Ed Begley Jr's new green home - part 2

Last July I wrote about the start of construction of Ed and Rachelle Begley’s new home in their attempt to build one of the Greenest homes in North America. The steel framing had just begun and now these months later the sheathing is being laid over that frame. Recently two new water systems started to be installed that will help Ed and Rachelle save on water bills as well as recycle much needed water back to the aquifer.

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Venice Community Garden - From the Ground Up

Not long ago, an empty lot in Venice, California, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, was overgrown with weeds. In it there was an old jet ski that was left to rust along with old auto parts scattered around on soil mounds. Years before that, railroad tracks ran through the center of this plot of land on Mildred Ave. Freight cars transporting their goods and perhaps tanker cars carrying oil from the surrounding wells, made their way along these tracks in what is now a peaceful and typical Venice residential community. The story of a garden is the story of its soil, and those of us living in urban environments are surrounded by land and soil that has had many and multiple uses. The soil can tell us the history of that land, something that is imperative to know if we want to plant our gardens and eat our food with surety and safety. The Venice Community Garden that is now on that plot of land on Mildred Ave. was started by some residents who had the simple idea of starting a garden, where members of the community could grow and eat the food they planted. What they discovered along the way was a little about history, a lot about soil, and ultimately a deeper understanding of what it means to grow.

Starting

Kip Wood has lived in Venice for about nine years and had developed an interest in gardening, mostly from working in his own front yard, noting he “liked getting his hands in the ground.” Inspired by some classes he took from David King at Venice High School’s Learning Garden, and surprised that there were no community gardens in Venice, he decided that to start one himself. His intention was to design a beautiful space, with trees and art - a place where people could come together, plant food and get their hands dirty. In January, 2010 he noticed a ‘for lease’ sign at an empty lot around the corner from his home. The property had been sitting vacant for some time, so when Kip inquired about it, the landlord was only too happy to lease it to Kip for a garden.

Kip initially worried about getting enough interested people. Unlike some community gardens that are on donated or city property and who only charge their members a low yearly fee, a minimum of about 48 people were going to be needed to pay the $25 a month for rent and expenses. Flyers were distributed and emails to a gardening list brought in some interest, but a post on Yo! Venice!, a neighborhood web forum, elicited a tremendous response and there was soon a waiting list of about 200 people.

Norma Bonilla was one of the first to respond. Norma had also taken some classes at the Learning Garden and was inspired to move her life in a new direction. She had owned several businesses over the years, in architecture, remodeling and design, and with those skills and her management abilities, immediately got involved in the planning of the garden along with Kip. Working together, things started to progress.

Preparation

One of the first things Kip and Norma did was to download a copy of the Community Garden Start-up Guide from the University of California Cooperative Extension’s website (see sidebar), and used it to help create their own to do list. They started to hold meetings to help garden members get to know each other and to take on needed tasks. Plot assignments were given out and members signed a Plot Holder Agreement with the garden’s rules put forth. Liability Insurance was obtained to protect the landowner. Permits were not needed as residential zoning in Los Angeles allows for the growing and selling of fruits and vegetables.

Kip’s Initial schematic called for 48 plots in the six thousand square foot lot, most of them 12 by 4 feet. New trees and shrubs, donated by a local environmental group, Tree People, would line the back wall as well as a central interior space to be used for meetings and workshops. A fence was also planned for, a suggestion the start-up guide recommended to cut down on vandalism. Money was raised for the needed hardware, plumbing, lumber and other supplies through donations by members and the contributions from local merchants.

Getting a water meter installed would have been the best method of water access, fees are generally pretty low if there are pipes already installed, however the lot had no pipes and installing them was going to be too expensive, around $3,000. Eventually it was determined that sharing water with the gardens’ neighbor, who happened to have the same landlord, was the easiest and cheapest recourse.

Irrigation expert Deni Friese from UCCE Common Ground Master Program helped design the new watering system. She recommended a water line straight down the center of the garden with four hose bibs on risers for manual watering. A drip or any other kind of irrigation system was not considered, as it was decided that it was important for everyone to learn how to tend and water his or her own garden. As Norma put it, “we are growers, it is about the connection with our own land and plants, not about putting it on a timer.”

Breaking Ground.

Initial soil testing revealed high levels of lead and arsenic, so it was decided to remove the top layer of soil. Lead can be found in many urban and suburban environments as the result of automotive parts and emissions, pesticides, paint chips and plumbing. Even though the use of lead in many of these products has been outlawed for decades, the residue can linger in soil for many years after it has been exposed.

The arsenic was attributed to an old rail line that was found to have run directly through the lot. It was common to spray massive amounts of herbicide, which contained arsenic, next to the rail ties to prevent weeds from obstructing the train tracks.

On April 13, 2010 the garden broke ground and a loader began removing the soil from the garden. With each pass, the contaminated soil, rocks and debris gave way to smooth hardened clay which was then tilled with additional passes by the tractor. The huge pile of dirt was carted away and what was an empty lot was now on its way to becoming a garden.

With construction of the planting beds about to begin, Kip and Norma called on the LA Conservation Corps for help, an organization that helps at-risk youth by providing education and job skills training through neighborhood service and conservation projects. The lot was staked out and the LACC troops got to work. A local market even donated sandwiches for the hard workers. The beds were finished in a few days, it was the end of May.

There was still some glass and asphalt on the top surface, so as a precautionary measure, garden members were advised to dig an additional one-foot deeper in their beds. It was also suggested that members take one last soil sample for testing from three different areas in their planting beds. The last mounds of removed soil were carted away, spirits were high and planting was about to begin.

Then one night, Kip and Norma got a call. Some of the new soil tests came back with high levels of lead and arsenic, after all the work and digging, the toxins were still present in the soil. According to Garn Wallace of Wallace Labs “It is not recommended to grow leafy green vegetables in soils that contain lead above 30 parts per million (ppm) or arsenic with over 2 ppm.” Over half the plots had come back with high levels of one or both.

Setbacks and solutions

Kip and Norma were devastated and several members even left the garden. The project was put on hold and things seemed bleak. Then “something very special happened” said Norma, “emails started to come in from members urging us to keep going. The letters were so supportive and just what we needed to move forward on this beautiful space.” They encouraged research and many offered their assistance to seek the necessary solutions. A multi-tiered solution was decided on, and by Mid-July activity began again.

Digging deeper would probably bring similar results, so it was decided to bring in new soil and then use multiple layers to keep the plants protected from the toxins. First a bed of rocks, three inches deep, would be placed at the bottom of the planting beds. This would keep roots from reaching the contaminated soil, but would allow for water drainage. Sprinkling gypsum power over the rocks and then lightly watering it would break down the hard clay soil below the rocks, further enhancing drainage and allowing for micro organisms and worms to thrive.

Next a one-foot wide 3.5 mil sheet of plastic would be stapled around the circumference of the raised planting beds, which would prevent the toxins leaching in to the beds during rainfall and watering. Lastly, a slightly wider sheet of weed cloth would be stapled over the plastic sheeting to keep the roots from tearing holes in it and reaching the toxic soil. Woodchips are placed around the walkways to keep lead dust from spreading and to help eventually amend the soil.

Finally the new soil could be added. Several mounds of sandy loam soil were delivered and members used it to fill half their beds. Soon after, compost, available for free from the city, was brought in and the other half of the planters were filled and mixed together with the soil.

Planting and Harvest

Planting finally began in August. A moment many thought would never come had finally arrived after what seemed an eternity. Los Angeles is of course fortunate to have year round growing, the question for many was whether or not to plant seeds or seedlings. Some opted for just seeds, but many planted a combination of both.

Denise and Frank are a young couple who work in advertising. Both had experience with gardening and were on the waiting list of other community gardens when the Venice Garden plot became available. On their first day of planting, Frank was carefully placing small snow pea seeds around the berms they had built in their bed. About 70% of their plantings were seedlings, amongst them, cucumbers, radishes and cherry tomatoes.

Jennifer is an experienced farmer from Oregon, recently arrived in  Los Angeles. The garden helped her find an attachment to the community through gardening. Facing some health challenges, she has found gardening helps reduce stress and is meditative. Her physical therapist has even given her exercises and stretches based on garden activities such as watering and planting.

Aeryn and Isabel share a plot and are both studying landscape architecture While being members of the garden is relevant to their work, according to Isabel, it is also a place to “meet your neighbors and learn from everyone else.” The care in which they approached their planting bed was evident, their plantings were intentionally a diverse selection of low, medium and high growth seedlings. Aeryn said they also tried to be mindful of the color palette when they chose their flowers and vegetables.

They were one of the first to plant and so were one of the first to harvest their crop. By mid October, their bed was a robust display of colorful vegetables. Aeryn began clipping off zucchinis as large as footballs along with bright yellow squash, swiss chard and cucumbers. She held up her bounty and she smiled at what was their obvious success.

On a Saturday morning, a group of people gathers around to hear Norma give the first of the workshops she has planned. Passerby’s continually walk by the garden and peer in curiously. There is now so much activity and growth in a place that for years residents had ignored as an ugly vacant lot. The garden is now beautiful, but just as importantly, the work everyone did will ultimately leave the soil in better shape than when they found it. Both land and people will be transformed from a community coming together, learning together and growing together.

Brooklyn Grange

Earlier this Summer I visited the Eagle Street farm, a 6,000 square foot garden on a warehouse rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was the first rooftop farm I had seen and I was very impressed by what they were able to accomplish and grow. Two weeks ago I went out to Long Island City to see the Brooklyn Grange Farm and was expecting something along the same lines as Eagle Street, perhaps a bit more ambitious. As I walked along Northern Boulevard and looked up at the building, I wondered what portion of the roof they were actually using for the garden. Walking out onto the rooftop of the farm I was completely unprepared for the magnitude of what I saw in front of me, essentially the whole roof of the building was taken up by the farm, 40,000 square feet, almost an acre of rooftop, was devoted to rows and rows of vegetables and crops.

Both Farms were started by head farmer Ben Flanner, a Wisconsic transplant, who along with his partners, broke ground on the Brooklyn Grange Farm back in May of this year. The farm was originally intended to be in Brooklyn, but let’s face it, Brooklyn sounds better than Queens anyway (I was born in Queens so I can say that). It utilizes 1.2 million pounds of soil, and if there is one question I regret not asking, it is how they got it up there. Nonetheless, the structural integrity of the roof was tested and supports a drainage system and even has a barrier layer to prevent roots from penetrating the ceiling below. Scattered around a mélange of rooftop pipes, pumps, fans and water towers, were crops of okra, kale, eggplant, jalapeño peppers, carrots, spinach, assorted greens and an abundance of tomatoes. There was even a beehive located in the SW corner. The organic farm is a for profit venture, selling to restaurants and to the public through their various produce stands. It is open also to the public, and if you ever think you have seen it all in New York, go out and take a look at what is fast becoming the future of urban farming and the new look for New York rooftops.

9/11 - The Twin Towers

I’m going to deviate a little from the normal subjects we cover, with the 9th anniversary of 9/11 coming this Saturday, I wanted to commemorate the passing of all those souls that lost their lives that day by featuring a tribute to the buildings that has come to symbolize that terrible event. People in Washington DC or Pennsylvania, may have a different vision for their memories, but to most of the nation and especially to New Yorkers, the World Trade Center showed us how quickly a building and our hearts could crumble.

As we watched the mortar, steel and concrete disintegrate beneath them, we saw the two buildings fall, but we felt 3000 lives perish. A friend of mine died that day, Captain Pat Brown of the FDNY. The things I knew about Pat were that he was a Vietnam war veteran whose recounts of action were chilling and horrific. He was also the one of the department's most decorated firefighters, a true hero, serving at Ladder Company 3, which lost 11 members that day. He also studied yoga and gave of his time to teach it to kids. He lived a life of service! When I saw the towers fall, I remember thinking that Pat was in there, I knew it, not out of any psychic reasons, but because that is where he would be, leading the charge up the stairs to rescue others as he had done for most of his life. I was sadly right.

I had a twenty-year plus relationship with the Twin Towers themselves, I had photographed them almost from the time they were built. I shot them from the eastside with the Brooklyn Bridge; the westside from Jersey City across the Hudson; towering aerials from above and looking up from below as they touched the sky. When they were built, they were not everyone’s favorite, in fact many thought they were a blight on the classic lower Manhattan skyline, but they grew on us and became an iconic part of the New York cityscape. I think it was Ric Burns who said that after the towers were gone, it was like losing a limb, you keep reaching for it, but it is not there. That was how it felt to me, I didn’t recognize the city loved.

I hope you enjoy looking at these photos that I took over the years, I never got tired of photographing the World Trade Center and skyline, I amassed hundreds of them during that twenty year period. I also had the honor of gracing the New York Post’s ( I know it is not my favorite paper either) 1 year anniversary issue memorializing that tragic day. We are nine years away from that Tuesday, but it is just as haunting and heartbreaking as it was then. It is good to remember, it would be better if we could learn.

LA River and skyline

Continuing with August’s one photo posts, I went out last night to shoot the LA River at sunset, something I have wanted to do for a few weeks. I remembered there was a spot along the bike path where the downtown skyline is visible and I thought that would make a nice juxtaposition with the tranquility of the river. If you saw last weeks photo, you might remember I like my juxtapositions. I picked a spot I thought would work (with the help of Joe Linton), the northern point of a straight stretch of the river that runs parallel with I-5, not far from the LA Zoo.

The result was a good photo, but maybe not a great one, I think there is perhaps a little too much juxtaposition in the image, the freeway lights and the wires across the river are things I could do without. But that is the story of the LA River, it fights for its right to breathe and flow amidst all the urban obstacles and barriers that exist in the large metropolis. It flows past train yards and factories; I have seen abandoned cars and more shopping carts than I can count in it as well. But these days there are more parks being built and bike paths extended and they are slowly but surely changing the aesthetic and the utilization of the river.

It also has its secrets! I remembered that I was on a river clean up a few years ago just a bit down river from where this picture was taken. I came upon a young very pregnant woman who had set up a little camp for herself in the middle of a cropping of trees. Her partner was out getting food and whatever else they needed. We spoke for a little while and she was perfectly nice, it was just that they had decided to call this little part of the river their home. Now I always look inside these clumps of trees and bushes and wonder what else might be in there.

If oil companies paid their way...

I debated whether to post another story about an oil company protest so soon after the one I did a few weeks ago on AB32, but the behavior of oil companies is a hot topic right now and rightfully so. There are many stories coming to light and this one is about more than just the environmental impact, it is about about a devastating financial impact as well. You don’t have to live in California these days to know that the state is in the throes of a $19.1 billion budgetary deficit that has already forced many spending cuts and threatens to implement many more. Jobs are at stake, and social programs and education will also undoubtedly feel the pain.

Now, you reduce deficits by either cutting spending or raising taxes, so what other oil producing states have done is to exact something called an oil severance tax, which is a royalty paid by the oil company for the right to extract the oil from the state’s land and water. The idea is that if you are going to deplete a valuable natural resource from the land, you need to pay for it. Seems fair, and even other oil producing countries have this tax which are usually much higher than the ones imposed in this country.

The problem is that the only oil producing state that does not have this severance tax is California. There have been several attempts to rectify this, most recently in 2006 with Proposition 87, which would have implemented a 6% tax on oil extraction. It had widespread support but faced a $95 million campaign funded by oil companies and went down to defeat 54.7% to 45.3%.

Lest you think this is a right versus left thing, consider that Gov. Sarah Palin and the Alaska GOP controlled legislature instituted a 25% tax on oil extraction and now have a multibillion-dollar budget surplus. The California 6% tax would have been modest in comparison, and would have raised about $1 billion in annual revenue, but at least it would have been a start. Critics argue that the tax would force prices up, chase oil companies from the state and eliminate jobs, but these are all the red herrings that are always thrown out when oil companies are threatened with a reduction of their massive profits and are debunked quite rightly by those outside the industry.

Last Thursday, over a thousand people, made up of union workers from SEIU Local 721, as well as students, childcare workers, school employees, and various community organizations marched from the Federal building in Westwood to the Occidental Petroleum offices a few blocks east on Wilshire and Westwood Blvd. The line of people stretched for blocks as the protesters gathered in front of the offices and emptied small fake bottles of oil at Occidental's doorsteps.

When I told people about the rally and march later, several of them asked if something like that actually makes a difference. I responded that the only thing I knew for sure was that if all those folks had stayed home, then absolutely nothing would have been accomplished. At the very least, demonstrations serve to rally the community and to energize those participating, who in turn have a chance to educate others about the situation, just as I am doing here. Not participating is exactly what the oil producers hope for. Maybe with talk once again of instituting an oil severance tax, the time will be right to actually make it happen.

Green roofs

I’ve been on vacation a week, but before I left Los Angeles I shot a couple of green roofs in downtown and South Central. They were two very different kinds of green roofs, one a Japanese Garden, the other an environmentally designed sustainable roof for city councilmember Jan Perry’s local headquarters. The Japanese Garden on the third floor of the Kyoto Grand Hotel in Little Tokyo is a half-acre of waterfalls and bamboo shaded alcoves, and even has a little stream running through it. And while it is pretty to look at and may even keep the building a bit cooler, the sustainability factor is pretty low as one can only wonder how much energy is used to keep the waterfall and stream constantly flowing. Still if you want to see the novelty of a manicured Japanese rooftop garden with the Los Angeles skyline behind it, take the elevator to the third floor of the hotel, which is located on the corner of Los Angeles Street and 2nd st, and take a little stroll.

Driving south from there along South Central Avenue, you come across a striking looking building, and a stark contrast to the rest of the neighborhood it resides in. It is Council District 9 Neighborhood City Hall, the offices for councilwoman Jan Perry. Designed by architect Paul Murdoch, the Leed certified building features a drought tolerant rooftop garden that helps mitigate storm runoff and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. A 7,000 gallon underground cistern also collects rainwater for re-usable irrigation. The courtyard contains eight raised photovoltaic arrays that move during the day to track the sun while shading the space below, and also contains more drought tolerant plants around the perimeter of the gated compound that takes up the whole block.

As much of a contrast as these two green roofs may be to each other, they are still the exception when you think about all the other urban rooftops out there. This was made even more apparent when last week I was driving through the Berkshires and was surrounded by thousands of acres of rolling hills of green forests and lush valleys. Imagine for a minute if all the flat rooftops in a city like New York or Los Angeles were converted to green roofs. What would that look like? Now what if some or even most those green roofs were actually small urban farms growing fresh fruits and vegetables, like the Eagle Street rooftop farm I shot the other day in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The impact of this would be tremendous: cooler buildings while lessening the urban heat island effect (a metropolitan area which is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas); local grown produce would mean a big reduction of the energy needed to transport them otherwise; improved health by eating better, and a beautiful green urban landscape that would have an enormous affect on greenhouse gases and carbon emissions.

Is this possible? Yes, but probably not anytime soon. One of the reasons is I still think we see them as unique anomalies rather than the norm. Obviously a green roof or a solar array is the smartest alternative to the empty spaces that reside on top of most buildings, but we are not used to seeing them or thinking of them in that way. This is starting to change, but a big factor that needs to alter is something I am starting to call the Visual Aesthetic. This is not some innate aesthetic we are born with, rather it is what we get used to and accept as the norm. When this starts to change, and I believe it is, then we can start to make real progress. More about this in the next few weeks.

AB32

If there was one thing Governor Schwarzenegger did right during his term, it was to enthusiastically sign AB32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, the landmark state law that would reduce carbon emissions and greenhouses gases back to their 1990 levels by the year 2020, a nearly 25% reduction. As you would guess, there are going to be those that are not too happy about such a thing, but who would imagine the absolute chutzpah it would take to launch an initiative to suspend this law under the premise that it would cost us jobs? Why, it’s our old friends the oil companies! You see it is not that they are afraid that their profits would suffer if we started to rely more on alternative fuels or that our air quality improved, but that our jobs would be lost. Yes, I’m sure that really keeps them up at nights, worrying about our jobs. Well, less we doubt them, they have decided to call their November ballot measure the “California Jobs Initiative”, and with a name like that, you know they have to be sincere.

If passed by the voters, the “California Jobs Initiative” would suspend AB32 until the unemployment rate in California falls below 5.5% for at least one year. The current unemployment rate is at 12%, so given the speed that things are going, it would be a long, long time before they would have to comply, giving them more months and years to spew out their toxic emissions and greenhouse gases without regulation. It actually gets uglier, because you see the two oil companies who are funding the initiative are not even from California, they are from Texas. Tesoro Corp. and Valero Energy Inc. are two oil giants who have decided they know what is best for us, and what kind of air our children should be breathing.  The two companies have already bankrolled the imitative with over $3 million to help qualify the measure for the November ballot.

I joined a group of protesters last weekend who were rallying at the Tesoro refinery in Wilmington, a town near Long Beach and home to several oil refineries. I wrote about the Toxic Tour a few weeks back and you may recall that Wilmington residents are subjected to a constant barrage of toxic emissions from the nearby refineries, and are the people who will be most affected by a repeal of AB32. The crowd consisted of local residents and enthusiastic students from the nearby high schools. They are enthusiastic because they know it is their future air quality and health at stake. They picked “Family Day” to protest,  a day where Tesoro employees could bring their kids to tour the refinery. What a bizarre way to spend an afternoon, but it obviously sounded like a spanking good time to some, because by the time the protesters got there, lines of SUV’s and minivans were bringing loads of happy visitors to the facility, and inside, golf carts were zipping around with Moms, Dads and the little ones, as the refinery belched out fumes, gases and other non-breathables.

The protesters, organized by CBE - Communities for a Better Environment, and other local groups, peacefully picketed in front of the gates, letting in traffic and causing no disruption to Family Day. After an hour or so, they left, but the point was to let them know that people are watching and paying attention.

Contrary to what the oil companies tell us, The California Air Resources Board's (CARB) economic analysis of AB32 forecasts that economic production would actually increase by 27 billion dollars, the gross state product by $4 billion and personal income by $14 billion. Moreover, their preliminary analysis indicates that the total economic value associated with public health benefits is likely to be on the order of $4.3 billion by 2020. Gov. Schwarzenegger has said that “This initiative sponsored by greedy Texas oil companies would cripple California's fastest-growing economic sector, reverse our renewable energy policy and decimate our environmental progress for the benefit of these oil companies' profit margins.”

If Tesoro and Valero have already poured $3 million dollars just to get it on the ballot, one can only imagine how much they are willing to spend to get it passed, but we all know how deep their pockets are and to what lengths they will go to protect their profits. It is infuriating to me that a ballot measure can be worded so misleadingly, but if people understand what is really at stake, if it is exposed for what it is, it will fail. The public’s opinion of oil companies is at an all time low and that can only help. But it is up to each one of us to talk about this with others, and  for California voters to go to the ballot box in November to cast their vote if we don’t want Texas oil companies deciding what is right for California.

Is this just about California? Keep in mind that if this landmark environmental law is repealed in California, clean air legislation in other states, and potentially on a federal level, will be stifled, and oil companies and other polluters will be empowered to cripple progress elsewhere. I will post more about this situation as it progresses, but this is a battle that can and must be won.

Toxic Tour

Last year I spent a day taking the Toxic Tour, far removed from anything you would take at Universal Studios, this illuminating, and sometime nose burning journey is offered a few times a year by CBE – Communities for a Better Environment. It was a strange and fascinating day which included visits to chemical sites, refineries and brownfields, which are abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facilities. Don’t bring the kids!

Roberto Cabrales talks about toxic sites at CBE headquarters at beginning of Toxic Tour.

CBE’s focus is on environmental health and justice, whereby they offer legal assistance, research and organizing help to poor and working class communities of color that suffer from environmental pollution and toxins due to proximity to industrial polluters. In fact shortly after arriving we were shown a map of Los Angeles with neighborhoods broken down by people of color and toxic facilities. I’m sure you can guess how many toxic sites were located in Malibu and Brentwood compared to South Central. The only thing that was surprising was how staggeringly disproportionate it truly was. CBE’s southern California headquarters is located in Huntington Park, right next to Vernon, the most industrialized city in the United States. Whereas Vernon is almost completely industrialized (it has a population of  91 according to the last Census), Huntington Park is a very residential community, and its proximity to Vernon and its emissions has given it the unfortunate nickname of "Asthma Town" due to the high incidence of respiratory illness afflicting its residents.

Overpowering smell from the the lead rendering plant in the background.

We spent most of the morning with our tour guide, Roberto Cabrales, viewing a number of successful examples of CBE and the local residents kicking out and  shutting down toxic facilities in and around Huntington Park, Vernon, Maywood and Bell gardens, all communities a short distance from the downtown Los Angeles. It was a gray day, not the best for picture taking, which was fine, as it is sometimes hard to listen and shoot at the same time. The day ended in Wilmington, an area in San Pedro, near Long Beach, that some people might recognize as the town along the 110 freeway with the gargantuan oil refinery in the shadow of Rancho Palos Verdes. As someone who grew in New York City and spent way too many trips holding my nose as I passed by the oil refineries in Elizabeth, NJ, I can say that this one gives anything I have seen a run for its money.

Young latino boy plays in the shadow of Wilmington oil refinery.

The tour definitely saves the most dramatic for last. Where most of the examples we had seen were closed sites, the situation in Wilmington is ongoing, and for me the most striking thing was how close the residential houses were to the refinery. Street after street of modest, but nice single-family homes were literally a stones throw away from the belching smokestacks of the facility. Children played on the streets and people carried on with normal neighborhood activities as they would anywhere, except the background was not some mountain range, lake or even a mall, it was a giant, active oil refinery.

Residential houses next to ConocoPhillips refinery at Wilmington.

The dramatic juxtaposition of the homes next to the refinery was worth another trip, so I waited a few days for clearer weather and returned in late afternoon. As I was setting up my camera on an embankment next to the freeway, a van pulled up with several young men. The driver leaned out his window and asked if I was with the press. Now the press is not always welcome, but it can lend some legitimacy to some situations, and since I do carry LA County press credentials, I replied that I was. The question I received was not the obvious one I expected about when someone was going to do something about the stinky oil refinery in the neighborhood, but rather he wanted to know if I was there to do a story about trees the city had planted along the embankment that I was on. It seems the trees were planted a little while back and no one has come back to care for them. I took a glance at the sickly looking saplings he was referring to and said that I was sorry, but no. I think I mumbled something about the refinery, at which point he became disinterested and drove off.

A residential street next to ConocoPhillips refinery at Wilmington.

I stood there wondering how someone could care more about these neglected trees than the more blatant health hazard of the refinery. Not that caring about the trees isn’t a legitimate concern, but relative to the greater danger, it made no sense. But then again living in this neighborhood and the nearby streets made no sense to me either, and yet this type of scenario is repeated thousands of times around the country and the world. Why do people live next to or near toxic sites? Much of the time they have no choice, poverty or the necessity of a nearby job limit choices. But these were nice lower middle class houses that many people would normally be happy to call their home.

There is no one answer I suppose, a combination of denial mixed in with the desire to own an affordable home (this area is definitely below market value), and possibly a certain resignation to the inevitability of that toxins are everywhere, so if this doesn’t get you, something else will. There is certain amount of truth to that, but I would say that it is still a relative case.

The Toxic Tour is given both in Los Angeles (the next one is May 15) and at CBE’s other headquarters in Oakland.

The Station Fire

Last August through October, the Station Fire, California’s tenth largest wildfire, burned over 160,000 acres of pristine wilderness in the Angeles National Forest and many homes along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It was a devastating fire that cost two firefighters their lives and has been determined to have been caused by arson. I watched helplessly as a bad back (one of the hazards of my profession) kept me on my couch and from photographing the fire, but I did end up making three later trips to the burn areas.

Houses devastated by Station fire, Big Tunjunga Canyon Road, Angeles NF. September 2009.

My first venture was while the fire was still burning, but it was so far into the park at that point, that access to all but firefighters was impossible. I went back a few weeks later to photograph it by moonlight, and once again just a couple of weeks ago to see what kind of re-growth was evident. My first trip brought me face to face with residents walking through the wreckage of their homes. What must have been stunning homes surrounded by beautiful mountain settings were reduced to a few feet of rubble, with only a few brick chimneys and burnt out cars being recognizable. It is easy to forget that these ruined plots of land are still private property, so I was careful not walk or photograph on the properties while people were sorting thought their debris. You have to wonder, where do they go from there?

Full moon rises over scorched earth and burnt trees.

These burnt out landscapes are often referred to as “moonscapes” and aptly so. They feel and look otherworldly, and when I went back to shoot at night with a full moon rising in the east, it was a very eerie feeling. I drove about ten miles into the Angeles NF and when I got out of the car the first thing I noticed was the silence. A living forest is normally a very busy place, and if you stop and listen there are a multitude of noises emanating from its depths. A dead forest is silent and still, as if a vacuum had sucked all the life and sounds right out of it. When you stand in place long enough, you slowly start to hear two things: the distant rumbling of tiny landslides as small rocks gently roll down hillsides because there is no brush to hold them in place; and the crackling of charred trees and branches, like a chorus of popcorn popping, surrounding you, 360 degrees. But there is no life anywhere, for miles and miles and miles.

Valley devastated by fire along Big Tujunga Canyon road. September 2009.
Mountainside shows sign of re-growth in valley along Big Tujunga Canyon Road. April 2010.

Just recently I returned to see how the Park was recovering. I stopped at a couple of spots I had previously photographed to compare the terrain of then and now. The same locations I had shot by moonlight had started to show some decent signs of re-growth, and the mountains in the distance had a light sheen of green vegetation that was in stark contrast to the bareness of those same mountainsides just six months ago. Dead charred trees or “snags” as the firefighters call them, still remain standing in spite of the rains that washed down the hills this Winter, but they were juxtaposed by the bushes and shrubs that were popping up, sometimes in the same root clusters as the dead trees. Hard to imagine any wildlife had returned to the area, but life was returning, and the life cycle of the Chaparral was playing out as it has for thousand of years.

Dead trees known as "snags" on hillside along Big Tujunga Canyon road. September 2009.

New shrubs pepper hillside along Big Tujunga Canyon road. April 2010.

Further into the Park, it was a different story, the stark landscape still dominated and there were little or no signs of things growing. The earth itself was much lighter, even white in some places ,indicating that the topsoil was gone, possibly from the rains, and without the topsoil, growth would return much slower. It was also possible that the fire burned much hotter here in the interior of the Park and destroyed the root structures of the trees and plants more significantly than in the areas located at the perimeter. Higher elevations and colder weather may also be to blame, only time will tell.

Hidden Springs Fire Station amidst the scorched earch of surrounding areas. April 2010

The only exception that I saw was at the Hidden Springs Fire Station, almost at the center of Angeles NF. Standing on a hillside above the Fire Station, I could see almost an oasis of Green around the Station’s structure and perimeter, the outlying hills were pale and while. I ran into one of the firefighters stationed there and he recounted to me the fight they had to protect the station during the fire as it rampaged through the valley the station is located in. The emotion in his voice was evident as he told me the story of how they were literally surrounded by flames and worked non-stop through the night to combat the fire from overtaking them and their firehouse. They fought it from the tarmac at station's entrance and were protected by the firebreak of grass they had around them and the sprinkler system in place to water it. There were successful and saved the station.

Close-up of burned trees. Angeles Forest Highway. April 2010.

Man has obviously had a profound effect on the ecology of the Chaparral, aside from the man-made causes of wildfire such as arson and carelessness, the natural fire cycle of the Chaparral habitat has been affected as well. The encroachment of development into these areas known as the 'wildland/urban interface', has forced a fire suppression policy that puts out all fires, both man-made and natural. There is a debate as to whether or not Chaparral is meant to burn on a regular basis in order to allow new growth, but it is one of the most combustible terrains on the planet and it is not coincidence that firefighters refer to the shrubs, plants and trees there as ‘fuel’.

The story of the fire is really that of the firefighters who battled it for almost three months as the fire retreated in the depths of the Park. The countless homes and lives they saved is truly heroic, they are the first and last line of defense for us all.

Welcome to the first post of Citizen of the Planet.

I once heard David Burnett, the famous photojournalist, say that photographers get to parachute in and out of other people’s lives. I always thought that was a great way of describing what we do. My camera has always allowed me to enter places and worlds I would never have found otherwise, allowing me to learn a little bit about a lot of things, and sometimes a lot about a few things. Along the way I am usually privileged to meet some very interesting people. That is why I love what I do. What I have discovered shooting a lot of the environmental and Green stories these last few years, is that quite often those interesting places and people are in my own backyard.

Dolphins and Oil Derrick in Catalina Channel

I had been shooting mostly travel subjects for as long as I can remember and even started my own photo agency, Ambient Images, that specialized in travel photos from New York and California. But a few years ago I wanted to move in another direction, to possibly get back to the photojournalistic roots that first took hold of me and my camera some twenty five years ago. It was obvious to me that the big story of our time was what was happening to our planet. On one hand the planet was under assault from the encroaching and gluttonous needs of mankind. Species were dying, the earth was warming and the precious air and water that our lives depended on, were becoming fouler and fouler with each day.

Helicopter dropping water on Sylmar wildfire

On the other hand, there are all the people who have been awakened to the earth’s plight and who have not sat idly or blindly by as these irreversible travesties continued to blight our planet. Technology was changing at seemingly lightning speed to help us meet our energy needs from alternative sources, and battles were being waged to preserve our waters, our air and our health from further erosion. There were many who were making great and sometimes even just small sacrifices to bring attention to these things, so that the rest of us might take off our blinders long enough to see that action was going to be required on all our parts if we wanted our children to inherit something even resembling the planet and glorious natural world that we are still privileged to live in. These heroes are often just our neighbors who spend a day cleaning a beach or river, or it might be a couple of guys who sail across an ocean on a raft, or the family that spends a year living without the normal amenities of life because of their negative impact on the environment.

Heal the bay Clean up at Venice Beach

The first event I photographed was a beach clean up in Venice for Heal the Bay, a well known and longstanding organization that is dedicated to the clean up and education of all matters relating to Santa Monica Bay. I have gone on to work with FoLAR – Friends of the LA River, LA Conservation Corps, the Million Trees LA Initiative out of the Los Angles Mayors office, CBE – Communities for a Better Environment, LA Eco-Village and others.

The "Junk" raft sails from Long Beach to Hawaii

The most interesting story I have done so far was that of the “Junk” raft. Over several months I followed the preparations of Marcus Eriksen and Joel Pascal as they built and made ready to sail their Kon Tiki like raft, made from 15,000 plastic bottles and an airplane fuselage, 2100 miles from Long Beach to Hawaii to bring awareness to the North Pacific Gyre and the floating plastic soup that is permeating the Ocean and infiltrating our food supply. I was lucky enough to be on the ORV Alguita, Captain Charlie Moore's 50 foot Catamaran that towed them out to sea for four days to help them on their way for the ten week journey. We hit a gale on our third day out, an interesting experience for this born and bred New York City boy. I am proud to say that I did not get sea sick, a feat I attribute to riding the New York subways for most of my life.

Plastic Water Bottle Floating in Pacific Ocean

After that trip I would never see a plastic water bottle or  bag the same way. The theme of plastic in our rivers and oceans continues to attract my camera as well as the story of water in Los Angeles in general. Anyone who knows a bit of Los Angeles history or has seen the movie Chinatown, knows how important and critical a role water plays in the dynamic ecosystem of Southern California.

I have come to understand that our own backyards are simply microcosms of what is occurring elsewhere, and that the hard work and spirit that is happening in one neighborhood, is repeated hundreds and thousands of times over in communities in this country and around the planet.

Los Angeles River Expedition in 2008, Glendale Narrows

I hope to show show in this blog, through the use of pictures and words, what is happening in my backyard of Los Angeles and Southern California. I will do my best to make it entertaining as well as educational. I will of course be traveling and showing you the result of those exploits, and I also intend to invite guest photographers to show their work here from time to time, something I am very excited about. Please offer your comments, your critiques and your corrections. I am new at this blogging thing and your input will help me guide me and teach me. Breathe deeply and be well.