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Over the years, homeless squatters have claimed the Albany Landfill as their own. Now it's time for them to leave ...

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
The steady rumble of Interstate 80 falls behind as you walk out onto the Albany Landfill, until the cars seem to float silently in the distance like ghosts. Half a mile out into the bay, the man-made peninsula flares at its tip -- hence its colloquial name: the Bulb. A dirt road narrows to a trail, which in turn spawns other trails, crossing and recrossing one another as they wind through dense brush. Grass sprouts amid piles of bricks and broken asphalt. Coils of rebar snake from the stone-hard earth. Across the water, San Francisco and the Golden Gate lie in the distance.

The place seems abandoned -- a ragged wasteland littered with beer bottles, empty cigarette packs, old tires, a crumpled water heater. But there are signs that people have passed this way. Sun patterns are carved into stones and small boulders are painted to resemble the leering skulls of apes. Murals have been painted on rocks and concrete rubble along the shoreline, a few signed "Picasso."

From a quiet, moss-carpeted hollow overlooking the bay, an angel fashioned entirely of rebar rises from a concrete pillar, her head thrown back, one foot lifted gently, the curve of her legs and torso so flawless that she seems ready to step into the heavens at any moment.

Farther inland from the angel, a black teepee decorated with crosses sits on a small plateau, and clusters of tents and wooden shacks lie hidden in the brush.

Under a flowering acacia tree, Robert the Rabbit starts his day. A quiet, clean-shaven 47-year-old with a soft, drawling voice, he grinds coffee beans in a metal bowl with the butt end of a pint glass, and sips vodka from a small white teacup. Monkey, his cat, plays in the grass nearby, black fur shimmering in the morning sun.

Most of the 60 or so people who live on the landfill camp in groups, but Robert's tent -- a sturdy collection of tarps and poles, with its own awning -- stands alone. He says people keep calling him "Rabbit" when he prefers "The Rabbit," and he's working on that. He moved here last summer, and life has, for the most part, been good.

"I can stay out here for days at a time and not have to go into town at all," he says. "I feel like I'm on a camping trip. I don't want to make it sound like heaven or luxury, but it is."

Of course, there is some work involved. The nearest water, a spigot jury-rigged to an irrigation system, is a 20-minute round trip by mountain bike (a necessity for landfill living). The nearest civilization, in Berkeley, is a good deal farther. To survive, people recycle, collect Social Security, do what they can.

Robert himself works occasionally restoring apartments to pay for essentials -- tobacco, cat food, vodka when he has a little extra. As for his own nutritional needs, he is a dumpster diver, though not an "aggressive" one, a claim that has something to do with pride and how far off the ground one's feet go when searching for food.

These days, a collective anxiety has fallen over the landfill, Robert says. There are rumors that a fence will be put up, that police will come with dogs and kick everyone out.

In fact, that day is all but inevitable, though still a few months away.

Cut off from the rest of Albany by the freeway and the Union Pacific railroad tracks, the Albany Landfill began taking form in the early 1960s, when the area's mud flats were filled with millions of tons of construction debris. Closed in 1984, the landfill left a vast, windswept peninsula reaching some three-quarters of a mile into the Bay just north of the Golden Gate Fields racetrack. It became a haven for dog walkers, joggers, hikers, and -- starting seven or eight years ago -- the homeless.

There were only a few at first, hidden deep in the bushes, braving isolation and unrelenting winds in exchange for some peace and a regular place to sleep. Over the years, though, the population grew as other camps under nearby freeways and along railroad tracks were cleared. As many as 100 people lived here last summer, before cold weather cut their number nearly in half.

Until recently, Albany ignored the camps. Trespassing is technically illegal on the abandoned landfill, but someone tore down the signs warning of this long ago, and police never bothered to enforce that rule, anyway.

By doing nothing, Albany has allowed a sort of hobo paradise to evolve. A casual hiker wouldn't know the campers number more than a handful, since the interlopers tend to keep a low profile. But the two worlds do touch from time to time. Hikers and dog walkers are becoming more common, in part because of a recently built bike path that ends at the landfill.

Police calls have increased with the growing population -- an overdose, fights, various medical emergencies -- as have confrontations between recreational users and squatters' dogs. While there has never been a documented assault on an outsider, a couple once reported being pursued by a man with a 2-by-4, who, luckily, didn't catch up.

In 1997, a group of BB-gun-toting high school students, in the area shooting at birds, fired a few volleys into a camp they stumbled across, and were chased away by shots from a small-caliber pistol, they told police. Four men were later arrested for marijuana cultivation and, in one case, possession of heroin, although no gun was ever found.

Last September, following a dispute over $30 or so, a squatter known only as Leatherman Joe poured gasoline over the tent of two fellow campers while they slept and set it on fire (the victims, a man and woman in their early 30s, both suffered major burns, but survived). Joseph Baur, 45, was arrested in Emeryville two weeks later, and has since pleaded no contest to arson causing great bodily injury and been sentenced to eight years in state prison.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin


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