We destroyed the crescent of sandy bay beach south of Fleming Point, now the race track. So the bay built a new one just north.
Sandy beaches are not common in San Francisco Bay. In sheltered waters, fine mud settles out, forming mud flats and salt marshes, with their waving cordgrass and meadows of fleshy plants bright in summer with tiny flowers. Directly opposite the Golden Gate, though, powerful tidal currents sweeping ocean water alongshore keep the mud in suspension.
When European settlers arrived, a beautiful sandy beach, backed by low dunes, ran from the hill and coastal bluff at Fleming Point south to about today's Delaware Street, in Berkeley. Behind it, a salt marsh and winding slough carried the water from Schoolhouse, Codornices and Marin creeks north-northwest to the Bay, making the point an island at high tide.
The beach was popular for swimming and picnics into the 20th century. But, as the East Bay boomed after the great San Francisco earthquake, builders stole the sand, sewage pipes vomited waste just offshore, and the marshy areas, edging the railroad, were zoned for "noxious industry" such as slaughtering and tanneries.
Starting in the 1920s, garbage fill buried the former shoreline and nosed out into the bay. What had been the beach was buried well inland by the end of World War II. With plans to eventually fill the spaces in between, Albany, Berkeley and Emeryville accreted massive trash peninsulas: ; Berkeley Meadow, Marina area and Cesar Chavez Park; and Emeryville Marina.
When citizen protest finally stopped the fill in the 1980s, the Bay shore was a many-armed monster, whose rectangular inlets were armored with junk concrete.
The tides, though, were still there. Where projections interrupted them, they built new beaches: north of Point Emery at the foot of Ashby Avenue (last of the fill peninsulas, begun in a last attempt to reach the Emeryville Marina) and north of Fleming Point.
Here nature found new opportunity: The sandstone hilltop had been dynamited in 1939 to build the racetrack, with the rubble bulldozed north to make today's parking lots. The new beach grew along with Albany's garbage peninsula, also begun in 1940, when the city extended Buchanan Street on a fill peninsula out to what was then the water's edge, marked by a grove of planted eucalyptus.
A beautiful pocket cove developed at the south end, sheltered by the sandstone bluff – last remnant of Berkeley's and Albany's original shoreline – and ruins of a pier, which may have been used during World War II, when the Navy refurbished landing craft at the closed racetrack. (Horses had sunk in the mire of the filled salt marsh as soon as it opened.) The Navy fixed the battered boats and shipped them back out for the next Pacific Island reconquest. Meanwhile, their fill firmed up the track, making it a viable enterprise at war's end.
Sand blowing inland built new low dunes behind the beach and, in winter storms, runoff from the racetrack parking lot ponds behind them – a sort of mockery of the vanished salt marsh.
Between a race track and dump was not, of course, a fashionable location, so the new beach – literally. For most of its history, Albany Beach has been beloved and tended by dog owners, who found enough sticks and just the right size of waves for fun.
Big drift timbers made it a favorite for children's forts and the occasional driftwood art, too. (Alas, these wonderful giant toys were hauled off , another casualty of the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill. So far, the supply has not been replenished.)
In recent years, windsurfers and then kite surfers discovered the winds – the area offshore is one of their favorites, despite a lack of easy access. The occasional kayaker pulls up – the area is a destination on the propoped new Bay Water Trail.
The beach seems stable enough – no need to truck in sand or build groins, as in Alameda. But two threats are clear. Small infestations of perennial pepperweed, which is densely overgrowing some of the few sandy beaches to the north, have found a toehold on the south edge of the Bulb peninsula. Difficult to eradicate, their spread to the beach and dunes could devour the open areas. And sea level rise as the Earth warms, of course, seems on course to flood this accidental waterfront .
At 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 13, at Albany Senior Center, the East Bay Regional Park District (which now owns the beach as part of Eastshore State Park) and City of Albany will hold a joint meeting to consider possibilities for revitalizing nature along the shoreline here.
This project may have a somewhat brighter outlook than others in our current cloudy fiscal period, since Cosco Busan reparations may pay the bill.
How best to close Albany's gap in the Bay Trail, whether to drive out the dogs – there are plenty of issues. Perhaps nature, though, will have the last say.
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