In April 2014, more than two dozen people were evicted from their informal settlement at the Albany Bulb along the East Bay shoreline. After a complex battle encompassing land-use issues, homeless advocacy, creative reuse and access to public space — and what, exactly, that access should look like — the residents were offered roughly $3,000 each to pack up and leave.

A former landfill owned by the city of Albany, the Bulb has been a hotly contested space for decades. It’s been utilized as a DIY venue for public sculpture and graffiti art, an ersatz dog park, a point of environmental interest and a home to otherwise unhoused residents reclaiming unused materials to build habitable spaces, at least one of which towered at three stories high. And although the last residents of the Bulb have left the space, many have collaborated with several Bay Area artists and SOMArts for an upcoming exhibit, Refuge and Refuse: Homesteading, Art and Culture, which opens Feb. 12 and runs through Mar. 14.

Aerial view of The Bulb
Aerial view of the Bulb. (Photo: Robin Lasser)

“For me, it was really that combination of the communities of people who lived out there dynamically with the arts, and the place, and the million-dollar views,” says Oakland resident and San Jose State University professor of art Robin Lasser, one of the show’s curators. “I’m exaggerating here, but for me it felt like one of the last places on earth where you had this kind of freedom. For me, [it reflects] the sixties when you had movements of people doing experimental living; life was embraced and politicized and fought for.”

That freedom extended to the art created at the Blub. “One of the incredible things about the bulb and the contested space is that you just do what you do,” Lasser says. “The landfill art that is out there and the graffiti that is out there aren’t sanctioned. Artists didn’t have curators saying what was valuable and what was not.”

Bulb Osha
Landfill Sculpture by participating artist Osha Neumann.

Lasser and co-curators Danielle Siembieda and Barbara Boissevain have created an exhibit showcasing the complexities of the political, social and environmental issues around housing, the economy, and the environment. Their work, along with that of many of the evicted tenants, exposes the multiple realities that have coexisted on the land; the collaborative projects give a face to those forced out of a place they once called home.

These “landfillians” include such infamous characters as Boxer Bob, the former professional fighter who constructed a three-story mansion out of reclaimed shipping pallets and other building materials. Another former resident, Mad Marc, lived at the Bulb for nearly 20 years; according to Lasser, Mad Marc retrieved discarded materials by bike and built what the locals call the Fairy Castle, a heart-shaped structure made from discarded grocery carts. The structure, he says, was not meant for human occupancy but was instead built as a gift to San Francisco.

Zoetrope Bike Sculpture and Mandalas at Refuge in Refuse. (Judith Leinen and Robin Lasser with former resident Tamara Robinson)
Zoetrope Bike Sculpture and Mandalas at Refuge in Refuse. (Judith Leinen and Robin Lasser with former resident Tamara Robinson)

Although the dwellings at the Bulb were demolished after eviction, the show features images of what was once a vibrant, eclectic community. Tamara Robinson and Danielle Evans are among the many former residents with projects on display at the event.

“We wanted to work on an exhibition that could really house all of the stakeholders who have an investment in this place that is truly a phenomena of magic. Not to romanticize things, but I think a lot of people, including those that lived there, felt that way about it,” says Lasser. “But it is a contested space. I think the politics in our country right now — with the division of those who have and those who don’t — gets greater and greater. There are so many people who find themselves out on the streets. Evictions of all sorts are happening to people for all kinds of reasons.”

With housing costs continuing to skyrocket around the Bay Area, the $3,000 from what homeless advocates call a “buyout” from the city surely didn’t go far. Although some former inhabitants moved on to transitional and permanent housing since their eviction, some continue living off the grid in other locations. Many others are back on the streets.

Danielle Evans paints in her former home at the Bulb. (Photo: Robin Lasser)

Still, the art aims to capture the spirit of what it means to live, work and create outside of the bounds of societal norms. Audio stories, video, photography, painting, sculpture and additional pieces created and developed through nontraditional artist mediums such as urban planning, landscape architecture and contemporary archeological mapping systems bring to life the multi-layered views of what the Bulb has meant, and continues to mean, to the community.

The exhibit’s free opening reception includes three film screenings, informal discussions with former residents and participating artists, and tours of the LavaMae bus, a project of the Tides Center that provides mobile showers for the homeless in repurposed MUNI buses. A workshop on building mobile shelters with Greg Kloehn takes place Feb. 21, and an “Augmented Reality Tour of Albany Bulb” is scheduled for Feb. 28.

For some, the idea that celebrating art instead of actively working to solve issues around accessible housing may seem insensitive, or at the very least portray a neutrality around the Bulb’s social issues, but Lasser disagrees.

“Rather than thinking of neutrality, I like to think of it as inclusive. If you’re going through that space, you get to make up your own mind about things and be motivated to activate,” she says. “Because of the films and the imagery, I think the indomitable spirit of the people from there will be clear.”

Displaced Art from Evicted Residents of Albany Bulb at ‘Refuge in Refuse’ 14 October,2015Dani Burlison

  • tahoerochelle

    Celebrating the art of the Bulb is an interesting project, but celebrating the ‘lifestyle’ of the Bulb homeless encampment as some kind of arts community is sentimental nonsense. Most of the art of the Bulb was created by visiting artists, not encampment residents, and the camps were places of almost unbelievable squalor and considerable danger and violence. They offered open marketing of methamphetamine, and violent incidents included arson, guard-dog attacks on hikers trying to use the trails, and domestic abuse. Needles littered the park, and sex was traded for drugs and money in plain view of the trail to the beach. Both people and the Bay were put at risk by people ‘mining’ the landfill for scrap metal, and by having dozens of people living together without sanitary facilities. A young mother who avoided psychiatric care by living on the Bulb hung herself in her camp. Only someone utterly blinded by political ideology or a romantic aesthetic vision could describe all this as a ‘vibrant, eclectic community’ without seeing any reason to mention the downsides of what was happening. .

    The article suggests that homeless people were given $3,000 and sent out to find housing, which is simply false. In fact, the City of Albany partnered with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project to make sure every camper had the option to move into housing and to apply for benefits to assure their transition into housing would become permanent. About half the campers – 30 or so – accepted these benefit, and nearly all of them are still housed, included a number who are still receiving benefits from Albany.

    For a more balanced and thoughtful perspective on the issue than is offered here, go to: http://kalw.org/post/indoors-again-after-years-albany-bulb It quotes one of the newly housed campers commenting, “I feel like I’m a human being now. I feel like I’m part of the world now,” Sanchez says. “I pay my rent and I’m just like, part of the world. I’m not living out in the city dump, you know, for free. I had the best view out there, though, I tell you.” Isn’t that feeling something that every homeless person should have a chance to experience?

    Finally, describing a city’s choice between a public park and a homeless encampment as a conflict between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is absurd. We need housing for those who cannot afford market rents, including the destitute mentally ill, including drug addicts. This housing needs to include plumbing, heating, running water, protection from the elements, access to transit and services, and access for ambulance, fire, and police services.

    But we still need public parks for all to enjoy – putting these two values at odds is as wrongheaded and destructive as sentimentalizing homeless encampment living.

    Rochelle Nason, Albany City Council (speaking only for herself, not for the City or City Council)

  • Lex

    Rochelle, thanks for sharing the KALW article. The exhibition at SOMArts includes art made by visiting artists as well as encampment residents, and art they created together. Throughout the process of creating the exhibition there has been a lot of dialogue about the choices and challenges facing homeless people in the Bay Area … not a lot of romanticizing although we can’t control the media. This article is one facet of a robust dialogue that has been sparked by the exhibition, I hope you’ll consider joining at one of the public events to share your perspective on the city’s homeless services during this transition.—Lex, SOMArts http://www.somarts.org/refugeopens/

  • Calla Gold

    This article about the Refuge in Refuse Show at SOMARTS and comment discussion is fascinating.
    I heard some heated commentary from the show opening between visitors and of course the ever outspoken Osha. For me seeing this show and Robin Lasser’s arresting photos of the homeless and their artwork was more to the point for me. I came in from out of town to see this art opening. In my town homelessness is a big issue as well.
    Seeing the homeless art shown with such respect was moving to me. As was staring at the image of Amber that Robin Lasser took and seeing the face of homelessness I was feeling a connection to her.
    I then turned around a corner and there was Amber whose picture had so moved me. I felt like you feel when you read about something and you’re really interested and then you see it in front of you.
    I had the opportunity to listen to her conversation with two other people. It was a spirited, yet civil debate. It was really quite stimulating. My father in law the professor of sociology would have loved it and just come alive. And just that suddenly this art showing became a happening for me. I wasn’t an observer, I felt more connected to the people who found themselves homeless.
    The homeless can be objectified, into one homogeneous population in people’s minds. De-humanized.This needs to be pushed back. Seeing the art and the creativity, the pictures of Boxer Bob and his girlfriend and their joy was eye opening. I wanted to know Boxer Bob.
    This show with it’s inclusion of all sides, civil engineers and their plans, archaeologists and their maps and finds, the films, the homeless art, paintings and found objects, Robin Lasser’s incredible images of the homeless in their now bulldozed environs, including the high tech version of Osha’s reaching skyward goddess, and the sometimes fireworky conversation was just better than I imagined it would be.
    I really loved seeing the bus “Lave Mae (sp?)” that allows homeless to shower and get clean parked outside the museum. It was so appropriate for me to see solutions as well as to hear about the problems. My eyes were opened to possible solutions. I’m not going to rant or rave or take sides. Much like this even handed and inspiring show. I loved it. You should go!

Host

Author

Dani Burlison

Dani Burlison is an award-winning writer, teacher and North Bay resident with a special interest in California's fascinating subcultures. You can find her commentary on writing, feminism, social justice and life with two teen daughters on Twitter at @DaniBurlison.

Become a KQED sponsor