On a sunny September afternoon, Osha Neumann slowly walks onto the dirt path leading to the Albany Bulb, using a walking stick for balance against the pebbles. With a white beard and lanky frame, the 74-year-old artist and attorney is no stranger to this landfill turned art space turned homeless encampment that juts out of the East Bay shoreline near the Berkeley Marina and the Golden Gate Fields racetrack.
Neumann has been coming for more than a decade, with his son-in-law Jason DeAntonis to build driftwood sculptures, and as an attorney fighting for the rights of the homeless who live on the 31-acre plot. He's witnessed its evolution from rubble-filled no man's land to one of the last undeveloped stretches of open shoreline in the Bay Area.
"The Bulb has been a refuge, a solace, a place of inspiration," he said. "It's a place where I can get off the grid and live in this wonderful, successful, fruitful anarchy. I came to really love this place."
But the Albany Bulb is now facing another transition point in its evolution, one that pits nature lovers and city officials against those who have call this strange stretch of shoreline "home."
TRASH TO TREASURE
The Albany Bulb is a radical space of massive debris sculptures and structures, huge concrete slabs of graffiti, tents and tree houses, and artifacts from wreckage that, incorporated into the natural landscape of acacia and eucalyptus trees, is a unique and beloved slice of land symbolizing the free spirit of the region.
It's where sparrows and other birds come to nest, and where dog walkers take dirt paths to the water's edge. It's also a space that major organizations such as the East Bay Regional Parks District, the Sierra Club, Save the Bay, the state park system, and the city of Albany have all fought for decades to preserve, with the idea that humans should not be allowed to live there. And in October, due to the enforcement of a no-camping policy approved on May 6 by the Albany City Council, the people living at the Albany Bulb will have to tear down their makeshift homes and say goodbye permanently.
"This has been in the works for 40 years," said Robert Cheasty, a former Albany mayor and the current president of Citizens for East Bay Parks.
The Bulb became a part of the Eastshore State Park, a stretch of land with a trail along the East Bay shoreline that connects Oakland to Richmond, in the mid 1980s. And with the proclamation of a park came the people. Cheasty has become one of the most outspoken critics of people occupying the Bulb.
"It cannot be allowed to be privatized by any group or person," he said.
It's an argument that's been made many times over the years, but now it seems to be on the verge of coming true.
The first people living in the Bulb came to take up residence after the eviction of the homeless campers from People's Park in Berkeley in the mid '90s. Before that, it was used as a landfill for BART and highway construction materials.
Nature inevitably took over, and much of the debris has been moved to certain areas within the park. Some of the first residents were immortalized in the documentary film Bum's Paradise, where they lived in harmony with four artists known as Sniff, whose paintings and sculptures came to beautify the unconventional living space. In 1999, the first major eviction took place.
"Then, as now, the city provided them no place to go," Neumann said. "People just scattered with no place to go, into the surrounding jurisdictions primarily."