Saving, Creating and Spreading Paradise
There are two places in Albany, California where paradise is struggling to survive. Both have been neglected and desecrated—casualties of a society bent on unsustainable ways of living with the planet, through unrestrained consumption and endless industrial growth. And yet, despite the destruction, there is something beautiful which is holding on in these places.
Life constantly pushes back against development, arising from degraded soil and cracks in the asphalt, doing its best to reclaim the land and sustain life.
But these places did not survive on their own. People who care deeply about them have been fighting for the land for years. They have been fighting to preserve the paradise that is still there, to prevent even more of it from being lost. They have been helping to restore some of the paradise that has already been lost, with a lot of assistance from nature. And, most importantly, they are working to transform the land into something new, something radical.
These pieces of land hold the potential to be a model and an inspiration for saving and (re)creating paradise around the world, at a time when economic inequality and ecological destruction threaten all of humanity and most life on this planet.
Paradises Under Threat: The Gill Tract and The Albany Bulb
Despite the similarities between these pieces of land and their proximity to one another—they are only a mile apart—these are two very different places, with distinct histories, struggles and potentials.
The Gill Tract is 104 acres of historic agricultural land, acquired by UC Berkeley in the 1930s. Since then, all but 15 acres have been developed. While the north half of the remaining land has been continuously used for agriculture, WWII‐era barracks (which later became university housing) were built on the south half. Although the land on the south half was marred by the barracks, they have since been removed, and the land has been left to run wild, and became covered with wild oat, thistles, gopher holes and wild turkeys nests. Although much of the soil has been compacted, because the soil is not toxic, it holds the potential to be rejoined with the north side and used for agriculture again. But the UC has plans to the pave over the south side of the Tract and replace it with a private commercial development.
Moreover, development of the north side appears likely in the near future.
Over the past 15 years numerous groups have been fighting to save this land from development, and to see it preserved as a productive community farm in perpetuity. Most recently this fight has been taken up by the group Occupy the Farm, which I am a part of. With the participation of several hundred farmers, UC students and community members, we have taken direct action to put the land back into use as a farm—clearing the weeds, tilling and improving the soil and planting thousands of seedlings. But the UC, fearing that its development plans were under threat, responded with force, raiding the camp, arresting the farmers and plowing over the crops.
By contrast, 100 years ago, the Albany Bulb was not land at all. A peninsula jutting out into the San Francisco Bay, the Bulb is the result of filling in what used to be wetlands and shallow parts of the Bay with garbage and debris. For decades it was used as a landfill and place to dump construction debris, primarily concrete and rebar, which still litters the site.
Starting in the 1960s, Save the Bay and other environmental groups fought to halt the dumping, ultimately succeeding in the mid‐80s following a series of lawsuits. Like the other Bay Area peninsulas created by dumping (the Berkeley Marina, Point Emery, Point Isabel) vegetation and wildlife quickly established itself on the former dumping site. Taking root in dumped earth and layers of clay used to cover the trash, the 31 acres are now covered with trees, thick shrubs and tall grasses, most of which are non‐native such as palms, broom, fennel, roses, apple trees and Himalayan blackberries. Following after the vegetation, songbirds, crabs, rabbits, lizards, snakes, and hawks have taken up residence in the now flourishing ecosystem. But the wildlife inhabitants are perhaps less noteworthy than the humans who have made the Bulb their home. Starting in 1993 a group of squatters, mostly young punkers and The Albany Bulb seen from the West. If dumping had not been stopped, the lagoon at the bottom would have eventually been filled with debris. Crabs skitter across the rocks as waves crash. urban deep ecology anarchists, set up a tent city. Over the years the settlement slowly grew into a community with elaborate and oftenartistic camps nestled amidst the greenery and the rubble.
Artists, some of whom are residents, have also taken the debris from the landfill— the detritus of industrial growth and development—and turned it into works of art. The exposed concrete, which litters the landscape, has been spray‐painted by graffiti artists, who do guerilla installations and turn the large slabs into murals. Perhaps most striking of all are the giant sculptures of metal, stone, wood, and anything else pulled from the landfill, which ring the north coast of the Bulb. Although many of the Bulbs’ residents struggle with mental health and addiction, they have created a vibrant community of squatters and radical artists. Robert “Rabbit” Barringer, a resident of the Bulb, and narrator of the 2003 documentary Bum’s Paradise, which chronicles the lives of those living on the Bulb, explains that the residents live there because they “are allowed to live free of public scorn and scrutiny and the daily harassment of police.” Yet they have not been left entirely alone; in 1999, the city evicted the squatters, although many quietly came back. Despite several more attempts at eviction, a strong squatting community remains on the land, with more people taking up residence during the economic downturn. Over the past several years, the City has been trying to get the Bulb turned into a Regional Park, which would likely mean the destruction of most of the art, and the permanent eviction of the residents. This May the Albany City Council pushed this plan forward by voting to enforce the City’s no‐camping ordinance starting in October, while opening up conversations with the East Bay Regional Park District officials. Occupy the Farm envisions a future in which East Bay communities make use of all available land – occupying it when necessary – to create sustainable, democratic alternatives that meet local needs in the face of economic and environmental crisis, emphasizing much needed research into sustainable urban agriculture, open access, and participation by the larger East Bay community. Although we have larger goals than saving the Gill Tract, we recognize the significance of this historical agricultural land. As one of the last large plots of fertile agricultural soil left in the East Bay, the Gill Tract holds great potential for shifting our communities towards self‐sufficiency through urban agriculture and a re‐localized food system. The Gill Tract can be a source local, sustainable, organic food and serve as an educational resource for community members and for UC urban agricultural research. Perhaps most importantly, establishing a farm on the Gill Tract could serve as an model and inspiration turning the tide away from endless development in urban (and suburban and exurban) areas, by reclaiming a piece of the land, and put it back into use as a source of life‐sustaining food production. Because we face strong resistance from the UC administration, we have constantly had to adapt our tactics. After having the crops plowed under, we realized we couldn’t simply keep planting more seedlings, otherwise they would just be destroyed. So when we went on to farm again, rather than just planting in the same place, we cleared more of the field and planted seeds. So when the tractor came back, as predicted, it did the work of the farmers, tilling the soil and breaking it up where it had been compacted. Meanwhile the seeds were left in the ground, waiting to spring forth when the rains come. And where the tractor had already passed, rather than working hard to level the land, we shaped mounds and rows between the furrows (or ruts) created by the tractor’s wheels. Ultimately we settled on a plan to do a research project on the soil, centered around improving the quality of the soil, and restoring it to the rich topsoil it once was. Such research is vital, because if urban agriculture is to spread throughout cities on a large enough scale to be meaningful, it will require reclaiming and growing food land which has been neglected, polluted and degraded. And research is in that area is currently lacking. It also has the added advantage of being research the university cannot disrupt, as the tractor tilling the soil would just improve its quality.
What is so exciting to me about the actions of Occupy the Farm when compared to so many other protests, is that it is a protest by virtue of being an act of creation—not only creating new life through planting, but helping to model a new way of life which embodies my spiritual and social justice values: people and the planet over profit; community over consumerism; access to healthy fresh food for anyone who needs it, not just those who can afford it.
As millions of individuals across the country have become more concerned about where their food comes from and how our food systems impact the planet, they have turned away from industrial agriculture towards farmers markets, and started planting food in their yards or joined community gardens. Occupy the Farm represents a next step: reclaiming land for the commons, where anyone is welcome to participate in growing and harvesting food, and shifting large scale food production back into the urban areas, where most people live. We recognize there is a need to grow a lot more food in the urban centers and give people direct control over their food, as transportation becomes increasingly unsustainable and climate change threatens the global food system.
As a testament to this vision, this action has inspired numerous individuals to plant gardens or take over pieces of land in their own community. It also garnered widespread media coverage on TV, radio, in print and on the web, which included being picked up by national publications like the Nation and the environmental news website Grist. It has also been part of several documentaries and will soon be the subject of a feature length documentary. On some level, the UC administration realizes the beauty and power of this vision. Prior to the occupation, the land had sat unused for years, and there was no immediate plan for developing the land (as the Albany City Council had not yet approved the proposal). Thus it seems then that the only reason the UC has for plowing the farm, is because they recognize that if a farm were to actually become established on the Gill Tract, more residents would realize what a unique and amazing resource it could be as a farm, further undermining the UC’s plans to pave over the land and turn it into another cookie‐cuter development. But more than just its vision for sustainable urban agriculture, a key aspect of Occupy the Farm is its organizing model. As a community‐focused group, there is a lot of emphasis on healthy community and group dynamics. It follows the consensus model for decision‐making, where the group reaches consensus on decisions. We recognize that in order for our actions to be effective in bringing about a just sustainable future, any space that we create needs to make space for diverse identities and opinions. And it also has to operate as a community filled with love and support. And indeed the energy present, when everyone is on the land, working side by side, is some of the best energy I have been around. There is a palpable sense of connection—with each other, with the plants, with the land, and all of creation—which can only be described as a little piece of paradise.
What makes the Albany Bulb so special is the organic way it has grown up amidst the waste of society. Bay Area writer Jill Posener writes:
the place has become a jewel ‐ simply by being ignored by the authorities. For years, it was allowed essentially to self regulate, plants grew without being tended, animals and birds arrived, reptiles and rodents emerged, rose bushes bloomed hidden between concrete slabs dumped 40 years ago, artists came and left a treasure trove of outsider art, the homeless moved in for over 10 years.…
Everything that grew and breathed there came because it could, because it bubbled organically into a cauldron of life and eruptions of leaves and berries and trees.
That organic and unbridled feeling is what really sets the space apart. That is what brings the hundreds of people every day who come with their dogs and walk the trails—which have been leveled and maintained by the residents—and come to see the unique artwork and the natural beauty. But that same organic, or anarchic, creativity—the kind of life which does not want to be tamed—is a threat to the western mindset of dominance and control. As Posener laments the plans to transform the Bulb, “And now, they have started the process of destroying that imagination, to replace it with something that can be controlled, contained and coerced into compliance with a ‘park plan.’”
What of the two‐story concrete castle, complete with parapet and spiral staircase, built at night by Mad Mark, as he rambled about spaceships and mysterious gasses affecting the minds of his neighbors? Would it disappear along with the other art, because it is deemed unsuitable for a regional park? And what about the residents of the Bulb who have made this place their home for close to 20 years? Those who have planted and tended fruit trees; who have removed most of the hazards, like rebar, from the surface; who have established the Albany Landfill Library, which is filled with hundreds of books; who have participated in shoreline cleanups and helped crews rescue oiled birds during the Cosco Busan Oil Spill; and who have built homes from the discards of society.
American Society has demonstrated, in so many way, that they don’t want “the homeless” living in their cities, sleeping on park benches and in the doorways of businesses. Now that some of them have found a place of their own, with virtually no crime or civil disruption, coexisting peacefully with the rest of the community, we want to take that piece of paradise away. Where else should they go instead? As Rabbit says in Bum’s Paradise, “This Landfill stands as a brooding monument to obsolescence. What could be a more appropriate refuge for America’s unused people? Here, they can be hidden away from a society which regards them as a nuisance and an eyesore.”
I think the spirit of the Bulb is perhaps best represented in the statue “Goddess,” which greets people as they crest the hill from the south. Made of scraps of salvaged metal and wood, the Goddess stands with its arms outstretched as if to welcome or embrace anyone who comes to the Bulb. As it exists now, the Bulb has that feeling of openness and welcome, inviting people onto the land, regardless of who they are, to interact with it in all of its beauty and brokenness.
Or perhaps, with its arms stretched out and its face tilted up towards the sun, in a position with resembles the Orant, the Goddess is giving the blessing of creation. A powerful testament on land where life has taken root and flourished amid waste and ruin. “Goddess,” the most prominent statue on the Bulb, greets people with outstretched arms. Yet those who are opposed to the squatters on the Bulb, cannot see the beauty inherent in the space. To them it must be changed simply because it undermines the dominant power structure. As a writer on Bay Waters, an anarchist news blog for poor and working people, explains:
“The Bulb if anything is a clear violation of the logic and laws of class society: people live without rent, create without permission of government authority, and exist together and with the earth on their own free will. In a society where such ways of existence are always criminalized and seen as threatening by those in power, this is exactly why the Albany Bulb is important and should be defended.” That is what is really at stake at the Bulb, it’s not concerns about the homeless people living on the land per se, because they have truly created a sort of paradise on the Bulb. Their presence is not harming anyone, but their autonomy is a direct challenge to the dominant paradigm. But considering what they have created, out of destruction wreaked by the powers that be, one can’t but hope that their vision is the one that will win out.
Visions for the Future
Paradise truly exists on these two pieces of land. Sometimes it is hard to see, because it is easily overlooked amidst the destruction and oppression that surrounds it. But paradise isn’t perfect; it isn’t located in some inaccessible Garden of Eden or promised afterlife, it’s right here on this planet, all around us. Paradise exists alongside the brokenness of our world. Paradise is the new life and new possibilities which spring eternal.
These spaces, where paradise arises from brokenness, are some of the most important we have. Because we are living in a world that is broken; a world that has been thrown completely out of balance, with climate change, resource depletion, gross economic inequality, and loss of biodiversity, only some of the huge problems we face. And those problems are only intensifying.
If we are to be able to heal this brokenness, it will require turning the tide against polluting the planet, paving over life, and the discarding of people deemed social refuse. With these realities, let us hope that the vision which has led to saving, creating and spreading paradise on these pieces of land, will continue to provide inspiration and transformation in a world which desperately needs it.
June 1, 2013