Andre Carpiaux lives and works on Emeryville's Ocean Avenue in a modest cottage with a dubious-looking foundation and wood siding that is shedding white paint in strips. The front yard, a checkerboard array of antique bricks, is littered with a rusting table saw and the carcasses of a dozen glass shower stalls. After becoming convinced of the durability of Stalinist architecture while touring Eastern Europe, Carpiaux set out to replicate the look back at home. Despite his seventy years, he scales a ladder almost every day to replace his old shingles with a hodgepodge of stainless steel. But his main love is the solar car parked -- dumped, really -- on his front yard in two pieces. For Carpiaux is a tinkerer par excellence. He has dedicated himself to building solar race-car suspensions for a decade now, and often rigs up other contraptions in his yard. That's why he posted a sign on his chain-link fence that reads "Work in progress." That's also why the city of Emeryville has been suing him since 1976.
If Emeryville's city fathers have found Carpiaux's lifestyle an embarrassing throwback to a gritty past they've left behind, his neighbors don't seem to mind. Glen Arbuckle, who lives in a house adjacent to Carpiaux, barely seems to notice the hillocks of building material that lie just outside his windows. "I don't really have a much of a problem with him," he mumbled through a black security door. Across the street, a woman named Priscilla took in the sun and chatted with a UPS driver outside her townhouse. "It looks good now," she said of Carpiaux's sanctuary. "You should have seen it earlier. ... He's a scientist. He's working on something all the time." The UPS driver joked that Carpiaux reminded him of the mad scientist from Back to the Future.
His neighbors weren't always so indulgent. When Carpiaux first bought the house and used it as rental property almost forty years ago, noise from his tenants infuriated a woman named Ruby, who began peppering City Hall with complaints. "One of the neighbors say, 'Have you met your neighbor next door?'" said Carpiaux, a native of Belgium who still has trouble with English. "I say, 'Well, on the phone, you know?' 'You know her name?' I say, 'Ruby.' And so he say, 'Oh yeah, bitching Ruby.' And in my mind ... I say, 'Oh, it's a beach and an inn.' And so it was just a matter of time when I knock on the door and say, 'Hi, how are you, Bitching Ruby?'"
Carpiaux and his neighbor began a twenty-year feud, especially after he moved into the house to live in 1984. But Ruby wasn't the only one who looked askance at his way of life. Officials with Emeryville's city attorney's office have slapped liens on the property, red-tagged his house for demolition, and even offered to buy him out. At one point in the '80s, Councilman Ken Bukowski recalled, city employees raided Carpiaux's property after he parked a decrepit freight shipping container in his backyard and used it to store his tools. They have clucked their tongues at his insistence on digging a well and building rainwater catchbasins instead of paying EBMUD for water. Since 1976, the Emeryville City Council has declared his house a "public nuisance" or ordered him to clean up the property ten separate times, citing in court documents "wrecked, dismantled, and inoperative vehicles and vehicle parts ... an accumulation of dirt, litter, or debris ... an accumulation of garbage and refuse on the property which creates a harborage for rodents, is a fire hazard, and is dangerous." Each time, Carpiaux managed to dodge the bullet and save his house.
But Carpiaux is more than a creative homeowner; he is also Emeryville's most dedicated gadfly. For at least seventeen years, he has paid near-weekly visits to city council meetings, denouncing many of the city's countless development schemes up through and including the Bay Street retail project. When he gets on a tear, Councilman Bukowski says, watch out: "At one point, he came to the city council meeting, and he had a dick from one of the adult bookstores, and he put it on the podium," he said. "The guy's just ... I don't know how to describe him. He's unusual."
Carpiaux's daughter-in-law Azure believes the city has hounded him for another reason. She and his younger son Patrick told tales of developers prowling Ocean Avenue, looking for old homes to tear down and replace with lofts. "I've seen them walk up and down the street, taking photos of each house, front and back," said Patrick, who believes City Hall is just doing the developers' bidding: "They want properties that generate tax dollars. And my dad pays about $600 a year in property taxes. To them, that's a sore on its own." Just after graduating from high school in the early '90s, Azure and Patrick lived in Carpiaux's house for almost a decade; Azure recalls how Carpiaux took her in after her mom threw her out. You just don't see that kind of generosity anymore, she says. Men like Carpiaux mean nothing to a city bent on eradicating its history. "You know Emeryville," she says. "Whatever makes money."
Carpiaux was born in Belgium in 1934. He was six when the Nazis invaded his country. As the war progressed, the German army devastated his village, and the Carpiaux family was forced to take shelter in the nearby caves; Patrick claims the family wiped the local forest clean of wildlife in order to live, and his father sometimes lived on an egg a day, shared with his brothers. This meager diet stunted his growth, and today he barely squeaks past five feet in height. His back is perpetually hunched from a lifetime of workbenches, and thick black grease has made permanent residence in the sworls of his knobby hands. A corona of white frizz radiates from his bald pate, and he has gone just about stone deaf, always cocking his ear toward you. But his forearms are roped with iron, and his sky-blue eyes are eerily animated.
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