New York Parks

Spending a week in New York I had a chance to visit a couple of Manhattan’s ‘off the beaten path’ parks. High Line Park opened last year, and has quickly become one of the the city’s more popular destinations. It is built on an old elevated railroad freight line that operated from the 1930s to 1980. I grew up right near it and remember looking up at the old tracks which ran a block parallel to the Hudson River, and wondered what mysteries were up there and how far those tracks might be able to take me (my hobo fantasies as a child were slightly delusional). Now I get to walk along this extraordinary greenway and look down upon the adjoining streets and avenues, and feel the cool breezes blow off the Hudson while enjoying the great views of the surrounding cityscape and river.

When I went there the other day, I was instantly amazed at how much growth had taken place since my last visit, shortly after it opened. Talking to a nearby groundskeeper, I found out that the park’s plant designer, Piet Oudolf, has been trying to evoke the look of a prairie, using as little trimming and pruning as possible. And so the long grasses sway with the winds and the overgrown shrubs and plants grow over the rusted train tracks and peek through the slits in the pavement that try to resemble them, and give the park a truly wild look. It is helped by the fact that over 60% of the plants are native to the area and many are drought tolerant as well.

The park runs from Gansevoort Street, located in the center of the trendy and grotesque Meat Packing district, to 20th street in Chelsea. This is just the first segment, which when completed will extend the linear parkway up to 34th Street. Go early on weekends or on weekdays as it gets very crowded, which really can distract from the beauty and serenity of the park.

The other park is not so much a park, but rather a garden within a park, it is the Conservatory Garden, located in Central Park at 105th Street and 5th Avenue. Built originally in 1898, it was restored to its present state in 1981. There is only one entrance, a large wrought iron gate that opens up to an expansive green lawn and fountain. In contrast to the wild growth of the High Line Park, the Conservatory Garden is an orderly assortment of manicured hedges and carefully designed walkways, bringing a small scale European garden feeling to Manhattan. Seasonal flowers bloom and an assortment of tended trees shade you along the paths. Several sculptures and fountains are placed at the two ends of the park, most notably the Three Dancing Maidens fountain by German sculptor Walter Schott.

This part of Central Park was not a place I spent a lot of time during my hanging out in Central park years, so I was almost shocked that this very un-New York like garden existed when I stumbled upon it ten years ago. Just North of it is the Harlem Meer a beautiful and tranquil lake (Meer means lake in Dutch), in the NE part of the park, with shoreline walkways, quacking ducks and a Queen Anne boathouse. It has since become one of my favorite places to eat lunch, which I get from a strange little concession stand just off its shore called the Knish Nosh, which sells amazingly good Kosher knishes and franks. Sadly to say I was informed that they have lost their lease and will shut their doors. But their knishes are so good, I would be remiss not to inform you that they still have another location at the boat pond at 74th Street and 5th Avenue.

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.

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.