Public space to find one’s self
“You’re only limited by your imagination. I think there’s so few places where we have land, other than in our own yards, but land that can really be turned into what we want it to be. And I think that’s really empowering in this day and age.”Marion Cowee
At the end of Buchanan Street, past Golden Gate Fields, the wind and waves crash onto Albany Beach. Some people stop here to lay in the sand or play in the surf, but many continue westward on the Waterfront Trail to explore Albany Bulb. I’m about to walk down the skinny stretch of land called the Neck to get to the beloved park when I spot the Man with No Name taking pictures. I ask him to explain the Bulb’s appeal.
He says, “Fresh air. Exercise. Walking. Mile out and a mile back.”
It’s not actually Clint Eastwood. He just won’t tell me his name, and he’s believably terse for the role. Luckily, I run into EG Crichton walking her dog Otis, and she has a little more to say.
She says, “Once I moved to Richmond, I started exploring all the points along this coast, and I kind of just discovered it, rediscovered it, you know, I can leave my dog off leash. It’s pretty. I love all the funky art.
Albany Bulb is famous for its urban art, some of which dates back to the 1990s. Sculptures like the driftwood dragon and Osha Neumann’s Water Lady dot the north shore, while Mad Marc’s Castle looks out to the west. But there are also smaller paintings, mosaics, and assemblages of found materials.
Out on the Bulb proper, I run into Christine Morgan, another dog walker. It turns out she’s been coming here for a long time.
She says, “Probably since the 70s. I used to come here when there was hardly anyone coming here. It just wasn’t well known. My father used to take me here to dump garbage. That’s how many years it’s been.”
The Bulb sits on top of an old municipal landfill that the City of Albany operated between 1963 and 1983. The city shut it down amidst pressure from environmental advocates trying to save the Bay.
The plan was to turn the land into a park and let a state agency operate it. But the landfill wasn’t capped and sealed, and safety concerns about metal and concrete sticking out of the ground held up the transfer. Local residents didn’t wait on the legal proceedings, though, and neither did nature. In addition to sculptures and paintings, bushes and trees sprouted up from the broken ground, providing another reason to visit.
Morgan says, “I used to come here and pick blackberries.”
Without a centralized vision for the Bulb, early explorers like Morgan got to decide how they wanted to use the space. She says, “There’s a lagoon if you keep going around here. In really, really hot weather, you can swim in that lagoon, and it’s absolutely beautiful. So, yeah, I… What do you call it? Skinny dipped years ago because it was so hot, and nobody came here.”
That seclusion was especially attractive to people experiencing homelessness. For more than two decades, a community of unhoused people saw the Bulb as a refuge. Amber Whitson called the space home from 2006 to 2014, and she’s always happy to come back.
She says, “It just smells and feels like home. It will always be my home. I will always be Amber from the Bulb.
It wasn’t always an easy place to live. Especially when she first got here with Phyl, her partner at the time. They moved onto the Bulb on October 31 and set up their tent near the shore.
She says, “It was so cold. Oh, my god. The wind blew. We were so broke because we had no hustle.”
But they adapted. They moved a couple of times, ultimately settling on a spot further back from the water and sheltered by trees. They dubbed it Phlamburg. On the way there, Whitson spots some blackberries and picks some to eat.
As she does so, she says, “Beautiful. I used to get what I called guilty paws. Guilty paws because of the purple fingers.” She holds up her stained fingers and says, “Guilty paws.”
A little further up the trail, Whitson spots a patch of ground where she’s managed to find huge barnacles in the past.
She says, “I’m sure people have gotten all the ones off the surface, but if you dig down just a little bit, you’ll start digging up … Look at that. That’s a small one.”
Whitson spent a lot of happy days digging for treasure all over the Bulb and learning what she could about the history of her hauls. She recalls, “I have a full set of dog tags from World War II, and I actually took the time to Google some of the people. Like the one guy lived at least until his eighties and was the band leader of whatever, like a band in whatever town he lived out his days in, like whatever orchestra type band stuff.”
Now, overgrowth has started to bury Whitson’s own history on the Bulb, but she can still see the outlines of her old home. She says, “This was our gate, which consisted of a piece of military netting looped from one piece of E-Z UP to like a pole that we drove into the ground over there.”
Inside her old perimeter, Whitson pulls back grass and says, “Wow, everything’s growing so fast these days. So, here, there is a set of steps that Phyl built for my knees to be able to come. There. See the step? The entire floor, which is far below the level that it is now, right? The actual floor of our porch is solid granite cobblestones.”
Past the porch, she identifies the platform that used to be at the center of her home. She says, “Phyl spent two and a half years scrapping the mortar off of all of these fire bricks by hand, with paint scrapers and wire bristle brushes, anything he could find, until they were totally smooth to be able to make this 10 foot by 10 foot, two layers deep floor for our living quarters, which is just this space.”
They used tarps and plastic for walls, and they had a mattress they’d salvaged, but all of that’s gone now. Whitson would have lived here the rest of her life, but the City of Albany evicted them in 2014.
The number of unhoused people living on the Bulb skyrocketed from 15 in 2006 to around 70 in 2013. Some of the new people undermined the sense of community that Whitson had known.
She says, “It was not easy living out here once the population started to grow. Especially once it started to really boom.”
As conditions deteriorated, the city began enforcing curfews and camping prohibitions. Whitson and Phyl held out as long as they could, but ultimately they were arrested in May 2014. The eviction was so traumatic that it ended Whitson and Phyl’s romantic relationship. But when Whitson thinks of the Bulb now, she doesn’t really focus on that pain. Instead, she remembers the happier years that came before.
She says, “Yeah, there was so much awesome stuff out here. I mean there still is, but it will never be the same.”
In the aftermath of the evictions, there was a moment where it really did seem like the Bulb was about to fundamentally change. The City of Albany returned to their initial plan to transfer the land.
The East Bay Regional Parks District wanted to turn it into a more conventional park. That would’ve meant removing art installations and preventing the type of unregulated, spontaneous human activity that visitors and residents of the Bulb had been engaging in for decades.
Local residents and artists were concerned that the Bulb would lose its history and character, so they formed Love the Bulb to advocate for its continued existence as a cultural space. They’ve been largely successful and today they run community events and maintain a garden in the northeast portion of the Bulb.
Angela Armendariz, the Operations Director for Love the Bulb, comes out here two Saturdays a month to look after the plants. She’s watering plants from plastic jugs she hauled in. There’s no running water out here, so she has to use what she’s brought wisely.
She says, “Everything that has a flag, was planted just this past winter, and so we focus on watering those ones first.”
Up a hill, Julie Price, the Programs Director, is trimming the stalks of currently flowerless poppies. She says, “They really burst forth in spring, and it helps encourage growth to cut them back each year.”
Today, Angela and Julie have a couple of volunteer helpers. Aimee Haire is the one who paints the signs labeling the native plants in the garden.
“So trying to give the space a little more, a sense of purpose and intention that somebody walking through would realize that there are, even if we aren’t out here working, to know that there are people stewarding this area,” explains Haire.
But even as they try to maintain order in the garden, Haire and the others aim to nurture the sense of wildness that has always characterized this space.
Haire says, “Every time you come to the Bulb, it can be a totally different experience, and you can just kind of get lost out here.”
Unconstrained by rules governing how the land can be used, people who visit the Bulb are free to dream and create, and Marion Cowee thinks that’s what differentiates the park from other public places.
Cowee says, “You’re only limited by your imagination. I think there’s so few places where we have land, other than in our own yards, but land that can really be turned into what we want it to be. And I think that’s really empowering in this day and age.”
The Bulb is wild, but it’s not wilderness. There’s space on this artificial piece of land for the natural world and human creativity to coexist. At least that’s the vision that drives members of Love the Bulb. And it seems like their mission resonates with more casual visitors as well.
Cara Daug loves the fact that she can participate in the making of the Bulb’s art, even in her own small way. She first came here in 2020, during the early days of the pandemic. “And at that time, my friend, me and my friend that I came with, we painted little Among Us figurines,” she reminisces. “It was fun. Like, it was cool.”
Even visitors who aren’t moved to make their own artwork feel like they’re participating in a conversation. Leena Shakhur particularly likes the garden of scrap metal. She says, “I don’t know. It’s just a constant reminder to be environmentally friendly in a very interesting way that: ‘See. This is your garbage. Don’t put it in the sea.’”
Well, it’s about time to head out. Back on the Neck, an RC car races up the path. A man named Carlo Bell is driving it. He’s been really into RC cars for a few years now. It all started after his girlfriend told him she had to go back east because her dad had a stroke and she had to take care of him. Carlo went with her, but caring for her dad was stressful, and he needed a hobby. So he bought an RC car.
He says, “And I just fell in love with it. Six cars later, it’s really peaceful. No matter how stressed out I am, this truly helps a lot. I urge a lot of people to find something you love to do that gives you peace of mind and get out there and do it.”
And there’s no place quite like the Bulb to explore a passion.
This story aired in the December 4, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.