Albany and Her Bulbs

I recently thought as part of this series, I would begin tackling some of the peaks in th Bay Area. I got that idea as I was over in the neighboring town of Albany, staring at Albany Hill , an odd little protuberance near the Bay. And I thought this little hill, more mound than peak, combined with what is actually known as the “Albany Bulb”, a spit of land jutting into the bay, would make a fine amble. So; here’s the route, again,  from home:

Albany is an oddly charming little community. It is shadowed and surrounded by more well-known Berkeley to the south. Topographically, it’s also unique in that, unlike the other East bay cities, it does not extend to the hills, rather it is a town spread over the flatlands along the bay. That is, with two exceptions.

First, there is Albany Hill, the aforementioned 400 foot bump in the flats, Bulb 1 if you will. And second, there is what is actually known as Albany Bulb, a strange spit of land, a park but not really, more like urban wilderness, unplanned, unkempt, rough and jagged. In fact , both these places, Albany’s lone bits of significant open space, share that quality; that of leftover, unplanned urban open space.

From above, here is Albany Hill:

Not surprisingly, Albany Hill has had a hard time staying in its somewhat wild state. It was originally home to quarries, which carted off large parts of the hill a century ago. Later, a dynamite explosion cratered part of the northwest side, killing 23 people in the process. It has been subject to numerous development schemes and battles, and even today, is protected only to a degree: the town’s zoning still calls for development.

One ascends the hill through modest 60’s era homes and apartments, encircling the hill on a street before arriving at the top. The open space doesn’t feel like a park, even the sign seems uncertain:

There is a small trail that crosses the “peak”, but again, this feels more like leftover open space than a park, and people have left their imprint. This rather ragged cross faces east, and it appears designed to be illuminated at some point. A faded plaque indicated the Lions Club was responsible, but like the sign, seems to have been erected by a group  questioning there own religious fervor.

The whole place felt pleasantly eerie. I was certain I was going to run into a group of high school kids drinking beer- kinda felt like those in between places we used to inhabit as high schoolers back in the day. At any rate, out of the “park”, the hill provides some great views back to the East Bay and San Francisco beyond.

Despite its modesty, the hill is an important place. It’s an ecological island, full of native wildflowers , home to numerous local animal and bird species. And as the previous companion piece linked in the blog outlines (salon.com article), these urban wildlands, no matter how small, are vital as part of the larger ecosystem.

From here, one descends the hill, and heads west, an unfriendly jaunt along Buchanan, which lurches over I-80 and drops one in Albany Bulb. The bulb is, believe it or not, an old landfill for construction debris leftover from the construction of the adjacent racetrack; Golden Gate Fields. It’s hard to believe that at one time this was done in the bay. The Save The Bay movement that coalesced in the 60’s helped change the view of the bay, and now it sits as a legacy of this, albeit caught in midstream. When you walk out on the bulb, its history is readily evident through the large chunks of concrete and rebar that rise out of the ground.  The City of Albany Park “manages” this park, but it has the feeling of having fallen through the cracks. Without the more systematic park management of say the East Bay Regional Park District, it, like the hill, is preserved in a rather wonderful state of arrested decay.

So, this spit of jumbled detritus serves many uses. There is of course its location, which offers some terrific views of the surrounding Bay for the hiker. The rubble continues to serve as makeshift homes for homeless, always on the move out  here. And perhaps most notably, its industrial scraps serve as the  basis for the creation of industrial sculptures throughout the park. Here is a view of some art, with the hill we were just on in the distance.

A Bike Reconsidered:

After  I visited, I found out there’s even a makeshift library out there. I wish I knew that before I went.

Bucking Bronco:

This park reminded me of some of the “in-between” places near where I grew up. These were not parks or plazas, but undeveloped land between housing tracts, the suburbs caught in the mid-stream of development in the 70’s. Rather than play structures and ball fields (which we also had) these lands included a hole for storm runoff (The Pond!), several collapsed buildings (“The Old Barn”), a weird inexplicable mound filled with rodent holes (“Rat Hill”), and a treeless expanse  filled with wild berries (“The Field”). It was these wild lands that us 70’s kids played in, the unplanned tableau stoking our imaginations with constant new discoveries , new schemes, new forts. I view us as profoundly lucky to have lived in such a place, as in a more urbanized place, every scrap of land is either developed or off-limits. So while technically city land, both these bulbs capture something of that.

I ruminated on this as I headed back to the freeway and the dog track. I wondered in our effort to plan open space, whether we  leave enough opportunity for imagination; every space designated for sitting and viewing, swinging or sliding. And how about the intersection of art and play, that seems too an under  exploited combination. At any rate , this place is a bit of an urban treasure, and we owe it all to, wait, oh that’s right, I could hear it in the distance. “And around the backstretch, its Lady Lightning by two lengths over Galloping Gabby, and wait , wait……..heeeeeeeeere comes Santa’s Little Helper”.  Right, in a way it diid start with the track.

So , you need to get yourself out to Albany and her Bulbs. But don’t take my word for it, this woman is practically begging you to check it out.

This was Hike 20 in my chronicling 50 urban ambles in my 50th year. 

Hike 20 : 7 miles

Distance traveled  to date:  129 Miles