampment—the push to evict occurred around the same time that the space was being handed over. “Some environmentalists thought people were a problem, and they’d rather have it as a place without people,” says Neumann. “When you’re developing this to include the Bulb [into the state park] you can’t have people living there, can’t have unsanctioned art.”)

While the encampment’s former life as a home has been “solved” with nightly patrols by Albany police, most of the other hold-ups come down to money.

“Someone has to pay for it,” says Norman La Force, at-large member of the San Francisco chapter of the Sierra Club. “The Park District says it will not take the property until work is done, and Albany needs to do that. Albany says, ‘Thank you, we don’t have that money.’”

The city got a grant to fund a transition study, released in 2015. Voters passed Measure FF in 2018 to allocate funds to “[p]rovide for shoreline and natural habitat protection,” improve visitor-use facilities, expand park personnel; and “protect, enhance, and monitor wildlife habitat.”

Maybe a change will come soon; maybe not.

“The basic problem is that Albany is too cheap to ever take proper care of their dump and level it and cover it with soil, like Berkeley and Emeryville did,” says Richard Walker, professor emeritus of geography at UC Berkeley, and author of Pictures of a Gone City. “So it’s a mess of broken concrete and metal that’s rather hazardous and difficult to turn into anything like a park.”

But there’s not consensus that the Bulb should be leveled and covered with soil. As Moffat points out, the Transition Study says that “unauthorized artistic expression” will be removed in accordance with the state parks’s “systemwide cultural resource procedures.” Keeping this kind of bureaucratic curation from happening is what Moffat and company have been trying to accomplish with Love the Bulb.

“We really don’t want it getting sanitized and manicured and fenced off,” she says. “It’s about creating a new kind of public space, a place that could be both park and laboratory, research field station and adventure playground and open-air museum, where the dynamic interaction of humans and nature is revealed in all its ugliness and beauty.”

The rebar and broken concrete have not only made the space, but dictated what it’s become. It can’t be developed because of the cost and space considerations and amount of clean-up needed. And that has allowed it to maintain a sort of natural wilderness in the urban landscape that is increasingly unusual, particularly in the Bay Area.

“It’s so rare for there to be any ‘free spaces,’ autonomous zones with no rules or regulations, where people can do whatever they want without permits,” says O’Donoghue. “I’d want to see this being a place where people can use it how they want, whether that’s creating art, or if they need a place to sleep, or throwing parties. It’s not like all of those uses are compatible with each other, but people need a place to gather that’s not a mall.”

When I head out for a final trip, I notice a black wooden box hidden in a cove of trees that encourages passersby to write and deposit their deepest secrets. I leave one behind. When I return a week later, either the box has been taken away or I just couldn’t retrace my steps, because I can’t find it. This is how life comes and goes on the Bulb.

On my way out, I sit in the amphitheater. I hear a young kid yell to his mom. He’d found something new, something that had been added without approval or oversight, something constructed of materials that had lived on the Bulb for decades before an anonymous person put it to use.

“There’s new stuff here, Mom,” he giddily screamed to his mother. “There’s new stuff!”

Rick Paulas is a writer based in Oakland who just published a book about it.

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