USA: Albany Bulb – A Squat at the End of the World

“It’s fucked up,” says Gio, a resident of the Albany Bulb [previously here]. We’re standing in the middle of what used to be a multi-room home on top of a hill, surrounded by rocks and debris. Not a shelter, not a place where a tent was, but a home. In the last several days, city work crews in the town of Albany, just north of Berkeley, California, have come into the former squatter encampment of several decades and torn down the shelters. The ‘Bulb’ is a former landfill-turned-squatter community, rebel artist enclave, and autonomous zone.

Gio, myself, and my good friend ‘Robert’ — part of a small group of anarchists who have being staying on the Bulb in an attempt to keep police from evicting the few remaining residents — are touring the area. In the last several months, Bulb residents and community members have built barricades, staged camp-outs, hosted guerrilla concerts, organized marches and demonstrations outside the homes of politicians and organizations like the Sierra Club, who are pushing for the closure of the Bulb. In just the 20 minutes I’ve been here, I’ve already run into the police officer charged with running residents and those defending the space off the land. He threatens to take Robert’s tent down if it’s not gone by tomorrow; I take a picture of him and he points to a video camera on his uniform. “Go ahead, I’m filming too,” he states coyly. For Robert and myself, the walk with Gio is an eye-opening experience, but for him, it’s only a reminder of a community that used to exist here.

As we pass by various campsites, we see the areas in which former residents made their homes for several years. We find not just patches of cleared underbrush, but also walkways and former living rooms. We come to a horseshoe pit, where children and adults used to play, close to a large encampment of dwellings. Next to that is an area where free clothing used to be distributed. Gio gives us a history lesson on each residence, the background of the person that used to live there and their story; he knows everyone.

“I used to have a good job, a lot of people out here [did]” he tells us, pausing for a moment and opening up in a moment of vulnerability. Several days ago when Robert and myself came to his house with another Bulb resident he was short and dismissive. Now, we share a bag of M&M’s and talk about music before going on our history tour. “I was a lobotomist. Then one day…” He goes on to tell us that he had a breakdown after finding out some devastating news regarding his family. After that, Gio, an African-American man in his late 40’s, couldn’t work, he couldn’t pay his bills, and didn’t answer his phone. Soon, he found himself homeless. Eventually, Gio made his way to the Albany Bulb.

The history of the Bulb is as interesting as the people that have called it home. Amber Whitson, a long-term resident of the Albany Bulb and one of the most prominent organizers of its defense, wrote in Street Spirit about the history of the landfill. It was “created on the Albany shoreline in 1963 when the City of Albany signed a contract with the Sante Fe Railroad Company, ‘For the purpose of creating usable land.’ Until 1975, the operators of the Albany Landfill accepted all types of garbage […] but the landfill was intended for ‘demolition debris’ and over time, the earlier garbage was buried under tons of concrete rubble, rebar, [and] wire.” Dumping at the Bulb continued until, as Amber states, “[a] multitude of environmental groups sued until the operation was finally shut down in 1983. In 1985, Albany [gave] the entire landfill property to the State of California for free. However, once the landfill was shut down in 1983, nobody ever actually did anything with the land, not even those who had fought so hard to preserve it. Nobody, that is, until artists, anarchists and previously homeless individuals, who made homes for themselves on the Albany Bulb, gradually beautified and improved the ‘uncapped’ surface.”

In the 90s, fueled by displacement brought on by the dot-com boom in San Francisco and a lack of homeless services, people began to squat the area, creating homes and entire neighborhoods. As Chris Thompson wrote in the East Bay Express of May 28th, 1999:

[A]round 1993, a […] small group of squatters moved in and erected a tent city among the weeds and ten-year-old saplings. Pioneered by young punkers and urban deep ecology anarchists, a settlement slowly grew. For a time, dog-walking locals strode past this scattered collection of isolated shanties deliberately constructed to blend in with the environment and never knew it. Everyone had an acre of peaceful open space to themselves, living a strangely rural existence surrounded by the stunning vistas of an urban metropolis.

The space also began to be used by a variety of artists, from graffiti writers like the collective SNIFF, to local sculptors. The most prolific is Osha Nuemann, a former member of the 60s “anarchist street gang with analysis,” Up Against the Wall Mother-Fucker. Osha, along with his son-in-law, created massive sculptures made out of debris from the landfill that have become synonymous with the Bulb. Osha described his work as, “Art coming out of nature, without having to look over its shoulder and ask permission.” Osha also works as a lawyer and has been one of the main people defending those targeted for removal by the city and police. Community members also used the space in great numbers and the Bulb (which has beach access) became known as a safe place to walk dogs off-leash without fear of being ticketed. People also created various facets of infrastructure on the Bulb, such as an amphitheater (which hosted concerts, punk shows, and out-door raves), a library, a skate park (which was destroyed by the city), and a castle made out of shopping carts and quick-crete. Much like People’s Park in Berkeley, the Albany Bulb was “user-controlled” and maintained.