Thursday, May 30, 2013

City Government Moves Again to Evict Squatters at Albany Bulb

Osha Nuemann's most famous statue, 'Goddess.'
Albany seems like more of the type of town that would have the last racially segregated farmers market left in the US - not a place where a vibrant squatters and radical artists community calls home, but it is. While the East Bay is blessed with both People's Park and the Albany Bulb, the two spaces are remarkably different. Located in Albany, which is found just North of Berkeley and right next to the ocean on Buchanan Street, the Albany Bulb is a peninsula that overlooks San Francisco and the greater bay area. Like several of the other peninsulas that dot the coastline, the Bulb was created out of a landfill that included bits and pieces of the BART system such as large slabs of concrete and rebar. Much of this debris can still be seen to this day. In 1984, the city stopped using the area as a dump directly into the ocean and as the decades wore on, nature began to come back slowly. By present day, the Bulb is a sanctuary for many endangered birds, a wide variety of plants, and various animal species. As the East Bay Express wrote in 1999:
Communal library at Albany Bulb.
Then, around 1993, a new species began to call this place home. 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. Open-air raves were held in a nearby pit called "the amphitheater," and enterprising artists welded the rebar into disjointed, compelling shapes.

Graffiti mural at 'The Castle.'
In 1999, the city of Albany moved to evict the homeless people and the subsequent legal battle was chronicled in the documentary, 'Bum's Paradise.' Afterwards however, many people moved back to the Bulb and despite repeated eviction attempts, a strong squatting community remains. Walking around the Bulb, I was impressed by the complexity of many of the shelters and homes that exist on the land. There is little trash and garbage; people obviously take very good care of the area. Many of the homes are largely hidden. If you walk along the trails and don't pay attention, by and large you won't notice many of them. There is also a large amount of infrastructure and communal common space that people have made, such as a library building and an amphitheater. On the tip of the Bulb, someone has has also created a 'castle,' which is covered in graffiti and different murals and overlooks the golden gate bridge.  

For many though, the most infamous part of the park is the art, much of it created by materials found on the landfill itself. Most iconic of all the art are the the statues, many being created in part by Osha Nuemann, a former member of Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers! and later, Black Mask, two early anarchist groups from the late 1960's. "It's art without restraint," says Osha of the art. "Art coming out of nature, without having to look over its shoulder and ask permission." Graffiti artists also are a part of the Bulb's rebel culture, with pieces popping up from anarchist writters such as GATS, and SWAMPY, as well as underground legends such as OLD CROW. One group, based out of Oakland, called "SNIFF," also created a series of art installations around the Bulb, including many paintings.  

The future of the Bulb though, like everything in the bay area, is in question. Two things threaten the wild anarchy and self-organized nature of the area. The first is from developers, who are salivating at the thought of turning the area into condos and shopping malls. One developer, Rick Caruso, has already attempted to develop the land, although his plan was turned down.

The Bulb is also threatened by the city government, who currently wants to try and turn the Bulb further into an official state park. While technically the entire area is a park already, the city could come in and add new roads, fences, and other developments to the land, which in turn would mean the destruction of the art and the eviction of the squatting community. At a recent city council meeting in early May, the Albany city council directed police to once again enforce a 'no-camping' policy at the Bulb, starting in October of 2013. According to the Albany Patch website, these sweeps against the homeless would be coupled with "the Mayor, Vice Mayor and City Manager meet[ing] with East Bay Regional Park District and State Parks to begin a process to make the Bulb area a public park." Such development would mean an end to everything on the Bulb that makes it what it is for so many people. The art, the dogs running around off-leash, and the squatter's homes. As one blogger commented:
I'm just going to say that the place has become a jewel - simply by being ignored by the authorities. For years, it was allowed essentially to self regulate, plants grew without being tended, animals and birds arrived, reptiles and rodents emerged, rose bushes bloomed hidden between concrete slabs dumped 40 years ago, artists came and left a treasure trove of outsider art, the homeless moved in for over 10 years. And now, they have started the process of destroying that imagination, to replace it with something that can be controlled, contained and coerced into compliance with a 'park plan.

What is beautiful about the Albany Bulb is that is is self-organized, user-controlled and directed, and wild and free. It is an interesting collection of graffiti artists, squatters, and also dog-walkers and park goers. Most who use the space enjoy and appreciate it's wildness and it's this sense of autonomy and self-organization that brings hundreds to the park. It's also beautiful to see the natural world reclaiming something toxic that human beings have foisted into the ocean.

It should be clear though, that the government is interested in much more than just clearing out the homeless from the area or stopping graffiti artists from painting on concrete. They are interested in control. Just as University of California Police moved quickly to break up the short occupation of UC Berkeley land in Albany over the last several weeks, the city of Albany is looking to finally clear away squatters from government owned land. While the popularity of the Albany Bulb is without question, it's rebellious and illegal nature are problematic for the power structure. The Bulb if anything is a clear violation of the logic and laws of class society: people live without rent, create without permission of government authority, and exist together and with the earth on their own free will. In a society where such ways of existence are always criminalized and seen as threatening by those in power, this is exactly why the Albany Bulb is important and should be defended.  

The question remains, what vision of the park will win in the end? Will we who enjoy the freedom and self-governance of the current state of affairs be able to defend this way of life, or will power and capital win the day? Better yet, how can we expand such forms of life and ways of being? How can such actions and occupations link up and support each other? Out only reply is the same of the anarchist groups of the 1960's, 'Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers! - We've Come for What's Ours!'  

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