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The Castle in a 2013 incarnation.

Albany Bulb: Flotsam Art Utopia

Field review by the editors.

Albany, California

The Bulb is a unique manmade protrusion in San Francisco Bay, a hardly-policed peninsula of woods, brush and shoreline. The denizens who freely camp in its nooks and crannies are lucky in one sense; comparable views of the SF city skyline cost millions elsewhere. But for nature buffs, The Bulb takes some getting used to. It's made of industrial detritus and oddball art.

From its start around 1939 until 1987, the Albany waterfront and its marshes were a popular spot for large scale dumping: construction debris, lots of smashed up concrete and rebar. The wide "bulb" hill formed in the 1960s when the adjacent cities licensed a landfill operator to run the area. Lawsuits stopped the dumping, nature revived, and the lower and eastern sections were eventually designated as a state park. On a nice day, the wide path of the "Albany Waterfront Trail" is full of dog walkers and hikers.

Scrap metal sculpture.

The treasure of The Bulb is its untamed north and west sections, where an ad hoc community of urban artists and homeless live in a shanty town.

As we walked along the paths around The Bulb, we saw an American flag flapping over one encampment; at another a shack made of painted plywood murals had an outer coating of discarded bicycle wheels. A large, open-topped dumpster was filled with garbage, but as we strolled by, a woman's head popped up from its deepest recesses -- early bird treasure hunter or happy inhabitant?

Some of the artists live among their art installations. One hideaway lush with low palm trees contained a cluster of metal and plastic sculptures -- animals, flowers, and abstract assemblages. A squatter dwelling in the nearby bushes had its apparent entrance blocked with a board, and above it, suspended from its screen of foliage, perched a solar panel.

The westernmost slope of the Bulb is made up of hundreds of broken concrete slabs. The graffiti decorating them is a mix of brand new and fading old -- faces, cryptic symbols, epitaphs, and elaborate illustrations. A stubby tower on a slab plateau is part of "The Castle," a bunker-like room made of concrete and plaster.


The Castle is repainted and modified constantly. The current look, a mix of Peter Max and X-Files, will disappear under the next inspired makeover. None of the art on The Bulb lasts long.

A woman exercising her dog was carrying an art-embellished empty propane tank we'd seen earlier along the path. Ramona told us she'd been coming out to the Bulb for two years, photographing the ephemeral art. She particularly liked the work of an artist who signs as "Nobody." We asked about the propane tank. She told us that Bulb art is up for grabs by anyone (if it can be picked up or pried loose).

The Bulb is fun to wander around, and the inhabitants we encountered were friendly or uninterested in our activities (The Bulb is, however, largely unregulated and not a family attraction. We were advised only visit in daylight, and to not leave any valuables in our vehicle). The homeless have been forced out of their flotsam utopia in the past by the authorities, and have surged back to fill the glades and trails with a presence more permanent than their artistic creations.

Albany Bulb: Flotsam Art Utopia

Buchanan St., Albany, CA
I-80 Buchanan exit. Turn toward SF Bay (go past the race track). Park, don't leave valuables in your car. Continue walking until you come to a convergence of trails. Turn right (north) until you get to the bay. Watch for locals and sculptures on the way. Debris can be unstable, walk with caution.
Daylight. Unregulated area. Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Beach Flotsam Yard ArtBeach Flotsam Yard Art, Berkeley, CA - 2 mi.
Rosie the Riveter MemorialRosie the Riveter Memorial, Richmond, CA - 2 mi.
Trader Vic's - Tiki RestaurantTrader Vic's - Tiki Restaurant, Emeryville, CA - 4 mi.
In the region:
Hotel Vertigo, San Francisco, CA - 9 mi.

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