|Selig Retail Store, Arthur E. Harvey, 1931
||Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, New Jersey (source)
Early evening Mid-City.
I’m driving westward down 3rd Street. Not avenue. An ambitious, if under represented, Los Angeles artery. Beginning a few blocks away from Occupy LA, 3rd Street runs boldly for several miles from downtown to Beverly Hills, an offshoot of the tight grid established in the late 1800s. Then it stops short. Dying out with a whimper at Alpine Drive. Representing the industrialist pragmatism of 19th century urban planning, the route never makes it past the historically green lawns of the Los Angeles Country Club—the club, in its 1911 location, is a pastoral parable in aspirational living. Ronald Regan was a member.
Red light at Western Avenue—an inexplicable line running north-south, from Griffith Park to the port where, as the nation’s busiest point of exchange, containers and commerce churn. It’s a lost borderline that once defined the westernmost urban edge. Now, thoroughly assimilated into Koreatown’s signage patois. The sun, bright amber and blazing round, singes my windscreen. It’s the golden hour. A time coveted by cinematographers for its warm glow and deep shadows.
Arthur E. Harvey’s black and gold jewel box stumps on the corner of Western and 3rd, selling phone minutes and cheap shirts. The Deco glazed terracotta glints and blinds, a throwback to the black gold–era when oil derricks sucked richness from the LA basin. Banham romantically rode these streets mapping ecologies. Morrison strutted and swaggered. A half-century later, near horizontal beams of light refract, caught in the city dust and wiper outlines. Sunglasses are useless. Forget the visor. I can’t see through the gilded glaze.
As I walked out of the commuter train in Secaucus, New Jersey, I looked east towards the ominous skyline of Manhattan. I passed through a suburban area to meet with Captain Bill Sheehan for a boat tour of the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers. Captain Bill, as he prefers to be called, is the leader of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, an activist organization that documents and highlights the pollution and environmental problems found in the two rivers.
At first the trip seemed almost pastoral: we departed from Laurel Hill Park, with a view west towards the marshes that characterize this region of New Jersey’s meadowlands. Soon, however, Captain Bill burst that bucolic bubble by informing us that these areas that looked so lush were actually heavily polluted – many were even Superfund sites. We then headed south towards the industrial buildings and infrastructure typically associated with Jersey City, Harrison, and Newark.
Among this toxic landscape, the Diamond Alkali Superfund site stood out. Here, workers dressed in customized gear, were frantically trying to finish a 6-8 foot concrete cap, on land polluted by dioxin and other chemicals used in the manufacturing of Agent Orange. With the Manhattan skyline forming a backdrop, this near apocalyptical scene became all the more surreal.
This excursion allowed me to understand why Captain Bill’s organization has fought to open the rivers for recreational and educational use by boats and kayaks. By simply utilizing the waterways they are peeling away the gilded sheen of the city to reveal areas that have been destroyed to support local lifestyles. In the process they are also expanding the civic imagination to include areas we would not usually consider to be part of the city.
I look forward to going back to the Hackensack and Passaic rivers to take the radical step of simply using them.
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