A statue of three herons marks the beginning of the Albany Bulb trail, a gift from the California Coastal Commission in 1998. Covered by an array of constantly changing communal artwork, huge pieces of trash, a gigantic palm tree, dozens of small meandering pathways lined by fennel plants, the remnants of elaborate homes built by a small population of homeless several years ago — the Albany Bulb is one of the most beautifully tragic places in the Bay Area. The sound of small waves rhythmically beat on the sand and concrete slabs lining the shore. The blue bay and large eucalyptus trees create a serenity unusual to a place close to a city.
In 1963, the city of Albany, in an effort to create more useable land, began systematically dumping debris in the bay, creating a large square piece of land connected to the peninsula by a narrow road: The Bulb. The last truck loads of trash ended in 1983, mainly due to efforts from Save The Bay, a regional organization working to protect the San Fransisco Bay. Today, there are several rectangular lagoons that display the halted fill method at the west and northeast sides of the bulb. Over the past 30 years, the Albany Bulb has been a haven for artists, the homeless, walkers, runners and bikers. But after the city cracked down on the security and decided to make it a state park, the Bulb is beginning to lose its mysterious beauty.
Lisa Berman, a long time Bay Area resident and appreciator of the Bulb, said she can’t remember who first took her there, but she was immediately drawn to this public space where people were free to express themselves through art.
“I like it because it’s wild and a place to think and create,” Berman said in an email. “It has magnificent views, and it feels free. Wide open space and skies. Folks (and animals) are free to explore, free to express, even free to create a home if need be.”
But the Bulb has changed. At one time, it was a no-mans-land where a large group of the homeless created shelters and elaborate homes, most of which are now gone after a huge effort was made to remove them over the past several years. Currently, Albany City Council and California State Parks are amidst negotiations to incorporate the Albany Bulb into the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park. Now, a police car rolls by to enforce the city’s no camping policies, according to the city’s website.
Gordon McCartur is the former head of the Albany Waterfront Committee and long time advocate for the homeless population.
“I met many of the residents out there, and while I suspected that many of these were deeply troubled souls, they were still very human to me,” McCartur said in an email. “They represented alternatives to ‘on the grid’ living, even if it wasn’t the most healthy alternative.”
The Bulb is in limbo now, waiting to be handed to the state park.
“That means it has to be ‘sanitized’ of many of the things that make it unique, such as art and the strange concrete-rebar monuments,” he said.
However, many sculptures and paintings are still nestled throughout the 60 acres, but it certainly is not what it used to be. At one point, there was enough work to fill galleries several times over covered the Bulb. Berman remembers walls of elaborate paintings lining many of the areas down by the water; now there are still paintings, but not as many.
“I was especially drawn in by the S.N.I.F.F. paintings — hints of folkloric, circus-y and also with a hint of the wild Hieronymus Bosch — fantastical, gruesome, profound, bizarre,” Berman said.
Most of these paintings that Berman references were done between 1998 and 2003 by four dedicated men: Scott Hewitt, Scott Meadows, Bruce Rayburn and David Ryan, according to “Endangered Art: The controversial beauty of Albany Bulb,” and “Sniff Collective and various artists, The Bulb.” No one knows what the name S.N.I.F.F. means or why they used it to sign the paintings, all of which are gone now.
Not everything is gone, however; the legendary sculptures and many large paintings are still there and will hopefully live on.
Along the pathway, large concrete canvases lay in the yellowing grass, each about three feet wide and five feet long. Areas are chipped away and layers of paint — generations of work show through. One slab has a man’s face in black and blue with long side burns and bright red glasses. Others have anti-war messages such as “happiness is resistance.”
“The sculptures out there, most famously the Lady or Goddess (lots of different names for her, probably), were made by Osha Neumann, who also happens to be the most prominent lawyer trying to defend the urban homesteaders,” McCarter said.
If you make a trip to the Bulb, take the exit for the Golden Gate Fields Racetrack off of highway 580. Do yourself a favor and walk all the way around the Bulb and see the sculptures. The next time you go back, it may look different, but there will be another special treasure somewhere on those 60 acres; you just have to find it.