I make my way down the slithering roads of the mountain with the smell of campfire still lingering in my nose. The road ahead of me disappears in a cream of fog and mist. The moon – once brilliant, bright and luminous over the peaks – has disappeared in the blanket of low-lying clouds stretched over the Shawangunks Ridge. I can’t see behind or in front of me and I can pretend to be in this abyss, suspended in this moment close to nothingness.
Just the bright glow of tail lights reflecting off of the condensation appear in my rearview mirror as I brake around each bend. The headlights shine onto billowing wisps of thick air swarming around me. Every jostle of the road comes as a surprise and I can hardly brake against the natural propulsion generated by gravity pulling the car down-down closer to the Earth’s core.
The sun is rising, setting the horizon on fire with blasts of gold – slowly at first until the night fades away and suddenly the details of the world come back into view.
I’m en route, for the first time in nearly a year, on the long subway ride between boroughs. Early in the morning when everyone is exceptionally grumpy and dazed, fading in and out, folded over sleeping or barely hanging on to a pole, with eyes shut tight and white wires hanging from each ear, I’m hanging onto wakefulness to take advantage of this long stretch of time to read. I’ve forgotten how long this ride is – two hours from the land of Bronck to the bay of sheep’s heads in King’s County – how even an express train can take a little over an hour to get to Union Square, how it compresses to a halt and manically accelerates between express stops – how it slows down at 149th-Grand Concourse to wait for another train and then leaves it behind, as if taunting it – how people shuffle around a crowded subway car giving just enough room for others to edge out before rushing into the vacuum left behind.
I’m convinced that riding the subway puts you in a very primal survival mode, especially during rush hour – like you’re trapped in some kind of metal-tube jungle and everyone is out to get you. Your prey is the vacant seat and your competition is every other passenger.
The evacuation from the train is a haptic dance between stationary passengers, sleepers whose legs take over the aisle and those with wandering eyes looking to snatch the next recently departed seat. Your comrades en route are just as eager and ready to bee-line for the exit. It’s just a matter of time before the doors slide open and an onslaught of ornery passengers pour out looking for their next transfer, or if they’re lucky, fresh air; while another set – grumpy and anxious – are waiting on the platform ready to conduct a full on assault on the open doors.
I felt fairly out of practice – people were whipping by me before I could orient myself among the dozens of signs telling me to go in every possible direction. One of the most precious parts about this commute is the nearly empty Q train that arrives at Union Square, newly vacated at Times Square a stop before. I’m finally riding against rush-hour traffic, because who leaves the Lower East Side to get to the butt-end of Brooklyn at eight in the the morning? But what’s better is the slow trolley-like ride over the Manhattan Bridge, especially in the early morning winters when the sky is still splashed orange-red with the sunrise and everything between the river and the glass walls lining the FDR is glittering.
Staten Island may be the least bike-friendly borough of New York City. The roads are narrow and twisting or wide and shattered and it appears that no driver knows how to manage a fifteen-foot wide lane with a cyclist desperately clinging to the curb. Either making a wide enough arc to warrant a head-on collision with oncoming traffic or cutting too close to the handle bars of an adjacent cyclist, cars will zoom past nervously honking the whole way.
Google Maps did its best in outlining a connection between the St. George Ferry Terminal and the Arthur Kill Ship Graveyard. M and I checked it over a few times, using street view to familiarize ourselves with the terrain – avoiding obnoxiously steep hills, narrow passages and highways. Still, we ended up on a narrow sidewalk biking alongside a six-lane road through brush – catching swamp reeds, leaves and branches between spokes, gears and shoelaces. Despite some hazardous and unpleasant conditions, the ride was relatively smooth. We didn’t get lost but we did stop several times to check the map, making sure we hadn’t missed any turns that happened to be just a block away. We made a few obligatory stops at yard sales, joked about heaving a vase or two back home, and made plenty of conversation when the roads afforded us the chance to ride side by side.
Both of us had been to Staten Island before, even if it is the “forgotten borough”, but neither of us knew it well enough to get by without a map. Still, it’s exciting to be somewhere and have vague recollections and familiarity drift into your consciousness. We’re biking down Richmond Road and a grassy hill floats up over the trees into our field of vision. Fresh Kills Landfill comes into view and it stretches for miles as we make our way through the overgrown path. We stop at a bridge and look out onto the swampy flatness that is some portion of the Arthur Kill River. The tide must be low because streams trickle in in some places over the mud and reveal a few tires sinking into the sand. Looking out, it gets easier to ignore the traffic behind us and let the rolling-manmade hills fill up our peripheral vision. We’re both taken aback by how much nature is out there.
We’re still about halfway and the rest of the ride takes us through a relatively quiet two-way street that winds out of the interior of the island and along its south-western edge. We know we’re close when we start to see blips of steel and wood in between the breaks in the thick reeds that have been lining the road for several hundred feet. Aside from a barely distinguishable break in the wall of tall grass there was no indication that we had arrived. We locked our bikes up against a pole in front of a car wash, waved to the men sitting out front and ran into the bushes towards the liminal edge where land meets water. The first few steps were on firm, dry ground; it soon dissolved into mush below our feet.
We hopped from plank to plank, to grassy stumps to avoid sinking into the mud and before we knew it we were out in what would be a beach if there were any dry sand. About 100 yards away were remnants of ships in complete disarray well into their way through various stages of decay. What one could only assume to be ships, looked to be a heap of gnarled steel and chewed up wood – tossed aside and on top of one another as if by giants – sinking slowly into the earth and along what could have been a pier a few decades ago.
We approached with caution. The wood looked to be pretty far gone. It flaked off to the touch and looked barely to be hanging on. The steel nails, a bright auburn, once securing the vertical grid of posts and beams was eroded to the point that a simple twist split them into two jagged chunks. We pocketed them as souvenirs. Hand over hand, foot over foot we made our way along the pier to a more secure part where we could actually climb up to the top, where steel plates and a giant spool of frayed steel cable still stood relatively intact but covered in a brittle layer of corrosion. Sturdy materials crumbled beneath our feet – steel and wood disintegrated with little effort on our part. We climbed further into the discordant mess, from boat to boat to pier, to planks, traversing open air and pools of water ending up on a ledge somewhere that gave us a view of industrial New Jersey on the other side of the narrow passage of Arthur Kill.
There we sat, split an energy bar and talked. How far do you have to get away from everything and everyone to reflect on things? Why go searching for decay and desolation? Our conversation wasn’t unique – ambitions, relationships, places – to where we ended up having it but being in this strange, peripheral place was fitting. After fifteen miles of biking, a five-mile ferry and about an hour of climbing over and under some industrial trash we could surround ourselves with silence, once cut by the roaring blades of a helicopter. We emerged from the swamp into someone’s backyard, a house nestled between a heap of garbage and a wood chip storage maintenance facility, cut across their yard and made it back to our bikes. We waved good-bye to the men at the car wash and sped off to indulge in a Sri Lankan buffet about ten miles away.
When I talk about things being serendipitous, I’m not sure that I mean that exactly. We can say that things are fated, circumstantial, accidental, coincidental or we can say that they always meant to happen, were sure to happen, and you simply following the bread crumbs to get there. On the ride back we passed a place that looked familiar but not quite – like looking at something from the inside-out and being sure you’d seen it before. Staten Island is full of cemeteries and it wasn’t surprising to pass a few on the way. Ancient roadside cemeteries with withered tombstones barely planted in the ground followed by graveyards with ornate, steepled monuments and mausoleums lined major and minor roads.
Along the alternate route that took us away from Arthur Kill, we passed that hauntingly familiar place – United Hebrew Cemetery. My uncle is buried here. As it turns out, so is M’s grandfather. We decided to pay our respects. I’d been there just a month earlier, taking my parents on their ritualistic visit to passed relatives – leaving rocks on the tombstone, honoring their memory, consoling their own fears and regrets.
Cemeteries are strange places. The dead and buried, resting miles away from home, bookmarked and cataloged in rows and aisles by heavy granite stones. Some have their pictures carved in, all are dated. All say “we honor and memorialize…” – some in English and Hebrew, most in Russian. Everything is physical, nothing here honors the spirit or the memory; it’s all just approximate. This is a place-holder.
We make our way to the very back of the cemetery, M lays a stone near her grandfather’s grave and I lay one on my uncle’s. Then we move on to an adjacent cemetery where my grandfather, my grandmother and several of my parent’s friends are buried. So many people and the spaces are getting filled up so quickly. Workers are always digging. We talk about death in short spurts. It’s something that happens somewhere over there and never quite right here, so it’s easy to dodge the subject. We put it away, set it aside and visit it occasionally, turning a moment of introspection into a journey to a physical place that represents this total finality that is only true on one level.
I’ve never cried while looking at a headstone – but I’ve cried watching my mother talk about her father while staring at the dates of his life on one, saying it took forty-six hundred miles of travel to die on American soil. I’ve cried by my dad’s side when he stands shaking his head over his cousin’s grave, with whom he spent some of the most trying years of his life as he grasps to understand the loss still six years fresh. Cemeteries are for the living, for those that carry on with the absence of a loved one.
And everytime I leave the cemetery, whether in a car with my family or on bike with M, the weight of the memory starts to slip, sheds in layers as we speed away, putting more and more distance between our day to day lives and the memories contained within the bones beneath the ground, marked by stones, grown over with grass.
So it turns out, that soon after we pass a few lights, we focus on the road, on the next few miles to warmth and comfort and food.
Sometime in May, a building along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was burning. A hazy white billowing cloud set against the bright blue sky rose up over a warehouse building near 8th Street. It seemed innocuous at first, like some rogue exhaust from one of the dozens of manufacturing facilities in the area – until sirens blaring from a distance made their way into the fray. The faint smell of something like burning tar, a smell all too familiar along this stretch, filled the air. Eventually those puffy white clouds gathered into something more menacing; a dark heap of soot slowly rose over a building by Dyke’s Lumber and a crowd gathered at the canal overpass to watch. Like others in the crowd I was initially drawn to the edge of this tiny bridge to watch the fire unfold, but the crowd and I quickly turned our attention to the canal just about ten feet below our feet. “I was walking down 6th and the whole time I just thought the smell was coming from the canal,” says one guy. People nod in agreement. A few others start playing “I spy…” – a scavenger hunt of sorts. There’s a decades old computer, a fishing net, and a bike wheel half-floating in the dense swampy water while further in the distance air bubbles burst at the surface amid the cloudy rainbow film of oil. And all I could think was “what could possibly live down there….”
Even though I had passed by the Gowanus Canal many times on my way through Carrol Gardens or Park Slope I still had no real idea of what this slice through Brooklyn actually was. Here’s one of the reasons why: you can never really see or occupy the edges of the canal. It only becomes visible from one of the short bridge crossings. Unless you happen to be in the yard of one of the manufacturing or industrial buildings it is hard to catch a glimpse. The canal is confined to the interior lots, hidden from view in many cases. Even longtime residents are unfamiliar with its existence – much less its origins (was it a natural waterway or man-made?) – cannot discern its truth from myth (is this really a dumping ground for the mafia?) and are unclear on its purpose (what’s with all the draw bridges and fog lights?) or safety (does gonorrhea really thrive in its waters?).
But if you are one of the people familiar with the Gowanus Canal you know that the sight of it today is disturbing, with its floating refuse, polluted water and profuse smell. My first impressions of this seemingly insignificant waterway through Brooklyn was that it was a relic of the city’s industrial past, neglected in the past century. Some natural fresh water channel confined by the city’s expansion of concrete and asphalt that had long been forgotten. This was not completely far from the truth, but I wanted to know more so I decided to do a little bit of research on this natural-unnatural part of the city.
It turns out that the Gowanus Canal has had a long and intertwined history with the development of New York and Brooklyn in particular but you wouldn’t be able to guess this based on the state of the canal today. This often overlooked body of water that cuts a two-mile path from the Gowanus Bay into some of the most prosperous neighborhoods of Brooklyn was recently declared a Superfund site and has since undergone thorough ecological investigation to determine the extent of its environmental damage. Over the years the canal has gained notoriety for its foul stench and for the collection of debris that gathers along its shallow shores. It has even made its way into pop culture and myth where it is considered a cesspool of disease and the dumping grounds for the mafia. For locals the myth of the canal surpasses its truth. So much so that it has been neglected all of these years.
Despite its appearance, there’s an inherent beauty in this seemingly quaint stretch of water that juts into Brooklyn and it tells a story of the delicate balance of the creek’s health, an example of so much of NYC’s natural landscape, usurped by industry. Like many people living in Brooklyn faintly aware of this canal, I thought it had long gone out of use. Yet the few times that I have stood along its shores I have witnessed some activity: the drawbridges still operate for fire boats that navigate along it and the barges that occasionally float by make a fuss with fog lights, bells and whistles – a light indication of its once prosperous industrial uses. More than that, it now serves the city as an open sewer into which storm water and sewage overflow passes through on its way into the bay. In other words this body of water is an intricate part of New York City’s sewer system. It is one of the reasons why our streets don’t overflow with sewage every time it rains. It’s called a Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) and it is one of many throughout the city that is part of an overburdened and outdated sewage management system. But more on that later because even that unpleasant circumstance doesn’t fully explain why the US Environmental Protection Agency has declared it a Superfund site.
If we take a few steps back to NYC’s origins as New Amsterdam we have to give the city’s intricate waterways a lot of thought. They helped make the city as economically and politically significant as it is today. I grew up in New York City, in the only borough that isn’t technically on an island and I never associated the city with its vast and interconnected waterways. And yet I lived just a few miles from the Bronx River, which also happens to be one of those polluted industrial waterways that winds its way down into the bay. I traveled into Manhattan often and through it into Brooklyn underground on the subway hardly considering the engineering of the tunnels that dissipated that intricate distinction between the boroughs. It’s a fascinating disconnect considering how vital the geography of New Amsterdam was to its establishment and early development as a port city of priority. It’s simply that in New York City, water is no longer the obstacle it once was, nor is it its only transportation and trade.
So let’s remember: we are stranded on an island and scattered around its periphery. We are surrounded by water and divided by it. Yet we’ve stifled this natural element so successfully that many of us completely forget that it exists. Our rivers are straddled by bridges and penetrated by tunnels. We can navigate this city without ever thinking about the proximity of water and we are shocked when it turns on us. We can plunge underground into the bedrock, into the slithering subways and emerge along its outer banks without the slightest consideration of having just been buried below a river. That’s how easy it is to forget and neglect all of it.
But long ago, the Gowanus Canal was one of those significant waterways that helped make Brooklyn a prosperous port city that saw tremendous development alongside Manhattan in the early 20th century. It was once pivotal to the economic and social development of Brooklyn and has since been withered down in its perception to a “toxic waste site and open sewer”. The decline of the Gowanus Canal is just another version of a well-known story in our history; it is a combination of the state of a post-industrial city and its outdated infrastructure. One writer, Joseph Alexiou, is determined to uncover the truth about the canal and bring its history to light. Alexiou lectured to a full room at the Brooklyn Brainery – an adult learning center in Brooklyn Heights – explaining the long history of the canal and covering the subject of its potential future from research gathered for a forthcoming book on the subject.
He was one of the resources that helped me draft a much more sober picture of the extent of the damage within this artifact of Brooklyn’s history. Thanks to the Brooklyn Brainery, Joseph Alexiou, and the EPA’s detailed report on the Gowanus Canal the story is coming together: One of my first questions about the canal was whether it is man-made or naturally occurring? And the answer, of course, is much more complicated than either/or in that it is both.
What is known today as the Gowanus Canal started out as the Gowanus Creek, a natural salt-water tidal marsh that flooded and drained naturally. Red Hook, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope and Cobble Hill now comprise what was once the banks of the undefined marsh which provided a lush habitat for salt-water grasses and a natural defense for the burgeoning city within central Brooklyn in the early 19th century. Looking at today’s map of the canal probably makes this inconceivable. The hard-line boundaries drawn by the bulkheads of the canal looks like anything but natural. Today it is a 1.8-mile long, 100-foot wide channel defined by concrete, logs and steel with several basins that jut out into the various neighborhoods along its course and serve additional docks and turn-around points along its route.
This transition happened in the mid-19th century when the land of the lush marsh was considered too valuable to leave uninhabited. Thus began the plan to fill the marsh with sturdy soil to prevent future flooding and create solid ground on which to build. Around the same time, the city became acutely aware of its own sanitation problem: Brooklyn was expanding rapidly and began suffering from sewage management issues. The existing sewer system could no longer handle the flow that the city produced, particularly during heavy rains when it flooded the streets with raw, untreated sewage. To solve this problem the city developed the Combined Sewage Overflow system (CSO) which would divert excess sewage that treatment plants could no longer handle into the closest open waterways that fed into the outer bays. The Gowanus Creek was one such available waterway and to provide the solution for the two pressing issues facing the city, the Gowanus Canal came into being. The creek was promptly confined to its present-day bulkheads, creating a hard edge to the once amorphous marsh. The land surrounding the canal was filled in until the marsh was completely buried allowing new development to occur and the contained waterway would serve as the CSO solution to the surrounding neighborhoods.
So began the industrial era of the canal. The land along the canal was perfect for manufacturing and industrial uses. Its proximity to New York Harbor made it an ideal commercial route. Thus, by the early 20th century manufacturing plants started popping up along the banks of the canal which now served a direct connection between New York Harbor and the markets of Brooklyn steadily growing to prominence alongside Manhattan. The industries that sprang up were varied and included manufacturing gas plants (MPGs), coal yards, cement manufacturers, tanneries, paint and ink factories, machine shops, chemical plants and oil refineries. By 1922 these manufacturing and commercial uses brought in as much as $100 million from just the Gowanus Canal. The waterway was inarguably a major asset to Brooklyn’s economic growth.
Throughout this period lax environmental laws allowed for discharge from these various industries to be flushed directly into the waterway, poisoning the salt water with a garden variety of chemicals including PAH, PCB, heavy metals, BTEX, NAPL and VOCs all of which are hazardous substances, and in some cases proven carcinogens, that mixed with the raw sewage entering the canal. Eventually, the Gowanus Canal dropped off as a main source of income when trucks and container shipping began to replace barge shipping in the mid-20th century. Robert Moses’ urban planning agendas provided the city with its mass network of highways. The Brooklyn Queens Expressway gained prominence as a shipping route and for the most part industry left the Gowanus. But throughout those decades that the canal was functioning as the main trade and transportation route for industrial goods, about 10-feet of sludge accumulated along the canal bed. The EPA conducted extensive tests on the toxicity of the water, testing for carcinogens upon contact and ingestion. The rumors about gonorrhea and cholera residing in these waters is not far from the truth and direct contact with the water is highly discouraged.
The toxic dumping may have ceased, but the result of decades of ecological abuse is for us to sort out. In addition to the canal still maintains its CSO functions. Raw sewage floods the canal during heavy rains, as this video demonstrates. During Hurricane Sandy there were reports of nearby apartments flooded by overflowing toilets and sinks with the sewage from the canal. Yet this toxic site and its present-day malfunctions still has an elusive existence in Brooklyn’s current narrative. Shortly after the EPA declared the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund site in 2010 the agency released a proposed remedial plan that would cost an exorbitant $506 million for the city and private companies. The process outlined by the EPA offers a variety of solutions but the highest recommended plan includes dredging the sludge that rests at the bottom of the canal and creating a secondary solution to the CSO, such as building retention tanks that store raw sewage until it can be directed to the sewer system for treatment plants to safely handle it.
In late September of 2013 the EPA announced a final plan, citing responsible parties, and provided a timeline for the canal’s clean up, a survey of work that includes dredging and stabilizing the toxic sediment at the bottom of the canal. The Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group (CAG), established in 2010, has aligned itself with the EPA to promote this plan with input from the community, and arriving at a consensus for clean up techniques and ecological renewal.
The Record of Decision, as the final drafted plan is called, promises to bring new opportunities for urban engagement in the post-industrial landscape. Possibly even finding a way back into its natural state.
The difficulty with vacant land in New York City: everyone wants a piece – but just to hold on to.
596 Acres is a fantastic organization. It links the community leaders, planners, gardeners, farmers – or anyone with an idea and the motivation – with publicly owned vacant lots that have the potential for development into public space. These lots owned by any number of New York City’s agencies are vacant for a variety of reasons. If you look close enough along your neighborhood streets you’ll find 596 Acres’ signs posted to fences, gates or lamp posts that identify these lots with instructions on how to gain access to them.
In light of New York City’s zealous desire for density, it’s startling that these 596 acres still exist. Until recently, there were 4 vacant lots along my block. One is now being turned into a three-story townhouse (hello neighbors!). The other two remain empty, but one of these happen to be a 596 Acre lot and has a potential future…
… but there is one caveat. Someone wants to hold on to this land, stall any kind of development just for slim chance that one of these days it will turn into housing. Yet, one of 596 Acres’ tenets is that the land is open to public use until it is ready to be developed by the agency that owns it. No strings attached. So what is this hang up? This potential community garden-park-activity space is trapped within the confines of unclear land-use legislation, relegated to being someone’s dump, collecting trash and refuse, growing weeds and being a bleak reminder that public space is not so public.
The internet blackhole of information. I stumbled upon this image of a landslide mining accident that happened on April 11th in Utah and found myself down a rabbit hole of research that went something like this: mines, man-made mines, tunneling, caving, sinkholes, and particularly the sinkhole that seems to have swallowed up Florida resident Jeff Bush in early March, which led me to speculate the causes before doing any further research – how fracking, mineral extraction, and dynamiting the bedrock below us and gutting the earth of its mantle is causing some serious problems for us. But it’s more complicated than that…
When the Huffington Post reported on that sinkhole in Florida we find out that “there is hardly a place in Florida that is immune to sinkholes”. Well, how is that for dismal? It turns out that Florida sits on “karst” – a mixture of limestone and porous rock with a layer of dissolvable clay on top. So what happens when it rains too much and the already overburdened earth gets sodden? One result is that sinkholes tend to develop and those that open up in developed areas unfortunately swallow up a man in his own bedroom. How’s that for retribution? I’m not a staunch believer in the apocalypse or doomsday or a sentient earth – not really anyway. But it does seem like the earth is screaming GET OUT, doesn’t it? These guys think so.
Geologist Jonathan Arthur clears up the circumstances of developing sinkholes. There are many factors that contribute to sinkholes, and they are actually common in states all over the US – just take a look at this map from the US Geological Survey on Water Science – and throughout the world. Fortunately, not all of these areas are inhabited. But for those that are there are factors specific to Florida that make this karst topography state much more prone to their development: extreme weather, development, aquifer pumping and construction. Three out of four of those things are directly related to human activity. For example, in 2002 cold weather contributed to 22 sinkholes opening up in Tampa, Florida because farmers were extracting ground water to protect crops from freezing, contributing to cavities developing in the already porous soil that eventually collapsed into sinkholes. Discovery does a good job of describing this.
The development sinkholes is a natural process that helps re-hydrate the soil, refill the water supply – you know, do what ecosystems do: recycle, regenerate, and rebuild. So when development blocks the pathway, prevents it or inhibits it, extracts from it and never reimburses it, nature has a way of self-regulating. So here’s a crazy timeline featuring some of those instances that did not make headlines.
These phenomena are beautiful but devastating. I’m digging through photos of the earth swallowing itself up, cannibalizing, turning itself inside out. I once wanted to write a story about how mankind retreats underground, gravity is reversed and we use the earth’s crust and mantle as the ground, looking up at its core as if it were a sun, having hollowed out the earth to build a city within. I mean, we’re already doing this – NYC MTA Tunnel explosions
– and carving out the earth to extract its minerals, piling it back on top and hoping it doesn’t crumble and swallow us back up.
We could ask “How do we design to build on a karst landscape?” or we can just ask “Why build on a karst landscape?” Fine, say we continue this development … what do we plan to do about it?
You make your way down Florida Avenue to the east towards the Industrial Canal – that man-made boundary and connection that both guards the Lower Ninth Ward from the part of New Orleans that pulls the most tourists and connects the Lake to the Mississippi River. Your route is flanked by railroad tracks and depots, and desolation on either side as you pass slouching houses opening onto grand weed-strewn lots.
An overpass appears in the distance, some intricate graffiti ebbs along concrete blocks, and you’re surrounded by a deafening echo from traffic overhead. Rows and rows of concrete columns support the massive highway, shrinking into the darkness on either side.
You’re biking along cracked roads with infrequent traffic passing on your left, trying to keep up with your friend whose been touring you through the richest and most desolate parts of New Orleans. So today you requested a trip to the Lower Ninth Ward, and this particular route takes you on a few unexpected detours.
You take a sharp left over the railroad tracks and into a scarcely recognizable parking lot. Only the yellow paint marks make that clear. You’re led into an abandoned strip mall, turned venue, and you’re told – if you can imagine it among the corroding steel and cracking concrete – that it is sometimes host to a bar, a stage, a dance party. A car flipped on its back is the centerpiece that rests in the middle of one of these halls that was once a contribution to commerce in the city. Some punks set it ablaze – evidence of which is visible on the charred ceiling – during one of the shows.
If you can believe it, New Orleans breathes life into its own dilapidation. Something exhilarating happens between the cracks, vying for life with a new energy. You see it in the weeds, winding their way through concrete cracks, sprouting through the walls. You can fight it but in this particular circumstance it has been given free reign.
From the roof you can see far beyond the low-lying city in all directions. The streets are mostly quiet, a few kids ride by on bikes in the direction you came from. In the distance you see what passes for a public housing development. That is your next stop because, from here, something seems a bit off about the dark windows and the graffiti-scrawled facades.
The dozen or so, three-story multi-family homes look just about complete. As you approach the buildings, it becomes clear that the graveyard of foundations to your right, that span about a hundred yards, are not the broken remains of the demolished homes you’ve heard about and will soon see in the Lower Ninth. In a much starker reality, they are evidence of a floundering housing development that built these homes, never occupied, rotting since the storm. Maps indicate that it is the Florida Housing Development but no amount of research has yielded any results on the current status of the project, its past or its future.
Markings on the existing homes are assessed as too damaged for habitation, but you wonder about how much value these homes could have had in light of housing shortages after the storm if they had only been worked on. You consider the controversy of toxic FEMA trailers and wonder if this would have been a better option.
These questions are outdated. You are seeing this seven years hence and the tired old truths about government bureaucracy and housing and public money and funding and bankruptcy beckon explanation where none exists.
The houses, now covered in graffiti, stripped of windows, full of weeds look so close to completion whenever they were cared for last. The interiors appear finished with the last minute details of construction including paint and door handles and light fixtures. But doors are flung open and anonymous declares “if dese be projects, dey should be complete”.
You venture on. You’re now very close to the scrap yards that line the Industrial Canal and you pause as the gate lifts to allow a barge to pass through. No one else is around. Maybe a car or two pulls up to the arm of the drawbridge, waiting for the crossing. It only takes a few minutes but you soak up the sun because pretty soon the heat and humidity will be unbearable – you’ve been warned. You’ll drown in your own sweat from the unrelenting heat.
Over the bridge and Welcome to the Lower Ninth Ward.
At first it seems no different from the neighborhoods across the canal from which you just came. But you seldom encounter any streets that aren’t cracked, filled with dirt and sand, crumbling into potholes, or covered in weeds. At least here they are much more frequent. You are still in the city – this isn’t the back-country. But if you found yourself here with no context you could easily make that mistake. New Orleans isn’t particularly dense, but this place is sparse. And perhaps what makes it more poignant is that the city grid still peers through the weeds.
Throughout the rest of the city you had passed commercial hubs and corridors, industrial centers, dedicated zones of infrastructure and manufacturing. But out here, you have to be reminded that aside from the stigma of the Lower Ninth – crime and poverty that predates Hurricane Katrina – this was a neighborhood and a community. These were homeowners that visited Claiborne Ave, a main thoroughfare that was once a commercial corridor.
Today you’ll pass a gas station, a grocery store, the renowned taco truck and possibly a fried chicken vendor. Yet, as it exists, Claiborne still carries a steady stream of traffic heading east to west to east, out to the city or out to the swamp.
You turn in to any of the side streets and the silence is pervasive. Your tires rustle the dirt a bit, a light wind swishes the trees, but all around you is quiet. Occasionally you’ll hear the sound of men yelling orders and hammering because every once in a while there appears to be construction in progress.
The street names are still prominent, even when they no longer exist. Some are dead ends. In other words, some aren’t really streets anymore; they’ve been reclaimed by the weeds, overgrown and covered in brush. And the houses that once lined these streets? Well they’re gone and rarely does any evidence exist. In some cases, you’ll still see a concrete foundation holding out against the growing weeds, or scattered bricks once stacked as legs supporting an elevated house. There are even some concrete stairs leading up to nowhere. Along a few stretches of street someone spray-painted the house numbers or the lot numbers, whichever applies, on the concrete. More than likely, though, you’ll see nothing but vegetation and vastly unoccupied space.
This level of erasure, this expediency towards the dissolution of physical history is brutal. But again, seven years. So nature is reclaiming development. You wind your way through these endless streets, happen upon a friend of a friend’s farm, wonder about its legality, and move on.
Now you’re at the levee along Jourdan Ave – that broad concrete structure, the precariously engineered separation between the powerful forces of the Mississippi River and its tendency to surge and reclaim land. The levee – a bare concrete form – is reminiscent of a sense of confinement and a chilling reminder of why this needs to be here. If you live across the street from this thing you’re facing a wall from which a few of the drawbridges over the Industrial Canal peak out. Someone should graffiti this thing.
Then you start to approach the contested project of Make It Right – a program founded by Brad Pitt to bring quality housing back into the hands of the displaced residents of the Lower Ninth Ward. These bright homes, covered in solar panels, are readily distinguishable from the rest of the neighborhood.
Let’s review. You’ve passed one story chicken-leg homes carried on stilts about eight feet off the ground. You passed pre-flood homes marked with X’s, dates and notes by first responders assessing the damaged structures and looking for survivors a few weeks after the Hurricane. These were low-lying one-story houses now with boarded up windows of modest wood or brick construction. You passed the ranch style houses, kids playing out front, pick up trucks parked on lawns, some rattling with music for Easter Sunday festivities. None of them are much taller than two stories until you hit Make It Right.
The Make It Right homes are clustered in a four-block radius with tree-lined streets, mowed lawns, and decorated porches. The streets are maintained and although this too has low density, it feels more like a neighborhood than any other part of the Lower Ninth. People are out hanging out on the stoops, barbecuing and playing music, and laughter and conversations make an impression on the street. People nod hello as you pass.
If you were interested in the architecture, you would mind the design of these homes and consider their innovation. Pitched roofs are mounted with solar panels to optimize sun absorption, you assume, and to facilitate air circulation. You would notice carports below the homes raised well above the first story level to be protected against any water that may come that way in the future. You would see how the homes are carved out of function – exterior terraces, exterior stairs, open air balconies and translucent walls.
But the value here reaches far beyond these observable form and function nuances. You’ve read that the materials are durable, ecologically sound, and that construction is designed to address the failures witnessed in previous hurricanes. But all that aside, the neighborhood is being rebuilt and we can argue about how far Make It Right goes, whether these particular homes are worth the millions of dollars already spent over the past five years. What matters more is that people are returning by some margin. And yet, the Lower Ninth Ward, for all its negative attention, is still just a neighborhood – extreme by all accounts – but certainly not alone in New Orleans.