Tuesday, December 10, 2013


I took a walk this weekend out to Westbrook, the city adjoining Portland to our west. Westbrook's Main Street is less than five miles from downtown Portland, but these are small cities and along the borderlands between them there's a still mostly empty landscape of meadows and depopulated infrastructures.

From the edge of Portland I followed the old Cumberland and Oxford Canal, which for a few years in the mid-nineteenth century used to ferry lumber from 20 miles inland to the ocean. It's mostly silted up now, but its towpath is still in use along the edges of the Fore River marshes as a walking trail.

The canal's on the left; the Fore River's on the right. The high-voltage power lines on the right lead eastward towards a substation near the bus terminal, where the power gets stepped down to lower voltages and fed into local delivery lines along city streets. Westward, the same lines lead to higher-voltage lines on the New England bulk power transmission grid. Not far from the junction is the metropolitan area's largest power plant, which burns fracked natural gas delivered from Pennsylvania and Texas via the state's primary north-south gas pipeline.

Under the power lines are the railroad tracks of the old Portland and Ogdensburg line, which put the canal out of business as an overland connection between Portland and Montreal. Over 150 years later the railroad is still less abandoned than the canal is, but only this short section between Portland and Westbrook is at all active. Give it a few more decades and there might not be much difference any longer.

These days virtually all of the cargo between Portland and Quebec is crude oil that goes through in two underground pipelines. Those pipelines also run through these marshes at the head of the Fore River.

And speaking of abandoned infrastructures: on the other side of the marsh I bushwhacked northwards through the woods for a while and found the city's "technology park" (previously written about here). The city finally wrote a seven-figure check to cut down the woods and build a short cul-de-sac here this past summer. And now, just look at all the jobs:

From there I picked up the right-of-way of the oil pipeline back towards the railroad tracks near the Turnpike. Until the Turnpike, the infrastructural routes I'd encountered all trended east-west, from the coast into the mountains. The Turnpike is oriented north to south. Our 19th-century infrastructure treated Portland as a hub of trade to which rural hinterlands could be connected; our 20th-century infrastructure generally treats Portland as the hinterland that needs to be connected to Boston.

There are some decent and uncluttered tags under the Turnpike overpasses here.

A few yards further and I had crossed over into Westbrook, where the silos of a big quarry and asphalt plant loomed over the tracks. It was there that I found the most impressive of all the day's abandoned earthworks — the Grand Canyon of Westbrook. I'll save it for the next post later this week.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

There it is, take it.

Out in Los Angeles they've been celebrating the centenary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the audacious engineering project that drained the Owens Valley and transformed the San Fernando Valley from a landscape of orchards into a landscape of tract homes and gas stations.

It just so happens that this week I've also been plowing through the final chapters of John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, his consolidated narrative of a lifetime's worth of writing on North American geology. So far, my favorite part of that book has been the section on Wyoming, in which McPhee tails USGS geologist John Love on field excursions across the state. The chapters weave the sixty-million-year history of the Rocky Mountains with the hundred-year timescale of Love's family, from his mother's arrival, via stagecoach, in a gunslinging Old West of the early twentieth century to Love's atomic age discovery of uranium in the Rocky Mountain foothills.
"Love said that a part of his job was to find anything from oil to agates, and then, in effect, say 'Fly at it, folks,' to the people of the United States."
The geologic history of Wyoming spans relatively little time in the grand scheme of Earth's history. In the last sixty million years or so, roughly one percent of Earth's lifetime, the Rocky Mountains rose up, then sank under accumulations of sand and volcanic debris tens of thousands of feet deep, then, relatively recently, rose up again and shook off the sand in freshets of new mountain streams.

And then a new geological force arrives. Ranchers arrive in Wyoming, and their sons help open up its landscapes to strip mines and oil wells. The state digs beneath the ranchers'  thin Holocene topsoil to get at the more lucrative geology of the Mesozoic era. Open-pit uranium mines, oil and gas wells, and mountain-eating coal draglines rearrange the Rocky Mountain landscape and usher in the new Anthropocene era.

Photo: Jim Bridger coal mine, from the Casper Star-Tribune.

"Fly at it, folks." Love was talking about the bounty of Wyoming's mineral resources, but it's exactly the same sentiment expressed by William Mulholland, chief of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works, when he opened the sluice gates of the new Aqueduct a hundred years ago and famously said, "there it is. Take it."

In the same momentous twentieth century of human history that rearranged Wyoming, Mulholland's power broker friends find cheap oil under Venice and the Baldwin Hills, and then they give the growing city a reason to burn it by moving the Owens River over mountains and irrigating the massive suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. Gravel erosion from the Santa Monica Mountains, which had washed out into the Pacific for millennia and built the vast coastal plain of the Los Angeles basin, suddenly gets trapped behind foothill dams and begins to bury the mountain canyons. The basin itself acquires new sedimentary layers of asphalt and concrete. The sooty remnants of Carboniferous swamps fly into the troposphere through millions of exhaust pipes.

Geologic time and human history converge here, in the spectacular landscapes of the American west. But remember: geologic history is full of cataclysms.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cobweb domes

From Mount Chocorua, New Hampshire. on a day trip back to the subalpine spruce-fir forest near where this blog began:

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The folk art of national identity

Growing up in Maine, the Canadian flag was a common sight — especially in the summertime, when the nearby town of Old Orchard Beach turned into a Québécois Saint-Tropez.

So I was surprised to learn that the Canadian national icon — its maple leaf flag — is a relatively recent invention, and the subject of bitter debate when it was proposed in the Canadian parliament in 1964.

Canada's old flag featured the Union Jack symbol, which was a a snub to French Quebec. In the mid-1960s, when the Québécois separatist movement began to organize, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson proposed a new national flag that could shore up the nation's unity and give it its own post-colonial identity.

This may not actually have been a productive political gambit. "Quebec does not give a tinkers dam about the new flag," said Liberal politician Pierre Trudeau (Trudeau himself would go on to become a Canadian icon in his own right as one of the nation's most successful and beloved Prime Ministers, mainly for moving the country beyond its British roots and championing a bilingual, multiethnic Canadian identity).

Fortunately, though, the rest of Canada did care about the flag. They mailed in thousands of suggestions in pen-and-ink drawings and watercolor paintings. Beavers, maple leaves, fleurs-de-lis, or the old Union Jack were common themes. Some of the public's suggestions have been digitized on this website from the University of Saskatchewan, and they're pretty amazing examples of Canadian folk art at a time when the adjective "Canadian" was actually beginning to mean something. Each one is a snapshot of a nation that's still trying to figure itself out.

A British-French mashup.

From Manitoba, April 1963:
"The top green strip portrays in the background the Rocky Mountains of the West and the Laurentians of the East....The second strip of yellow gold depicts the growing grain for which Canada is famous...The third strip describes untold numbers of rivers and thousands of lakes...the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic....The coats of arms of the ten provinces which make up Canada are in the shape of an arc and depicts its beginning and origin. Even the shape of the arc has a meaning - freedom, better life and individualism for all those who want to make Canada their new country."

I feel like lots of designs resemble hockey jerseys. From Alberta, 1964:

"Through the Maple Leaf, this flag represents Canada as always being in "the peerpetual light." A light shining over one Canada. People's choice #1."

 From Ontario, 22 May 1964:

"If we must have a new flag, it should be one to be proud of, that will bring unity to this wonderful country of ours....The ten maple leaves, for ten provinces. The Canadian Beaver, and waves are for 'from sea to sea.'"

 Quite a few didn't get the memo about how the Union Jack is faux pas in Quebec (submission from New Brunswick, 30 November 1964).
Canada rejected this one, but Idaho picked it out of the garbage and adopted it as its own state flag in 1967.

In the end, Canada avoided old-world heraldry altogether and went with a clean and strikingly modern design. Neither French nor English, the new Canadian flag was one of several mid-century innovations that helped the nation clear out its colonial baggage and define itself on its own terms.

Hat tip to Burrito Justice for finding these and writing about them in his post about funny animals as national symbols.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Fossil fuels bike tour

Late last fall, builders wrapped the construction of the new Veterans' Memorial Bridge, which spans the Fore River in the western reaches of Portland harbor. The project included a beautiful new bike path between Portland and South Portland, and this evening I went out to ride it for the first time this spring.

The old bridge (recently dismantled) used to run through the center of the photo above, immediately parallel to the railroad bridge at left. Its former course is now an empty lot with some remnant orange construction fencing. The coastline here is full of concrete riprap and odd tidepools formed from 20th-century construction debris.

Nearby on the Portland side of the bridge is Merrill's marine terminal, which transfers miscellaneous cargoes between ships and the railroad.  There's usually a large pile of coal here, but not much of it remained this afternoon. Maine has no coal-burning power plants, but at least one of its large paper mills still burns coal to fire its boilers.

I dig the interpretive signage.

Calcium carbonate, according to Wikipedia,  is mainly used in construction "as an ingredient of cement or as the starting material for the preparation of builder's lime by burning in a kiln." But these tank cars are more likely headed to one of Maine's paper mills, which are increasingly specializing in value-added coated paper products. Ground calcium carbonate can be used as a filler to substitute for wood fiber, and can also replace kaolin in glossy paper production.

A few years ago, some local philanthropists decided that they needed to beautify the oil tanks with art, and hired a Venezuelan-born artist to design the patterns. I admit I kind of like it, even though I blanch at how much money they spent on it. 

And I'm put off by the a strange impulse to cover the oil tanks in expensive sanctioned art. I'd like to hope that it brings more attention to the oil tanks and makes passing motorists think about their dependence on the global petrochemical industry. But I think most of the wealthy donors are hoping that the paint job will obscure the dirty truth.

On a bike, though, you don't just see the tanks — you smell them, too. A volatile organic bouquet of benzene and sulphates.

A bundle of pipes lead from these tanks to a wharf on the waterfront, where a fuel barge was docked this evening. Similar barges often can be seen refueling tanker ships in the harbor with bunker fuels — the cheapest and filthiest of oil products, so dirty that they generally can only be burned at sea, outside of state and national jurisdictions. A string of oil-containment booms snake out from the wharf's pilings.

For all the fossil fuels on display here, the ability to see them on foot, or on a bike, is a positive development. The new bridge replaces one that had been built in the mid-1950s and designed as a freeway spur. It had one narrow, crumbling sidewalk that dead-ended at a freeway interchange.

Thanks to extensive local activism, the new bridge includes a well-lit bike path, and a lower speed limit and narrower lanes. The freeway interchange on the South Portland side has been  narrowed to a bottleneck where it meets the bridge, in order to force car traffic to yield to bikes and pedestrians.

I like to think how we forced motorists to sacrifice a second or two on their drives across the harbor in order to make the bridge a friendlier place for those of us who prefer not to burn oil. Though I suppose this also means that a few motorists will live longer by not dying in car accidents, only to burn more oil in their old age.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

My hometown of Portland is currently considering a proposal to privatize two-thirds of a downtown park called Congress Square — a not-particularly-successful product of late-1970s urban renewal.

There's a broad consensus that the park's current design is a failure. Surrounded on two sides by the blank walls of adjacent buildings, and with odd proportions that make most of the park inaccessible to the activity of surrounding streets, the only people who linger here tend to be panhandlers and loudmouthed street preachers.

The neighboring hotel's new owners, a real estate investment trust called Rockbridge Capital, are extensively renovating the building and would like to have a better neighbor. Even before they came along, there had been some rumblings about renovating Congress Square, and even of selling off a portion of it. But their real and specific offer has accelerated the debate.

It's hard for me — and for many other Portlanders — to hear out a pitch to turn over public space to a 1% outfit that calls itself "Rockbridge Capital." And it's disappointing that it was the hotel's owners — not citizens — that were allowed to set the terms of this debate about what the park's future should be.

Yet in spite of those handicaps, I find myself receptive to their most recent proposal for the park, which, though smaller, would be more far more welcoming and engaged as a public space than the status quo is.

Opponents will still object to losing publicly-owned real estate, but the quality of a park's design is far more important than the quantity of its square footage. The current Congress Square suffers from the same basic design problem as your typical suburban McMansion: it's too big, for no good reason.

In their pitch to the City Council, the hotel's architect included a number of points from William H. Whyte's book "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces," a brilliant empirical study of what makes successful city parks work.

There's a great film version of "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" that illuminate Whyte's theories with detailed footage of New York's Seagram Plaza circa 1980. It's a lot of fun to watch, and not just because it offers a filmed version of the people-watching that attracts us to good parks. Whyte's photography also brilliantly illuminates how subtle elements of design — things most of us don't consciously notice — can have tremendous impact on how public spaces are used. It's like a Roman Mars podcast from 30 years ago.

If you're anything like me (and especially if you're one of my Portland neighbors thinking of weighing in on Congress Square), it's well worth an hour of your time:

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tampa Bay dérive

I've been spending this week in Tampa, Florida for a new website that my employer is building. Before I'd left I'd asked lots of people for travel advice, but even people who'd been here before didn't have much to recommend. So, on my first day here, when we got out of work early for the day, I took a long walk with no particular destination in mind: what the psychogeographers would call a dérive.

We're staying in a pastel-colored high-rise hotel near the convention center and hockey arena, a neighborhood where all the buildings have apparently been built in the past 20 years.

The district's newness led me to presume that it had been, until recently, some kind of waterfront industrial area, or railroad depot, demolished during the urban renewal fads of the 1960s and 1970s and only just now rebuilding.

But as I walked north into the heart of downtown Tampa, I only found similar neighborhoods and buildings. It seems as though almost all of Tampa had been torn down in the last 30 to 40 years, and replaced with a landscape like this:

As I continued northward into the center of the downtown, the street I was on became barricaded to car traffic, and a lush tropical garden replaced the asphalt. It was here, after four blocks of walking near the end of the workday on a pleasant Tuesday afternoon, that I encountered my first fellow pedestrian.

The street I was on appeared to be the city's attempt to recreate the kinds of "festival marketplaces" that had been faddish in the 1980s, like Baltimore's Inner Harbor or Boston's Quincy Market.

A dated building with steel bay windows faced the pedestrianized street with abandoned kiosks, empty arcades, and faded signs that referred to its address as "city center," as though recalling its glory days.

And then there was this "Municipal Building".

On the other side, nestled in the rear corner of the concrete fortress, I found one of the few old buildings in the city. I detoured half a block to find that this was the old City Hall, still occupied by some of the city's more fortunate bureaucrats.

Changing course to the west, I cut diagonally through a tree-lined downtown square to Tampa Street, where there was a small cluster of non-chain businesses somehow subsisting on the downtown's tiny trickle of foot traffic.

There, I found a used bookstore with an impressive collection of old and rare volumes. I learned, from a circa 1979 Chamber of Commerce coffee table book, that Tampa had been a center of cigar manufacture and a major railroad depot in the nineteenth century. There book also had several photos of an impressive turn-of-the century grand hotel, just across the Hillsborough River from downtown, which was still standing and had been incorporated into the University of Tampa campus.

I struck out west toward the river to see the building for myself and rested a while by the river while a rowing team went by. Turning around, back towards downtown, I was confronted with a less impressive view of two condo high-rises, buttressed with huge parking garages.

The downtown skyline is twice as high as it otherwise would be, thanks to these garages, which squat underneath virtually every high-rise.

Tampans must spend hours driving on their indoor ramps, spiraling up to store their cars on the 7th and 8th stories of their office buildings in the morning, then spiraling down again to drive home, then spiraling up again to park for the night in the high-rise parking decks below their condos.

All over the gulf coast there are houses on stilts, and these are giant versions of the same idea. The streets here are not a place to conduct commerce or meet neighbors, they are a place of transience, a means of evacuation, a place that's ready for sacrifice to the inevitable flood.

The real city begins sixty feet above the ground, behind security gates, with views of the distant bay.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Chase Manhattan Bank of Cholera

You probably know that Aaron Burr murdered Alexander Hamilton in a duel. But I recently learned of Burr's surprising and grotesque role in some of New York City's worst plagues — including one we're still suffering through to this day.

My dad recently gave me a fascinating (but not online, unfortunately) medical history of New York City's water supply by Dr. David E. Gerber, from which I learned this:
"In 1799, New York City passed on the responsibility of constructing and maintaining a waterworks to the newly charted Manhattan Company. The company, the brainchild of the improbable team of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, received from the state legislature a mandate to supply New York City with 'pure and wholesome' water."

Left: Manhattan Company log pipes excavated in 2004 near Coenties Slip. Via New York City Walk (photographer unknown)

But the Manhattan Company was terrible at providing "pure and wholesome water." They employed cheap wooden pipes and instead of procuring fresh Bronx River water, as had been proposed by city officials, they dug wells on the outskirts of the growing city (near today's Greenwich Village) where the water supply quickly became polluted with the city's sewage, or dried up altogether from overuse.

So in spite of a $2 million charter from New York's state government, the growing city continuted to suffer from polluted water. In 1832, the very first year that cholera arrived in New York City (from Asia, via overseas trade), 3,515 New Yorkers died.

There was a reason why the Manhattan Company was so negligently, fatally incompetent at its purpose: it was run by some of the city's earliest investment bankers, including the murderer Aaron Burr.

At Burr's initiative, the Manhattan Company's charter was amended shortly before it took effect to allow the new company to spend its excess capital "in any way not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States."

The Legislature and Burr's business partner, Alexander Hamilton, seemed to believe that this would allow for additional, future waterworks. But Burr almost immediately exercised this clause to capitalize a new bank, using the money intended for waterworks to give out loans to New York merchants.

The Bowery Boys, the New York history podcasters, have an episode on the Croton Aqueduct that tells some of this same story, and they put it this way:
"There was a banking monopoly where you had the US Federal Bank [i.e., Alexander Hamilton's First Bank of the United States] and the Bank of New York, which was founded by Hamilton, Burr's rival and victim. Burr and his company got a $2 million contract from the state legislature to bring fresh water into New York City.

They decided to spend it thusly: $100,000 on waterworks and bringing fresh water into the city — so 1/20th of the total — and $1.9 million on creating a bank!"

Providing "pure and wholesome water" was just a distracting sideline. In fact, the more the Manhattan Company spent on public waterworks (there were no water meters back then, thus no reliable user-fee system, thus no profit motive), the less they had to spend on high-interest loans to New York City's merchant class.

Hamilton evidently didn't like the competition from a new bank in town: he left the Manhattan Company shortly after Burr capitalized his new bank with 1.9 million New York State taxpayer dollars.

The citizens of New York suffered the Manhattan Company's filthy water until 1842,  when the City of New York finally opened an aqueduct from the Croton River, which provided public drinking water that was genuinely pure and wholesome, and does so to this day.

So New York eventually addressed its sanitation problems and cured its epidemics of cholera and yellow fever.

Unfortunately, Aaron Burr was only an early vector in New York City's raging plague of assholes who collect millions of dollars from the government in order to enrich themselves in the global banking casino.

In 1955, Aaron Burr's Bank of the Manhattan Company merged with the Chase National Bank to become Chase Manhattan. And in 2000, Chase Manhattan bought out the investment firm JP Morgan to become JP Morgan Chase, on whose website you can today download a short history that tells part of this very same story. This document includes some pictures of old wooden pipes and a quaintly threatening engraving (below) of their company's founding chief executive ballistically perforating the Founding Father on our $10 bill.

However, somehow JP Morgan Chase's PR department neglected to mention the part about all the cholera — hopefully they'll appreciate this addendum.