Archive for the 'Bay Area' Category

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.

25
Jul
09

almost full

the hills are alive with the sound of compactors

the hills are alive with the sound of compactors

The Palo Alto landfill is almost full. The old dirt road leading to the active face is now being filled.There’s a new entrance and a new tollbooth, but it is manned by the same old walrus who checks your ID and takes your $10 for a trunkful or $20 for a truckload.

For a special burial, the sign at the entrance says, there is an additional fee. The gatekeeper explains that this is not a ceremony for your beloved pooch or your dearly departed hamster. It’s for such things as asbestos, which have to be double-wrapped.  Seems like a good plan.

In the 14 years that I’ve observed progress here, the mountains have grown faster than kudzu vine. In a year or so, they should finally be done. You can begin to see what the final shape of the hills is going to be—not exactly like Coyote Hills across the bay, but more similar than the breaching whale shapes that most landfills achieve.

15
Aug
08

Rolling Hills

Byxbee Park, on the bay shore in Palo Alto, is both perfectly obvious and perfectly bizarre. Obvious, because it’s in the middle of the Baylands and offers spectacular views of the bay in all directions. Perfectly bizarre, because it is full of machinery and mysterious artifacts that have an allure similar to Stonehenge. Clearly these things were built by humans, and at some effort, but to what earthly purpose?

Pole Field at Byxbee Park, Palo Alto
Pole Field at Byxbee Park, Palo Alto

The artifacts include a carefully planted forest of wooden poles, as well as a piece of equipment that looks like a cross between a rugby goal and wind chimes. K-rail is laid out in chevrons on one hillside. In a dip on the other side, stands a chugging, churning device that looks to have sagged out of plumb a generation ago. A trail of shimmery heat waves comes out the top.

Most startlingly, the place breathes, though not always in the same rhythm. A few years ago, you had to listen carefully for the long-drawn-out, despondent sigh it cast upon the air every two minutes or so. When I visited more recently, the park breathed almost in synch with myself, a little stertorously perhaps, as if suffering from some minor pulmonary obstruction.

There’s a simple explanation for the mystery: Byxbee Park is repurposed landfill, a small section of the Palo Alto city dump that was decommissioned some time in the 1980s. Its artificial hills are studded with pipes and pumps for the capture of leachate and methane. The leachate goes to the purification plant down the road, while the methane is burned off by a flare, that rusty device described above. Construction rubble peeks out of the grassy knolls behind the “habitat reconstruction” signs. The pole forest is in fact “land art,” and so are the K-rail and the rugby chimes.

If you don’t already know, then it’s not so easy to find out what Byxbee Park is. A plaque near the entrance to the park says: “The design of Byxbee Park is the result of a collaboration between the City of Palo Alto, landscape architects Hargreaves Associates, and artists Michael Oppenheimer and Peter Richards. The project was funded in part by the City of Palo Alto refuse collection fees and the Public Art Commission’s Art in Public Places program.” A map identifies the installations by name but declines all effort at explanation. And not a word about garbage apart from those collection fees.

Byxbee’s tight-lipped stance, the likely legacy of the 20th-century’s long romance with “sanitation,” is perhaps understandable. Sanitation was about garbage removal as a public health measure, about whisking garbage away from the curb and making it disappear, as quickly and efficiently as possible. It was about burying garbage where nobody had to worry about it except the sanitation department. It was about creating a world where you could pretend that garbage didn’t really amount to any of your business. That time has passed.

Michael Oppenheimer's Wind Wave installation

Wind Wave installation

The sanitation romance is fading and reality asserts itself. What may once have counted as innocence now only looks like wanton blindness. Most of us are uncomfortably aware of the fact that natural resources are finite and landfill space harder and harder to come by. Sanitary engineering has given way to environmental engineering, and ordinary people are handling (and worrying about) their trash, at least a little. When we drag our garbage cans to the curb and the lid won’t quite go down, we probably don’t feel too good about it.

All the same, it’s still awkward to talk about garbage publicly. The instinct still is to pull away from the subject as if it were sex and we Victorians. Garbage isn’t quite taboo, but it isn’t approved cocktail party conversation either—or something easily owned up to in park signage. It’s not just Byxbee Park where the “habitat restoration” signs don’t specify what type of habitat it is exactly that’s being restored. Bayfront Park, in Menlo Park, doesn’t have a single sign telling you it’s the old town dump. The Sunnyvale dump has signs all over it that say “Sensitive Wildlife Area.” Indeed.

Garbage dumps are just more comfortable telling you how to comport yourself than pointing out what it is you’ve already accomplished.

But perhaps it’s time to learn to think about garbage and to discuss it, not just in the “trashies” subculture but in polite society—if only because we actually feel a little guilty about the amounts of trash we get rid of every week. Or perhaps because we suspect that, whatever happens to it precisely, it’s not a pretty story. Perhaps because looking at our garbage makes it possible to decide whether we want to continue to make more fake hills and fill up more canyons with dangerous stuff that needs to be tended and monitored for decades or longer. If we dig our garbage back up out of the twilit reaches of a guilty conscience, then perhaps the signage at our landfills can be a little more straightforward too?

Totting up donations on the Palo Alto dump

Totting up donations on the Palo Alto dump

At Byxbee right now, the best hint of what’s underfoot is the active fill next door. Its mounds rise at a startling rate, even though only a portion of Palo Alto’s garbage ends up here now. Every time I visit Byxbee, the new dump is a little more present. One day, a new hill rises in the back. Another time, fill activity is going on in front, where there used to be a miscellany of trucks, rubble, equipment, and temporary storage. A third time, a little setup of pumps and other machinery has been moved out of the hollow in which it sat, and the hollow itself is now a big hill. It’s all carefully shaped to a grading plan that is meant to make the garbage look like the Coyote Hills across the bay–a natural feature of the environment.

With only a few years of space left in it, the active dump is expected to reach capacity in 2010, and the entire area will become parkland. As garbage hills go, Byxbee won’t be very large. Nevertheless, if it’s your garbage in there, how is it not special?

Even when you know what it is made of, Byxbee is quite lovely. Or maybe it is actually more lovely. In summer, when the grass is a bright strawberry blond and the sky intensely blue, the garbage is more a distant memory than a looming presence. Christmastime is different. The park has a leaden quality, even on the brighter days. The dull green of the grass and the relatively low light lend the hills an ominous air far more suggestive of the putrid mess underfoot.

In winter, the geese come through on their way south. Large groups, sometimes hundreds of them, camp out for a day or so to rest. The younger members of the flock occupy their time with incessant honking, squawking, and squabbling to rearrange the social order, while the more sedate and peaceable members of the congregation contentedly snack on the new grass.

The pelicans like to doze near Adobe Creek, neatly folded into small, blazing white packages from which occasionally a gawky long neck and beak protrudes. They could be a demonstration of the amazing ingenuity of a high-tech camping gadget. An occasional loner on the wing, flying low over the water, demonstrates the size and power of the animal when fully folded out.

At sunrise the wading birds and other water fowl are out at first light, always already there by the time I arrive. Most of the smaller ones I don’t recognize, although I am familiar with the names: terns, grebes, willets, western sandpipers, curlews, greater and lesser yellowlegs. They roll on the tongue like burbling water, out of time and history, comforting like the birds themselves.

They offer us a little hope: no matter how artificial the environment, no matter how degraded, life goes on. For now at least.

06
Aug
08

On Fire

In late July, a huge compost pile caught fire at the Palo Alto dump. Gigantic billows of smoke drifted off to the neighboring communities, creating considerable alarm among the residents, most of whom (understandably) don’t like to be intimate with landfill and its various effluents. Fire engines and helicopters were dispatched to extinguish the smoldering ruin, after which a crew sifted through the entire pile in search of hot spots.

Compost Pile in 2006

Compost Pile in 2006

Barbara Cimino, a spokeswoman for the fire department, sought to calm the fears of residents in the path of the smoke, explaining it was all very harmless and quickly brought under control. The Huffington post fueled the flames by adding “toxic” to its headline, although that’s unlikely, considering it was the compost pile that was laid waste, so to speak. It won’t have been more unhealthy than smoke is, generally, I should think and to be avoided, but “toxic smoke” suggests something else to me.

Cimino noted that the fire department was investigating whether a truck had brought in combustible material. That’s what caught my ear, as definitely newspeak. Compost is by definition combustible. Moreover, the process of biodegradation generates heat and smoldering fires in landfills are common, as they used to be in haystacks, where moist hay can spur biodegradation and result in spontaneous combustion). Compost can’t be any different. So however it happened, in all likelihood, it was just in the nature of things.

A couple of years ago, I got a tour of the Palo Alto landfill from the manager, who showed me the active face, the recycling operations on top of the fill, the vast closed area which holds nothing but pipes and grass on top of the fill, and the area converted to park. He drove me around and explained what was what and how things worked, grudgingly at first and much more enthusiastically when he discovered I was nothing but ears.

He’d worked at the landfill since the early 1980s and told me stories about people stealthily trying to dump motor oil when the workers weren’t looking. About a lady bringing huge loads of new cabbage patch dolls just before Christmas, which the workers rescued and gave to a not-for-profit. About another lady dragging a worker under her car as he was helping her get unstuck from a muddy spot. About yachtsmen abandoning their craft as the marina silted up. leaving the landfill crew to deal with the remains.

Sunrise over the Palo Alto Dump

Sunrise over the Palo Alto Dump

And he explained that the landfill was smoldering under the surface pretty much all the time. Usually, the workers coould tell where the hot spots were when their PVC methane collection pipes melted. There wasn’t much they could do about it except lay more pipe for methane collection.

He told me he didn’t know what he would do when the landfill closed, not too far in the future now. He didn’t have much education, being an outdoors kind of guy, but operating the heavy machinery on the landfill all those years had caused a lot of damage to his body. It left him quite a few years away from retirement but not very many options.

It was an education, as I gradually realized that landfill workers get squeezed between government organizations that demand less trash, residents who want to dump whatever they want to get rid off, regardless of regulations, and the trash itself, which is wayward, nasty, and toxic.

Many people like the park that has been created out of the part of the landfill that was closed years ago, but the landfill manager, my tourguide, would just as soon hang himself as walk around there. “It’s filthy,” he said. “and there are nasty creatures all over it–black widows, rats, and all sorts of other vermin.” We’ll have to give it to him. he knew what he was talking about.

24
Jul
08

Highway Debris

A Mile of Litter

A Mile of Litter

Of course garbage is everywhere, including the highways, and we all know it. I’ve seen all sorts of things reposing by the side of the road. I’ve swerved to avoid it: packing crates, boxes, tires and less identifiable debris. I’ve been in traffic jams caused by mattresses and appliances. I hear about even more debris on the local highways on the radio, as a fair number of the traffic updates mention such things as garbage cans rolling in the freeways, parts of the loads carried by trucks lolling on the roads, and vehicle parts with attachment disorders, sadly separated, probably forever, from their proper places in life. 

But it never occurred to me that there are people who study and quantify all this garbage for a living–it and nothing else. It took an article in the New York Times to open up my eyes to the truth. There are litter anthropologists (employed in universities) and litter analysts (employed in the waste industry). I can already envision the hilarity at cocktail parties when someone asks the inevitable question, “And what do YOU do?”

It turns out that California tops the nation in debris-related traffic deaths as well as in volume and oddity of items lost or tossed (including a live ostrich spilled on the Golden Gate Bridge in 2005). The annual volume is estimated at 130,000 cubic yards, equivalent to a jam of garbage trucks 45 miles long. Pickup trucks are blamed as well as our general slovenliness.

This is not to suggest that highways in other parts of the country are spotless. Georgia highways on average yielded 2289 items of flotsam and jetsam per mile in a recent survey. The unintentional yield contains the mysterious category of “packages from food usually eaten at home,” easily my favorite. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say how long it had taken for this treasure to collect.

Check out the New York Times graphic, showing a typical mile of litter.

15
Jun
08

Filing Cabinet

I have tried to explain (to myself and to others) what I find so compelling about garbage and garbage dumps. But I’m not the only one who’s asked the question. My daughter, Lauren, has had plenty of opportunity to wonder what is the matter with me as well. Below, I post her account of what it’s like to have a mother with an unusual passion:

It started with the pictures, thousands of them. Sunrises blazing bright across the sky. A little enchanted world shown day after day in vibrant orange and red. My mother put them in a book with fine black paper. They were beautiful. And they were all pictures of a garbage dump.

Sunrise over SF Bay

I guess if we’re being honest it really started with a commute to San Francisco. My mother had taken a job as an interface designer for Blue Shield. She’d had to get up every morning before the sun rose to make the forty-five minute commute (turned rush-hour nightmare) up 101 to the city center. One day, when her camera happened to be in the car, she stopped at the exit for Candlestick Park and took a photo. I wonder if she has that first picture marked in her book with the black paper, the sunset that started it all. Maybe she simply knows with a look which one it is.

That first photo turned into countless landfill visits, and seemingly thousands of rolls of film. By the time I entered high school, my mother knew where every landfill was in the Bay Area. She’d been to most. Shoreline. Brisbane. Oyster and Sierra Points. Bayfront Park. Byxbee Park. Fort Bragg. Coolee Landing. Hayward.

Her interest in landfills mutated, grew. She wondered about what went into dumps, what they said about our lives as Americans. She hoarded trash so that she’d have a reason to visit. We didn’t really need a new table, but my mother carted the old one off because she’d run out of things to throw away. She wrote stories about the paths that garbage took through our lives and made garbage her free time.

Glass Beach, Fort BraggSometimes I found myself in the car, weighted with a little dread, watching as she snapped photos of the stark and sterile coast line nudging shoulders with the batteries, old furniture parts, and the crappy romance novels you felt dirty for reading. I didn’t like how I felt on those trips, desperate for humanity, and horribly, horribly ugly. How could we let this happen? My mother recently went back home to the Netherlands and decided while she was there that she’d search out their landfills, and surprise surprise, there were none. They burned their garbage in Europe. They got rid of it.

The reason we have dumps, landfills, places that might eventually be covered up with a layer of clay and turned into an idyllic lakeside getaway like Shoreline, is because we don’t want to think about our waste, what we lose and leave behind. The only time the landfill was convenient was when the Stones came in 1999 and Mick Jagger collapsed on the stage. Clearly it was the methane emissions they were venting out from the earth and not all of drugs he’d probably ingested.

Mostly we cringe at the photos we see in environmental documentaries, vow to recycle better next time, and then forget about it altogether. That’s what landfills are designed to do, allow us to brush packaging and toxic paint and plastic twisty-ties off, like so much dirt on our shoulders. They’re the filing cabinet of problems too big to consider at this moment. Sometimes they’re easy enough to hide. Once they become too saturated with debris they simply get sealed away—recycled into a park. But Shoreline and Byxbee, no matter how pretty you paint them, how much grass and trees you lay over the clay covering, are never going away. They’re trapped, lying in stasis, never decomposing or breaking down, a constant memento mori for those of us who think to look.

I spent years being exasperated and annoyed at my mother and her penchant for weekend daytrips to the local waste way stations. I don’t know what I wanted from her. An obsession with classic films or antiques—something I could connect with on some level. Instead I had a mom who thought subscribing to the trash collector’s union magazine was interesting, who asked for Soylent Green on DVD for Christmas, and who got excited by road signs pointing to local dumps.

Somewhere along her expeditions, as she refers to them, these dumps and way stations became a story that needed to be told.

She decided to write a book about it, The Landfill Diaries, and she joined a writing group that met Mondays. I stuck to my bedroom on those occasions, furiously doing math assignments and procrastinating on the internet. I didn’t want to hear about the layers of garbage, the dead girl who showed up on the waste conveyor belt, and certainly not the number of tons of crap Americans let anonymous men cart off and dump into barren stretches of land kept well hidden from the average citizen. A job, as it turns out, that is more dangerous than being a soldier in Iraq, or a police man in Camden, New Jersey, or a fire fighter in desert country. The homework and the computer and the snacks I munched on all represented more trash, more waste, more detritus.

One Monday, I walked out of my room to get a glass of water, and I overheard my mother reading the tail-end of her latest chapter. She was probably talking about those long ago sunrises. I don’t know. I was tired of hearing it. I did notice when a woman, severe glasses and clothing and expression, and the writer of the worst sort of romance schlock, spoke up.

“It’s so beautiful, the way you phrase it. I wish it…weren’t about garbage.”

I stopped still in the kitchen and though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had an epiphany. That woman had so incredibly missed the point. That’s why my mother did it. That’s why she took a trip to New York City in the middle of my senior year, to visit Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. Garbage is not beautiful in each individual piece, or even when we bag it up and stuff it into blue bins. With a shock of sky as a background to mountains of Styrofoam and discarded clothing and food strewn over dead gray earth it is transformed. It is not pleasant, and perhaps only my mother would put such an image up on her wall. The devastation I see in those pictures is frightening. The things we are capable of doing in our carelessness should give anybody pause. And yet it’s still magnificent.

Sunrise over SF Bay, AgainThe sky blazes in polluted pink or deep, deep blue, plants still fight there way up to the sun, and even so it smells horrible. It should. It takes a diaper nearly 10,000 years to degrade. There’s history in that landfill. When we’re all gone, have covered every last landfill with fake parks and strip malls like in Fresh Kills, archeologists will be digging that garbage up and positing about how we live. Everything will be perfectly preserved. Do we want our forgotten bicycles, chip bags, and worn-down shoes to be how history remembers us? Do we want them to see our filing cabinet of problems we couldn’t deal with or simply forgot about? Just like the pictures, they are frozen snapshots.

Postscript: Lauren is still in school. She’s a writer and an artist. I am very proud of her.

27
Apr
08

A Skulk of Landfills

As if everything that’s filthy must converge, vast quantities of garbage generated in the South Bay seem to have lit out for Alviso, the sleepy hamlet that sank well below the tidelines of economic viability a few generations ago. Its prospects were not always so bleak. Once Alviso fancied itself as a bit of a resort town, the makings of a California boom town even, so magnificently located on the San Francisco Bay! It happily participated in the boosterism of the early 20th century with no apparent inkling of ignominies to come.

Now, the canneries are closed. The marina has silted up. A houseboat sits on stilts, low but dry behind the levee, in the middle of a memory of water. A visit to Alviso feels a little bit like stepping through the looking glass–from the burnished bloat of Bay Area affluence to the mournful, hard-scrabble somnolence of rotten luck in a few easy steps–and the result is both sad and oddly magical, at once weird and all-American. A railroad car has been pressed into service as an office. The yacht club house was physically transported to the levee by the Guadalupe river, which may look like something in the wake of a rainstorm but is nothing but a reed-filled backwater the rest of the time. Every year, the few remaining boats look more hopelessly landlocked as the reeds advance on open water. A few years back, the commercial fishing fleet had dwindled to a single shrimper, more in pursuit of perseverance than profit, it would seem. Now, it wouldn’t even be possible for the smallest shrimper in the world to reach the overgrown dock.

Alviso has fallen through its own soft bottom onto very hard times. Excessive ground water pumping caused the town to end up well below the level of the Bay. A little bench along the Guadalupe notes a subsidence of about 10 feet in 50 years–just the length of two short people laid end to end but a vast distance when measured in hope and ambition.

Such bad fortune paves the way for waste. Landfill must have taken on a completely different glint under circumstances such as these, representing a double boon of income and altitude. How the townspeople will have welcomed Keasby & Mattison, manufacturers of transite pipe in search of a resting place for leftovers. I imagine drinks and maybe even dinner at Vahl’s Italian Restaurant, hearty handshakes all around, bonhomie, cigars and whiskey, feelings of accomplishment on a deal well done, self-congratulation, general rejoicing, and hope rebounding. Perhaps a few individuals benefited more than they were prepared to discuss in public, but there’s no reason to think that the deal wasn’t above-board and business as usual from beginning to end.

St. Claire Landfill, Alviso

There’s the St. Claire landfill, dandled in the elbow of the Guadalupe, home to unseen garbage below ground and plenty of garbage above, in what the EPA kindly refers to as a truck and storage yard. There’s a debate whether Keasby & Mattison pipe ever ended up here at all.

Santos Landfill, AlvisoThere’s the Santos landfill, which has a mobile home park, office buildings, and a restrictive covenant which forbids residential use, hospitals, and school buildings serving persons under the age of 21. I struggle to understand how the covenant and the mobile homes relate to each other, but the EPA doesn’t seem to see the difficulty.

Marshland Landfill, Alviso And then there’s the Marshland landfill, rising out of the flatland at the characteristic incline, the only one of Alviso’s landfills you can recognize on sight.

I believe all the other landfills lie outside the town limits, but not by a great distance. Right there, less shoreline is divvied up by more communities, and the garbage gets a little crowded in the crook of the waterfront. From a good spot on a levee, you can see the two garbage mounds that hold the Santa Clara Golf and Tennis club aloft, just across Highway 237. The three mounds of the Sunnyvale dump lie a short distance to the west, while the mounds of the Zanker Road and Newby Island fills loom in the east.

But however hard Alviso may have worked to fill in the empty space that kept opening above, it was not enough to withstand the winter rains. In 1983, following serious flooding, the landfills were raided and a levee built all around town. And so it was that all of Alviso became a superfund site. Keasby & Mattison’s pipe, it turned out, was improved with asbestos. Unfortunately, the naturally occurring serpentine rock that had been added for good measure also contained asbestos. The EPA standard for permissible levels in soil is 1%, while some of the Alviso samples contained as much as 40% asbestos.

Alviso shows that bad luck lies on a slippery slope, one greased by garbage. The asbestos contamination has been mostly cleaned up or capped and covered, to be monitored in perpetuity. But those bumps on the Alviso skyline are standing sentinel against a fundamental reversal in fortune. NIMBY-ism may not be nice, but it is so very understandable.




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