05
Oct
14

Official History

A few weeks ago, shortly after take-off from New York’s JKF,  I looked out of my airplane porthole and saw an unmistakable garbage dump, on a spit of land sticking out like a hitch hiker’s thumb into a wide river. I just managed to snap a picture before it was lost from view. The stylized shape and the unnatural parched grass cover are each a dead giveaway, as are the straight trails following the precise angles of this man-made hill.

croton point focus

Croton Point landfill. Click to see a larger image.

A little scouting on Google Maps and Google Earth, showed this to be the centerpiece of Croton Point Park, in Westchester. It lies just north of Ossining, within view of the famed Sing Sing prison. A history of the park explains that the point has served its humble purpose for a long time: it was once a Native American oyster shell midden. Started as early as 7000 years ago, it is apparently the oldest shell mound found on the East Coast. The official history does not mention that the current park is laid out on top of a more modern garbage dump. That silence is also part of the perennial landfill pattern. Native American garbage, less noxious to start with, has been purified by time. Our own garbage is a different matter altogether.

I do wonder how it happens. Perhaps someone wrote a history that referred to the dump and was made to erase all reference to it by reviewers who were afraid to scare off the public? Or did the writer not even think to include it? Judging by my own experience of group encounters with the less ideal contours of reality, either of these possibilities is thoroughly plausible.

The New York Times manages this negotiation with the unpleasant just a little bit better in a 1990 article about an exhibition of local folk tales: “MONEY HILL is no longer shown on any Westchester map, and if it once was haunted the witches have fled the old knoll on Croton Point. The Indian trinkets and pirate gold reputed to be buried there – which gave the hill its name – will not be found now. The site is buried under the thousands of tons of waste that cover what is now a landfill.”

Just two years earlier, the news was even more explicit: “THE 600 acres of Croton Point once formed one of the largest tidal marshes on the Hudson River. After 50 years as the site of an active county dump, however, the area is judged by environmentalists to be a health hazard. A Federal judge last month called the landfill, which was closed in 1986, an environmental time bomb.” Again we are grateful to the New York Times in reporting on several lawsuits over toxic waste and possible groundwater pollution from the site. Imagine the poisoned plume that spreads from what must be an unlined dump, old as it is.

That’s why I love garbage, repulsive as it is. No matter how much it is hidden, erased, or denied, it sticks around, stubbornly bearing witness to what we most like to forget.

18
Feb
12

The Garbage Times: Bordo Poniente Closes

Bordo Poniente Landfill

Bordo Poniente, on the Penon-Texcoco Highway, Mexico city

The New York Times reported that Mexico City’s landfill Bordo Poniente has recently closed. City trash would now be trucked out to more distant dumps, it was planned. And the 1500 “pepenadores” (rag pickers) who made a living off the open face have negotiated a deal with the city that they would man the transfer station.

Want to know what it was like to work on the dump? Check out the video.

The Huffington Post was able to add that the plan didn’t quite work out: the distant dumps didn’t have the slightest desire to cooperate. Garbage has been piling up in the city in the meantime.

07
Feb
12

In the Foothills

In Chicagoland, the major garbage range is formed by the Calumet Mountains. Very impressive, and I’ve written about them before in Connecting the Dots. But today I had reason to be in Dolton, Illinois, which doesn’t happen every day. Dolton lies in the foothills of the Calumets, south-south-west more or less.

View from Needles Park

Dolton is not exactly a metropolis. It has a 70s-style diner, a discount store, a Western Union, liquor stores and launderettes, miles of chain-link fence, smothered chicken at the Samichez take-out, lots of blowing trash, more than a fair share of resignation, and a highly unnatural stench in the raw air. And of course a very large pile of trash butting up to Cottage Grove Lake and the baseball diamond at Needles Park.

In his essay Disneyland with the Death Penalty, William Gibson says, “Ordinarily, confronted with a strange city, I look for the parts that have broken down and fallen apart, revealing the underlying social mechanisms; how the place is really wired beneath the lay of the land as presented by the Chamber of Commerce.” I get that. It feels as if far more is revealed in the rubble and dust than in the buff and polish of the showcase avenues. There’s the wear and tear of history, the stresses that spring from lived reality, the cracks that open under the weight of grief.

But what to make of a place where there is nothing but fracture? Where the Chamber of Commerce has lit out of town long ago and there is no lay of the land to look beneath? Where the wiring is kaput and the chemicals that make everywhere else so prosperous, shiny bright, and bug free are all on the surface–and in the air and the ground and the water?

What to do when understanding is not sufficient to the challenge on the ground?

27
Jan
11

Preparing for the Climate Bomb

Suzanne Huskey's hedgehog sleeper cell

One of Suzanne Huskey’s “sleeper cells” looks like a petrified hedgehog on runners, but in fact it is a refuge for the environmental apocalypse or perhaps a dream house for the back-to-nature set. It has a door and two windows, and it proclaims a moderate right to privacy by means of those woody spines.

The other one has a loftier mien, looking like the bastard child of the Apollo 14 space capsule and a Jetson’s spaceship. Though it has a general air of waiting to lift off, the capsule has only got a few undersize casters by way of a power train.

And her Apollo Jetson capsule

Though they allude to the dreary cold war bomb shelters of an earlier age, the sleeper cells really are the funny, sunny alter egos to those earlier monuments to a crazed humanity. Every bit of these two shelters was salvaged from the discards streaming into the San Francisco transfer station, housewares included, during Huskey’s stint as artist in residence. Super bona fides, and perhaps also doubly useful in an age of endless foreclosures.

More about Huskey’s architectural ventures on her own website.

15
Jan
11

Murder Mystery

Cherry Island Landfill, Wilmington

Cherry Island Landfill, Wilmington

On New Year’s Eve, the body of John P. Wheeler III was seen falling out of a garbage truck dumping a load at the Cherry Island landfill near Wilmington, DE.

Sabrina Tavernise remarked in her New York Times article that that “Mr. Wheeler seemed an unlikely person to meet such a gruesome end.” Well, yes. He was a super-educated somebody in the Bush administration who had been instrumental in getting the Vietnam war memorial wall built. Surely nobody would have thought he was likely to be picked up during regular trash collections. But is that a likely destiny for any one of us, no matter how organized or disheveled we might be?

The response was highly instructive though. When a few years ago a homeless person ended up on the trashpickers’ line in the Sunnyvale transfer station, the general tut-tutting that followed was for the most part about how callous we are, how little some lives are worth in our society. This time, though, the media sniffed an intrigue behind the tragedy, and the lamentations quickly gave way to speculation. A homeless person in the garbage truck might be a tragic misadventure, but a murder mystery is entertainment.

04
Nov
10

We Need More Alienation

“We need more alienation from our spontaneous nature,” says Slavoj Zizek. “We should become more artificial.”

Words that are subject to interpretation, I’m sure, but definitely worth thinking about:

  • “We should develop a much more terrifying abstract materialism of a mathematical universe…. The difficult thing is to find poetry, spirituality in this dimension. To recreate, if not beauty, then aesthetic dimension in … trash itself.”
  • “To find perfection in imperfection itself. That’s how we should love the world.”
25
Jul
10

Superman

Rocks drift to the surface of a field, endlessly. Murder will out. Tires break through the skin of a good old-fashioned garbage dump. Bizarre tidbits of history float up from oblivion in the obituaries.

Bill McCabe

Bill McCabe

By this mechanism, we recently learned that in more exacting times, before we removed unfeeling harshness and unreasonable standards from the landscape of everyday life, it was possible to get your 15 minutes of fame by exceptional performance qualifying as a garbage collector. In June 1940, Bill McCabe,

lifted an 80-pound dumbbell in each hand and hoisted a 120-pound trash can to a 4-foot-6-inch ledge. He lay on his back and lifted a 60-pound barbell placed behind his head. He broad-jumped 8 feet 6 inches after a 7-yard run, dashed an added 10 yards and jumped a 3-foot hurdle.

Continuing a 10-yard run over and around obstacles, he ran another 10 yards on a straightaway and climbed an 8-foot fence. Beyond the fence, he vaulted 4 feet 6 inches and then ran 5 yards to the finish line. The time for the entire run was 10.8 seconds. After a 15-minute rest, he ran 120 yards with a 50-pound dumbbell in each hand in 25 seconds.

And thus he achieved a perfect score on the qualifying test to become a New York city garbage collector—locally known as a san man—as well as gaining the enviable status of “perfect specimen,” at least according to his New York times obituary.

Of all the details of the test, I particularly like the 8-foot fence. Did the Sanitation Department envision its troops stealing into fortified backyards to liberate the garbage that wayward householders meant to reserve for their pigs and chickens? Were the sanitation stalwarts meant for feats of great athleticism or was this just an effort to boost the cachet of an unappealing profession? Maybe, but quite possibly the Sanitation Department got overzealous in the face of 68000 applicants for 2000 positions.

Bill McCabe anyhow was on to bigger and better things before his first year was out, first becoming a policeman and eventually stepping up to be a firefighter. He may have been the world’s one garbage man to wring fame out of his profession, but clearly it was not his dream job.




November 2014
M T W T F S S
« Oct    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.