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.”
The whole neighborhood, which has been in transition for years, is caught between identities. If neighborhoods could feel, this one would feel out-of-sorts.
Bruin himself knows he can’t go back to the way things were, and yet he’s not sure what lies ahead. If someone were to offer him a job as a landscaper or a gardener, he’d take it, he said. “I’d love to work on an estate. Meanwhile, I’m making the best of a bad situation.”
Many of Bruin’s friends and neighbors on South A are sad to see him locked out, though others hope that’s he gone for good.
Still, one wouldn’t want to feel sorry for him or to call him homeless.
“I’m in-between residences,” he said from the sidewalk near his Ford van.
On one brisk morning, he wore a sweatshirt that said, “Harvard.” A few days later, on a warm afternoon, he sported a T-shirt that said, “Hit the Road Jack.”
“I don’t have a house, but I don’t think of myself as homeless,” he explained. “I’m not an addict, and I’m not an alcoholic. In fact, for years I have had a whole neighborhood to call home and a real base of operations, too.”
Bruin has a girlfriend named Vicky Joslin, more than 20 years younger than he, and a buddy named Scott Barnsdale, 55, who fixes stuff and helps Bruin any way he can.
When asked how she felt about having to move, Joslin said, “It sucks.” Bruin is bit more philosophical.
“The district is a public entity and has a legitimate use for the property,” he said. “What I object to is the way that Julian Szolt, the principal of the school, told me I had to leave. I thought he was acting arbitrarily. He never told me why I was forced to go.”
Szolt declined to comment about the situation, referring a reporter to school district sources.
Stubborn and persistent, Bruin said he has always stood up for his rights, though he also has avoided knock-down-drag out fights. Perhaps that’s how and why he has survived all these years, sometimes as a college student, sometimes with a 9 to 5 job and sometimes on the fringes of what passes for normalcy, a kind of Invisible Man who’s always there but who is often never seen.
Joslin, Bruin and Barnsdale defy many of the stereotypes of the homeless. Joslin keeps house in a manner of speaking. Barnsdale said he owns a home but chooses not to live there. Bruin has a smart phone and a tablet and loves to cruise the Web.
His clothes look decent; he has a voucher for housing from HUD and receives a monthly Social Security check, although he has no fixed address. While there’s a mail box attached to the chain link fence opposite his van, he has not been legally allowed to receive letters at 315 South A. As far as the Postal Service is concerned, the address doesn’t exist.
Bruin won’t go to war with the school district or take it to court, though he has consulted a South A Street lawyer. Moreover, he recognizes that teachers at Luther Burbank and the parents of students might see the space he has appropriated as a flea market at best and a junkyard at worst.
“Some people look through the chain link fence, see clutter and chaos and say, ‘Oh what a mess,’” he admits. “Others look, see interesting stuff and say, ‘Oh that’s beautiful.’”
The women who run Jam Jar, a store across the street that specializes in quality second-hand stuff, think Bruin is a model citizen and a good neighbor.
After all, as they point out, South A is cleaner and safer than it was before he moved in. A local storeowner who declined to be identified said, “He has kept an eye on the street and watched for trouble. He called the police when there was a fight between drug dealers.”
Indeed, one might say he has been in charge of the neighborhood’s safety, sanitation, landscaping and beautification, though he prefers to describe himself as groundskeeper, custodian and watchman. “I do the gardening for most of the block, and I don’t get paid in money,” he said. “The reward is in the doing. The work gives my life a sense of purpose.”
Dyann Espinosa lives a minute by foot from Bruin’s “compound,” as she calls it. She has known him since March and found him to be good company, sometimes over a glass of wine.
“For years, no one really cared about the space,” she said. “But now that the neighborhood has become gentrified, Bruin’s world is suddenly more financially valuable.”
A former reporter who now writes copy for websites, Espinosa sees Bruin as a man at the end of his mission. “In another age, he probably would have moved on,” she said. “Now, he’s trapped in an urban setting with little if anywhere to go. He’s not the only one in that dilemma in Santa Rosa.”
For much of his life, Bruin was free to come and go as he pleased, though he has often been an outsider, even during the Beatnik era in San Francisco when he lived at the Cadillac Hotel (owned, he said, by his grandmother) and walked to North Beach to hear jazz, poetry and comedy. “I was too young to be admitted to the clubs,” he said, “but I would stand outside and listen to Lenny Bruce and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.”
Hunting for home
Since he was told to leave 315 South A, Bruin has been downsizing his operations and hunting for places to live. Still, he’d rather not abandon the neighborhood. After all, it’s close to Luther Burbank’s Home and Gardens, a favorite place to visit.
“I’m a big fan of Luther’s,” he said. “He had an immense curiosity, and he created all kinds of hybridized plants.”
Most of all, Albert Bruin would not like to be without a home.
“The worst thing,” he says, “is not having a place to go where you can close the door and feel like you belong. That’s what I’ll lose when I have to leave here.”
Bruin has helped give a sense of identity and purpose to South A, the street at the edge of the city. As he moves on, it’s likely that he will find another place where he can live on the edge, grow plants and flowers, and gather friends around him in a tribe of outsiders and survivors.