A Squat at the End of the World
“It’s fucked up,” says Gio, a resident of the Albany Bulb. 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, and 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 while 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 phlebotomists. 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.
Photo by Waltzing Matildavan
From Landfill to Squatted Community
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.
Photo by Waltzing Matildavan
For a time, it seemed that those in power didn’t care what was happening on the Bulb as long as it didn’t disturb the wealthy neighborhoods that surrounded it. But by 1999, this tune had changed. As Jill Posener wrote on the blog Slow Cool Assault:
[T]he entire shorefront from Emeryville to Richmond was to be incorporated into a new park – Eastshore State Park, to be managed by the regional park district. It was the culmination of 20 years of work by local environmentalists whose early motives were to prevent any more devastating commercial development, but by the end of the 20th century had become a campaign to throw the homeless out of the encampment, to ban dogs from the beaches and to ‘restore’ native habitat which had never existed in the first place.
Thus, local environmentalists such as the Sierra Club, hand in hand with politicians and developers, now stood to remove the squatting community from the Bulb and destroy the DIY neighborhood, its structures and art. It seemed as if the decade long experiment in autonomy was over.
In the winter of 1999 and into 2000, the hammer came down. Chronicled in the documentary film, Bum’s Paradise (2003), police swept through and began evictions. Posener recalls, “Trailers were erected in the parking lot of Golden Gate Fields, male and female family members were not allowed to sleep together in the same trailers, dogs were banned completely, and as the police arrived in the early mornings and forcibly evicted people, their camps, belongings, and pets were left behind on the Bulb, leaving a disturbing spectacle of homes and lives destroyed. Most landfill residents spent their first nights off ‘the fill’ huddled by the railroad tracks, or under freeway ramps. The trailers stayed empty and unused.” For many, the eviction was devastating. As Amber continues, “Virtually all of [those evicted in 1999] are still residually traumatized. And, of those who are still alive, all but two or three remain homeless to this day.”
Photo by KQED
After the eviction was complete, Albany was free to take the park and clean it up before handing it over to the East Shore Regional Parks District. However, cleaning up the landfill and stopping toxic leakage turned out to be a costlier endeavor than previously thought and government inaction allowed the Bulb to slowly become wild again. As the years and months went by, people made their way back onto the Bulb and the squatting community again grew in size. By 2007, the residents living on the Bulb had solidified into a large group. Amber wrote of her reasons for coming to the Bulb in Street Spirit:
We came to the Albany Bulb…seeking refuge from constant police harassment — the same mistreatment that any average homeless person is subjected to — while living on the streets. What we found was far more than a refuge. We found a Home.
Local police departments and social service organization even began pushing people onto the Bulb when they were picked up in Berkeley or elsewhere, with nowhere to go. For the State, the Bulb became useful as there were no other local homeless shelters, especially as the economic and housing crisis drove more people out of their homes. During 2013, the crisis grew worse, and housing and rental prices in the Bay soared.
As the Bay-shore area south of the landfill became more built-up and gentrified, the Bulb remained the last outpost yet to be developed. In the summer of 2013 the situation at the Bulb again reached a head as forces within the city government, the Sierra Club, and the Park system raised the call for the destruction of the Bulb. At this time, over 60 people lived on the Bulb full-time along with around 25 dogs and cats, many of which had been born there. The city decided to once again evict the residents, who by now had lived on the Bulb for several years. As the City pushed for another eviction, residents, backed up by lawyers such as Osha Neumann, launched a lawsuit. Galvanized by support from people involved in Occupy Oakland and Occupy the Farm (which attempted to squat and farm a nearby track of land owned by UC Berkeley before being violently evicted by local police), a resistance movement fermented under the moniker of ‘Share the Bulb.’ But as local politicians and journalists played up fears of an invasion of ‘anarchists’ and ‘Occupy Oakland,’ the city attempted to dampen anger over another eviction by offering ‘concessions.’ Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on jail-like facilities in order to ‘transition’ people from their homes into an uncertain life of poverty and homelessness, the scene was set for a showdown.
Fighting the Eviction
In September 2013, close to 75 people – many of them Bulb residents – marched on the Albany City Council to oppose the city’s plans to evict those living on the landfill. The march signaled the start of ongoing resistance and represented the coming together of a variety of social milieus; from squatters, to anarchists, to rebel artists, and dog walkers. Throughout September, as the Albany City council laid out its plan to turn control over the land to the East Shore Regional Parks, various groups and individuals organized film-showings and speaking events, church groups left “Share the Bulb” chalk messages, local anarchists organized a potluck and general assembly to talk about defense of the Bulb as well as a concert attended by hundreds of people.
In October, ‘Bulb Defenders’ staged a solidarity camp-out against the eviction as well as a demonstration outside of the home of Robert Cheasty, the former Mayor of Albany and one of the main backers of the eviction. Several days after the protest, people marched from Albany City hall and held a one night occupation of a street in an upscale shopping district. People and individuals also focused their attention on the local Sierra Club chapter, who was vocally in favor of the Bulb’s destruction with protests and the vandalizing of the office’s storefront. In late October, Albany police also shot and killed a resident’s dog, Amore, after they lied and claimed the dog attacked them (it was later discovered that no officer was hurt by the animal).
By November, the city of Albany had put in a “homeless transition facility,” which featured small jail-like dormitories and dog kennels, in an attempt to slowly move people off the Bulb – and to prevent having to evict people by force. The vast majority of those on the Bulb did not spend any of their nights in the facility (although some homeless people from the Albany area did decide to make use of the shelter), and this seriously stalled the city attempts at eviction. With the introduction of the ‘transition facility’ and increased ticketing and harassment of residents – not to mention the freezing winter cold that left several homeless people dead – many feared that a large scale eviction was imminent. Bulb defenders responded by building rock barricades and blocking roads to stop police from entering the area. Around Thanksgiving, a “Festival of Resistance” featuring films and workshops was organized that included an art and history walk attended by a wide variety of people. Various bands played during the festival, and solidarity statements were issued. This intensity continued into December, when work crews destroyed a home on the Bulb after the person living inside it moved out. By blocking roads and work trucks, Bulb Defenders successfully stopped work crews from doing further damage.
This low intensity stand-off continued for several months, but finally came to its final conflict in early summer of 2014 as the city attempted to “buy out” residents by offering to pay them $3,000 in exchange for agreeing not to step foot on the Bulb for one full year. While police efforts to harass, and ticket, and in some cases arrest those still living on the Bulb (upwards of 40-50 people), had deterred some individuals from taking the money, all but three Bulb residents accepted the settlement to leave their homes. Those that did decide to stay (Amber, Phyl, and Gio), along with the Bulb Defenders, launched the Bulb Autonomous Zone (BAZ). Standoffs with police continued, as did the building of rock barricades which blocked police cars and city equipment. Police amped up patrols of the space and continued to issue tickets, all in an attempt to drive the last remaining people off the Bulb. When city work crews arrived with equipment to remove various homes, one Bulb Defender even locked down to equipment.
Photo from Indybay.org
“You Are Elliot Hughes”
By May 2014, those still living on the Bulb feared eviction at any moment while risking misdemeanor charges as the tickets for illegal camping piled up. Small crews of supporters camped out in solidarity, watching and monitoring police and attempting to starve off an eviction. But with the majority of residents now having left the Bulb, (many now living under a nearby freeway overpass – not being able to afford a place to live in up-scale Albany), the completion of the eviction was imminent. In the early hours of Thursday, May 29th, police from Albany and Berkeley along with Sheriffs raided Amber and Phyl’s camp, arresting them and one supporter. In an interview with the Contra Costa Times, Amber described the raid on her home, which involved 20-30 officers: “They actually had assault rifles, with their hands on the triggers. They didn't have them pointed at us but it was scary enough.”
During the raid, the police asked, “Where’s Elliot? Where’s Elliot?” But when the supporter that was arrested was booked, even after giving his full name and ID, police refused to accept the name that he had given. “You’re Elliot Hughes,” they stated.
Elliot Hughes was a young anarchist and Oakland squatter that first drew attention to themselves after their arrest, torture, and subsequent beating by police in Minneapolis during protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention. Spending many days and nights on the Bulb and also locking himself down to machinery that sought to destroy people’s homes, Elliot was perceived as a key organizer and leader by every police officer involved in evicting the Bulb. When police came to get Amber and Phyl, they also came for Elliot (perhaps even having his name on the search warrant). Several days after Amber and Phyl’s arrest, Elliot and another young supporter were arrested by police in separate incidents. Elliot was picked up for riding his bike on the sidewalk on his way out of the Bulb. Once in custody, police framed Elliot with charges of “furnishing a weapon, and attempted escape.” These were felonies that were later dropped due to lack of evidence, but they had the desired effect of scaring organizers off the streets. Elliot was then shipped off to the Santa Rita County jail in nearby Dublin, CA, along with another Bulb supporter (accused of vandalism) who were both released after several days.
While many of the felony charges against Elliot and others were dropped, what remained were ‘stay away’ orders that barred Elliot from setting foot anywhere near the Bulb. Furthermore, it also bars him from coming within a several mile radius of Albany itself. This was a similar tactic used by police in nearby Oakland, CA during the Occupy Movement. Police were often seen with “a book” of faces of protesters that had received stay-away orders, which was used to monitor crowds and aid in arrests. Thus, with charges that don’t even stick and don’t have any basis, police and the courts are able to restrict people’s movements and criminalize their involvement in social struggles. For people like Amber and Phyl, it also keeps them from going back to their homes – even during open park hours.
Ghosts in the Night
As with the eviction in 1999, those displaced were scattered to the wind of the East Bay Area. Some attempted to camp out under overpasses, causing previous homeless camps to swell in numbers and then in turn be evicted, while a select group of people found housing. While local politicians beam with pride on their success, the amount of money that was spent on police, jail-like ‘transitional housing structures,’ and the costly eviction could all have been used towards finding permanent housing for those living on the Bulb. Jill Posener puts the evictions in perspective.
When the first eviction took place the authorities called the trailers and eviction plan ‘Operation Hope’. In the intervening years of course the word ‘hope’ has been somewhat tainted. This time they are calling it ‘Operation Dignity’. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is ‘Operation Degradation’, and as the residents spend their first nights off the Bulb, and watch their homes bulldozed into rubble, there can only be sadness and despair.
I first came to the Albany Bulb in the spring of 2013, before the eviction plans were made clear to the residents and the public. I fell in love with the art, the trails, the castle that overlooked the view of the entire Bay Area and the Golden Gate bridge, and the hidden pathways that lead to homes and villages. But beyond that, I was drawn to the history of the place. There was a library filled with books and zines stocked by multiple generations of people, an amphitheater used for a variety of events, art made from garbage that became iconic, and people that I came to call my friends that built a home among the rubble. Months later, we found ourselves building barricades out of the same rocks and facing down the police, cheering as they drove away in their cars. The memories remain, but the people are gone. Many of them not even legally allowed to step foot in their former homes for fear of arrest.
Several months ago, I was drunk with friends and climbing on the jagged rocks that line the west-side of the Albany Bulb, closest to San Francisco. Stumbling into a clearing, my feet rested on several large slabs of flat concrete. Looking down at the ground, I found that the slabs were painted white and had a huge essay printed on them. By the lights of our cell phones, we began to read, following the text of the ‘Open Letter,’ as it zig-zagged across the rocks. It is with these words that I leave you.
You will have passed by our camps, seen our tarps set against the rain, and glimpsed jugs of water placed near our tents. You will have seen we deal directly with the same daily challenges others deal with at a distance through the intermediaries of property owned, bills paid, rent spent. You will have seen evidence of our needs and how we meet them.
This is also very important.
These things are important because they will allow you to speak out in the event that the politicians make the mistake of characterizing us—the Albany Bulb residents—as weak, passive, and inhuman. They might say we have no choice but to be out here, that this is where we landed after falling through regrettable but sadly inevitable cracks. Or they might say we have been too lazy, too slow, too stupid, or too weak-willed and that, in some sense, we have painted ourselves into a corner by making bad decision after bad decision. They might make decisions on our behalf to ‘save’ us. Or they might make decisions as if we were merely annoyances or obstacles.
We are not without voices.
Even if the politicians become convinced of our humanity, they may yet make another mistake: the mistake of thinking they can put themselves in our shoes. They may think they already know how to treat us humanely, because they’ll assume that we want the same things they want.
In asking for your support the hope is to appeal not only to your awareness of our humanity, and not only to your appreciation of our unique and essential perspective, but also to your own self-interest. You will have felt the special qualities of this place. It would be beautiful even if we were not here. It would be symbolically powerful even if we were not here. But we add something.
This landfill is made from the shattered remnants of buildings and structures that not so long ago were whole and standing, framed in concrete and steel, expected and intended to last. Now, through the concrete, the grasses make their way. Eucalyptus, acacias, and palm trees drive their roots down through the cracks. Waves constantly erode the shoreline and wash out the edge of the road. And here and there, in sections leveled and cleared of rebar, our tents are hidden away. We live around, and with, and in the rubble.
Live. Not merely survive. Can you see how hopeful this is?
The Bulb is not utopia. It is not free from strife, and chaos, and cruelty, but neither is anywhere else. It is flawed, but it isn’t broken and it shouldn’t be treated that way. We too are flawed. But we are not broken. So when the politicians start asking their questions and making their decisions, you can help ensure that we are not treated that way.
Enjoy The Bulb. It is yours as much as it is ours or anybody’s.
Photo by Waltzing Matildavan