Tinkerer, Gadfly, Soldier, Spy

Tales of gentrification, part two: Meet the man whom Emeryville has spent almost three decades trying to make just go away.

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.

In the ’50s and early ’60s, Carpiaux joined the Belgian army, working as a mechanic and, he claims, conducting investigations for the army’s “secret service.” Eventually, he said, he was stationed in the Belgian Congo, where he taught Africans physics, math, and automotive technology — and attended parties given by a young, ambitious man named Mobutu Sese Seko. “I met the man, with many of his wife, you know,” he said. “Because he used to greet all the Belgian teachers that came to teach his people. He was a very nice person.” As he talked, Carpiaux rolled his eyes to acknowledge the awkwardness of having enjoyed the hospitality of a murderer.

Carpiaux has dozens of tales like this — some taller than others. In 1962, he came to America and never looked back. He settled in Berkeley, took a wife, and began teaching mechanics at an old vocational education center run by the Peralta Community College District. It was there, he said, that agents from the FBI contacted him in the early ’70s. “They found out through the Belgian embassy that I was in the secret service, and they asked me to do some investigation about the activity of the Black Panthers,” he said. “I did it, yes. I discover weapons, arms. I could have been part of a sting operation. I felt it was a plot to bust people with guns that they couldn’t use.”

Shortly after his FBI adventures, Carpiaux said, Peralta fired him. His son Patrick claims it was retaliation for ratting out the Panthers; Carpiaux refers to an administrator who had it in for him. In any case, he sued for wrongful termination, and the case dragged out in appeals for roughly a decade. Hanging from one of his front windows is a relic from those days in court, a sign Carpiaux used to picket with in front of the appellate court. It’s an excerpt from the initial decision — in French.

This litigation set the tone for decades of his life. After his divorce in 1974, he moved into a loft above an auto repair shop he ran, and spent years tinkering with gadgets, pursuing his case against Peralta, and fending off legal action by the city of Emeryville. Along the way, he picked up strays such as Bill Blackolive, a Texas biker and aspiring writer who needed a place to stay. “He was homeless; I took him home,” Carpiaux said. “He was a writer, and he had a nice personality. He come and introduce himself and say, ‘I need a place to stay.’ And he say, ‘I’m a writer.’ And he show me what he was writing, and I felt the man had merit in what he was doing.” Over the two years Blackolive spent living with Carpiaux, he wrote a rambling 87-page novella about Carpiaux’s legal troubles called “The Emeryville War,” which he published online.

In 1995, Carpiaux met Martin Koebler, a UC Berkeley engineering student interested in solar-cell technology. Together, they formed Solarmotions, a joint effort between Stanford and UC Berkeley to compete in an annual solar-car race in Australia; Carpiaux eventually conceived the steering and suspension device that helped their car come in fourth in the 2001 tournament. But last year, the two men had a falling-out, and Koebler had Carpiaux thrown off the team. Carpiaux has since filed a police report accusing Solarmotions staff of stealing his race car. “The man is a liar, he’s a pathological liar,” Carpiaux said of Koebler. “He took the car away from me.” An earlier model of the solar car lies mouldering in his yard, along with the detritus of forty years of lube jobs, lawsuits, and countersuits.

Last week, Carpiaux won a reprieve from the city’s latest legal action. “The judge is pretty much in my favor,” he said. “He give me a couple month to deal with the underside and inside of my house, and he set the tone for the city to cooperate with me, instead of being adversarial.”

Andre Carpiaux gets to go back to hammering sheet metal onto his roof, trying to sue his old colleagues at Solarmotions, and taking in the next homeless person who wins his sympathy. Emeryville’s lawyers will aggravate their blood pressure when they drive past his house, but his neighbors will probably just chuckle at the next contraption that shows up on his property. As the East Bay’s city of industry continues its glide into the world of Swedish furniture and loft living, Carpiaux will no doubt continue to remind its leaders that their ragged, shopworn past is just around the corner on Ocean Avenue.

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