Some of the world's best views of San Francisco, most panoramic picnic spots, most breathtaking birdwatching vantage points and sweetest little seashell-dotted lost-castaway coves are all a few yards apart along hand-hewn, twisty-turny, tangleweed-tufted, easily accessible East Bay trails.
This prime patch of real estate, this gentle gnarl studded with stout palms, wafting poppies, fennel frills, fragrant acacia, flaxen pampas grass and soaring modern sculptures staring out to sea is not some exclusive resort, but rather a public park blooming atop a former trash dump that's long been a battleground between local wildlife enthusiasts and the homeless people whose encampments here have, for the last few years, evoked both The Hobbit and Mad Max.
After a long-raging, highly politicized battle, work crews are currently dismantling those encampments. The city of Albany has paid $3,000 each to dozens of homeless people in exchange for their agreements to stop residing on a 31-acre spit of public parkland known as the Albany Bulb. As reported by the Contra Costa Times, as of this week most of those who agreed to the deal have left the Bulb -- although a few holdouts remain.
This embattled peninsula is many things to many people, and that is both its glory and its tragedy. To dog-walkers, nature lovers and sightseers, it's an outdoor paradise marred by tents, firepits, impromptu garbage dumps and other homeless-encampment components. To avant-garde artists, it's a living gallery scattered with found (or findable) objects. To the homeless, it is -- or was -- home.
What gets you first about the Bulb, when the work crews aren't in action, is the serenity.
The absolute, surf-sings-a-lullaby, is-this-the-seventh-century serenity.
Jutting one mile into San Francisco Bay, linked by a slender chicken-neck of land to I-80 and Golden Gate Fields, the Albany Bulb began as landfill, poured after the City of Albany and Santa Fe Railroad agreed in 1963 to create a disposal site for construction debris. By the time lawsuits officially ended the dumping in 1980, nature had already begun its stealthy, implacable makeover of the Bulb's accumulated concrete, brick, and rebar. These days, the Bulb is a lesson in post-apocalyptic ecology: Industrial junk shares its skyline with scrapwood sculptures rising from battery-, broken glass-, and button-studded earth. Stepping off its trails is treacherous. Jagged wires jut skyward amidst poison oak and garden irises: the synthetic, the native, and the beautiful intruder bobbing side by side.
Almost any spot on the Bulb commands a world-class spectacle: city, bridges, and mountains shimmering across a silver bay; hummingbirds nuzzling wildflowers and the blooms of domesticated plants whose ancestors arrived here when this place was a dump. And around nearly every fairy-bower bend, spur-trails descend to hollows where, until very recently, beachfront scrapwood cottages and tents were either homages to human resourcefulness or scary eyesores.
A year ago, the Albany City Council voted unanimously to have the Bulb's then-sixty or so residents evicted and relocated to conventional shelters. The Sierra Club and other environmentalist groups supported that move -- as did a federal judge, who issued an anti-camping ordinance clearing the way for those evictions last November. Now the city plans to transform the Bulb into Sylvia McLaughlin Eastshore State Park.
Wandering the Bulb before the evictions began, I wondered: Who wouldn't want to see such views first thing every morning? Who wouldn't want a scenic beach right in the backyard of a cost-free, flower-fringed dwelling a full mile from urban clamor, crowds and crime? What are the dimensions of sharing? Who owns what? Wading through burned clothing and broken glass, barked at by surly dogs, I bit my lip, afraid of tetanus.
With graffiti scrawled across concrete and eucalyptus alike, the Bulb is a Frankensteinian hybrid, an anarchic but slightly pretentious parable of what humans do to wilderness and what wilderness does to what humans have done. Its hard and soft strata embody the creation of destruction and the destruction of creation: Amidst nature and art, brutality. Amidst nature and brutality, art. And ringing it all as if to mock our ponderings is the natural sacrosanctity of saltwater slapping sandy shores. That serenity is what gets you first but it also gets you last, as you leave, as hummingbirds dart over shattered cognac bottles and you wonder whether human feces fertilize the dainty white alyssum in a place made natural by unnatural acts.
All photographs are by Kristan Lawson, used by permission.