Life On The Bulb

What happens when everybody wants a piece of the last good place on earth?

By Gabe Crane
(Eisenberg Literary Journalism Fellowship, Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, 2006-2007)

Built upon the mudflats of Albany, a tiny town to the direct north of Berkeley, California, the Albany Bulb juts a mile out into the San Francisco Bay, a heap of concrete and mangled rebar, rotting tires, chipped brick, old traffic lights, methane, dug-up and lopped-off earth, and many other, more unexpected things. It was, from 1969 to 1983, part of a larger, ill advised, and ultimately doomed movement to fill in the San Francisco Bay. Since then, due in part to indifference and in part to a lack of funds, it has sat out in the water, settling.

The best way to experience the Bulb is to get lost. Like the dogs running freely around the place, it takes such disorientation to let yourself off-leash. I have stumbled across groups of kids coming down off hallucinogens, and seen fathers building see-saws with their sons. On the northern shore, a group of artists called SNIFF has erected huge paintings on peeling wood. Once, there was an old dresser that someone had set along the path, grass and plants jutting out from the second to bottom drawer. On the side, in white paint, it read, "Excitement, Adventure, and Really Wild Things." While I took a picture, a woman walked by, her dog trotting behind. "I don't know who put that thing there," she said, "But I think it's really cool. I just hope those plants survive."

Everywhere at the Bulb, tiny paths skirt off into the brush. It is unclear whether they have been cleared by animals or man, but after a while, like a Venn diagram un-focusing and running together, it becomes clear that it hardly matters. People love the Bulb. On weekends, the place is packed. There are dog-walkers and dogs; old friends out to catch up; models posing nude for an online porn site, Most tellingly, there was a man I will never see again. He was a middle-aged man of ambiguous ethnicity, who came wheezing around the corner wearing a fanny pack and spandex shorts. He climbed up a stack of abandoned tires, panting and sweating profusely. He nodded hello, and explained in a heavy accent as he searched the landscape, " just way civilization."

In turn, civilization has yet to find its way out to the Bulb. It is an empty space, a space that is ironically, despite its refuse, entirely fresh and new. A landfill that has earned a name, it is a space turned place: a landfill lucky enough to be recycled. In the open nature of that recycling, it is also a space where we could do anything. And ultimately, it holds the story of what we actually decided to do.

The Naturalist

For Patty Donald, the Bulb has become the land. A sprightly woman in her mid-fifties and a self-described naturalist, she is an avid dog walker who visits the Bulb on a weekly basis. She is also on the board of directors for Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP), a central player in the creation of the Eastshore State Park system that runs along the East Bay shoreline from Emeryville up to Richmond, and to which the Bulb was recently assigned. The plan, if the money ever becomes available, is to turn the landfill into a park.

On an overcast day, Patty takes my friend Erik and I out with her dog Tigger on a tour of the place, wearing a thin North Face vest with a Sierra Designs windbreaker cinched around her waist. As we walk past coyote brush and eucalyptus trees, Tigger runs fifteen or twenty feet ahead, off-leash, his nose buried in the plants at the path's edge. The diverse and thriving natural habitat, home to five distinct ecosystems in the shoreline alone (rocky shore, sandy beach, fresh and saltwater marshes, and the original mudflats), is hardly what one would expect to spring from what is, to put it crudely, a dump. "You've got landfill initially," Patty explains, "Mud comes and settles in, plants come and settle in, and before you know it, you've got a shoreline." With over thirty plant species identified along that shoreline alone, a diverse group of trees further inland, and a rich collection of birds and wildlife, it is clear that in spite of the unlikelihood, nature has reclaimed the space.

It has recently rained, and as we maneuver down a precipitous incline on the north side of the peninsula, Patty reassures us that the path we are descending is composed of "the sticky mud, as opposed to the slick kind." She motions to the blueberry bushes on either side. "Of course," she says, "You fall down in the summer, and you just sit down and eat."

When the path levels out, Patty explains that while the blueberries are native, most everything else isn't. The eucalyptus tree, for example, is one of the region's most identifiable, and it blankets the side of Albany Hill, which we can see from our vantage point, shooting up behind us. Yet originally, it is from Australia, arriving during the Gold Rush before thriving in the Bay's mild climate. Although few now know this, the trees on Albany Hill were actually planted, a buffer of sorts for the explosive accidents emanating from an old gunpowder plant that used to operate along the shore. Now, the trees have moved out to the Bulb.

The eucalyptus's complicated background is indicative of a larger trend. Over the forty-odd years that the landfill has existed, an unnatural diversity of foliage and ecosystems has sunk itself into the virgin rubble, and now ninety percent of the Bulb's plant life is non-native. The plan once the landfill is turned over to the park system is to remove the more harmful specimens. But as Patty explains, it's hard to determine what deserves to stay or go when the land itself shouldn't even be there in the first place. Technically, none of these plants belong. Neither does the wildlife, or the migratory birds who use the lagoon at the landfill's west end as a refuge on their flight south. When the land itself cannot be categorized, the categories themselves can break down. As Patty puts it, it becomes a question of, "When does natural begin? When does native begin, and when does it end?"

They are questions that must be asked when considering the Bulb. Rather than fit cleanly into one category or another, "city" or "nature," the landfill is a hybrid of the two. But considering the myriad intersections of nature and man, it is clear that the Bulb is not merely an exception to the rules, but proof that the rules themselves are not as rigid as they first appear. In its raw, half-cooked appearance, its cement rocks and the algae growing from them, the Bulb reveals the interaction of nature and the urban man. But far from being unique, this interaction is the same one that has shaped urban landscapes, the world over. In its busted-open synthesis, its stark portrayal of society's waste alongside nature's perseverance, it could be said that this dump, far from a public eyesore, is full of an altogether more honest beauty.

"This is always an adventure," Patty says, the bushes now crowding the path and brushing against her legs. "There's always a gift waiting around the corner, something you've never seen before in your entire life." Minutes earlier, her point had been confirmed. As we walked along the northern edge of the Bulb, a collection of paintings appeared, lining the path, and we stopped to take them in. A mob scene jutted out at us, a collection of freaks, nymphos, and sea monsters making love in rowboats. Still discernable behind the graffiti, the paintings described a grand anarchy: platinum-blonde women French kissing the devil; two apes holding hands, dressed to the nines; a naked woman cutting her hair with a bright, blue flower. Out by the water, a hipster walked along, taking in huge driftwood sculptures planted along the shoreline, his declarative clothing slowly losing its relevancy.

Patty smiled wryly. "Somehow, if you were planning a park," she said, "I don't think you'd do it this way."

The Artist

Osha Neumann helped make many of those paintings. As it is for Patty, the Bulb has become a place to reclaim, but for Osha, the means and process have been distinctly different. For him, the Bulb has become a studio.

A practicing lawyer, Osha first discovered the place while out to represent one of his clients, Jimbow the Hobo, who along with sixty other "residents," was being evicted from the landfill by the city. By the time the battle was fought and lost and the residents had packed up to leave, Osha had fallen in love.

Eating huevos rancheros in a crowded Berkeley coffeeshop on the corner of Shattuck and Stuart, he wears a green fleece and brightly patterned scarf and tells me about how he came to be the most prolific artist, not of a loft or cafÇ or hip village scene, but of a landfill. As he eats and talks, little bits of food get caught in his beard. "The whole thing was pretty astounding," he says, wiping his fingers on his napkin, "All these homeless encampments with million dollar views. It was easy to get lost on these trails, and some of these structures were pretty elaborate." Before long, he had befriended SNIFF, a group of four artists responsible for the paintings propped with stray driftwood along the landfill's northern shore. Saturday mornings, they would come out with their children and wives and dogs, "the whole scene," as Neumann describes it, and soon he too was tagging along. He was a Swarthmore graduate, a Yale dropout, an older man with white hair and glasses, spending his Saturdays playing with trash in a landfill.

Today, the northern shore of the Bulb is home to several of Osha's works, set among the still young grass and brush growing from the first bluff overlooking the shore. In one, a man made from the decking of an old dock rides an enormous dragon of similar origins, his left hand extended into the air. Beside him, a driftwood philosopher sits with his hands set firmly on his knees, contemplating the water rolling by. At the shoreline, a sheet metal fisherman dangles his chicken-wire rod over a wooden arch large enough for three abreast to walk through. And in his most recent, "The Goddess," a fourteen-foot high woman of decking and rusted sheet metal leans back a head of metal hair and reaches her arms up for the sky.

Yet while the works of Osha and SNIFF are some of the most polished at the Bulb, they are not the only art pieces there, and perhaps not even the most affecting. At the southwest point, the fill's most impressive lookout, a paranoid schizophrenic named "Mad" Mark has built a two-story cement "Castle," complete with parapets, arched window, and spiral stair. Working only by night (for fear that the San Francisco skyscrapers across the Bay are watching him), Mark has painted the structure with the different suits of a card deck, and built the Castle itself in the shape of a heart. From the patio roof, a plaque stares out upon skyscrapers, bridges, ships, ports, oil refineries, engineered islands, universities and freeways, and reads,


Inspired by these larger projects, and in turn inspiration for others, impromptu installations like the "overgrown dresser" are constantly springing up, seemingly organically, from the ground. In one clearing called "The Amphitheater," bursting graffiti compositions tattoo slabs of discarded satellite dish. On a north-facing bluff overlooking the bay, coyote brush and what appear to be old hula-hoops have been fashioned into a sort of shelter that suggests, more than anything, meditation. And at the very end of the rocky shoal that extends out from the site of Osha's sculptures, an old plastic wicker chair has been set facing straight out toward the bay. A few paces in front, a plastic rectangle in the shape of a television is propped several feet above the ground. Sit in the chair and start flipping channels, and every station is the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It's art without restraint," says Osha. "Art coming out of nature, without having to look over its shoulder and ask permission." Part found art, part graffiti, part free love, the art at the Bulb is in constant evolution and mutation: a creative collective with free membership and rotating members. In its anonymity and access, it serves as an open invitation, and one need only look around to see how enthusiastically this invitation has been taken. There is no doubt that the art at the Bulb is capable of inspiring awe. Yet it is awe not of the artist who created it so much as of the possibilities of the artist within.

"I love going out there in the morning, with the ocean, and the birds," Osha says, now finishing his meal and preparing to pay. "And I love making art. So it's this experience. It's this missing part for all of us urban street dwellers. We walk in straight lines, follow this crossword puzzle of streets, stopping at stoplights and going again, surrounded primarily by concrete. You get away from that and you can breathe differently." He pushes back his chair, sighs, says, "For me, it's become my regular meditation," and stands. He is planning on saying hello to some friends up at the university, who are sitting twenty-five feet up in a grove of oak trees to prevent their destruction. He wraps his scarf around his neck, food still caught in his beard, says goodbye and finishes his tea.

The Gardener

Robert "Rabbit" Barringer knows enough about plans to not place too much stock in them. Just like everyone else living at the Bulb, he was forced to vacate his encampment when the city set up its plans to turn the landfill over to the Eastshore State Park in 2001. Two years later, the only sign of the park was an actual one, posted along the road on the drive in, that had artistic renditions of a leaf, a grizzly bear, and a bird and read "A FUTURE SITE OF AN EASTSHORE STATE PARK: A PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF PARKS AND RECREATION AND EAST BAY REGIONAL PARK DISTRICT." With the authorities waffling, Barringer decided he was tired of wandering the train tracks and streets, and he moved back out. Now, four and a half years later, he knows the place better than anyone. For Barringer, the Albany Bulb has become home.

"Folks call me Rabbit," he said upon meeting me by chance in the Amphitheater, "Or they say Cornejo. Or Cornejo Pintejo, the Fucking Rabbit. And I live here in the Albany Landfill. Just outside of the city of Albania. And this is, um...yeah, this is Bum's Paradise. Here we are."

From there, Erik and I were off, trailing along behind Mr. Barringer on the "Rabbit tour." He took us behind a thick hedge of bushes to show us his encampment, the "prop shop," and explained how he was planning to take some old tricycle wheels and a catamaran board and build himself a paddleboat. He explained that there were two rules to living at the Bulb: "The first rule is there are no rules. The second rule is that if you bore me, I might kill you." He explained that he was "just the gardener," that he had built "All the camps up here for the last four and a half years. I've been doing everything up here," he said, "All the landscaping, all the little trails and stuff, all the buildings." He explained that he tries to keep the Bulb's residents on a low profile: "I'm trying to help you to adjust," he said, "So we can live up here forever." He explained that the people he works with, including Castle architect "Mad" Mark, "are all psychopaths." He described the Bulb as "a bombed out city, grown over and post-apocalyptic," and as we walked out toward the Castle, brambles and brush and giant iron beetles cropping up around, he related to us the founding of People's Park in Berkeley, in 1969 ("It just turned into this total melee, right, and the regents at Berkeley, they were calling the governor and they were like, 'we can't control these students,' and he's like 'WHAT?! WHAT?! YOU CAN'T CONTROL YOUR STUDENTS?! WHAT, YOU IDIOT!!!'"). By the end of the tour, we'd become friends.

The next morning, the three of us sit in Rabbit's tent, smoking marijuana. The interior is crowded with art supplies and tiny electronic gadgets, LED lights, Atomic Fireball cases, pipes, seashells, condiments. A stack of books takes up one corner, and taken cumulatively makes up an impressive reading list: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, Phillip Howard's The Death of Common Sense and Hemingway's In Good Time, among a dozen others. It is, in all, the picture of disorganized leisure, and a set-up Rabbit seems to greatly enjoy.

"The fantastic thing," he says, "Is that I don't have the stress of paying the rent on time every month to the landlord, and having to pay my bills and everything. That is so stressful. I did that for thirty years, and I have nothing to show for it." When he lost his old apartment in Oakland, a bad credit rating made finding a new place difficult. Despite his Berkeley undergraduate degree, his search was fruitless, and eventually, Barringer decided it simply wasn't worth the effort. "I knew you could camp out here," he explains. "So I came up in here and found a spot. And I started meeting these people, there were like fifty people up here. And all my priorities started changing."

There is no doubt that few would envy Rabbit's position. He is a displaced man with scraggly, graying hair, who must dumpster dive to survive, whose residence is controlled by a city whose laws he is breaking. He is nearly fifty-five, and has no children. Yet there is something in the way he speaks, in the tranquility of his tone, the thoughtfulness of his silences, that suggests a life of more subtle accomplishment. Sitting there in his tent, he explains why he allows others to steal from him ("If they steal it, that means they won't come back, and it's been worth it."), and why he places little stock in his material wealth ("It's just stuff. Really, if this got buried in an avalanche tonight, in three months I'd have more stuff than I knew what to do with."). Lately, he has been reading Thoreau, and has started inviting friends out to the Bulb for a berry-picking day. "Walden," he says, shaking his head and laughing, is a "total rant." He says that the two most important values to most Americans are security and comfort. "Those," he says, "Aren't very profound priorities." His dress, and the occasional nervous tick - rocking his upper body slowly back and forth is a staple - is reminiscent of his schizophrenic friends. But in that he has largely chosen his lifestyle, he is entirely unlike the "psychopaths" with whom he spends his time. Arriving at the realization is like crossing some tiny sea: Robert Barringer is not off his rocker. The man is entirely sane.

"I've learned how to talk to people," he says, regarding how the Bulb has changed him, "To introduce myself and just kinda keep the thing rolling. I never could do that. My whole life, I was completely withdrawn, and shy, you know, 'oh, I'm inadequate,' or if I was putting myself out there, it was always about trying to get a drink, or trying to get a puff of that joint over there, or food. It was always an agenda. Getting laid. It was always about getting laid. Now I can be spontaneous. I don't have this agenda or anything. I'm able to play, I'm able to be playful. Everything is on the upbeat. Because I'm living through my senses. And that's my dream, to live through my senses."

The rain now pattering against his tent, I asked him if he felt satisfied with his life. He took a drag from a cigarette, and nodded.

"I'm very satisfied with my life," he said. "I've never felt more fit and more mentally fit. I'm more productive even - I can show you the drawings and writing that I'm doing. And I'm productive in the field here... When I say I'm going to be your friend now, that means that I have to be there for you, I have to accept you for who you are. And that if something happens, I have to go and help you get through it. And that's what friendship is about. To most people, that's not even real. Friend is just a word. Everybody's acquaintances, really. It's this, "oh hey, let's do lunch"...but friendship, that's a hard thing.

"Am I satisfied with my life? That's such a big question, it's like 'of course not, it's ridiculous, it doesn't work at all, it's scary, it's horrible.' But I can say that in the same breath and say I've never been more fulfilled in my life." I asked him what was most important to him. "How I live the day," he said. "How I live the day, and how I remember it." He said, "Only the very rich, and the very poor, can live this way." I asked him if he would be around tomorrow. He smiled as if the answer were obvious, and shrugged. He took a drag from his cigarette and said, "I live here."

The Powers That Be

"We can't get the state to finish the Bulb. There's no money. And the city certainly can't pay to cap the Bulb and make it safe. But this guy was going to come and develop the parking lot. Part of the parking lot. Seventeen acres, out of something like forty-five acres of the parking lot. And he was going to pay for it. And he was going to pay taxes - it was such a good deal for the city."

The speaker is Ruth Gonang, the former mayor of Albany who stopped the landfill dumping in the first place, who now can look directly down onto the filled-in shoreline from her home atop Albany Hill. The developer in question is Rick Caruso, of Los Angeles's Caruso Affiliated, which presented Albany with a plan to develop the parking lot adjacent to the Bulb into high-end retail, upscale restaurants, and a movie theater, complete with heavy landscaping, fountains, and an open-air market.

Such development has local precedent. In Emeryville, the recently erected Bay Street is a municipal cash cow, sporting a sixteen-screen movie theater, upscale dining, an Apple store, Banana Republic, Gap, and Old Navy. Berkeley, meanwhile, has developed Fourth Street, once a run-down industrial block two streets over from the train tracks, into the most upscale shopping district in the city. At least financially, such developments have been enormous successes, and they reflect the area's increasing affluence. Forty years ago, in 1967, the stores along Fourth Street - Anthropologie, expensive jewelry and perfume boutiques - would have been laughed out of town. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and higher-priced retail is reflective of a gentrification trend that encompasses not a neighborhood or a city, but an entire metropolitan region.

Now, Albany has a forty-five acre parking lot that no one even parks on. It is no exaggeration that the homeless people who live there enjoy million-dollar views. The Caruso plan could be even more luxurious than Fourth Street. With its fountains and movie theaters and money, the proposal was, according to Gonang, "much nicer than that."

The Caruso plan was defeated, but there is a general sense that he will be back. And if not him, then someone else. The site is too juicy to be left alone. Meanwhile, the plan for the Bulb waits for the money to fill it in. As of now, the state plan calls largely for a preservationist approach that would treat the Bulb as any other state park: human impact will be minimized, art will be removed, and dogs will be put on-leash. Around the "plateau," a stretch of the landfill closer to the freeway, a fence is to be erected to protect the potential nesting site of an endangered burrowing owl.

Such a plan, of course, argues implicitly that there is something wrong with the Bulb in the first place. And Patty, torn between her love of letting Tigger run free and her seat on the CESP board, is nervous that in conserving the landfill, the Bulb might be destroyed. "This was a park for the people before it was a state park," she says, "And you're going to take everything the people had away from them?"

It is Osha's hope that "there would be a level of opposition" if the CESP plan were to be acted on, and given the diversity of people who enjoy the space, organized resistance is certainly a possibility. But given that the enemy comes in the form of a historical ally, and given the place's inherent disorganization, such a resistance seems unlikely. Turning the Bulb into a park sounds harmless; in fact it sounds like a great idea. But a "park" is just a word. What we make that word to mean is ultimately what matters.

For now, the plan is merely that: a plan. But eventually, there will be money. And eventually, something will happen to the Bulb. The specifics of the outcome will reflect the character of the time. Is the Bulb to become like any other park, paved pathways stretching out to a snack shack in what used to be "Mad" Mark's Castle? Will a fence be erected to "protect" the land? Will they take out the art and move Osha's sculptures to a museum? In 2007, are we a culture unable to live with such anarchy, with no zoning laws or police enforcement to tell blank space what to do? What might such a wilderness, and our handling of it, have to say about the society from which it sprung? In short, how many rules will there be, and who, in the end, will they be for?

The last time I visited the Bulb, I stopped by Rabbit's tent and hung out for a couple minutes while Rabbit drew pictures of sea urchins. When he came outside, he went searching for a lighter in his pants pocket and exclaimed, "I can't fit anything in these Calvin Kleins!" "Mad" Mark was there, and despite being warned, I made the mistake of striking up a conversation. "We call it 52-card pickup," Rabbit said of Mark's disorder, "The cards come out, and they have to be picked up." I nodded while Mark wound on and on about a "golden age of prosperity" and handed me various documents, including his birth certificate. When I finally managed to tear myself away, Rabbit walked me out as far as the beach, past chalk paintings, and old CDs dangling from tree branches, and a graffitied message that read, "EAT THE RICH." At the beginning of the main path, someone had taken a "PLEASE KEEP ALL DOGS ON-LEASH" sign and re-bolted it to its pole, upside down. If I had stuck around for a few more days, I would have gotten down to the real nitty-gritty, Rabbit said. He'd get past all his pretentiousness and junk and find out what's really there.

About a hundred feet from the parking lot, in front of a grove of eucalyptus trees, we said goodbye. I told him I'd look him up the next time I was in town, and we went our separate ways: me toward my car and civilization, and him, back toward his tent and his sea urchin drawings, toward sculptures and rubble, birds and blueberry bushes, toward a place that is no place for everyone, and the only place for some, like "Mad" Mark, the cards on the tent floor, blabbing into the night, sneaking out later by moonlight to paint the Castle all over again.