What makes a place?
“Space is not a scientific object removed from ideology or politics. It has always been political and strategic. There is an ideology of space. Because space, which seems homogeneous, which appears as a whole in its objectivity, in its pure form, such as we determine it, is a social product.”
―Henri Lefebvre, French sociologist, Marxist intellectual, and philosopher
Claiming physical space is a job often guarded by the powers that be. A small number of powerful people (colonizers, politicians, billionaires) decide how land is used, who gets to live where, and what life feels like when you settle in. Some of these decisions end up in history books. Others are covered up or lost to the landscape of time. But each has a human toll, and homelessness and displacement are frequent results—a product of policymaking, urban planning, or powerful interests that favor few over many.
By definition, homelessness occurs when you lose your technical claim to place. To a place. You lose your home— the physical space the law defines as “yours.” As a result, unhoused people make home in the spaces that are left over. They settle in the areas in between: on city blocks designed to carry you from somewhere to somewhere else, under bridges that connect cities, on scraps of liminal space that surround highways, landfills, and bodies of water. These are parts of urban geography that are deemed “uninhabitable.” They are designed to be dead space that supports the infrastructure that carries us between the places that we are meant to live.
The Ashby/Shellmound encampment is one of those places. Residents live on several grassy islands created by a tangle of offramps and highways where Berkeley meets Emeryville. Abutting Aquatic Park and the greater San Francisco Bay, the natural landscape grows wild between the harsh concrete roads. Egrets and herons land around the eucalyptus trees that line the offramps. Birds chirp between long, loud bursts of construction noise and the ear-splitting horns of trains and large trucks.
I spent the last few months speaking with six former residents of the Ashby/ Shellmound encampment: D’artagnan Lloyd, Ashley Frankum, Brandon “Grimm” Mercer, Raymond Leichter, Patrick Thomas, and Laura Berry. Each person is a pillar of the encampment community they built (affectionately referred to by Berry as “Camp Offramp”). In all of my interviews, I asked people to close their eyes and map the camp as it exists in their minds. I asked them to describe landmarks of the physical space as well as the social and emotional connections that defined it.
When you make home in a place that you are not “supposed” to go, I learned, you start completely new. Moving away from an established physical geography forces you to abandon the established cultural geography as well. You build the rules. You form relationships that are raw—based on people, not wider social contracts. You construct a government that works to serve the needs of individuals. Having lost your hold in society—or having let go of it on purpose—life is no longer structured around the attitudes and activities that are required to maintain claim to a certain type of place. Instead, inside the liminal space, there is room to build something that fits.
This issue is intended to capture the memories of the participating artists, five of whom have been evicted from the space over the last year. Government agencies have subjected the encampment to a slow series of sweeps, which began in April 2021 and could culminate during the final weeks of this month. This project does not aim to speak for every person who has lived at Ashby/Shellmound—the residents who are not featured outnumber those who worked on this issue. Instead, we wanted to map what remains in the minds of these six people as the encampment is disbanded bit by bit. With newsprint, we are hoping to stake out a little bit of physical space for a community that will soon only exist in memory.
The Indigenous history of Ashby/Shellmound
“It’s a wonder of the world. It’s a place that we should preserve. It’s not intact above the ground, but underneath, it’s there—it still holds our people.”
—Corrina Gould, Lisjan Ohlone
5,000 years before these six artists built their encampment, the land was part of the West Berkeley Shellmound—a sacred site for the Ohlone. Ohlone people spent centuries constructing the Shellmound out of abalone, mussels, clamshells, and other staples of their diet. They buried their ancestors there and built villages around it. Over the centuries, it grew to be over twenty feet high and hundreds of feet long. It was the largest of over 400 mounds around what we now call the San Francisco Bay, a hallowed and integral part of the first human settlement along its shores.
The Shellmound was razed in the 1800s to make way for an amusement park, a dance pavilion, and a racetrack. Later, what was left was destroyed to accommodate the development of Emeryville as an industrial site. From then on, the area was in private hands.
The only remaining undeveloped portion of this heritage site, which currently rests beneath a parking lot, is currently slated to be demolished to make way for the 1900 Fourth Street project: a proposed retail and housing development. The new development would be six stories high and require the excavation of two acres of land for a basement parking garage.
Family bands of the contemporary Ohlone community, which holds this site to be sacred, have been organizing a wide-ranging community campaign to preserve the area for years. Ohlone leaders have laid out an alternative vision for the space, which includes restoring native vegetation, building a dance arbor for ceremonial use, and creating a 40-foot high mound covered in California poppies with a path to the top, with a memorial and educational center contained within the mound.
The past and present of “Camp Offramp”
“Money and wealth are wonderful… at the same time, there’s a lot of wealth in a different form in being homeless. There’s a battery of, I want to say lessons, but that’s really not it… You create home. And for whatever it’s worth, you don’t have to be homeless alone. That’s the biggest difference.”
There was no clear beginning of the encampment at Ashby/Shellmound. Unhoused people have been living around the area for at least 20 years, some setting up roots and leaving at the command of city or state officials, others moving in and out of the area as they needed or desired.
The most recent iteration of the community began to take shape in 2014, after the eviction of the encampment at the Albany Bulb. After residents of the Bulb were forced to scatter, some moved to the Gilman Street underpass or the University Avenue exit along I-80. Others landed around Ashby/ Shellmound.
Driving north on I-80, Ashby/Shellmound is Exit 10. You might take it if you want to drive up Ashby Avenue into South Berkeley, or take Shellmound Street to the mall. The exit splits into a V-shape, which creates a long median in the shape of a crooked triangle. The segments of the area are owned by different jurisdictions: the City of Berkeley, the City of Emeryville, and Caltrans. Running parallel to Shellmound Street is the Union Pacific railway line, which carries trains traveling between 23 states west of Chicago and New Orleans.
Looking out toward the water, the land feels calm and beautiful. The patches of grass are green, and in certain places, flowers poke through.
“If you ever looked at a flower at dawn, looked at the sun coming up, you can actually see them open sometimes,” D’artagnan Lloyd, who has a master’s degree in plant and soil biology, remembers. “Knowing a bit about how the roots and the microbes also respond to temperature changes, generally it’s like a breath on a piece of glass indicating life.”
The bulk of the Ashby/Shellmound encampment was built on the Shellmound Street side, within the median, along the sidewalk that runs parallel to the offramp, and along Shellmound Street itself. At its peak it was home to 50 or 60 people, according to Ian Cordova Morales, president of Where Do We Go Berkeley—a grassroots advocacy group that works extensively in the area. Some of these folks started living there as early as 2014 after the Bulb was swept, and stayed on and off until as recently as last year.
“I’ve lived a lot of places, but I’ve never felt more at home than I do here,” said Ashley Frankum, who has lived at Ashby/Shellmound on and off for over a year.
For an encampment to remain in place for so many years is very unusual and provides a unique opportunity for a community to stabilize. Residents set up a highly successful donation table, where cars sometimes lined up to drop off resources like tents and bottled water. This helped residents get needed resources and build a connection to the outside world.
“We went from being treated like society’s garbage to being society’s royalty for a while there,” Laura Berry says. “We had people lined up to stop and donate, or to talk to us. I was getting to the point where I was waking up and doing interviews. Kids wanted to come meet and talk.”
Service providers offered consistent medical care and ultimately moved a handful of people into housing. Residents fell in love and broke up. People began to deeply trust and look out for each other.
Grimm remembers walking around in the morning and distributing resources that he had gathered, or had been dropped off at the donation table. He says he often knew what people needed because they would talk to each other and ask for support.
“People would be willing to reach out to their neighbor… Because they knew me and they knew I wasn’t going to steal from them. So it brought a little bit of honesty into a corrupted situation, which I thought was really cool.”
“I like to help people, that’s what we should be doing,” he added. “The world owes us nothing—we owe each other the world. And without unity we’re just going to fall to pieces here.”
Another upside was the way the landscape helped people manage their mental health, Patrick Thomas says. Pat is a veteran, and says that the sounds at Ashby/Shellmound helped soothe him in moments when was experiencing PTSD flashbacks. Additionally, he says the calm of the encampment’s surroundings helped people remember their priorities.
“You got more people looking at you [in the heart of the city]. Especially if you have psychosis or different mental disorders, [you feel] judgment. Here, you don’t have the people re-defining you. When you are by yourself out here and only have to worry about yourself, you’re freer. You start concentrating on things that are more for you. You start to remember what you are, that helps a lot.”
For this particular group, Ashby/ Shellmound gave them the time and space to make artwork. The six people involved in the project are all prolific artists who often made work that was inspired by their community. D’art, for example, makes sculptures using found materials. Pat makes paintings that are often inspired by the colors of the natural landscape: the greens and blues of the trees and sky. D’art, too, was inspired by the green of their surroundings.
“It’s not everywhere outside you get greenery. Sometimes it’s all asphalt or concrete or gravel. The vibrance of that, [it’s] a measurable blessing. A luxury item.”
Ashley’s art is playful and performative, using hand-painted props to create scenes. She used the inside of her tent as her canvas, over time surrounding herself in intricate swirls and patterns. Ray crafts metal disks out of found objects that he uses to make percussion music. He drums in harmony with the sounds of the area, including traffic and the undulating horn of trains that pass throughout the day and night.
The sounds of the encampment were one of Laura’s favorite parts of Ashby/ Shellmound, too.
“It was the comfort of sound. Of voices. There was the comfort of knowing that there are people there. That you’re not alone,” she said.
Laura’s artwork often involves self-portraits using costumes and makeup. Grimm also uses photography as the root of his art, taking pictures of his environment and using filters to change the feeling of his subjects to match his interior view of the world.
Over time, the encampment was able to build a bridge to the greater Berkeley community, one that traveled both ways. Residents could plug into the art scene in the Bay Area, and housed people had the opportunity to stop and talk to encampment residents, ask questions, and learn about their lives.
“I felt part of the community, in a way… the greater Bay Area family of unhoused people, as well as the supporters from afar who came and bought my art, [and] gave me props from afar,” D’art told me.
Last year, the presiding jurisdictions started to target the encampment. A series of government sweeps beginning in April 2021 have greatly diminished the community, which now numbers at around 11. Only those who live on the Caltrans parcels remain, protected by a lawsuit filed by Where Do We Go Berkeley in October 2021 that won residents six months to look for housing elsewhere. That six months ends on March 23, 2022. Pending further legal action, the remaining residents will likely be forced to leave shortly thereafter.
The bulk of the 50-some Ashby/Shellmound residents have already moved away. Some live in the Rodeway Inn, a Berkeley motel that the city stood up as transitional housing, which recently ran out of FEMA funding and is currently scheduled to close in late April or early May. A handful of residents have been housed. While some report that their housing feels comfortable and secure, others live far away in neighboring towns where they have no support system. One former resident, who is in a wheelchair, was housed on the second floor of a building with an elevator. The building has had two fires, and each time she has had to be carried down the stairs when the elevator shuts off.
Some former residents of Ashby/ Shellmound currently live elsewhere on the street. Others died by overdose and others by suicide, according to their friends and former neighbors.
The effects of an encampment eviction, particularly when a place has become so established, can cut deep. But looking back, the community continues to offer some hope.
“There was just this time period on that corner that was absolutely so amazing, to see the individual growth,” Laura Berry remembers.
“Becoming homeless in the first place…it was so scary. And I felt so alone. So the best part about Offramp was I think the fact that you’re forced to understand one another and share resources. You learn to accept people for who they are and how they behave and what their beliefs are. Because you don’t have these walls. This distance. You hear everything, you see a lot of things. I think that’s the biggest thing. Learning that people really, with all their flaws… people will care when you give them the chance.”
Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.