Eviction day nears for the homeless inhabitants of a colorful stretch of shoreline in Albany that nature lovers want cleared
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."
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."
Neumann said he worked unsuccessfully with the people living at the Bulb in fighting the 1999 eviction, telling the Guardian, "People were unorganized and it felt hopeless and despairing."
Neumann said little has changed. The Bulb remained the same, a landfill, albeit without a regular crew of humans living on it. In 2002 the planning of the Eastshore State Park moved ahead, and Neumann, not content to let the Bulb become homogenized, formed the group Let It Be, advocating to keep the "wildness" of the space. It didn't go over well, and plans moved forward to clear the plateau of its coyote bush, in an area directly north of the racetrack, and fill it in with dirt.
Norman Laforce, who chairs the Sierra Club's East Bay Shoreline Park Task Force and East Bay Public Lands Committee, has been involved in the planning since its creation. He says hundreds of people worked to make the park possible. He believes that because the city of Albany did not engage in strict enforcement of illegally camping after 1999, it was ripe to be occupied again. And it was.
The city of Albany handed over the deed of the park to the state park system, and the cap and seal order from the Regional Water Board — which stated that the area was clear of any hazardous waste leaching into the bay — was lifted in 2005. Over time, the Bulb's current 64 residents sought refuge there, about the same number of people who were forced to leave in 1999.
Of those, at least 36 residents don't have any regular income, while those who do rely mostly on government programs such as Supplemental Security Income. Laforce and Neumann may not agree on much, but both understand the impending enforcement of the no-camping policy to be a new chapter in the Bulb's story.
As Neumann makes his way to one of the resident campsites, he stops to take in the view. It's an unrivaled panoramic portrait of the San Francisco skyline against the glittering bay. He shakes his head when I ask him about the people who oppose campers at the Bulb.
"I think there is a small group of people who are committed to kicking people out of here," he said.
"Our position has been that the Albany Bulb is a part of the McLaughlin East Shore State Park and is not to be privatized," Laforce said of the Sierra Club's view. "We fully support the removal of the illegal campers that are currently out there."
The Sierra Club and the Citizens for East Bay Parks cite safety concerns as a reason the campers need to leave.
"I was attacked by somebody's pit bull," Cheasty said. "It's happening regularly out there. It's the antithesis of open space and public land."
The city of Albany, hesitant at first to ruffle feathers, now supports the removal of campers. "The City Council is working to achieve the Strategic Plan Goals, adopted in 2012," said Albany City Clerk Nicole Almaguer in an email." The goals include maximizing park and open space for all members of the community."
Almaguer noted that the Albany City Council retained the services of Berkeley Food and Housing Project with a $60,000 contract to conduct outreach and engagement services to the city's homeless, and voted unanimously to extend this agreement to help the campers at the Bulb.
But she made it clear that once October arrives, the people will need to leave. They will receive verbal and written warnings if they don't. (A camping violation generally amounts to $161 in fines, according to one of the Bulb campers.) One of the major problems, both Laforce and Cheasty say, is that some of the campers don't want BFHP's or the city's help.
They just want to stay on the Bulb.
Neumann introduces me to three-year resident Katherine Cody, or KC. With pink hair and a wide smile, she seems younger than her 60 years. She babies her shih tzu Eva and makes beaded jewelry. Before living in a tent at the Bulb, she lived in her van. One of the perks to living at the Bulb, she explained, is seeing dolphins swimming in the bay, and watching the 50 to 100 hummingbirds nest in the tree above her tent every year.
KC's past isn't so idyllic. She said she was stabbed 20 years ago and the traumatic experience of yelling for help to no avail made her grateful to find a place like the Bulb.
"I am terminally ill," she said on a recent afternoon, "So I need a lot of help sometimes, and without my having to ask or go begging door to door, my neighbors show up."
After losing a lot of blood from the stabbing, Cody contracted Hepatitis C from a blood transfusion. Despite its rough exterior, KC and other residents argue that their neighborhood at the Bulb is not any more conducive to drug addiction or infighting than any other neighborhood or town.
"They are not capable of doing this job," KC said of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project's efforts. "It's ridiculous to expect in that time span to be able to get the job done. It's just long enough to make it look like they were being kind and not throw us out immediately, but it's not long enough to really do anything."
For Neumann, who has never been homeless himself, watching his friends and people he has known for years struggle to find a place to live makes him want to resist the city's enforcement.
"They are criminalizing the status of being homeless in Albany," Neumann said outside of KC's tent. "Albany doesn't have anything. It doesn't have a shelter, it doesn't have transitional housing, it doesn't have available subsided housing, doesn't have any services. Nothing. Zero."
Neumann and some of the Bulb campers claim that police from surrounding jurisdictions told many homeless people, forced to leave their encampments in other areas, to go to the Bulb. Albany Police deny the charge, with a spokesperson telling us, "the Albany Police Department did not/does not have a policy of instructing homeless people to relocate to the Bulb."
Nonetheless, Neumann says, "For a long while, this was Albany's homeless shelter."
Amber Lynn Whitson, 32, said that she will celebrate her seventh year living at the Bulb on Oct. 31, if she is able to stay. But she is one of the few inhabitants, she said, who is actually preparing to leave.
"Me and my boyfriend have gotten rid of almost everything we own," she said between cigarettes. Whitson said she came to stay at the Bulb after moving around a lot.
"It's so nice here," she laughed. "When you have been kicked around from place to place and told you don't belong here, you don't belong there, it's so refreshing to be told by the local authorities you belong there."
Whitson said she isn't sure where she will go after the no-camping policy is enforced. She is sure though, that the fight to resist will continue.
"This won't be over in October," she said. "Even if we are out, it won't be over in October."
After we speak with some of the residents, Neumann and I part ways. Before he leaves, he encourages me to take a look around, meet people, and enjoy the art.
Along with the people residing at the Bulb, the art has become a major sticking point surrounding what the Bulb is and what it could be. Cheasty, while not wanting the people to stay, personally doesn't see the harm in keeping the art intact. In contrast, Laforce believes that part of making the Bulb into a "usable" park requires the removal of the art.
But many people want it to stay. An activist group known as Friends of the Bulb organized a concert with Santa Cruz band Blackbird RAUM at the Bulb for Sept. 28, hoping to draw a large crowd to resist the city's efforts to remove the campers, and discuss the future of the Bulb.
"We hope it will bring people that live on the Bulb and those that use it to enjoy it together, because who knows how much longer it's going to be there," said Doug Gilbert, one of the event's organizers.
Gilbert said the group started out of the necessity to answer the question of who will control the space: "There are two fundamentally different world views. Those that use the space are the ones in control of it, and those who are truly privatizing it, by deciding who can go there, if the dogs have to be leashed, if the art will stay."
In the coming month, Laforce said the Sierra Club will continue to support the city's efforts to relocate the people living there.
"The Albany Bulb is not going to be the homeless solution to the East Bay," he said. "It's not just some wasteland."
Neumann, for his own part, remains skeptical about what will actually take place in October, but he's certain that, from now on, things at the Bulb will be different. "They do not want to have a repeat of what happened in '99," he said before he left for the day. "And that will be the end of this incredible experiment."