www.iPoet.com: Feature: PEOPLE ARE TREES TOO
Online post date: May 28, 1999
- News Story: EDGE CITY
a reprint of the East Bay Express article of that name
by Chris Thompson, reporter, and
Faith Cathcart, social documentary
freelance photographer
April 9, 1999: page 2

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image: Alex McElree: photo by Faith Cathcart, East Bay Express. EDGE CITY
(page 2 OF 5)

Last year, the Albany City Council decided it was time to act. The councilmembers took their time studying the problem, even listening to testimony from the squatters themselves, who argued that they had nowhere else to go. In March, the council finally made up its collective mind. Landfill residents would receive social services aimed at getting them into shelters and, if necessary, off drugs. But they would have to go. On June 15, police will evict all homeless residents of the Albany landfill, and this unique boomtown of idealism and despair will disappear.

That's why I'm here. I've heard about this place for years and want to spend some time there before it goes away. Alex McElree, however, has a much less frivolous motive. This middle-aged man, despite (or maybe because of) the astonishing number of hard miles he's logged in his life, now spends seven days a week roaming the East Bay in his ambulance, searching for homeless encampments -camps that are invisible to most of the rest of us-delivering food and basic supplies to the indigent. For the last few months, he's been making drops at the landfill.

I'm the type who wears shorts and a T-shirt even in the dead of winter. I like to think that when it comes to cold, I'm one tough hombre. But while I pace back and forth in the rain and long for the warmth of the ambulance cab, McElree stands placidly still. The road leading into the heart of the landfill is blocked by a small chain. If the weather were nice, we might have just blared the horn and waited for residents to come to us. But many squatters are in poor health, and the rain will keep them from making the hike. So we wait for Albany Assistant City Administrator Ann Ritzma to drive up with the key to the padlock.

With time on our hands, McElree worries whether the city has come through on its other commitments. "[The city] told us that they were gonna put porta-potties and dumpsters out here this week," McElree says. "If they haven't, they'll hear from me. I absolutely will not stand for them not to do what they promised."

Minutes pass while Ritzma drives out from City Hall, and McElree decides to let those who can make the hike know we're here. We stand at the base of the landfill's "plateau" section, gazing up at the ridge and the white overcast sky beyond. McElree gives the signal, and an assistant hits the siren, which blares in a sharp, electronic whine. Ten minutes later, a few heads poke out above the ridge horizon, and then a straggle of leathery men coast down the hill on old mountain bikes.

This bleak day is nothing like the first time I visited the landfill, just a week before. On that occasion, I came with one of the landfill's original founders, a young man I'll call Malcolm, since he doesn't want his real name used. Around 1994, Malcolm and his friend Craig Metz, then a local urban gardener and anarchist, heard that the landfill was prime squatting territory: peaceful, out of the way, and rent-free. Gardening isn't exactly a lucrative occupation, and the bayfront squat appealed to his politics of anti-consumerist, off-the-grid living. "I went and had a look, and there were only about five encampments back then," Metz told me in a telephone interview. "My old house was unpleasant anyway, right next to Highway 580. I needed a new place to live and just went for it."

Malcolm, Metz, and Metz's girlfriend drove a van into the Oakland hills, visited the sites of houses in the process of being reconstructed after the 1991 fire, and scavenged as much scrap lumber as they could. They drove down to the edge of the landfill, a small cliff overlooking the lagoon, and went to work. "We jigsawed the thing from a two-by-four frame, with plywood on the sides and shipping pallets for the foundation," Metz recalled. "We even had windows and a skylight. It took about two weeks to build. We'd put dead branches around the top and pile it on the sides. You really couldn't see it.

"It wasn't like it was an unpleasant alternative to housing-it wasn't like that at all. The place was better than any house I ever paid rent to live in. I usually wasn't there during the day, but at night I always felt really safe. We had the whole place to ourselves. We'd set up big bonfires and throw some nice parties, plus we had this million-dollar view. It was great."

Metz lived in his shack for eighteen months. Then he took a full-time job, which meant he no longer had the time to lug water and supplies out to the landfill each day. He moved back into the world and bequeathed the shanty to another member of the anarchist tribe, a man who goes by the name of Robert Eggplant. "I like the idea of free space," Eggplant says. "This country's always had a roaming culture. I always thought the city could make it into something like the Hoovervilles of the '30s." During idle moments, he'd spy on others using the landfill: the police officers conducting training exercises and the kids playing paintball nearby. Eventually, Eggplant also moved out, after a friend pointed out how close he was living to the Richmond refineries. "After that, I noticed that I'd be tired a lot," he says. When Eggplant left, no one stepped forward to replace him, and the empty shack waited for someone to find it and move in. Malcolm and I came to the landfill to find out how the old girl was doing, and so that Malcolm could show me the natural beauty that had brought him here in the first place.

The day we chose wasn't the nicest on the calendar, but the landfill has a way of enhancing the weather. It was late afternoon, with a partly cloudy sky and a pleasant wind. We started our hike into the landfill where the Albany Waterfront Trail ends, marked with a slick new blacktop cul-de-sac and a couple of trash cans. "One of the reasons that the pressure's coming down on people is that all of the development around here is completely new," Malcolm says sweeping his arm past the blacktop. "This was all added in the last year; it used to be this little fucked-up road that ended right here. It was a lot more obscure, although dog walkers in the area have used it for decades." As if on cue, two German shepherds bounded by, followed by a middle-aged couple.

Before we started up the trail into the dump, I noticed a small plaque posted near the trash cans. Titled "Albany Waterfront: Nature Transforms," the inscription was written by Allan Maris, an Albany City Councilmember who has adopted the landfill and its denizens as his personal project. "For decades, the dumping of construction debris of a growing industrial society filled in the marshes and tideflats of the Albany waterfront," reads the plaque. "An unsightly peninsula began to form, hidden from the mainstream of urban life, a testimony to modern society's disregard for its environment. Forgotten except by nature. With time and nurture by the wind, rain, and sun, the rubble of the Albany peninsula came to life. Grasses, plants, and trees took root and flourished. Barren pits became verdant grottoes. Desolate shores became tranquil beaches and coves. Small animals and birds sensed a source of food and found a suitable habitat. And man rediscovered the wonders of nature."

On a tremendous concrete culvert just up from the plaque, someone has stenciled a description of the landfill's other identity: "People's Park Too."

We passed the culvert and strode up a wide gravel road. The landfill has three major geographical elements: the "plateau," a wide, mostly open stretch of shoreline; the "bulb," an oval-shaped island one mile out into the bay; and a ribbon-thin isthmus that connects the two. We first walked up to the center of the plateau area. Stagnant pools of rainwater lay in the distance, and a tiny creek bed had cut its way down the middle of the road. On either side, large mounds of broken concrete thrust out of the earth, and shards of brownish rusted metal stab out from the ground. "Most of the place is industrial debris like this, just old buildings and asphalt," Malcolm said. Here and there, discarded shopping carts lay abandoned among the concrete hillocks, their corporate logos a queer epitaph: Pak 'N Save, Costco, OfficeMax.

Malcolm pointed out the different plants that have taken root in the compacted, rocky earth. "The wavy fronds there are the pampas grass," Malcolm said. "They're exotic, invasive. All the tall bushes are coyote scrub; that's native. There's lots of fennel and kikuyu grass. There's a eucalyptus-that tree right there-but the dominants are the fennel, the coyote scrub, and the kikuyu." I stared at the distant waves of coyote scrub-thin, six-foot-tall brown stalks that blossom into hundreds of broccoli-shaped, fist-sized clumps of tiny green leaves-when finally I spied the first encampment. It was a black, tarp-covered cube that poked out from the scrub and twin mounds of concrete rubble. I could see the wooden frame running under the tarp, but the structure was too well hidden to show much else.

As we walked through the clearing toward the isthmus, I stared at the wires of rebar that coil out of the earth. Someone had welded many of them into bizarre shapes. At one point, we found an eight-foot-tall rebar sculpture depicting an angel perched upon a concrete pillar; her wing span probably exceeded twenty feet. On the west edge of the clearing, bright blue tarps and tents glared out from the brush. "This is a whole different style of camping than what I'm used to," Malcolm said. "When I was out here, we'd go out to the farthest point and make every effort to disguise the house. To see them just as you walk in, you know something different's going on now. It's high-density camping now." We agreed that it was not wise to blunder unexpectedly into someone's tent, so we circled around them and crossed the isthmus. One squatter rode past us on a rickety bicycle, glaring at us a little. "Hey, careful with that tape recorder," Malcolm joked. "You look like a cop."

The gravel road tapered down as we approached the bulb. Unlike the clearing and this landfill bridge, the bulb is flush with scrub and trees, a tangle of foliage through which a lone, skinny trail bounces over bumps and rocks, up and down the grades. Hard, fibrous gray stalks of dead fennel rose up and ended in dead blossoms. At the base of the stalks, the next generation of fennel was already sprouting, bright green plants bristling with little spines.

The brush here is so thick that we didn't see any settlement at all. The great hills of broken concrete, bric-a-brac, and rebar, so omnipresent at the entrance to the landfill, are here embedded so deep in the earth that all trace of them has vanished. Indeed, as the trail dipped into hidden grottos, we were lucky if we could see twenty feet ahead of us. This is the trail that the police and fire departments must take when responding to emergencies. At night, the area is pitch black, the ground is unsteady, and razor sharp shards of rusted metal rise unexpectedly from the earth.

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