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
April 9, 1999: page 3
(page 3 OF 5)
Finally we reached the "hub," a cross-hatching of smaller paths that branch off in a dozen different directions. We followed what we guessed was the main path, but there was no real way to tell. "I saw some wild mustard plants a while back," Malcolm said. "You can eat those, and fennel is edible also. The coyote scrub blossoms for a good part of the year, which provides food for insects and habitat for birds and small mammals. What's going on here is ecological pioneering.
"When you have bare land, the first thing that grows is the herbaceous level, the short green stuff. But most land wants to be a forest if left alone. It has to get there in stages, the pioneering stages in which the things that take root are tough enough to hold on and are perennial, so they start living year after year. They start to claim the space, shade the ground, and create organic material. We've gotten through a pretty intense level of pioneering here, where the plants are all eight to ten feet tall. The coyote scrub is sheltering baby trees all over here. Eventually, this will become a forest.
"That's probably the main thing that the scrub is giving the [squatters]-shelter in which to hide. When my friend started staying here, it was just at the point where all the bushes were getting tall enough to make it a viable hideout. You could go out there and not be found. Now this place is going banzai, look at it. Especially with all the rains, this place is incredibly verdant. Just listen, you can hear birds in the scrub," Malcolm said.
At the summit of the bulb, we stopped to gaze. To the west, there was a clear view of San Francisco's financial district and North Beach. We could see the oil refineries of Richmond to the north and the hills of Kensington and UC Berkeley to the east, while to the south the elaborate structures of the old Fleet Industrial Supply Center rise above the Berkeley Marina, our sister landfill. The Bay Area's urban jungle overwhelmed us, dwarfing this mile-long oasis of abandoned land. "It's funny that wasteland is the only space around," Malcolm said. "I like to come out to see what nature, if left to its own devices, will do to an abandoned urban landscape. It's a good place to visualize industrial collapse."
We struck out to find Metz's old shack at the end of the bulb. As we pushed past the branches of yellow scotch broom, we arrived at an abandoned camp. It's now a trash-strewn heap of campfire ashes, old clothes, lawn chairs, and plastic sports drink bottles filled with either malt liquor or urine. But Malcolm remembered when the place had character: "For a long time, there used to be a working piano at this site. It was a beautiful instrument; people used to play it, and someone even built a little shelter to protect it from the elements. But then some drunken fools came out here and destroyed the piano one night, so there was just this little empty shed."
We crested the last knoll and looked out over the lagoon, and found Metz's old shack. It was no longer the pretty sight that he remembered; someone had stripped the old foliage from the walls and rooftop. It was now open and exposed on the clifftop, surrounded by old, wet clothes and garbage. The trail we were following had dwindled down to nothing, so we clambered over rocks and grottoes for the last hundred yards. Malcolm stepped up to the front door and said hello, and a fortyish man with a mustache invited us in. The shack was a remarkable piece of carpentry; snug and dry even in the rainy season, the beams and plywood support one another without the use of nails. We pulled up a couple of milk cartons and began to chat with Walter Scott, the current tenant. "I've been out here since last summer," Scott said. "This place is really cozy, I just love it."
We saw Metz's old windows, squares of plywood hanging by hinges from the walls. Because it had been a chilly winter, Scott had covered the windows and walls with thin blankets for insulation. He's had to make a few improvements, Scott told us. When he first got here, the ceiling was starting to sag in the middle, so Scott got rid of the skylight-a clear, plastic-covered hole in the ceiling-and built a four-by-four pillar in the center of the room. He removed the dried-out camouflage branches because he considered them a fire hazard.
"I hope you guys don't mind if I smoke while we talk," Scott said. He showed us his propane stove and lamp, and he and Malcolm laughed when it became clear that I had no idea how the thing worked. "When I light the lamp at night, I like to use this metal screen here, because the light is so bright it'll burn the tissue of your eyes," Scott said. "A little earlier, I used this thing to cook my dinner. It was very good, macaroni and cheese and a cross rib roast. Two bucks and a bike ride to the store." We told Scott about the origin of his home and its first settlers. "Craig and Judy, huh? I wonder if that was their marriage license I found on this wall."
Scott said he's always been good with his hands. A dozen years ago, he was a refrigerator mechanic, but he's been homeless for the past decade. "I stayed in San Francisco for the last ten years, made it pretty good there," he said. "My fingernails were cleaner, I was cleaner. Better kept, even though I was living on the street. But the last year, it got so bad, my hands were getting real dirty, and I couldn't take that. So I came out here, and boy it's nature like I like, and then I had to learn how to be homeless and live with nature, instead of the street thing, 'cause there's a different kind of dirty that's not filth, it's dirt-like from the cars and the pollution on all the trees and the bark and every time you touch the tree and the burned wood your hands get like this." Scott held up his hands, which were covered in a gray film of dirt and grime. "Oh, it's so hard to get off! It's horrible, I had to use laundry detergent and a scrub brush, there's carbon all over, it's on everything that's made of wood, everywhere. The carbon that's coming from cars, you know? It's attaching itself to outside surfaces, trees and plants."
As this manic monologue continued, Scott brushed aside a bag of potato chips, revealing a thin disposable needle. He slipped it behind a milk carton in mid-sentence.
In early 1998, Caltrans began construction and repair on the I-80-580/Buchanan Street Interchange. In the process, Caltrans security cleared the nearby underpasses of homeless encampments, displacing at least fifty people. Most fled to the landfill, where they established campsites in the plateau area.
Two months later, the Union Pacific railroad cleared a hobo camp near the landfill, and UC Berkeley cleared a similar camp near UC Village. With a second and then a third exodus to the landfill, the population swelled to 150 people. "The original group of people, who had always lived quietly out there, suddenly found 75 new faces," says Assistant City Administrator Ann Ritzma. The population density strained nearby resources, and some residents began breaking into the adjacent Golden Gate Fields property for water and to use the public toilets. In addition, some of the newcomers brought dogs with them, which caused snarling fights with the dogs that the landfill's neighbors historically walked through the area. (As Malcolm and I left Scott's shack, we ran afoul of three mastiff-sized rottweilers and had to beat a hasty retreat.)
Over the ten months since March 1998, the police were called out to the landfill 35 times and made seventeen arrests for drug use, public drunkenness, or outstanding warrants. There have been fistfights and thefts. One man was arrested for attempted murder-for allegedly setting a woman on fire. Meanwhile, the swelling population of humans and dogs created a public health hazard. Piles of garbage accumulated, as did raw sewage and used needles. Health officials grew concerned about the spread of disease, particularly after discovering one elderly resident with a case of gangrene and two women in the latter stages of pregnancy.