Call him Al. Or call him the unofficial out-going mayor of the neighborhood known as the Santa Rosa Arts District, aka SOFA.
Albert Bruin, 72, a California native and long time Santa Rosa resident, has walked nearly every street in the city and knows almost all of its nooks and crannies.
Say hello to Al and say goodbye.
Ever since the winter of 2009-2010, Bruin has slept in a Ford van — his “steel cocoon” as he calls it — parked on South A Street, directly in the front of the flimsy gate that leads to number 315, a lot crowded with flowers and leaves, tools and the kind of stuff most people take to the dump.
A chain-link fence encloses the property, though it never deterred anyone from entering anytime of day or night, including Bruin.
Luther Burbank Elementary School sits next door. The Santa Rosa City School District owns 315 South A.
Bruin, a longtime admirer of Burbank and his horticultural experiments, has used the property rent free for the past five years as a gardening center, open-air tool shed and work space where he has made compost, raised worms, cultivated flowers and stashed all sorts of stuff collected in his wanderings about town. Some call him a hoarder. Others say he’s salvaging lost treasures.
Ever since 2013, the Santa Rosa School District has tried to dislodge Bruin, albeit without success. Earlier this year, Steve Eichman, the assistant superintendent of Business Services, told him he had to vacate the premises and remove his stuff by Oct. 2. All weekend Bruin worked hard to separate good stuff from the trash.
The sidewalk in front of 315 A as well as the parking lot adjacent to the Cook House, once a greasy spoon and now an art studio, is littered with Bruin’s saws, rakes, brooms, chairs and much more.
On Oct. 5, representatives of the school district showed up, put a padlock on the gate and effectively barred anyone without a key from entering or exiting.
“I’m locked out,” Bruin said.
Indeed, once the gate was locked, his whole way of life on South A Street came to an abrupt halt. So, too, did a chapter in the urban legend known as Santa Rosa.
Patience may wear thin
But the larger issues have not gone away. Bruin’s possessions can’t sit forever on the sidewalk and in the parking lot. South A Street artists are a friendly lot, but they won’t tolerate a kind of flea market forever, nor will the foodies who eat at the upscale Spinster Sisters.
What’s more, local residents fear that the space Bruin occupied for years will revert to what it was before he took possession and drove out the petty criminals.
“If the school district doesn’t do anything soon with the property, it will probably go back to being used by all kinds of druggies,” said artist Mary Linea Vaughan, who rents the former Cook House and uses it as her studio.
If the district knows what’s in store for 315, it’s not broadcasting the news.
“I don’t know the specific use Luther Burbank Elementary School will make of the space after Bruin leaves,” Eichman said, “but it’s definitely needed to better serve the students.”