Election Section

From Trash to Art: The Albany Landfill

By Lydia Gans, Special to the Planet
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 11:08:00 AM

“Let it be, let it be.” Those familiar words echo the sentiments of the scores of people who frequent the Albany landfill—artists, bird watchers, naturalists, people who like to let their dogs run free, to have parties or to sit quietly and enjoy the fine view of the bay. And there are the people who call it home. Some of them actually lived there in camps they built for themselves when they were homeless, and though they are now housed or camping somewhere else they often come back, drawn by the special magic of the place.  

Most people know the history of the landfill—it’s been in the news on and off for the last 10 years. North of the racetrack at the western end of Buchanan Street, it grew up out of the bay over years of dumping construction debris, garbage and landscaping materials. Beyond the parking lot formed a narrow strip of land ending in a big, wild park called The Bulb. Plants grew between the chunks of concrete, bricks, metal and rebar. And homeless people settled in, using dumped materials to make shelters. People who weren’t homeless but like the scene came too, and planted flowers and created art from the junk.  

In 1999 the City of Albany officially declared it to be a park and proceeded to remove the people camped there. They sent in police to harass the squatters, and bulldozers to flatten any structures and belongings they had left behind. Homeless advocates came to the defense of the squatters, and lawyers pointed out that the city could not legally displace homeless people unless they could provide shelters for them. Albany did not have shelters then, and still has none. Most of the Bay Area newspapers covered the story for a while, then lost interest.  

But the park was not abandoned. Indeed, it’s flourishing. More people are coming from all walks of life and of all ages. In spite of park rules, off-leash dogs cavort, junk is formed into massive art pieces, all sorts of structures are built, and a few homeless people sometimes camp there.  

At the Bulb one day we met Andy and Jimbow. Andy is young and idealistic, believes in working together and giving back to the community. Jimbow is an oldtimer on the landfill, calls himself an O.G. (Old Guy?). He’s had some hard times and dreads another cold winter outdoors.  

Together they created The Library. They started two years ago, building it out of pieces of wood from sunken boats. They called it the Hobo Boat Shack and dedicated it to “all the homeless people who have passed on.” Andy says, “When we built it we always said it would be for everybody, for the world. ... We built it for Jimbo to live in (but) from the beginning I always had books in this corner, I always knew I wanted to build a library in addition to building Jimbo’s house.” People have donated hundreds of books to the library. Anyone is free to borrow books. There are no fines for books returned late or not returned at all. More books are being donated all the time. There is a guest log which more than 300 visitors have signed—even a police officer out there presumably to issue a citation for an illegal building.  

In spite of the friendly relations among all the park users, the city carries on a continuous campaign to harass the poor for whom the park is home. Andy reports that the police “are patrolling, checking on people, asking questions ... really snooping, asking people to snitch on each other.” They’ve given tickets to people for “occupying an illegal structure” and for “hanging things from trees.” “What it has done is thrown people living out there into a kind of turmoil, a state of constant anxiety,” noted attorney, writer and artist Osha Neumann, “because you never know when the police are going to come dropping into your campsite.” 

City crews periodically come through with bulldozers, clearing wide swaths of land without regard to the ecological damage they are causing. Invasive fennel is growing where once bloomed flowers and beautiful acacia trees. Jimbow mourns the uprooting of the coyote bushes that attracted monarch butterflies. Besides people’s campsites, other structures that people made have also been destroyed. Andy tells of a beautiful bridge they built over a gully making it safer to get across. He was touched by an older woman who thanked them for the bridge “which gave her a new place to explore,” she said. The bulldozers knocked it down. And there was the amazing skateboard ramp, constructed almost entirely out of broken concrete and junk found on the site. Only a few bags of cement were brought from outside to put a smooth surface on it. Kids were coming out from town to skateboard, and one day there was even a crew filming a movie on the scene. It too, was destroyed. The mother of a teenager commented that the city officials “seem to think that kids are better off sitting at home playing video games.”  

With all that, the “family” of people for whom the Albany Landfill is home will continue to care for the place, to pick up the trash, to build and create art from the junk that they find there, to plant trees and carry in water to sustain them. People from town will continue to come out to run their dogs, to walk or meditate or party. Visitors will come and tell their friends. “Albany should be proud, there’s nothing like it on the planet,” Andy declares.  

It’s a wonderful place to spend a day, or an evening, or even longer.