Finding Refuge in Refuse at the Albany Landfill

Creative women and men have created a flourishing homestead dedicated to art, ecology and freedom at the Albany Bulb. The plants are wild, the art dotting every square inch of the peninsula is unsanctioned, and the residents embrace an alternative lifestyle. All these elements seem to be in harmony with one another.

An iconic image of the Albany Bulb at sunrise. Grim, one of the campers, sang, “My country ‘tis of thee,” as he waved a tattered flag in honor of a land of the free, and the campers who fight for their homes and their rights. Robin Lasser photo

by Robin Lasser

The Albany Bulb is a decommissioned construction dump with world-class San Francisco Bay views, friendly campers, and significant art and architecture. Standing on a windy bluff atop Mad Mark’s castle, you can see the Golden Gate bridge directly to the west, the Port of Oakland to the south, Richmond oil refineries due north, and Albany (notorious as the city with no housing for homeless people) due east.

The mudflats that form the base of the Albany Bulb migrated from the Sierra Nevada, residue from the gold rush when hydraulic gold mining unleashed sediment delivery from rivers to the San Francisco Bay. In 1963, on top of dreams of gold, a construction dump was born and the human-made spit of land took shape, adorned with cast-off piles of re-bar and cement slabs, along with marble from Richmond’s demolished City Hall and Berkeley’s former library.

Today, the Landfill Library, created by Jimbow the Hobow and Andy Kreamer, resides on the northeast side of the Albany landfill. You can check out the book of your choice, utilizing the honor system for return. One filmmaker called this place, “Bums’ Paradise.” I have grown to think of it as home away from home.

The Landfill Library, created by Jimbow the Hobow, allows Albany Bulb residents to check out any book on the honor system. Robin Lasser photo

Definitely put the Bulb on your bucket list, but don’t wait too long to visit, as the times they are a-changing. More than 60 campers are slated for eviction.

The Bulb is slated to become a park, but as one camper, Mom-a-Bear, eloquently declared in a recent Albany City Council meeting, “We already have a world-class park” — no need to make a new one.

The Bulb, for me, is one of the last stands in America where creative anarchy rules. And by that, I mean that the plants are wild, the art dotting every square inch of the peninsula is unsanctioned, and the residents embrace an alternative lifestyle. These elements seem to be in harmony with one another and it seems to be working.

I am a kindred spirit roaming the Bulb for almost two decades. I think this dump is the jewel of Albany, a vital destination point. The upcoming eviction will be a great loss not only to 60 or more residents who call this landfill their home, but to all of us who feel it is important to explore untamed territory, the boundaries between public and private space, and the intersection of people, art and ecology. How can I consider myself an environmentalist if I don’t also take into consideration human justice?

I began filming at the Albany Bulb for the purpose of documenting some of the ingenious ways some of the residents created homes. I am a professor of art at San Jose State University and I live in Oakland, California.

For the past decade, I have created, along with collaborator Adrienne Pao, nomadic, wearable architecture that we call “Dress Tents.” Imagine a 15-feet tall lady wearing a dress that you can walk into and utilize as a tent, a gathering space to consider the geopolitics of people and place. I wanted to explore how residents utilized recycled fabrics in their tent creations. I admired how residents at the Albany Bulb created home, physically and in terms of community.

Eventually, I began to talk more deeply with some of the residents. What turned the tides for me was something resident Stephanie Ringstad shared about camping at the landfill.

“Living out here is considered homeless, although we consider it our home,” Ringstad said. Her message hooked me and I refocused my lens on a fiercely alternative group of people living creatively amongst ruins littered with art, architecture, and wild plants.

This mandala was created by Robin Lasser and Judith Leinen as is an image of Albany Bulb resident Tamara Robinson as she expresses her feelings of invisibility in a society that marginalizes the homeless by crying out, “I am melting.” The full mandala is shown at left, and the close-up detail at right shows a profile of Tamara as it appears in the mandala’s windows.

Some portraits published in this story take on the form of mandalas. The word “mandala” is Sanskrit for whole world or healing circle. The mandala is a representation of the universe and everything in it; it is the most basic form in nature.

German artist Judith Leinen and I create these mandalas to honor the residents of the Bulb. They are a meditation on and celebration of the myriad ways residents use their creativity in response to life on the brink of change. The mandalas also serve as zoetrope image portraits.

Zoetrope means “wheel of life.” A Zoetrope is a device giving the illusion of motion. When spun on a disc, powered by citizens riding a bike made from metal scraps gifted to us by campers at the Bulb, these still portraits in the round come alive. The animations reveal creative actions by residents who in time of crisis choose to live creatively by painting, performing, cooking and community organizing.

The following stories of four women  campers at the Albany Bulb are direct quotes transcribed from the feature-length film currently in production. The film is made in collaboration with campers who share their creative lifelines and stories in the face of changing tides. The accompanying exhibition is created in collaboration with my colleagues: Barbara Boissevain, Danielle Siembieda and Judith Leinen, along with Bulb residents.

In this article I am honored to highlight four courageous women campers. There are more than 60 residents living at the Albany Bulb that I would like to introduce, given the space. I would need volumes to do real justice to this extraordinary place and the individuals who have made this landfill not only their home, but a significant destination point brimming with vitality, culture and spirit.

It is here in this article that my voice ends and the extraordinary voices of Amber Whitson, Danielle Evans, Tamara Robinson and Katherine Cody begin.

Yours in the intersection of art, ecology, social justice and everything wild!

Amber Whitson, a seven-year resident of the Bulb, is an organizer who works with great dedication to preserve this community. Robin Lasser photo

Amber Whitson

Amber Whitson loves her home at the Bulb and works day and night, doing everything within her power to keep her home, and at the same time help others. Amber also serves as the narrator and humanities advisor for the developing documentary film and exhibition we are creating about the Bulb. Interviewed at her home at the Albany Bulb, Amber said:

“Home is called home for a reason. It is home base; it is where your heart and soul are. We put our blood, sweat, and tears into this little piece of land we call home. My biggest dream is just to live out my days here in peace.

“I know I have lots of days left. I am only 32 but I don’t think that is so unreasonable, especially with all the work I do out here for the community and the amount of persecution I have gone through. They stole my son; they did all kinds of horrible stuff. They jailed me, put me in a mental institution for 24 hours before the doctor wouldn’t keep me there saying, “You do not belong here you are not crazy.” I know that, but tell them that.

“Winters are getting harsher and winds are getting stronger. The weather in general is strange — global weirding. If there are going to be environmental changes happening, it is probably going to hit us first because we jut out into the Bay. If it is going to get ugly, it gets ugly here first, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to live here. When there was that Tsunami they came out here with the fire department and a megaphone on top of their truck saying, “Everybody please evacuate to higher grounds.” What please? I just stayed in my backyard at a table in my shop and kept working. If I were to die, at least I know that I would have died in my home.

“I have a friend out here that is dying and he did not want to live anywhere but here either. As April said, “It is a dying man’s wish.” He said, “No, if I were going to have a wish, it would be for world peace or something.” Shit. But who could blame him for wanting to live where he is comfortable? He likes it out here. He calls it “the one place people won’t fuck with you or steal your shit even if you are homeless.”  [Note: Pat died on October 17, 2013, at home on the Albany Bulb, surrounded by his family of friends and his dog Eva on his lap.]

“Now I am forced into getting ready to leave home behind, which is so weird. I don’t know how to be homeless. How do you compact an entire existence into what you can carry with you? You know, once you have an entire existence. Reducing everything to only what you need to survive.

This mandala was created was created by Robin Lasser and Judith Leinen in honor of Amber Whitson’s dedicated work to defend and preserve the community at the Albany Bulb.

“I eat so healthy now. Soon I will not be able to have a stove. I don’t even mind eating leftovers from dumpsters, I do it all the time out here, but it is going to be so different when we won’t have anywhere to live. The thought of being tethered to a town sidewalk, rather than our home here, is incomprehensible.

“They want us out of our homes because they are thinking about making this into a park, even though many of us have been encouraged to move out to the Bulb. You know, out of sight, out of mind. Now they want to make the dump into a park. Well, it already is a park. And then they wonder why I don’t want to be a part of society. Gee, I wonder.

“You would never catch me treating people like this: ‘You there, I want you out of that home I have allowed you to settle in for seven years because I may want to go and recreate there sometime, possibly, if you weren’t there, but if you are there, I definitely won’t ever want to go there and hang out.’ ”

Danielle Evans creates beautiful paintings in her home at the Albany Bulb. Robin Lasser photo

Danielle Evans

Danielle Evans has become a painter during her residency at the Bulb. This creative outlet helps keep her “sane” in troubled times. Danielle’s paintings are featured in the documentary and exhibition.

Danielle said: “The paintings are my mood swings. I just go with how I feel and what my mind tells me to do. I paint when I am pissed off.  I express my anger in the paintings. I started painting two months after we arrived here (at the Albany Bulb). To be honest, it is a little crazy living here sometimes. Some of the people around here are kind of nutty so I stay to myself pretty much and I paint.

“Following my dreams and getting out my feelings — I think that is what I am doing. It is weird, some of the paintings are coming from within. Something takes over until it is done and then I know it is where I want to go. It is a good way of meditation, it helps me to relax and to not hurt anybody or think evil thoughts.

“Painting makes me feel calm and saner. I am able to go to sleep with a relaxed mind, not all jacked up. If I don’t paint, I can’t sleep because of all the anxiety of what is going on. So, painting is good.”

Tamara Robinson says she feels “invisible” in a land that disregards her existence, simply because she is homeless. Robin Lasser photo

Tamara Robinson

Tamara Robinson feels she is “not really alive.” She feels “invisible” to a public that disregards her existence, simply because she is homeless. Tamara speaks of life’s hardships and decides to dramatize the character of the Wicked Witch of the West at three distinct sites on the landfill. The film and exhibition highlight Tamara’s highly personal and yet very political landfill performances.

“I am nobody, really. I am just a 23-year-old ex-convict who is dying. I can dream all I want about being the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba. She was my favorite because, just like me, she was a person and the reason why she turned into the Wicked Witch is because of life and its horrors. I don’t even feel alive, just like a spirit roaming. I know I see people and people see me, but the way they make me feel by their quick judgment, I wouldn’t say I was alive or anything.

“I wanted to die and felt like nobody cared. Growing up, I had nobody. In the hospital after I had taken all my father’s medicine to kill myself, he left me sitting there with a goodbye as he drove off with his new wife and her family. He is cold-blooded. It is all about him. Some people join the service with the idea that they are helping somebody, but he went in with the idea of kill, kill, kill. He wanted to destroy other people for the power of doing it.

“Just like the City Council wants to make us feel like we are a problem here at the Bulb, but I have noticed people out here do more for each other than I have seen anywhere else. This may have just been a dump that nobody wanted, but we made it our home.

“I relate to Elphaba, how she got the way she was. She did not start off like that; she was forced into it really, just like some of us here. Some of us are forced into this situation. I am alpha in every situation and I will fight for our rights. Expressing myself with fashion, performance, and dance out here at the landfill gives me something to look forward to, it makes me happy, gives me hope.”

Katherine Cody is the resident cook at the Bulb. She works with great dedication and generosity to feed the homeless people who live at the landfill and her tent is the Landfill Kitchen. Robin Lasser photo

Katherine Cody

Katherine Cody is the resident cook at the Bulb. Her tent is the Landfill Kitchen. Towards the end of the month, when money dwindles, Katherine feeds 10-15 residents in a day. Campers find daily food, friendship, and solace at the Landfill Kitchen. Katherine is featured in the film and we hope she will be willing to cook food recycled from dumpsters for the opening receptions.

“I have this tiny oven. I feed the hordes with Easy Bake Oven parts! I think we are the most wasteful nation on the planet. We throw away tons and tons of edible food every day and that is where I get a lot of the food to feed people. Well, some folks will buy food with food stamps and contribute, others dumpster dive and contribute. Certain folks have really little to kick in except what they can do for work. So they wash the dishes and take out the garbage. I am terribly spoiled in that way. If you learn how to cook, you will be spoiled because it is an overwhelming process for some people.

“I put a big chunk of my income into it because I am feeding people that cannot do anything about work for food. And then there is Sparky. Sparky has difficulties. One day he came to me and said, ‘I have a can of gold spray paint,’ and I thought, ‘Oh no, because a lot of people huff with gold paint.’ And he said, ‘I am going to paint gold stars.’ I went out the next morning with my dog and walked amongst the stars. And that’s pretty awesome.”

Former Bulb resident Kelly Ray Bouchard wrote an eloquent declaration on these white rocks that described the natural beauty of the Albany Bulb and the hopes of the people who call the landfill their home.

The White Rock Manifesto

In 2012, a former resident, Kelly Ray Bouchard, wrote this prophetic, white-rock manifesto: “This landfill is made from the shattered remnants of buildings and structures that not so long ago were whole and standing, framed in concrete and steel, expected and intended to last. Now, through the concrete, grasses make their way. Atop the plateau, a eucalyptus drives its roots down through the cracks. Waves constantly erode the shoreline and wash out the edge of the road. And here and there, in sections leveled and cleared of rebar, our tents are hidden away. We live around and within the rubble. Live — not merely survive. Can you see how hopeful this is?

“The Bulb is not utopia. It is not free from strife and cruelty and chaos, but neither is anywhere else. It is flawed, but it isn’t broken and shouldn’t be treated that way. We, too, are flawed but not broken. So when the politicians start asking their questions and making their decisions, you can help insure that we aren’t treated that way. Enjoy the Bulb. It is yours as much as it is ours or anybody’s.”

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