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September 25, 2007

Albany Bulb

The Albany Bulb is a spit of land--landfill, actually--that juts into San Francisco Bay just north of the Berkeley Marina and just south of the big blue Richmond Costco. If you stand in the right place and say a prayer to the four directions, you'll bless hills, sea, city, mountains, grass, bridges, tidepools, sky, and a haphazard collection of organic art, built from the concrete pilings, rebar, scrap metal, driftwood, and boat wood of the place itself.


I first read about the Bulb in a magazine that featured a short article and several pages of full-color photos highlighting a selection of attractions found in this accidental art park. Once a hobocamp community, the Bulb was cleared of its human residents in 1999, shortly after it was unofficially adopted by a collective of painters, sculptors, builders, and found-art visionaries--hippies and fringe citizens still, but with a warm place to go at night is all.


The first time I went out there--probably spring of 2002--I was blown away. Still a small-town girl not used to the gritty type of big-city urban nature, I was enchanted by the wildness and weirdness of this place, and also glad that, despite its dead-end trails and grasses so tall they bent overhead, I still felt safe wandering its meandering pathways. By "safe" I don't include the time I stomped through some brush to investigate what looked like the roof of a thatch hut and was told later by my hiking partner that a huge snake had traversed my trail just inches behind. Or the time we stayed past sunset without flashlights and got caught in a drizzle on a dark, steep, muddy bank that was the only way out.


The last time I was out there was when Simon and I had first started dating. Wanting to show him what I was made of, we trekked into the pseudo-wilderness and spent a gray afternoon conquering boulder after boulder, holding our breaths as we rounded blind curves in the thicket, and judging each other by how much we got turned on by the unexpected juxtaposition of rhinestone necklaces strung in the branches of dying oaks (very very), and by the PG-13 nightmare that is freaky sculptures built of hubcaps, decapitated babydolls, and spraypaint (very, in a different way).


Last Sunday, Emily and Dan were in town again, and they wanted to go somewhere photogenic. Simon suggested the Bulb, not knowing that last weekend was its apocalypse. On Saturday, police had warned people to clear out or else; the bulldozers would be crawling by Monday morning.


In the place known as the Amphitheater--a dirt clearing ringed with structures of the hubcap, doll head, spraypaint genre--a circle of neo-hippies (unkempt-but-clean dredlocked twentysomethings quite upset with The Man but still living off their parents) had set up a tent (last-season REI) in front of a campfire. It was from them we overheard the news that the city's plans to turn the land into a soccer field or a ballpark were finally, after many years of debate, moving in to Phase I this week. "Are you guys camping tonight, to say goodbye to the Bulb?" they asked the foul-mouthed fourth-graders who were skating in a concrete bowl--a new addition since I'd been there last. This was the first the kids had heard of the threat. The older kids encouraged the youngers ones to come out on Monday to protest. They had school, they said.


On another trail through tall, summer-baked grasses, I saw a sign--paint on driftwood--reading "Caution." Looming beyond, a structure looking not unlike a hobocamp. I would have turned around right there save for a voice calling out, "Welcome! Come in! Check this place out; it might not be here tomorrow." What we'd found was a free library, built up over the last year against a lopsided tree and stocked with everything you'd expect from a free library built against a lopsided tree on the backside of an old landfill. I took lots of pictures to keep my heart from breaking.





I led a tour the perimeter of the site, checking out the main strutures, trying to remember what had sprung up or disappeared during my prolonged absence. Occasionally I rememberd to look up at San Francisco, hazy in the distance, just a few miles away from this alternate world. We tightroped our way across a string of wobbly rocks, said hi to every off-leash dog we passed, smiled at their owners/charmers. It was hot and muggy and we needed lunch and a sit-down. One of the last pictures I took on the Bulb proper was a crane made of rusty farm tools--handsaws for wings, a rake for a breast. Lying on the ground, it looked like it might be about five feet tall if stood on its window-frame legs and shovelhead feet, and for a moment I considered righting it, jamming its flat toes into the dirt deeper than the wind was strong. Then I thought of the bulldozers, stronger than the wind is old, and just left it there, a casualty.


More (unprocessed but better-quality) pictures of this spectacular and doomed place here.



This was an amazing post, Leah!! Are they REALLY turning that place into a soccer field? Tragic.

after viewing your flickr gallery it makes me even more sad to think they are destroying all of that. people just cant appreciate small treasures...and i'm sure it's a huge treasure to those that have invested time into making it what it is.

Gosh, that just breaks my heart. I never knew a place like that existed and to think... it's just going to be yet another field. Thanks for sharing, Leah.

what a fascinating slice of human nature!

Such intimate photos, Leah. A look into the life of a sqautters village that has so much history. All your photography is beautiful, but this set is moving.

How incredibly sad. I'm pretty sure a soccer/baseball field could be built somewhere else, without the need to destroy something so... awesome.

You did an amazing job of capturing the feel of the place. Those photos are beautiful and sad.

Wow. That's incredible. It's a shame it's going to be taken away.

These photos kill me. I am floored each time I set aside my work to stare at them.

They are not turning it into anything. The soccer fields project has been moved 1/2 mile to the south, around Gilman street and in exchange, the bulb will become a habitat for the burrowing owl and open space for people like you and me. It is an old, retired landfill, unsuitable for any other purpose. They are simply telling the people who are illegally squatting/living there that they have to leave.

Leah - I was just reading your Albany Bulb post to my husband, and it brought back a flood of memories from when he lived near there and went by it every day on the way to work/school - back in the 70's.

Apparently there were a lot more items of artwork there at the time. I didn't move to the Bay Area until 1985, so I have never seen it, but enjoyed your Flickr pictures of the area.


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