ALBANY BULB: Nature Sanctuary, Outdoor Art Museum, Homeless Encampment, Million Dollar Views Prevail at Spit of Land Jutting into San Francisco Bay
Standing a hundred yards away from a noisy, double-barreled, twelve lane freeway connecting Chicago to San Francisco - Interstate 80 – I have an unobstructed view of the mudflats and beyond, of the spit of land jutting into the water at the bayshore. The phantasmagoric frenzy of the nonstop freeway might as well be light-years away.
Three lovely East Bay Area creeks – Codornices, Village and Marin – converge in this once pastoral debouchment, draining their springfed and run-off cargo from their hill origins into the ecologically sensitive bay, marsh and mudflats, depending on tidal conditions. I'm spellbound catching glimpses through my binoculars of a small sampling of shorebirds and waterfowl congregated here - up to 20,000 individual birds feeding on invertebrates and milling about is not uncommon when the tide is out, food is abundant, and conditions are ripe. Many shorebirds and pelagic kin frequent here, including long-billed curlews, whimbrels, dowitchers, semipalmated and black-bellied plovers, western and least sandpipers, herons and egrets, oystercatchers, killdeer, phalaropes, greater and lesser yellowlegs, coots, cormorants, loons, grebes, pelicans, and sanderlings, and dozens of species of waterfowl, gulls and terns, and perching birds, but without my bird guide, it's hard to tell who's who among the more exotic of the avian crowd.
Such an extremely rich biota naturally attracts the depth and breadth of the food chain, at least among the avian predators – on any given day, you might espy an osprey, white kite, northern harrier, hawk, kestrel, merlin; I've seen a pair of peregrine falcons. I’m always amazed at the biodiversity at the Bulb and Waterfront, the sheer numbers of living species attracted to the smorgasbord of edibles found in the salt marsh waters, the mud, the plants. I mean, you take a casual glance at this place zooming by in your hurtling metal pollution contraption and it appears to be a lifeless slough. Only when you stop, get out of your car, visit and sit still long enough to observe, does the magnitude of life become apparent.
The mudflats, visually, comprise a delightful patch of earth temporarily exposed, with its layered, shiny mud sculpted into delicate terracing patterns from the action of receding water, and a disappearing and reappearing marshland fringed with pickleweed, gumweed, cordgrass. Throughout the Bulb, only a hardy few other native trees and shrubs, herbaceous plants and grasses survive – “unwanted” exotics outnumber natives by three to one. It's a chaotic exudation of sensory overload - a slightly disconcerting admixture of sulfuric and mud-drenched odors wafting in the air, of salty marsh and occasional whiffs of diesel or other fumes from nearby industries. But what do the birds know or care - this is paradise for them, a flyover stopping place to rest and eat before continuing on their airborne journeys to Mexico, Central or South America, sometimes voyaging 5,000 miles in a week.
The Albany Waterfront and Bulb is a slice of urban / natural paradise right in our front yard! Brown, sandy beaches, where dogs and their owners frolic and play endlessly, curve gently to a backdrop of small dunes. The bulb-shaped land that juts into the bay here provides strollers, dog walkers, bikers and joggers with spectacular views across shimmering waters of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, and the gleaming cities of San Francisco and Oakland. The Bulb is essentially a plot of landfill that has been reclaimed from an industrial wasteland of debris and detritus and transformed into an urban gardenlike oasis of trees, plants, hollows, rises, and grottos; mostly, it is renowned for its small-scale Burning Man-like art installations, sculptures, murals, paintings, mobiles, and, infamously, homeless encampments; it’s reputation is a place where anarchy rules, in a good way, and society’s laws cannot infringe, in a better way, and where scruffy, penniless tent-dwellers live peaceful existences with million-dollar views . . .that is, until the next inevitable show-down with the Authorities.
A stroll or bike ride toolin’ around this odd peninsula at first seems like an eyesore - what with rebar jutting out of hillsides and giant concrete slabs and half-buried walls strewn about like moldering ruins - it invites flights of fancy where the mind imagines some future holocaust of civilization, in which nothing remains but the wreckage, now being subsumed by the ravaging splendor of nature gone wild. It’s a living testament to the all-powerful antidote to rampant development and man's hubris, homage to nature’s ability to rebound and take over and carry on as though all along just waiting for such a chance, and not skipping a beat when it’s her time. Jungle-smothered ancient cities aside, it doesn’t take long for Mother Nature to reclaim what’s hers, and leave nary a trace of our comings and goings. This process – ongoing, live, in action – is what makes a visit to the Bulb so fascinating, for it's a miniature version, a parable playing out, in our puny lifetimes, of things to come on a far grander (apocalyptic perhaps) scale - the reclamation of man's handiwork by the natural world.
The Bulb’s origins are a striking lesson in how painfully ignorant people used to be – actually right up to 1983! – when it came to dumping in (on) the environment. (I know, what we can’t recycle, we just export to the floating garbage barges, Third World countries or try to bury it deep in underground chambers or someday we’ll blast it into outer space.) By the middle of the last century, the peninsula had begun to form out of 2000 acres of dumped landfill along the once-pristine shoreline. In 1963, it began to take on its terraformed bulb shape when a contract was signed by the city of Albany and the Santa Fe Railroad Company to allow for disposal of landscape wastes and construction debris from building and various freeway projects. Imagine the mindset of people in charge who said, “Hey, this is the price of development, this is the cost of progress. We’ve got to put this stuff somewhere, so why not fill in land on that unsightly Albany waterfront - nothing's there anyway - and who's going to bleat about it - and we can take all the hazardous excreta – concretized rebar, toxic wood and metal – and create an environment that previously didn’t exist of unstable rubble piles, unsafe structures, and protruding rebar.” Maybe out of mind, but not quite out of sight. The homeless had other ideas, as did environmental activists, who finally put shut of the dumping just 26 years ago.
Build it – ignore it – and they will come. Which is what happened, and I don’t mean just the birds and the bees. In droves, they sought refuge amid the nooks and crannies and hollows, now overrun by thickets, tall weeds, and fast growing tree cover. Drawn to the paradoxical beauty amidst the trashed out ugliness, they set up tents, formed communes under tarps, built a bum’s paradise. Turns out, they had a pretty nice thing going – sure beats crashing in abandoned storefront foyers or under piss-stained freeway overpasses. With their million dollar views and rustic sanctuary hide-outs, these new urban sedentary hobos lived peacefully until, for some reason – well, you know, you can’t just let anarchy rear its ugly head and run wild – the Albany policy raided the encampments in the late nineties and ran everyone out, and then did it again a few years later. “Camping is illegal in the city of Albany,” went the refrain uttered by the Authorities. Taking backhoes and causing tremendous damage to an already fragile but recovering ecosystem, the city spent $15,000 of taxpayer money rooting out the seedy elements. With time, and the help of a dedicated lawyer (one of the activist artists and advocates for preserving the anarchic status quo) – Osha Neumann - the homeless migrations to the Bulb resumed. Today, an uneasy truce remains, and since the land became incorporated into a new state park – Eastshore State Park (managed by the East Bay Regional Park District and still owned by the city of Albany) – it’s uncertain how the “homeless problem” will be dealt with.
I prefer not to think of them as homeless. This IS their home, so how does that make it any less a home? They’re happy to be here. They’d rather – sometimes I think I’D rather – live free than die (emotionally) in some stuffy rule-laden shelter in a gritty part of town. These people – mostly men – are society’s outcasts and, as with all vicious cycles of poverty, it’s hard to escape the beating-down grind, so why not turn it on its head and seek out the freedom an indigent lifestyle can offer – no mortgages, no bills, no car payments, no consumerism and wasteful spending, no job, nothing to do but sit and dream and create art and tell stories around campfires at night, whilst surrounded by butterflies, birds, pretty plants and flowers, and those million dollar views by day. These guys are very resourceful people who have consciously chosen to “camp out for life”. A better moniker for them would be – not squatters, not homeless – but settlers. Let them settle! As John Prine wrote, they ain't hurtin' no one.
On a recent spin around the Bulb, I follow little pathways veering off the main trail and run into a few of the encampments and engage a couple of the guys. Looking around, I get the sense of their efforts to lead regular, orderly lives – their living spaces - at least this one - is not messy. I'm surprised at how clean and organized things are kept. I asked them how long they lived there, do they like it, are there troubles with the law or unseemly elements, how do they stay clean, where do they get their food. One dude, who calls himself Dodger, tells me as long as the troublemakers – the drunks and drug users - stay away, things are copasetic. Seems to me to be a self-policing thing going on. Generally, these guys are just trying to survive in the best way they know how – living on (not off) the land, running odd jobs in the city, recycling. I think their collective attitude about living out of doors and not in some stuffy construct, some square edifice, is best summed up by a legendary (now deceased) homeless fellow named Jean Paul, profiled in the award-winning documentary, “Bum’s Paradise” -- "The only box they’ve got for me is the grave, 'cause I’m not getting into any other kind of box.”
Heading out the trail from the beach you begin a short adventure into the bowels of a unique landscape – the blue waters of the bay slapping its foamy lap against a shoreline of spray painted rock and Rubik's cubes of rubble; expansive views into infinity prevail every which way. A small ridgeline opposite evidences much debris, now transformed into muted objets d’art or wildly colorful graffiti or painted with murals. Rounding a bend, heading out along a yellow brick road paved with zig-zaggy stepping stones, the view out toward San Francisco is surreal, the iconic city floating on a bed of illusory jewels in the rarefied air. To the north, the Golden Gate Bridge connects to the rugged headlands of Marin County in its fabled orange span which carries thousands of cars and bikers and pedestrians across the strait over 200 feet above the water.
Along the way, any number of fascinating displays of art capture your attention and give pause for stopping to admire, scratch your head, wonder and muse over. At the tip of the Bulb, a section of rock fill continues in a square pattern out into the bay, creating a lagoon. I’ve lost myself in time out there, lulled into meditative stupors of mindless reverie, staring at the edge of the world, gazing into the glittering, gently undulating water breathing like an aqueous beast in labored sleep - with that gorgeous west bay landscape of Mt. Tamalpais, the Headlands, and the City framing the backdrop like a mirage of some fairytalish place.
Continuing up a ragged pathway, the trails lead to various cul-de-sacs, offering up more gorgeous views and odds and ends of artistic expression hidden here and there. A tree decorated with hubcaps or shoes. Styrofoam flotsam sculpted into a boat. Mona Lisa painted on a rock. Bizarre death masks hanging from a branch. A painting on a corrugated strip of tin that could be in the MOMA were it not lying here “discarded” and unheralded. In the midst of a large open area, a deep pit is scoured out that looks like the ruinous foundation of a big building – now ringed with twisted and rusted coils of baled wire, jangles of rebar, heaps of haphazardly stacked concrete, trash, junk, detritus, flotsam and jetsam of a phantom structure – and somehow all looking like an inglorious ginormous creation of some mad industrial artiste. Indeed, a goodly portion of the art and sculpture found at the Bulb was created by a collective of “guerrilla artists” named Sniff, whose works, according to the albanybulb.com website, recall “Diego Rivera, Thomas Hart Benton and George Grosz all at once. A concoction of bawdy circus art, Mexican folk art and graffiti 'lowbrow' art styles, all mixed into one.” (Much of the artwork has disappeared or been removed over the years - see this link for some images of Sniff and other anonymous art that no longer exists: http://acme.com/jef/photos/bulb.html)
A tall pine tree grows on a nearby bluff, and atop a bony snag of a branch a red-tailed hawk perches, cocking its head up and down, to the side, then ruffling it feathers while gazing down from on high for a mousy morsel. A gang of ravens fly from tree to tree, cawing raucously and playing. A rabbit scurries for cover under brush, while squirrels, rodents and other birds are frequently spotted. Snakes and lizards are the reptile kings around here. Down on the north edge, several tall sculptures of fantastical figures, don Quixote-like, or Norse God-like, reign over the landscape. A father and his two boys are fishing. A snowy egrets stalks something silently on wobbly stilt legs across the way in shallow water. It’s hard to believe such a place exists so close to a mega-freeway, industrial neighborhoods, the big city that somehow has been kept at bay from this wonder of bay wonders.
What's to become of the Bulb, of the art, of the settlers? The Eastshore State Park Plan, adopted in 2002, designates the Bulb as “Conservation” and contains policies to protect and enhance habitat for wildlife and make improvements for better public access by removing so-called hazards (and other unsightly elements). I interpret this to mean clear out the junk, evict the settlers, banish the art, forbid any and all such activities, and turn the place into a sanitized, family-safe cookie-cutter park destination. Such a pity if that is the vision, such a waste if that is its fate - there are plenty of such places in the Bay Area. But by trying to "enhance" the Bulb, we will have then wrung the charm from it, destroyed its surreal, gritty, out-of-the-box appeal, denied a safe haven for people in need of living quarters, and flipped the bird to a great experiment in art, anarchy and freedom of self-expression. I say let the Bulb be. Let the Bulb remain as a monument to our creative and compassionate present. Let the Bulb exist as a living relic to remind us of our past misdeeds. Let the Bulb endure as a powerful symbol and reminder of our future, of what may come to someday pass. Let the Bulb be.