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Welcome to the Albany Bulb

By Lydia Gans
Tuesday August 21, 2007

It used to be called the Albany Landfill, now it’s the Albany Waterfront Park. It’s at the end of Buchanan Street just north of Golden Gate Fields. It starts with a level scrub-covered plateau across from the parking lot. From there you walk up to a narrow strip of land jutting out into the water called the Neck. This is the beginning of the Albany Waterfront Trail. 

There’s a sign announcing that the California State Park system and the East Bay Regional Park require that dogs be kept on leash. The sign is hanging upside down. Off-leash dogs are an issue in the park. As are art works, and structures. And people—who they are and what they do and when they can be there. 

Beyond the sign you can take the lower trail along the water’s edge or the upper trail. Here there is a profusion of shrubs, trees, wildflowers that come and go with the seasons—and the periodic action of a bulldozer. At the end of the neck the trails merge and the land bulges out into the Bulb.  

Years ago the city of Albany negotiated a lease granting the Bulb to the California State Park system to be part of the East Bay Regional Park. The trouble is, the state doesn’t want it. There are rules and conditions which a state park has to conform to in order to be part of the system, things like no camping, no art, no off-leash dogs. 

The Bulb has a short but turbulent history. It started as a dump site for construction debris and for a time garbage and landscaping debris were trucked in. When that all stopped in 1983, a chunk of land had been created, sprouting flowers and grasses and bushes—“native” plants and “invasive species”—and even fruit trees, punctuated with twisted masses of rebar, broken concrete and all sorts of other construction materials. With the vegetation came wildlife, snakes and lizards, rabbits, squirrels, possum, and scores of birds. And soon, in spite of a fence around the place, came people.  

Homeless folks who had been camping along the railroad tracks and under freeways were drawn to this lush piece of land with the inspiring view where they could set up their own secluded little hideouts and live in relative tranquility. They built themselves shelters and created works of art out of the rubble and flotsam around them.  

Some were loners, others formed little “families.” To be sure, it wasn’t a utopia. There were the troublesome folks, the drunks or tweakers or speed freaks, alcohol and other kinds of addicts, the mentally or emotionally twisted running from the law—or sometimes pushed there by the law to keep them off the streets. But for the most part nobody bothered anyone. It was a safe place to stay or just to visit. No one knows how many people were camped there but estimates ranged up to half a hundred or even more.  

It ended in 1999. The city of Albany declared the site a park and sent police to remove the people who were camping there. They also sent bulldozers in to remove the makeshift shelters and belongings the squatters had left and, for good measure, to flatten much of the lush vegetation. There was a token attempt to find shelter for the homeless folks but they soon scattered.  

Some of their story is told in a movie, Bum’s Paradise, made at the time by film makers Thomas McCabe and Andrei Rozen with assistance from, and starring, Robert “Rabbit” Barringer, long-time denizen of the Bulb. It can be rented from Elephant Pharmacy in Berkeley for a dollar. 

The squatters are gone, but a few of them, though not allowed to camp, spend much of their time there and feel a deep connection with the place. Rabbit is one of them. I’ve walked with him up and down the many trails in the Bulb and his love for the place is contagious. Like a gracious host, he greets the visitors along the way. He knows the trees and flowers and animals and birds. Jimbow, another long-timer on the Bulb, joins us and points to the hummingbird sitting on the big tree, the red-tailed hawk soaring overhead. 

There are also the “dog people,” parents and grandparents with their kids who come to let their dogs run free. Even people who don’t have dogs come for the pleasure of watching those animals romping around with their tongues slobbering and their tails wagging happily.  

And there are the artists. The SNIFF collective that lined the path along the north shore with weird, intricate paintings on panels of driftwood seems to have disbanded and the paintings are fading. Art works are vandalized by people or by the elements and wonderful new creations appear. Fantastic creatures of scrap metal, glittering mobiles, a styrofoam arch. Osha Neumann’s monumental figure standing at the foot of the trail to the northern beach is awesome.  

Structures have been created out of broken concrete and rebar and decorated with found junk. There is the amphitheater where young people and counterculture types looking for a temporary escape from convention gather at night to party and carry on their own magical rituals. From Mad Mark’s castle you can sit and enjoy a gorgeous view of the Bay. Another amazing construction has just been completed. A group of truly motivated folks have managed to bring in a cement mixer and a huge number of bags of cement to create a smooth, elegantly curved surface for skateboarding. 

The Bulb is not the kind of park defined by park system rules. The dictionary defines a park as “a tract of land set aside for public use.” Clearly a large and diverse public uses it, people for whom it is a place to escape, a constant source of new surprises.  

It’s interesting to recall that this unique place was first discovered and settled by a bunch of homeless “bums.” And it didn’t really capture the attention of the public until the “bums” were thrown out. 


Photograph by Lydia Gans. 

Osha Neumann’s monumental figure at the foot of the trail to the northern beach.