Editor’s Note: In 2014, architecture Professor Margaret Crawford and Associate Professor of Art Practice Anne Walsh taught the first University of California, Berkeley, Global Urban Humanities Initiative research studio course, called No Cruising: Mobility and Identity in Los Angeles. Then a Ph.D. student, Noam Shoked traveled to LA as part of the class to study bicycling communities there.
When we asked Crawford to tell us a little bit about the class, she wrote that “while preparing for the course, we spotted a photograph of a roadside ‘No Cruising’ sign, which opened our minds to the possibility of an ambiguous and open-ended understanding of mobility in LA and aided our investigation. Urban Dictionary’s two definitions of cruising both emphasized nonproductive mobility: first, ‘just driving around with no clear destination’; second, ‘trying to pick up someone for anonymous gay male sex.’ We added the subtitle ‘Mobile Identity and Urban Life’ to underline mobility as a social and human condition rather than a traffic problem to be solved.
“The adaptation and appropriation of words and concepts used to define ‘mobility’ opened doors to additional varied and unexpected interpretations as ten students majoring in art practice, art history, architecture, and performance studies, each selected a dimension of mobility they sought to identify on our field trips to LA. One goal of these field trips, or research studios, was to get students out of their comfort zones to explore new approaches and methods. We encouraged students to draw on each others’ disciplines, so art students undertook archival research while architectural history students, like Noam Shoked, used interviews and photography to investigate contemporary conditions.”
Los Angeles, known for its uncompromising car culture and unending urban sprawl has in the past year added more than one hundred miles of bike lanes, and intends to add forty miles more this year. In addition, with more than 100,000 participants, the car-free biking event CicLAvia takes place three times a year and is the country’s largest event of its kind. These initiatives are supported by multiple nonprofit organizations and bike co-ops such as the Bicycle Kitchen, Bikerowave, and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.
I made my first visit to Los Angeles to study this emerging culture in the context of the global urban bicycling movement, including that of my home country of Israel. I met with activists young and old, as well as officials dedicated to transforming much of the city by promoting a multimodal model, if not a car-free one. I was ready to leave the city and start analyzing the data I gathered, but on my way out of town, waiting at a gas station on Spring Street in the downtown area, I noticed someone riding slowly on the sidewalk. In heavy clothes and an old hat, he didn’t look like the young cyclists in spandex shorts and glossy helmets that I’d been interviewing. His bike was not as fancy as theirs and carried storage baskets on both sides. A few seconds later, I noticed another cyclist. Like the first, he was also riding on the sidewalk and wore a large hat that made it near impossible to see his face. It didn’t take long before I noticed that the sidewalks were crowded with cyclists. Most of them seemed like they were in their forties, maybe even fifties. All were men. Their lived experience of biking in the city was so different from what my research had led me to understand was the norm in Los Angeles. I had to learn more.
By the end of my second trip, my research project, my assumptions, and my view of bicycles in the city were turned inside out by a series of conversations with bicyclists who were part of no particular movement or organization, but who depended for their livelihood on their two-wheeled vehicles.
On my second visit to Los Angeles, I went to the area where I last saw these men and stumbled upon the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA) Downtown Community Job Center on Main Street, a facility that helped day laborers find work. Many bikes were tied to the bars by the entrance, and I assumed the men who came to the center looking for work rode their bikes from home each day. Inside I met José, a short man, probably in his forties. José was born in El Salvador and moved to Los Angeles a few years ago. His bike was in good shape—painted red and blue, and on one of his wheels there was a light refractor. He told me that when he was a kid in El Salvador, he also rode a bike.
José said he got to the day labor center by bike, insisting that he rides only on the sidewalk. He explained he was afraid of getting hit and complained about the merciless car drivers in the city. Accidents, he told me, can also happen on the sidewalk, and so he rides very slowly. I asked José if he used to ride on the sidewalk in El Salvador. José was amused. He said it was simply impossible in El Salvador, where the sidewalks were narrow and too crowded with people, vendors, and other obstacles.
Trying to understand his regular commute to the day labor center, I asked José where he lived. He wouldn’t tell me. At that moment, another worker, Miguel, intervened and announced, “He is homeless!” José seemed uneasy with Miguel’s comment and explained to me that he owns a cart and a bike, and stays near the intersection of Spring Street and Cesar Chavez. He even invited me over and said he would love to show me his place. By any standard definition, José was homeless, but not according to him. According to him, he owned some property—a bike and a cart—and had his own spot on Cesar Chavez Avenue. The bicyclists I met last time I was in Los Angeles saw bikes as a matter of mobility, but for José, his bike was the opposite. It gave him a sense of belonging, a way to put down roots.
I was curious to learn more about why it was important for him to declare that he owns a bike and a cart. José pulled a receipt from his pocket and explained that he usually doesn’t get jobs through the day labor center. Instead, riding his bike, he collects cans and bottles, and sells them to the Downtown Metals & Recycling Center on Alameda Street. José’s receipt indicated he received $11.23 from the recycling center. He said he rides his bike to different areas of the city on different days of the week. He usually goes to the area around Temple and Glendale on Wednesdays, and to Skid Row on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes, he makes a big loop from Cesar Chavez, south to Washington Boulevard by way of MacArthur Park, and then back up Alameda to the recycling center, where he gets paid for his haul. Mobility, then, for José, was also a matter of inserting himself into the city’s economy.
Through José, I met Diego, who was younger and seemed rather stylish. Four years ago he moved here from Colima, a small city south of Guadalajara. Diego explained that he lives on Third and Los Angeles streets. It wasn’t clear to me whether Diego actually had an apartment there. I wondered if perhaps, like José, he was also homeless. By now I realized such designations were irrelevant to those at the day laborer center, and I worried about imposing my own norms on Diego or, worse, causing him discomfort, and so I didn’t ask him to clarify this point. A more definitive study might have required such information, but I was after something else. I wanted to learn about the city through Diego’s terms. Diego then told me that in order to get to the day labor center, where we met, he rides on Third Street and then takes a left turn onto Broadway. Sometimes he goes from the center to the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on Fifth Street.
Like José, Diego also collects recyclable material across the city, though he has his own route. He starts near his home and bikes eastward on Third Street. Along his route, Diego passes by the jewelry and wholesale stores downtown, a Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, as well as the art galleries and lofts in the Arts District right before going up on the bridge and crossing the LA River. Along this route his attention is divided between looking down at the sidewalk and up to the urban landscape. Once on the east side of the river, Diego stops at Hollenbeck Park where he can rest and relax for a short while. Then, cycling westward, back toward downtown, he stops sometimes by Mariachi Plaza before crossing the bridge again. From here, he turns to Alameda Street and goes straight to the recycling center at 1000 North Main Street.
Diego’s route traverses multiple landscapes and social scenes in six different neighborhoods. Riding on his bike, he sees difference, not sameness. While on his bike, even though inequality is not erased altogether, urban segregation is diminished. His freedom is limited only by how far his legs and two wheels can take him.
And they can take him far. He prefers riding even longer distances just for fun, and he belongs to a cyclists’ group with whom he goes on long rides once a month, usually from Montebello to Whittier and around Rose Hills Memorial Park—a twenty-seven-mile ride. He rides for necessity, but not unlike those young men whom I talked with on my first visit, he also biked for the love of it.
Before leaving the day laborer center, I also met Pablo, an undocumented immigrant who was born in El Salvador and moved to the United States seven years ago. He first lived in Las Vegas, where he worked for a furniture company; but early in 2016, he lost his job and moved to Los Angeles with the hope of finding another. For the time being, he registers every morning at the day labor center on Main Street.
Pablo told me he lives in Boyle Heights, not far from Mariachi Plaza. In order to get to the center, he rides his bike on First Street, crosses the LA River, and then turns onto San Pedro Street. When he gets a job through the center, he can ride his bike to almost any location in the city where there is work. One time, Pablo recalled, he biked all the way to La Cienega Boulevard. At another time, he even made it to Santa Monica. On his bike, Pablo covered an expansive geography.
At one point, while we were talking about the city and how different it was from Las Vegas, I asked Pablo what would he change in the design of the streets of LA, if he could. After a few seconds of silence, Pablo replied saying, “Not to have bicycles on the streets.” After a few more minutes of talking, I learned Pablo didn’t really want to eliminate all bicycles from the city. It was bike lanes he didn’t like. He didn’t want the visibility that came with riding on city streets. When riding on the sidewalk, he felt invisible to most passersby. When riding on the newly painted bright green bike lanes, he was just too visible. I am accustomed to thinking that visibility is a source of political power. For Pablo, invisibility is a tactic, or a means through which he can insert himself into the social fabric of the city without attracting the notice of anyone who might not want him there.
Before our interview ended, I asked Pablo about his income: How much money was he making every month? Was he getting a lot of jobs through the center? Or, was he relying on other sources of income like José and Diego? Pablo, who, unlike José and Diego, did not collect recyclable materials, explained to me that the day labor center to which he biked every day was not a source of reliable income. Instead, it was an institution that provided him with care, a form of compassion and friendship. Away from his family and home, the center was important for his emotional well-being.
On my way back to Berkeley I realized how much my understanding of biking culture had changed over the course of these two visits to LA. If, originally, I intended to learn more about an obvious problem—the lack of bike lanes—I was now faced with a completely different set of problems. Biking was not just a healthy and green mobility alternative in Los Angeles. It was also a matter of social mobility, citizenship, and visibility. In addition, while the biking activists I intended to study had a straightforward outcome in mind, the cyclists I ended up documenting resisted neat solutions.
And instead of finding a solution, through listening to these few cyclists, I found an alternative landscape. This landscape of cycling paths, economic activities, and squatting spots seems to exist almost secretly, despite taking place out in the open, right on the city’s sidewalks.
Photographs by Noam Shoked.
Noam Shoked is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and an Israel Institute Doctoral Fellow. Before coming to Berkeley, he worked as an architect in New York and Tel Aviv.
The Albany Bulb, looking northwest. Photograph by Robin Lasser.
On a misty afternoon in early 2014, you sail into San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge, threading the passage between San Francisco’s steep urban slopes on your right and the green hills of Marin County on your left. Gliding between two of the wealthiest peninsulas in the world, you continue past Alcatraz Island on the diminishing swell until the Bay opens up to the north and south. Silicon Valley is a hazy presence on the horizon off to the south, and the peak of Angel Island pokes up to the north.
You spot the industrial shores of the East Bay. The four-legged, skyscraper-sized gantries of the Port of Oakland loom to the right, and the remains of the Richmond shipyards are off to the left.
You continue due east, your boat surfing downwind as the gentle swells of the Bay lift your stern, until the Berkeley Hills get so close the windows of the brown shingled houses glint like flames and you can see the UC Berkeley Campanile.
Dead ahead is what looks like a steep, rocky, thickly wooded island. On the far side of a lagoon, hanging off the bluff like a nightmarish version of a Malibu mansion, is an impressively balanced three-story shack. It’s made of plywood, corrugated tin, and old window frames and encrusted with hubcaps, stained glass, and street signs. It’s topped off with a windsurfing sail and an American flag.
You veer left to the north side of the island and guarding the hillside crouches a giant dragon with reindeer antlers, ridden by a warrior—all made of driftwood. Along the shoreline an iron samurai wields a sword and a fifteen-foot-tall woman reaches to the sky with a beseeching gesture. Her windswept hair is made of branches, her skirts of twisted tin. Painted gargoyle faces stick their tongues out at you from truck-sized pieces of concrete. Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the distance. You can hear the tinkling and squeaking of kinetic scrap metal sculptures spinning in the breeze.
Straight ahead, past cormorants perched on mouldering piers, wetlands glisten with the movements of snowy egrets, curlews, and airborne flocks of sandpipers catching the sun like tossed confetti.
The mudflats are too shallow to navigate by boat, so you turn back and sail around to the south side of the island. Dogs bark, running in and out of the water at a small beach. You smell horses and saltwater and coastal sage. You see that the island is actually a peninsula connected to the mainland by a causeway of debris that rises some thirty feet above the water. An enormous red and yellow and green concrete Rubik’s cube clings to the rocky shore just above the water line, and clouds of pink, magenta, and white valerian, golden California poppies, and crimson roses spill down the causeway’s precipitous hillsides. A castle perches on a pile of rubble with a gothic arch for a window and a small turret. The castle is covered with paintings of human-sized rabbits.
You have discovered the Albany Bulb.1
But you are not the first. Urban explorers have been coming to the Bulb—by land—since the mid-1980s, ducking under what are now fourteen lanes of elevated freeways to this landfill made of construction debris. This peninsula was once open water, but like much of the Bay’s current shoreline, was created by the dumping of waste. Large-scale filling of the Bay was outlawed thanks to the Save the Bay movement of the early 1960s, but the Bulb was grandfathered in. People in the small town of Albany still remember coming here in the sixties and seventies to dump their old furniture and yard waste on top of broken buildings. When nearby cities needed new highways, commuter lines, stores, schools, and houses, what was torn down got deposited at the Bulb. Because the landfill was never completely capped, it is an open-air museum of creative destruction exhibiting huge chunks of brick walls, bathroom tile, highway supports, rebar, and asphalt with yellow highway lines intact.
It is also a thirty-one-acre battleground for the Bay Area’s competing progressive movements for social justice, environmental conservation, and politically engaged art. Street protest, lawsuits, regulatory jockeying, anarchist camp-ins, and art have all been deployed in the name of saving this oddball spit of land from and for its users of many species.
If you had gone ashore a couple of years ago, you would have found a community of more than sixty people living on the Bulb in tents, shacks, and the aforementioned cliffside mansion. The man who called himself Boxing Bob would proudly show off his handiwork on that house, with its million-dollar view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate, as well as the outdoor ring where he practiced his jabs and parries You might have met KC, a white woman with pink hair who lived with her tiny black-and-white dog between a giant eucalyptus and a grove of olive trees and Canary Island palms in a hut where she made jewelry. She might have invited you to her famous kitchen in the adjacent garage-sized tent where she made flaky lemon curd pastry for the whole community. You might not have met Doris, who was shy and had a little fence in front of her secluded home with a sign that read, “Cats—Keep Gate Close Please.”
You’d have seen Saint, a black man who always wore a World War II German-style military helmet, and Little Joe, a welder who came to the Bulb after his young daughter died in a hiking accident and his life went to pieces. Little Joe was not to be confused with Big Joe, who had hip problems and used a walker to get around the rough paths of the Bulb but could travel long distances for supplies on his bike.
Tamara from Southern California was pregnant and said she had lost her first child in a gun accident. She lived not far from a guy called Tom with graying blond dreadlocks in a section of the Bulb people called the Ghetto because it was so densely populated. Tom surrounded himself with shopping carts full of plastic bottles and rebar and bicycle parts.
Nearby, Frank built a teepee suspended from a sprawling acacia that had branches like muscular human arms. At a firepit next to his tent, he and his friends would burn wire and cable they found at the landfill to extract the copper. Frank said he had been a teenage jockey at Golden Gate Fields, the racetrack next to the Bulb, until he went to prison for robbing a bank.
For a while, Jimbow the Hobow—his spelling—lived in the section of the Bulb called the Ghetto. The Bulb’s poet laureate for decades, he lived all over the peninsula at different times. He grew up on a tobacco farm in southern Ohio and had been on the road most of his life. Like a number of landfillians, as they called themselves, Jimbow used to live at People’s Park, the university-owned piece of land in downtown Berkeley, about four miles from the Bulb as the crow flies, that has been disputed territory for even longer than the Bulb. Jimbow said he left People’s Park during the crack epidemic in the 1980s and went to the railroad tracks, eventually settling at the Bulb in the 1990s.
Amber in her tent. Photograph by Robin Lasser.
The Bulb was last resort for some victims of the economic crisis of 2008. It provided refuge for people struggling with trauma and mental illness who preferred living outdoors to the claustrophobia and social threats of shelters. Amber and her partner, Phyll, built a compound of tents hidden by a scrap metal fence with a Palestinian flag for a front door. “When you live indoors, nothing moves,” said Amber, who had a quick smile with no front teeth, a wardrobe of camouflage and black lace, an archaeologist’s eye for half-buried treasure, and an impressive knack for reviving laptops and mobile phones pulled out of dumpsters. The Bulb’s wind, the tides, and the movement of the grass and trees kept her sane: “The Bulb is the healthiest place I’ve ever lived.”
Some people led conventional lives before ending up here. Stephanie was married with three kids and made flyers for a real estate office in a nearby town. After her divorce and the foreclosure of her house, she found the peace and quiet of the Bulb more soothing than the noisy spot under the BART train tracks that she first tried.
Stephanie’s camp was as tidy as a suburban ranch house, with two stone-ringed gardens with geraniums, iceplant and pink flamingos, and an outdoor kitchen with a spice rack and flowers in a vase. Near her tent she made a bench with a patio firepit where you could look out to Angel Island and Mt. Tamalpais over the low wall she built of flat concrete chunks. She used solar panels to charge her cell phone and saw her grown children at the holidays. With a Monterey pine and a cypress framing her Bay view, her home was picture-postcard perfect.
People lived off the fat of the East Bay land. At the nearby Costco dumpster, pillowtop queen-sized mattresses were there for the taking, still in dented boxes, along with dinged lawn furniture and bags of imperfect bagels. Nearby University of California housing saw families come and go with each semester, leaving behind their books and shoes and kitchenware for reuse. Like a glacial moraine, the consumer goods that came in from China via those Oakland gantries flowed into the Berkeley Hills, down to the flats via estate and garage sales, and finally down to the Bulb.
Boxing Bob after demolition of his house. Photograph by Robin Lasser.
Dragon sculpture, San Francisco skyline behind. Photograph by Doug Donaldson.
Everything was transported onto and moved around the Bulb by bicycles equipped with handmade trailers, some of which could carry up to 750 pounds. These trailers carried metal that residents mined from the landfill and sold at Berkeley scrap dealers, as well as five-gallon jugs of water for drinking and bathing. The Bay Trail, designed as a recreational amenity, was a highway for the homeless supply chain.
Mom-A-Bear’s home was a social center. People would hang out in the dark interior of her Bear’s Den, the low-ceilinged wooden hut built under a ngaio tree. Calm and heavyset, Mom-A-Bear used to be a physical therapist and people often went to her for advice. She came to the Bulb after her husband and son were killed when their sailboat was caught in a storm off the California coast. She situated her home on a low bluff with a view of the Bay overlooking the Amphitheater.
The Amphitheater was just one of the many public spaces the residents of the Bulb built or adapted as the kind of agora or marketplace found in any small town. The Amphitheater occupied a bowl-shaped depression in the landfill and was where people gathered for meetings, had parties, and burned trash. The Castle was a kind of church or spiritual vortex built by longtime Bulb resident Mad Marc, designed with fairies in mind, and situated at a numerologically propitious west-facing spot excellent for observing the solstices. There was an outdoor gym and, at one time, a heated bath. There was a horseshoe pit and communally maintained trails like the one called the Yellow Brick Road, as well as a Free Box for exchanging goods. There were two stone labyrinths for meditation. And there was a book-filled Library that, like the ancient Alexandrian one, was destroyed and rebuilt several times.
The people who lived at the Bulb felt it was theirs. But so did a lot of other people. Dogwalkers were some of the earliest pioneers of the landfill. People from Albany and Berkeley and Oakland brought their dogs to the Bulb on a daily basis, and—led by their dogs’ noses—became nearly as expert on its nooks and crannies as the residents. Professional dogwalkers would come mid-day with as many as ten dogs in tow. Birdwatchers loved the Bulb for its 158 species of birds, which thrived among the fennel, coyote brush, broom, and feral wisteria.
Environmental educators brought schoolchildren to study the nudibranchs, tunicates, and bryozoans of the rocky shore. Geocachers, paintballers, cyclocross bicycle racers, parents seeking the ultimate birthday party, musicians, rave-organizers and professional wedding photographers all used the Bulb.
The Bulb was a charnel house of cities, where the skeletons of urban destruction and regeneration were laid bare. It was also a memorial garden for human lives. Painted messages on concrete remembered Suzy, who lived and apparently committed suicide at the Bulb. The place attracted people seeking a place to remember deaths that happened elsewhere. A hand-carved tombstone was marked, “In the Memory of Emily Wagner…33rd homicide in Oakland, 2004.” An abstract metal sculpture at the lagoon memorialized a baby’s death. At the center of the two labyrinths, you would always find a changing array of beer bottles, cigarettes, candy, and other favorites of deceased or departed friends and family, sometimes marked with notes and driver’s licenses.
Of all the park users, artists made the most lasting mark. They came to paint the door-sized slabs of concrete, to assemble sculptures of found materials, to make visual jokes. Someone arranged a pair of stuffed, striped, ruby-slippered legs so they emerged from under a large chunk of a house like those of the Wicked Witch of the East. Somebody else “solved” the Rubik’s cube by painting a single color on each side. An empty gold picture frame hung from a tree to frame a spectacular Bay landscape. A lump on a chunk of concrete became a painted monster’s nose. An elfin door was painted on a huge rock for imaginary sprites to enter and exit.
The art was as changeable as the weather and the tides. Medusa heads were painted over with dinosaurs, and dinosaurs with poetry. Images of Emma Goldman, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X weathered into obscurity. Art depicting manga-style rabbits proliferated all over the Bulb, with the artist riffing off different textures and locations and other people’s art.
The surface of the dump is uneven, with verdant bee-filled gullies slumping between rough peaks of concrete and lichen-encrusted heaths giving way to wildflower-filled meadows sparkling with eruptions of steel slag. Like a botanical garden with sections for Australasian or South American flora, different parts of the landfill provided creative microclimates. Motifs seeded and spread in response to differently fertile substrates: if one person painted eyes in the rubble, soon eyes in many styles would proliferate like dandelions after a rain. If someone hung one mask from a tree, soon more faces would be peering out from the branches. Stencils spawned linear hieroglyphic narratives leading from place to place.
Artists and passersby added to and altered sculptures. The beseeching woman, which some called the Water Goddess, was originally made of orange dock foam and was gradually refined and beautified with metal and wood. Visitors bestowed angel wings, shoes, jewelry, and whiskey flasks on the driftwood sculptures of human figures, and added beads and ribbon to the kinetic sculptures. Change was expected. The art was more performance than object, more personal than material.
Theatrical and musical performance also happened at the Bulb. The topography includes many natural stages that actors found inspiring. In 2006, the theater group We Players animated the entire peninsula with a mobile performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that began with the shipwreck scene on the beach and ended with a wedding feast at the Amphitheater. Prosperos’ mutinous winds, green sea, azured vault, and Jove’s stout oak were played by the site itself, and even surly Caliban helped put the audience at ease in the dreamlike, unfamiliar terrain, saying:
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”
Most art was anonymous, but not all of it. In the early 2000s, Bruce Rayburn, Scott Hewitt, Scott Meadows, and David Ryan—members of a collective called Sniff—gathered every Saturday morning to paint barn-door-sized pieces of plywood and flotsam that they erected in an art gallery along a hundred yards of the Bulb’s north shore. The work was collaborative and darkly whimsical, evoking both Bosch and Chagall, thickly populated with revelers, a devil or two, and flying nudes. Sniff gave up their painting after it was falsely associated with a gruesome murder. In a case that was tabloid fodder for three years, a man named Scott Peterson was accused of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, who had gone missing in Modesto in 2002. Her headless body had washed ashore not far from the Bulb. In statements to the media, Peterson’s lawyer pointed to the paintings at the Bulb as evidence that a Satanic cult had murdered the woman. Peterson was later convicted of the crime. But meantime, Sniff’s members were forced to explain to parents of their children’s classmates that they were in fact not Lucifer-worshiping decapitators, and the group was never quite the same.
Not far from the Sniff gallery, Osha Neumann created the Water Goddess sculpture with his son-in-law Jason DeAntonis. The scion of a prominent German Jewish intellectual family (his father was Frankfurt School critical theorist, Franz Neumann; his stepfather, Herbert Marcuse, philosopher of the 1960s New Left), Neumann dropped out of graduate school at Yale and spent his young adult years with an anarchist street gang in New York. He became a painter, sculptor, and lawyer, creating a famous mural near People’s Park about Berkeley’s history of protest.
Despite its physical isolation, the Bulb is very much part of the East Bay’s greater artistic, political and social history. The style of informal sculpture that studded the Bulb occupied much of the East Bay shoreline in the 1970s and 1980s, thriving on the outlaw culture of the garbage-filled mudflats west of the freeway. But the growing conservation movement saw the mudflats as valuable habitat for birds, not art. With more than 90 percent of the region’s wetlands destroyed by human activity, environmentalists were intent on saving and enhancing what was left. Homemade sculptures squatting in the mud were not part of this vision of a restored Bay and were removed. As protections for endangered animal habitats were beefed up, however, human protections were weakening, driving people from cities into open spaces at the urban margin. Starting in the 1980s, cuts in federal spending on affordable housing and the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill individuals sent thousands into underpasses, creekbeds, and parks. Later, the bust and boom of the late 2000s and teens created more human jetsam whiplashed between foreclosures and gentrification. Displaced people washed ashore at the Bulb (at least one literally arriving by boat) and shared the space with bricoleurs squeezed out of their old artistic stomping grounds.
Along this evolving waterfront, the Eastshore State Park was established in 2002 after decades of advocacy by the Sierra Club, Save the Bay, and the Audubon Society, which came together in an organization called Citizens for Eastshore Parks. After fighting off commercial development, the groups envisioned a series of land acquisitions that would connect existing city-owned and regional parkland into a continuous nine-mile swath of habitat restoration and trails stretching from the Bay Bridge to Richmond. The park general plan called for the removal of the remaining art.
The Bulb today is in the process of being incorporated into that state park, now named after the late Save the Bay hero, Sylvia McLaughlin. This troublesome peninsula is land nobody wanted—neither the City of Albany, nor the State Parks, nor the East Bay Regional Park District relished the headaches caused by the homeless people, the hazardous waste, the art, the dogs. In preparation for transfer of the land from the City to the State (with management provided by the Regional Park District in place of the cash-strapped State Parks), the encampments at the Bulb were swept out in 1999 and again in 2014. Frustrated that this jewel in the necklace of parks remained a shantytown years after it was designated a state park, the environmental groups were key lobbyists for evicting Bulb residents. Osha Neumann, the artist and lawyer, was a leading advocate for Bulb residents, and along with some Albany residents, brought an unsuccessful anti-eviction lawsuit on their behalf. It was one of a number of lawsuits at the Albany waterfront, where advocates for the environment faced off with advocates for social justice and for the human—and canine—right to public space. The conservationists argued that the garbage, drugs, and residents’ dogs made visitors feel unsafe and damaged the habitat.
Short-term housing assistance was offered by the city, and some people were able to move into subsidized apartments. But some Bulb residents didn’t want to move and others said the amount of assistance was inadequate to find permanent homes. Several Bulb residents found housing but lost it for the same reasons they became homeless in the first place: mental illness, substance abuse, orneriness, family tragedy, medical disasters, poverty. In April 2014, Albany agreed to pay $3,000 each to twenty-eight residents to leave and never set up camp again. Many of those people moved directly to a freeway underpass nearby. Others occupied a restored habitat area in another part of the state park, hiding among the bushes planted as homes for birds. Today, the community is scattered around the East Bay, living out of cars, under highways, and in ephemeral constellations of Bulb alumni roommate groups that migrate from cheap apartments to the street and back again.
At this green lump on San Francisco Bay, the central narratives the Bay Area likes to tell about itself collide, and the histories of its environmental, social, and creative cultures converge. The Bay Area thinks of itself as an environmental leader, protecting endangered habitat and saving the Bay. It insists that it is committed to equity and support for the downtrodden. It sells itself as a bohemian home for artists and touts its anything-goes creativity as an economic as well as a cultural resource.
We Players’ production of the Tempest. Photograph courtesy We Players.
Yet the Bulb lays bare the contradictions and inconsistencies in these stories and provides an ongoing laboratory for exploring the complexities of these nature-culture conflicts. It is a novel ecosystem in social as well as environmental terms. As a modern-day midden, it is a fertile site for contemporary archaeologists to unearth ways that discarded people make use of society’s material discards and to ponder our culture of disposability. As rising tides inch ever closer to the skirts of the Water Goddess, the Bulb has a front row seat to the climate consequences of that consumption.
The Bulb was, in human terms, an island of misfits, but it was a community that was a relatively safe, surprisingly sociable haven. In terms of natural systems, it represents the opposite of the Galapagos Islands—it’s a place completely invaded by exotic species that have blossomed into a botanical gallery of some of the toughest plants on the planet. For art, the Bulb is the last remnant of creative spaces along the East Bay shoreline that have now been almost completely wiped out, an endangered habitat as rare as homes for the salt marsh harvest mouse. As public space, it has been a park designed by its users, who built trails and vista points and benches where the authorities provided none.
The Bulb is a misfit in terms of park categories—neither a pristine wilderness nor an urban park, nor a typical regional or county park defined by picnic tables, trails, and bathrooms. Amid the tempests of the politics of park planning, it’s a place that asks whether we should listen to the unruly, ground-level Caliban wisdom of its everyday, often unsanctioned, users as well as the top-down visions of the Prosperos who wield their power as organized advocates, professional planners, and elected officials.
What does it mean to preserve “nature” at a man-made pile of rubble overrun with invasive species? Does art belong in a state park conceived of primarily as a conservation site rather than a recreation area? Do state park rules and policies developed for old-growth redwood forests work at an urban landfill? How can a habitat-oriented park be managed in a densely populated, highly urban area? What is “public” in public land? What rights do nonendangered wildlife have relative to threatened species—is displacement of undervalued species a kind of gentrification? What rules should apply in a park that has been so neglected by the agencies in charge of it that the users have taken over maintenance and established their own norms?
The Bulb is a place in transition—to what, it is not clear. If you were to sail around it today, you’d see that it is gradually being smoothed over and erased, with clean fill and lawns calming the rubble. Jungly vegetation is being cut down to improve sight lines, Mad Marc’s castle is crumbling and the Library is gone. There are still sculptures and dogs and birds, but new rules are domesticating this last bit of wild on the East Bay shoreline. This process of change is worth studying, because the lessons learned here apply anywhere that water, land, people, art, wildlife, and politics come together.
For a time, the Bulb presented a utopian vision of a user-designed, user-made public space—full of dysfunction, to be sure, but also possessing a vitality rare in public parks. That vision has not yet been snuffed. Some people see an opportunity for the narratives of ecosystem protection, social justice, and human creativity to be woven together instead of being pitted against each other. The Bulb could be a park that is both laboratory and performance, as dynamic as the human and natural forces that buffet its shores.
In researching this article, I have been involved at times as a participant and an engaged resident of the City of Albany, rather than a neutral observer. I am currently working with a group of artists and local citizens to make the Bulb a site for ongoing art, environmental and social research, and performance. Information in this article was collected over sixteen years of visits to the Bulb, including scores of hours of interviews beginning in 2013. Starting in that year, I worked with an interdisciplinary team of UC Berkeley students and Bulb residents to apply techniques of ethnography, contemporary archaeology, oral history, participatory mapping, mobile apps, botany, architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning to the study of the Bulb. We presented this work as The Atlas of the Albany Bulb (albanybulbatlas.org), part of the Refuge in Refuse exhibition (http://www.somarts.org/refugeinrefuse/) at the SOMArts Cultural Center in February 2015 which was curated by Robin Lasser, Danielle Siembieda, and Barbara Boissevain. The Bulb has been an important testing ground for the interdisciplinary methods of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative. The methods and the issues they raise are described in “Albany Bulb,” GroundUp Issue 4 (http://groundupjournal.org/albany-bulb).
Susan Moffat is project director of the University of California, Berkeley, Global Urban Humanities Initiative. An urban planner and curator, she has worked in journalism, affordable housing, and environmental planning in the United States and Asia. She is currently organizing an arts festival at the Albany Bulb.
Sculpture by Osha Neumann and Jason De Antonis. Photograph by Susan Moffat.
Like the weather, what’s news comes and goes. As a documentary photographer whose work has focused on California’s Central Valley for more than twenty years, I’ve become accustomed to the whims and sometimes fickle span of public attention. But the drought has broken through. Legions of reporters and photographers from all over the world have been dispatched to the Valley’s small towns and farm fields. Communities I have worked in for years have become headline material.
Of course, the drought is news. The world’s richest farming region may seem on the verge of collapse as groundwater levels plummet, towns go dry, and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland stand empty. But the Central Valley’s water supply has been declining for decades, and droughts have come and gone for as long as anyone can recall. The question is, whether this one is really different. Is this the mega-drought that finally turns the Golden State a permanent shade of brown?
On the ground, glimpses of apocalypse can certainly be seen. But the Central Valley is complicated, and its stories rarely check tidy boxes. Its contradictions and rough-hewn realities routinely confound even the most well-crafted narratives. The story of the drought is no different.
After decades of being ignored, a moment or two on center stage feels good in the Central Valley, even if some of the questions make us squirm. Like the neglected child in the back of the class, the Valley appreciates attention when it can get it, but deeper issues remain. A wet winter or two might erase this drought, but decades of declining resources, collapsing infrastructure, dirty air, and entrenched poverty will take longer to correct. When will we talk about those?
Sinamon lives in a makeshift home she built in a vacant lot just feet beyond Fresno city limits.
A dead almond orchard. Los Banos, California.
A shepherd’s camp in Mendota, California. Raul’s water for drinking, bathing and cooking comes from this 55-gallon drum.
Flea market. Tulare, California.
A man out of water. Alpaugh, California.
An almond harvesting machine leaves a trail of dust. Firebaugh, California.
A man whose well went dry. Farmersville, California.
California’s San Joaquin Valley, the southern half of its Great Central Valley, is the world’s leading producer of agricultural products, grossing over $20 billion of the state’s $34.8 billion agricultural earnings in 2009.1 It’s also home to a less recognized but significant economic force in the Valley: the manufacture and use of methamphetamine—also known as glass, crank, speed, crystal, zip, and ice—a brain-altering, central nervous system stimulant. Eighty percent of the nation’s meth labs and 97 percent of its “superlabs” are located there.2
Stylized in the golden-era iconography of California agriculture, this mural is displayed on the wall of an abandoned building in a field of weeds just outside the San Joaquin Valley town of Sanger. PHOTO BY RAY WINTER.
According to the 2010 Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Market Analysis, Central California is the principal methamphetamine producing region in the United States, controlled predominantly by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs).3 The profits are huge. The US Department of Justice’s 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment cites Mexican DTOs alone as making tens of billions of dollars annually through sales of illicit drugs, largely methamphetamine produced in the rural belt of California. The average street value per gram (the weight of a dollar bill) was $127 in September, 2009. If drug officials are correct that ten times the amount of seized methamphetamine makes it to the streets, then meth manufactured in the Central Valley in 2009 edged out peaches as the twentieth highest-earning cash crop in the state—over $327 million.4 This is a conservative, perhaps wishful, underestimation.
Such industrial-scale manufacture and consumption of a brain-altering drug puts the cultural, environmental, and economic well-being of this region at great risk. Meth’s large-scale manufacture inflicts an immeasurable environmental strain on America’s most fertile farmland and entraps many of its citizens. A multimillion-dollar industry mainly orchestrated by Mexican nationals would seem to have trickle-down benefits for the immigrant farmworker—a dark counter-narrative within the largely class- and race-based traditions of industrial farming exposed by Carey McWilliams in his classic analysis Factories in the Field. But in reality, there is little poetic justice here. The common agricultural laborer is hired to perform the deadly job of cooking and transporting this drug. Lured by the promise of a higher wage, he has changed vocations to little use: he is still indentured in chronic poverty with compounded threats to his health.
Evidence from a methamphetamine bust at a rural home west of Madera. PHOTO BY CRAIG KOHLRUSS. COURTESY OF FRESNO BEE.
The Valley is the prime location for such a nucleus of toxic harvest. Many circumstances make it favorable besides its remote and, therefore, “hidden” quality: there is the close proximity to the most powerful Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs); the elimination of porous yet risky border transport; the presence of a willing and vulnerable labor force from Mexico in the form of low-paid field workers; close proximity to dense population groups for its sale; easy access to interstate transport along the I-5 and CA-99 corridors; uninhabited spaces; and the opportunity for less conspicuous acquisition of large quantities of various toxic ingredients available from the surrounding agricultural industry.
Increasingly, the presence of meth alters the cultural fabric of a place already strained by a complex socio-economic infrastructure. Hundreds of billions of dollars are lost annually to overburdened justice and healthcare systems, decreased productivity, and environmental destruction.5 Besides threatening the tenuous economic balance of California, meth destroys the lives of its users, a spectrum of ethnicities but primarily the economically vulnerable. On the domestic and civil fronts, methamphetamine holds the title as the single greatest drug threat throughout the region. Most violent and property crimes in the Valley are meth-related, including theft, domestic violence, child abuse, and homicide induced by its side effects.6
The effects of this drug on the human body are horrific, escalating according to the duration of use. In fact, as meth forces the abnormally large release of the body’s pleasure chemical dopamine onto the brain’s neuroreceptors for an extended time, it exhausts this natural chemical and makes it harder to get high. A user’s response, of course, is to use harder and heavier. Made of corrosive and toxic materials such as Freon, paint thinner, battery acid, and anhydrous ammonia, it is no surprise that its effects on the human body are long-lasting and life-altering.7 Brain function is altered at the synaptic level, affecting memory, judgment, and motor coordination. Hallucinations and long-term paranoia commonly occur. Impaired judgment leads to crime, sexual promiscuity and accompanying diseases, and social dysfunction due to a singular desire to stay high. Users risk heart failure and stroke due to the strain on the heart and blood vessels from extended periods of kinetic unrest. They experience skin sores, malnutrition, and horrifying oral decay known as “meth mouth.”8
Wall of graffiti in west Fresno. PHOTO BY RAY WINTER.
Even before meth does its damage to users, this “poor man’s cocaine” first threatens the lives of its makers. Fresno, Tulare, and Kern Counties are three of the state’s five largest agricultural employers, each averaging over 20,000 employees.9 The laborers in this large pool are far from home and generally without legal rights or social agency as they look for the best available alternative to poverty in the Golden State. These circumstances make them expendable targets for the DTOs that promise big money as “cooks” or “mules.” Once lured into the mechanism of production and distribution, they often find themselves trapped, having told the Mexican DTOs where to send their earnings back in Mexico. Ringleaders then confirm a family connection, which all but enslaves the workers to these drug lords out of fear that a lack of acquiescence or loyalty will lead to the death of a wife, child, or other relative.10 They are enslaved in a system that ends either in arrest or death. DTO recruiters are distinctly aware of the total lack of alternatives for undocumented Mexican nationals in the United States and clearly target this most disempowered sector of the laboring population. Throughout the 1990s, twice as many Federal methamphetamine cases involved Hispanic noncitizens than Hispanic citizens.11
Amelia Turse examines a hole on her property where a methamphetamine lab was uncovered. PHOTO BY CRAIG KOHLRUSS. COURTESY OF FRESNO BEE.
The situation is particularly perilous for cooks, who render the toxic ingredients into the end product. Even if they escape arrest by authorities or murder by their employer—a depressingly frequent occurrence—they face serious health risks from the chemical ingredients and volatile reactions inherent in the manufacturing process. The acidic compounds, deadly if breathed or touched are much more caustic than the muriatic acid used in swimming pools, able to burn flesh off the bone in seconds and cause chemical pneumonia leading to a quick and painful death.
Methamphetamine’s destructive appetite devours more than human lives. Drug-fighting agencies estimate that for every pound of methamphetamine manufactured, five to seven pounds of liquid toxic waste are produced.12 Untold amounts are regularly dumped into canals, streams, irrigation ditches, top soil, shallow pits, sewage lines, and eventually leak into the Central Valley water table.13 This unregulated and criminally irresponsible dumping of toxic by-products directly into the water systems of the Central Valley may stand alongside the long-term damages from widespread pesticide spraying, once all the facts are known. A fifty-pound batch of meth produces as much as 350 pounds of concentrated toxic by-product, which in the case of one superlab was dumped directly into nearby soil or waterways. The EPA has identified sixty-five by-products from its production as hazardous waste materials (classified as cyanides, corrosives, solvents, irritants, and metals/salts).14 The specific effects and toxicity of these chemical cocktails are uncertain, but present a threat of ecological devastation. When considering that the Central California landscape and waterways are integrally connected and engineered to maximize food growth for the nation, tracking these chemicals and their effects leads directly to dinner tables across America.
This epidemic is one of the most devastating and ironic contemporary counter-narratives of the idealized California landscape. The deadly effects of methamphetamine on its low-income users and labor force and its post-manufacture strain on the environment and economy represent the new lows to which idealized prosperity has fallen in the name of private-party profit. Why do people use the drug? Is it to escape the disappointment of a once promising but ever unfulfilling life in the West?15 “Big Rock Candy Mountain” isn’t just a folksong but a very real social and environmental toxin. A short-lived, hyper-euphoric high is hardly a legitimate substitute for the California Dream.
The new drug factories in California fields have added another layer to the many ways in which the American farm has caused as much pain and poverty as it has enjoyed prosperity. Drugs are as mainstream a commodity as the food that makes its way to every store shelf in America, yet they are invisible in the commercial depictions of the wholesome California farm. Tourism and agricultural boards spend millions of dollars maintaining the concept of pastoral perfection through images of happy cows, healthy chickens, and bumper crops from family farms. It seems the state and private-party profits accrued in part by the maintenance of this pristine image continue to take priority over curbing the very real human and ecological costs of meth. The unmediated dumping of toxic by-products directly into waterways endangers the economic livelihood of the farms and families that feed America, surely a significant enough threat to this multibillion-dollar industry to warrant significant governmental and private response. In the meantime, meth dealers are effectively urging a grotesque “Buy California” slogan to pedal “Californian ice” to the farthest reaches of the nation.
The magnitude and momentum of this problem deserve immediate and uncompromising attention. Attempted solutions to this epidemic reveal an infrastructure committed to a reactive approach that engenders exorbitant economic, social, and environmental costs. However, potential improvements can be seen in the actions of entities such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and interagency collaborations. One recent example is Save Our Sierra (SOS), an interagency law enforcement effort in Fresno County seeking to eradicate ecologically devastating clandestine marijuana farms in the Sierras.16 In 2009 they reported the seizure of over $1.1 billion of marijuana plants and made eighty-eight arrests, some of which were tied to DTOs.
While these measures are a necessary part of the holistic response to such an invasive problem, they don’t address systemic causes of rampant domestic drug manufacture and use such as insufficient border controls, inconsistent farm laborer rights, the accessibility of key drug ingredients, and the depletion of funding for drug-awareness efforts. Such issues are being addressed on the legal and educational fronts by political representatives and engaged citizen groups, but federal funding and corporate support heavily favor a reactive response to the epidemic as seen in the extreme juxtaposition of spending between prisons and rehabilitation as compared to preventative educational programs, special agency funding, and community awareness.17
As long as this pattern continues, meth will always have a safe place to hide while the land and the people of the Central Valley pay a dear price. The solution to this epidemic may include reimagining the Valley as something more dubious, and less profitable, than the “land of milk and honey.” This may be too high a price to pay for those who profit greatly from this idyllic perception. Either way, the bountiful land of the Central Valley and the lucrative profits that are the source of the region’s livelihood are compromised by a parasitic parallel system of manufacture, labor, and distribution that is more than willing to supplant industrial agriculture as the new factory in the fields.
Chemical stained sheets and packaging card found at methamphetamine chemical dump. PHOTO BY CRAIG KOHLRUSS. COURTESY OF FRESNO BEE.
2. These percentages are according to California Department of Justice’s “Clandestine Meth Labs” report. A “superlab” is a production facility that manufactures ten pounds or more of meth per batch, as compared to a typical one pound “stove top” batch; many superlabs have been found that produce fifty or more pounds per batch. From 2005–2009, an average of 207 laboratories and abandonments were found by authorities in San Joaquin Valley counties, led by Stanislaus, Merced, San Joaquin, and Fresno (US Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, Central Valley California HIDTA Drug Market Analysis 2010, June 2010, Table 2). According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH, 2010) published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, first time users of meth from 2002 through 2009 average over 216,000 per year (Figure 5.6). The total number of users nation-wide is not estimated, but is considered a significant percentage of the nearly twenty-two million illicit drug users.
3. According to US Dept. of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, “Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis 2010.”
4. According to Central Valley California HIDTA Drug Market Analysis 2010 (June 2010), 258 kilograms of meth were seized in 2009 in the Central Valley, which calculates to $327.66 million once multiplied by street value and increased by ten to calculate for unseized meth. Statewide income from peaches in 2009 was $326,331,000 (California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, 2010 Agricultural Statistical Review). Ed Synicky, a state agent fighting the drug war, is quoted in Arax and Gorman’s article in the Los Angeles Times titled, “California’s Illicit Farm Belt Export” as saying that for every meth lab seized, it is assumed there are ten more that go undiscovered (13 March 1995).
5. According to the US Dept. of Justice’s 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment (February), economic costs are estimated at $215 billion a year.
6. In the Pacific Region (dominated statistically by the Central Valley), 87.3% of state and local law enforcement agencies characterize methamphetamine as the greatest drug threat in their jurisdictions, compared with 29.4% of agencies nationwide (US Dept. of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, National Methamphetamine Threat Assessment 2009, December 2008, Pacific Region). The crime patterns, as well as the environmental data that follows, are recorded in a number of reports (2001–2010) posted on the Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center website. Gang-related violence is also a result of meth manufacture, but more a product of gang culture than the use of meth.
8. Effects of meth are collected from Kci.org, anti-meth.org, and pbs.org’s article, “The Meth Epidemic: How Meth Destroys the Body.” For information and images of meth mouth, go to http://www.mappsd.org/Meth%20Mouth.htm.
10. As described in Mark Arax and Tom Gorman’s Los Angeles Times article, “California’s Illicit Farm Belt Export,” 13 March 1995.
11. As cited in “Methamphetamine Use: Lessons Learned” by Hunt, Kuck, and Truitt. Abt Associates, Inc. February 2006, 27. This information derived from the US Sentencing Commission, 1999.
12. According to the 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment compiled by the US Dept. of Justice.
13. National Drug Threat Assessment 2010, “Impact on the Environment” discusses the patterns of dumping and the amount of by-product waste created. The EPA document from September of 2008 titled “RCRA Hazardous Waste Identification of Methamphetamine Production Process By-products” further explains the typical domestic disposal of toxic by-product into city sewage lines, septic systems, and nearby soil.
14. Taken from the EPA document from September, 2008 titled “RCRA Hazardous Waste Identification of Methamphetamine Production Process By-products,” Appendix B.
15. According to the 2010 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings, the western region of the United States has the highest percentage of drug dependence at 9.5% of its population.
17. Examples of legislation seeking to curb meth production are highlighted by the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 (MCA), which regulates the distribution, import, and export of key ingredients (US Dept. of Justice, Office of Diversion Control; Federal Register: 28 March 2002 (Volume 67, Number 60). The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2006 placed restrictions on the over-the-counter sale of key ingredients pseudophedrine and ephedrine (National Drug Threat Assessment, 2010). Also, the Mexican government banned the import and use of key ingredients pseudoephedrine and ephedrine in 2009 (National Drug Threat Assessment, 2010).
Susan Straight is Boom writer-in-residence for 2011.
The empty houses I see everywhere—foreclosures that happened to my friends and neighbors and family—left me for many mornings bereft. That is the word. Reverse mortgages gone wrong, refusals to renegotiate bad loans given to people who kept getting turned down for regular loans, and again and again, people who lost their jobs—teachers, air conditioning salespeople, pest control men, custodians, contractors, landscapers, day laborers. My neighbors and relatives—gone.
Five on my own block, twelve more on my way to work. Yes, I counted them, because I was so shocked at the boarded-over windows, like blank eyes, and the milkweed and foxtails standing in the front yards, tall as purposefully grown crops. And then the countless others I saw while driving around southern California—all those homes that were no longer home broke my heart.
I became obsessed with looking at them. In my inland community, as in Lucy Puls’s haunting, elegiac farewells to rooms once lived in, the houses range from contemporary mansions to old wood-frame bungalows. Foreclosure, toxic loans, bundled mortgages, underwater, short sale, repo—such clinical, bloodless words, an entire language now familiar to Americans, and it doesn’t matter whether wealthy or not. Abandoned is the word. The empty shell.
Rich, poor, in the middle—wholesale blind-eyed windows for everyone because of “robo-signed” foreclosure papers, because banks so often lent inattention and indifference. Recently, a couple trashed their sumptuous custom-built home in a brand-new tract northeast of San Diego; they had been foreclosed on, and they stripped the house of fixtures, bashed holes in the walls, destroyed the rock façades, filled the pool with uprooted trees and bushes, and even took off the garage door. The house had resembled a castle, the drawbridge gone now.
But down my street, no one had bought beyond their means. The longtime owners lost their jobs. These were two-bedroom homes built in the 1920s and ’30s and’40s, and my neighborhood looked like every other older community in a California city—narrow streets lined with bungalows and stucco cottages, gravel or cement driveways, fruit trees and porches and palm trees wearing shaggy girdles of ivy.
I peeked inside the house next door to me, and it looked exactly like some of Puls’s photos. Hard living had made the carpet into earth, and the haunting of pictures left clean rectangles on the dirty walls. Curtains like gauze shrouds.
All over southern California, people left behind black plastic bags in driveways and rooms, like slugs piled upon themselves. Inside had to be clothing, pots, toys—things I’d seen held, worn, and loved. Choices made to leave them behind.
I felt a feral conquering was just at hand. In the dead brown yards, where sprinklers were turned off and the lawns and tended shrubs withered, the neo-native, invasive plants of California began to assert themselves in the winter rains. Filaree with tiny purple flowers and corkscrew seeds; wild oats like shivery spangles of green and then gold in the wind; tumbleweeds big as Volkswagens that were no longer parked there.
Then an entire shadow corps began to descend upon the homes—mattresses on the porches (pillows stolen over and over off my own porch furniture) and homeless men sleeping on back steps. Wild cats inside the crawl spaces. New industry—the caretakers of the discarded—came in trucks with men who hauled off dead trees, cut man-high weeds and drained black-water pools. On the next block, a squatter sold off a rock wall, stone by stone. Who bought them?
Next door, the century-old avocado tree lived because I watered it over the fence; the foxtails were so lush they sent thousands of sharp gold spurs over the sidewalks, a few always attaching to my dog’s paws. Sometimes, I took the dog up a cement walkway, past the filaree gone to seed, saying the word in my head—filaree! My favorite wildflower in the vacant lots of my 1970s childhood, when no houses around me were ever empty, when California was building mile after mile of modest ranch houses like mine and all were filled with children. My dog and I walked around the porch so I could see into a side window, see the inside of the house where my neighbor lived for thirty years, a woman who bought Girl Scout cookies from my daughter, just so that I could remember the built-in china hutch from the 1930s, from the last Depression, from a different time.
The journalist Sasha Abramsky talks to Gabe Treves, one of the organizers of Tenants Together, the San Francisco-based advocacy group, about the impact of the foreclosure crisis on rental tenants.
California has always been defined by its bubbles—and almost as much by its busts.
The state was birthed in the Gold Rush as tens of thousands of Americans stampeded west in search of a quick fortune. In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, dreamers seeking to reinvent themselves and carve out new destinies have flocked into the state by the millions and California has floated on Hollywood money, defense contracts, technology booms, and real-estate speculation.
The corollary of the outlandish boom is the crippling bust. In the 1870s, following a devastating financial crisis, unemployment soared, political discontent escalated, and eventually a constitutional convention was called to rewrite the state’s fundamental operating procedures. California’s “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War was a mixture of unemployment, social-service cutbacks, and rage, resulting in a populace increasingly hostile to government and unwilling to part with tax dollars to fund social infrastructure. When tech stocks crashed a few years later, the effects ricocheted through Silicon Valley—some of the wealthiest counties in all America. Today, in the wake of the housing collapse that began in 2006 and the financial meltdown that followed in 2008, one in eight Californian workers is unemployed; a similar number are underemployed (working part-time, despite wanting and needing full employment); and property owners by the thousands have gone into foreclosure or simply walked away from underwater mortgages, sometimes devastating whole communities.
Long defined by an anything-is-possible mindset, Californians are having to adjust to the realities of hard times. For generations, real estate in California has offered a route to prosperity; now, for millions of Californians it is an albatross. Five of the ten cities with the highest foreclosure rates in the country are in California: Modesto, Merced, Stockton, Riverside/San Bernardino, and Bakersfield.
And the damage is not limited to homeowners. Increasingly, California’s renters are being hammered. Landlords default on their mortgages and disappear with their tenants’ security deposits; banks reclaim delinquent homes and become absentee landlords; investors buy these properties at auction; and all illegally evict the old tenants. Tenants who have spent years carefully building up good credit find that they have an eviction on their credit report and their ability to borrow money—for example, to buy a home for themselves—disappears.
At Tenants Together in San Francisco, fielding calls from desperate renters being evicted as a consequence of a landlord going into foreclosure has become a full-time occupation for the staff.
Sasha Abramsky: Can you tell readers who you are?
Gabe Treves: I’m the program coordinator at Tenants Together. Among the many things I do is manage the foreclosure hotline, which we launched early in 2009. While a lot of attention is given to the plight of homeowners facing foreclosure, for the most part tenants are forgotten victims. However, it turns out that one out of every three foreclosed properties in California is a rental. In 2008, over 200,000 tenants were in foreclosed properties and were facing displacement. We haven’t yet run the numbers for 2009. But we assume it’s right around the same level.
Unfortunately, the reality for most tenants is that once the house they’re living in is foreclosed and the property is acquired by a bank or private investors, they want the tenants out as soon as possible—really by any means necessary. They contact real-estate agents whose job is to get rid of these tenants. They knock on their doors, misinform them, harass them, and bully them into leaving as soon as possible. They succeed in many cases. But the tenants are actually entitled to certain protections under federal law, state law, or in some cases city-level ordinances. Our counselors explain to them what their rights are and how to go about asserting them. The idea is that if tenants know their rights they will be able to stay in their homes for as long as possible and can use that time to find another suitable living situation—or in some cases actually stay in their houses.
SA: How many tenants do you work with?
GT: Since we launched in March 2009 we have counseled over 3,000 tenants.
SA: Where are most of them from?
GT: Well, you know, we get a lot of our calls from San Diego, a lot from Los Angeles—just because it’s such a big county—from parts of the Central Valley being very hard hit by the foreclosure crisis, from the San Jose area. Really from all over the state.
SA: Didn’t Tenants Together work with many people in the desert town of Ridgecrest? What happened in that community?
GT: It’s a great example of how our hotline can help tenants in foreclosure situations. In 2009 we started getting a lot of calls from tenants in Ridgecrest, most living in a handful of apartment complexes in the same couple of streets, all telling the same story. Suddenly, despite paying their rent on time, they learned their home was being foreclosed and they were facing eviction. Ridgecrest is a small city in Kern County, one of the most conservative counties in California. We decided to go down there, talk to the tenants, and find out what was going on. Onsite we were able to identify a few great tenant leaders and help them pressure their city government, the board of supervisors, to pass an ordinance protecting renters. With a lot of hard work and organizing they succeeded; the Ridgecrest City Council passed the Central Valley’s first Just Cause for Eviction ordinance in September 2009. It lists all of the reasons for which tenants can be evicted: if they don’t pay their rent, if they are disruptive, if they do anything illegal on or with the premises. Of course, it does not list foreclosure. This meant that when those properties were acquired by a new owner, the new owner could not evict the tenants. As a result, a huge number of tenants in Ridgecrest are now able to stay in their homes—the new owner has to serve as their landlord.
SA: But many cities in California don’t have these protections.
GT: Unfortunately, only sixteen cities in California have Just-Cause ordinances. That means in most of the state tenants have limited protections. Most are protected by the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, a federal law passed in May 2009. It was a major victory, but it’s still not as good as the city-level ordinances. It just extends the amount of time tenants can stay in their home after it is foreclosed. In some cases, if the tenants have a long-term lease, then it gives them the right to stay in their homes through the term of the lease.
SA: How has the foreclosure crisis changed California?
GT: What it changes is the way people perceive their sense of stability. A lot of tenants thought they had earned the right to claim that stability, that because they always paid their rent on time and did everything by the book they effectively had the right to their home. The foreclosure crisis has been a really harsh lesson about the illusory nature of that sense of stability. It’s been very demoralizing for a lot of people.
SA: How has it changed people’s behavior?
GT: People are more cautious, less trusting. It’s changed the relationship of many people with their landlords. The crisis, which has displaced so many people, makes a lot of people reflect on their communities. When they get suddenly displaced and are forced to move away, they have to reassess all the things they used to take for granted—the value of living near their jobs, near their schools, things like that. I’ve noticed that poor, working-class tenants have dealt with the situation differently from well-to-do tenants. A lot of poor tenants are resigned to this kind of thing; the foreclosure crisis just reinforces that they don’t have a lot of control and even when they pay their rent on time that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to secure the stability that their families need. A lot of them tell me, “Oh, that’s just the way it is.” They understand that security, stability, well-being are not in their domain, because they’re the working poor.
But a lot of well-to-do tenants, who felt they had earned that right and were entitled to some protections, are learning that they’re not. And that’s been very hard for a lot of people. It creates a lot of anxiety, a lot of mental stress. When that sense of security is violated and the sense of home is damaged or destroyed, it’s going to be very difficult for them to ever really reclaim it.
SA: Are you seeing towns where people are just leaving?
GT: There are whole towns, whole neighborhoods that have been blighted. They’re vacant. When people think about the foreclosure crisis they think about the individual occupant, but it can affect entire communities, businesses. If all the tenants in a community leave, it affects the businesses in that community, the schools, the social services. I’ve gotten calls from tenants: “The house to the left and the house to the right of me have been vacant for months.” They’re getting pushed out too, and they know their home will just join all the other vacant houses sitting on the block.
SA: If you compare what’s happening in California to what’s happening nationally, it looks like California’s bubble was bigger and now the bust is bigger. How is this changing the psyche of California?
GT: It comes back to Californian exceptionalism. I think Californians have always held a belief that if they work hard, do things by the book, they can claim that sense of stability, security, well-being. And now that sense is being deflated for a lot of people. They start feeling like the rest of the country—that they’re not exceptional, that they can just as easily fall victim to these massive national trends and institutions. I hope it helps people realize that their best chance to achieve real security is to pressure their city governments and the state and federal governments to pass more sensible legislation to protect tenants. And I hope that tenants will start holding the banks accountable for what they do and will pressure them to adopt more sensible policies and more humane policies. Because otherwise everyone loses. B