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.

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.

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.

Nurdles

I woke up this morning to the news the California State Senate failed to pass a ban on plastic bags, really sad news and a disgusting example of our government for sale. The havoc these bags cause to our oceans and waterways is devastating to fish, wildlife and ultimately us. Toxins such as Phthalates, that leach from the plastic, as well as pollutants that adhere themselves to the macro plastic particles, get into the food chain as more and more of the fish we eat mistake these macro particles for their food.

A lot of people are aware of the problems with plastic bags, but many may not know that another culprit is a benignly named little bugger called the nurdle. Nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets and resin materials typically under 5mm in diameter, that are used in the production and manufacturing of thousands of the products we use. Over 250 billion pounds of nurdles are shipped each year, and many, many of them fall off of railroad cars and ships, and then find their way to our oceans and beaches.

It is estimated that about 10% of the litter found on beaches worldwide are nurdles. I roamed a beach in Seal Beach, just south of Long Beach, to find hundreds of them lying around the beach, I can tell you the story is the same on most any other beach you might find yourself beach-combing on. Nurdles are just part of the family of plastic trash that is caught in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre that wash up on our beaches and get ingested by birds and fish. Atolls in the Hawaiian archipelago like Kure and Midway are littered with plastic debris and the carcasses of albatrosses that migrate there and eat the plastic particles, and either suffocate or starve to death. The graphic example of what was found inside the belly of an albatross is courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, an organization that is doing extraordinary work in the areas of research and education concerning plastic in our oceans.

There is no easy way to wrap this up I’m afraid, passage of the plastic bag ban would have been a good start. This leaves it up to local cities and towns to institute bans, which has already started to happen in towns like San Francisco and Palo Alto, with other cities like Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach soon to follow. As long as the chemistry and petroleum industry has millions of dollars to spend swaying the votes of our legislators, it will be a long hard fought battle each time.

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.

Ballona Wetlands

It’s August and I am slowing down with Summer’s end approaching, so I thought I would just run some one shot posts for a few weeks. I went out last night to shoot the Ballona Wetlands, a beautiful area south of Marina Del Rey and just west of the Playa Vista housing development. For a number of years, and continuing to this day, there has been a battle to save the Ballona Wetlands from further development. The wetlands once extended north to Venice and further inland, and has been slowly built on over the years, the latest foray was the massive housing complex of Playa Vista, which you can see on the right side of the photo. What remains of the wetlands was saved by the acquisition of the land by the state, and the efforts of groups like Friends of  Ballona Wetlands. Wetlands, besides their pristine beauty and home to numerous species of birds and other wildlife, are a very complex eco-system as well as nature’s natural wastewater purification filter. The wetlands are located at the mouth of the Ballona Creek, which was once a natural flowing waterway, but is now a paved channel for rain and wastewater runoff.

I wanted to juxtapose the wetlands with the encroaching Playa Vista development. I thought a dusk shot would more dramatically make the point with the lights from the buildings and traffic along Lincoln Blvd., contrasted with the quiet serenity of the wetlands. The problem was that all that quiet serenity was going to be very dark compared to the lights, sky and the setting sun. I used a trick that every printer learns to do when making their B&W prints on an enlarger, a little dodging and burning. In this case, I waved my appointment book with its straight edge up and down, right in front of the top half of my lens while I was exposing the image. The exposure was about 20 seconds and I dodged the book for about 15 seconds, which kept the upper part of the exposure dark and from burning out the sky and mountains too much. A little tweaking in Photoshop didn’t hurt either.

The LA River is a river

I love the Los Angeles River. I honestly have to say that I wasn’t exactly sure what is was the first few times I saw it, but I found it to be a fascinating place to explore and photograph. On July 8, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told me what it is, something many people had already known, that the LA River is a “traditional navigable water,” in other words, it’s a river.

Jackson made the announcement at Compton Creek, one of the LA Rivers tributaries, to a crowd of applauding supporters. This was a great day for many of the people I know who have worked so hard to bring this day to fruition, among them: Lewis MacAdams, Shelly Backlar, Ramona Marks and Alicia Katano, the folks at, and formerly at FoLAR (Friends of the Los Angeles River); Joe Linton of LA Creek Freak; and George Wolfe, LA’s own Vasco de Gama, who led a three day kayak expedition in 2008 down the length of the 51 mile long river, to prove that it was indeed navigable. He succeeded, not only in completing the trip, but by proving to the Army Corp of Engineers that the river was deserving of the term and the protection it afforded under the Clean Water Protection Act. Now the EPA has made it official. This will mean cleaner water in the river and higher restrictions for development along and near the river’s banks.

The day I started to understand how beautiful and complicated the LA River was, was during a tour of it sponsored by FoLAR and led by naturalist Jenny Price. We started off at the Sepulveda Basin, one of two stretches of the river that is still soft bottomed, just North of the Sepulveda Dam. I stood on the river’s edge and looked up river and saw nothing but lush green growth lining its banks, and ducks, egrets, stilts and other waterfowl seemed to be everywhere. This was not the cement lined flood channel that I had seen in movies or from above when flying in and out of LAX. This looked like a river.

I also saw for the first time, the ubiquitous plastic bags that I would get to know so well. They were hanging from trees, leftover from past rains and rising waters, some fluttering in the wind like tattered flags, others knotted up in thick plastic balls that looked permanently adhered to whatever tree limb they had formed around. A sad juxtaposition to natural beauty I had just discovered.

That same morning would be the first time I saw a boat go down the river as well. Emerging from the up river greenery came a small yellow ocean kayak that then beached itself on the river bank. George Wolfe, the aforementioned leader of the LA River expedition,  popped out and joined our merry tour to give us a brief talk about boating on the river. George would later ask me to help photograph the 2008 expedition, something I was able to do for about a day and a half before succumbing to a dastardly flu that sidelined me quite definitively for the weekend. I have always regretted not following the whole trip, but I was able to witness a bit of history being made and the beginning of some new found respect and recognition for the LA River.

I grew up in lower Manhattan, and spent much of my youth playing along the banks and piers of the Hudson River. The Hudson back then was viewed as a disgusting, toxic brew that you wouldn’t consider getting close to, let alone swimming in. Years later, through the efforts of many, the river was cleaned up quite remarkably. I had the chance to noodle around in a kayak off the Canal Street Pier one day, and as I bounced along with the small waves around me, I realized that I had never actually been that close to the River. I was even getting wet, something that would have required a major decontamination years earlier. I loved it, and that experience enabled me to see the Hudson as a real river. I hope that the new classification of the LA River allows others to have that same awakening, and that we can all start to not only appreciate the beauty of the river, but to get in it and enjoy it as well.

The Science Barge

A few weeks ago I talked about the idea of converting urban rooftops into urban farms. The benefits go beyond just having more locally grown food, a reduction in transportation costs and mitigating the urban heat island effect, it helps people understand how food is grown, something too many of us have lost in a world of packaged foods, fast foods and ready to eat everything. But learning to grow a garden, let alone an urban farm can be a big jump for people. There is the issue of working in small, sometimes confined spaces, and how do you set up irrigation systems and get the energy to run them. These are challenges that got some people thinking a few years ago at an organization called New York Sun Works, and so they set out to create some prototypes for urban gardening that would help them and others understand how to create agricultural systems that work in an urban environment. They created the Science Barge.

The Science Barge was launched in May, 2007, and over the course of the next year or so, was moored at several spots along the Westside of Manhattan on the Hudson River. It is now run by Groundwork Hudson Valley and has found a permanent home in Yonkers. Visitors and schoolchildren are welcome to visit and learn about urban farming and sustainability, enabling them to create a vision for urban living that so far had been reserved for their rural neighbors, namely growing their own food. The barge is powered by two raised solar panel arrays, some micro wind turbines on the roof and bio-fuels. Water for irrigation is gotten from rainwater collected in a 1,200 gallon cistern, and Hudson River water that is run through a reverse Osmosis filter that purifies it for use.

The day I visited, I saw greens, lettuce, tomatoes and melons growing from a variety of Hydroponic and Aquaponic systems along with a few examples of vertical farming. Aquaponics is a bio-integrated food production system that is a combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics, which basically means that the waste products of one biological system serve as nutrients for a second biological system. The first bio-system contain fish, the feces of which are broken down by algae in a second tank which then distributes the nutrients to the plants, the second bio-system. The plant system filters, cleans and recycles the clean water back to the fish in the first tank. The fish and algae create the nutrients the plants need, and the plants prevent a toxic build up of nutrients that would eventually harm the fish, essentially recreating a nutrient cycle normally found in nature.

Nearby was a table of greens being grown using the Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponic system using a shallow stream of water containing nutrients that continually recirculates past the bare roots of the plants which are held in channels or gullies. There were also a series of plastic pots containing cucumber plants using another hydroponic system, a drip process call the Dutch Bucket system.

The Science Barge had over 3100 students visit last year  as part of the barge’s formal education program. They also have a High School internship program that employs students from Yonkers. The general public can visit on weekends, here are their hours. Educating others on the benefits of urban farming is going on in many places around the country, including a number of Master Gardener Programs that bring this information directly to communities, but the Science Barge is a particularly assessable way to witness and explore this growing trend. The systems employed on the barge also happen to be high yield, and low impact as far as it’s carbon footprint, and maybe most importantly because it utilizes greenhouses, it is climate independent in that it can yield crops all year round. I keep saying it, but imagine a city of green roofs and greenhouses feeding the residents of the apartment complexes below them, what a site and what a step forward that would be.

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.

School Gardens

I recently spent a few weeks shooting gardens at some local elementary schools here in Los Angeles for a magazine article I was working on. Growing up in New York City suffice to say I wasn’t exposed to many gardens, certainly not at school. Some nice house plants maybe, but the closest thing I got to growing produce was the ever present avocado pit that my mother would stick in a jar on the kitchen window sill, hoping it would sprout into a tree one day.  I can safely say that the 20 or so pits she tried to grow did not bear fruit. I hope my son gets more of an opportunity to learn about this than I did, and with some of the school gardens I had a chance to visit, the prospects look good.

Young girls and their mother explore their school garden.

At one time LA had over 70 or so school gardens, now there are much less, school budgets probably, but hopefully they are back on the rise. I have actually been photographing a lot of gardens and gardeners  lately and I had no idea how extremely popular it is here in Los Angeles, and just about everywhere. It makes sense, with economic times being what they are, people are looking for ways to be more self sustainable, and nothing is more self sustainable than growing your own food. I saw the coverage of Michelle Obama planting an organic vegetable garden on the lawn of the White House and I think that helped send a message to folks across the country that growing your own food is both cool and sensible.

Young girl watering the strawberries.

One young mother invited me to photograph her and her two daughters at their school garden in Laurel Canyon. The girls picked up watering cans and immediately went to work, obviously comfortable with the routine and all too enthusiastic to show me the several planting beds in the school yard that were growing strawberries and a variety of greens, beans and herbs. The fact that their mother is in the Master Gardener program at UC will probably make gardening second nature to these two girls, much like growing up in a bilingual household will enable a child to have a lifelong proficiency in a second language.

Young boys collect food for the worm compost bin after their class mates eat their lunch

Underneath the intersection of the 10 and the 110 freeways is the Downtown Value School, a public charter school serving low income neighborhood schoolchildren near and around downtown Los Angeles. Over the years they have built a garden that goes around almost the entire perimeter of the school and even includes a small greenhouse. The gardens act as an outdoor classroom, and the day that I was there, three boys collected the discarded food leftover from their classmate's lunch and emptied it into the school worm composter.

Re-planting snow peas in the vertical garden at their school.

In the schoolyard they also have vertical garden with a variety of greens, beans and berries growing out of the small pouches of soil. This vertical garden was supplied by Woolly Pockets and is a great way to plant a garden in a small area; it is made up of rows of soft breathable pockets, stacked on top of each other so you literally have a wall of plants. In addition to having a very cool product, Woolly Pockets also gives back to the community through its Woolly School Garden Program, which helps schools raise donations to start these vertical gardens.

The Woolly Pockets vertical garden at the Downtown Value School

A few weeks earlier I had attended a Big Sunday Weekend event, the largest annual citywide community service event in America. A few hundred children, parents and teachers all came out to help plant and fix up the garden at the 24th street School in the West Adams District. There were kids shoveling mulch, families weeding out planting beds and people generally having a really good time. It was encouraging to see communities coming together to do service, for schools to be teaching kids about growing food, not only for the practicality of it, but for the beauty of it as well, and for parents to pass down perhaps a renewed tradition of growing your own food and eating healthier because of it. Childhood obesity is through the roof, and I can see nothing more contrary to junk food and fast food than what I saw at all these schools.

Students, parents and teachers work on the garden at the 24th Street School garden on Big Sunday.

Water: The New Oil

We're going heavy on the pictures and light on the text this week. I had a post about gardening ready to go, but the ongoing nightmare in the Gulf made me think about our water, waterways and oceans and how we have taken it all for granted for so long. I went through my library and pulled out an assortment of images I have shot over the years that relate to water and show the human impact on it. There have been a number of articles of late that call water the new oil, a term referring to the growing scarcity of potable water in many parts of the world due to drought, and the territorial conflicts that will continue to arise out of the shortage. The term now has a horrible irony in light of current events.

Not only is water becoming scarcer, but it is becoming more toxic and polluted, and not just from major catastrophes like oil spills, but by the daily dumping of garbage, plastic, industrial waste and sewage. The fact is we all have choices we can make on a daily basis, and it is up to each of us to take responsibility for the things within our power to change. I'm feeling preachy today, but there really are so many things we can all do to help - water conservation, using natural non toxic products, and our use of plastic. Consider the fact that every piece of plastic ever created still exists somewhere, and will do so for years and years to come. Do you really need to buy disposable plastic water bottles, or could you use a re-usable bottle and filter your tap water? Think about how much money you would save, as well as the damage you would be preventing. If you do use plastic, recycle it as well as all the other items that your city or town will let you. I once heard a woman say that she doesn't feel like recycling, I didn't realize it was about feelings.

I get angry when I see things get to the point where it is too late, like it may be for the Gulf. That tipping point is being fast approached on many fronts and there is no one other than ourselves who can do anything about it. Are we willing to make at least small changes to our lifestyle, to make small sacrifices, to change our buying habits? There is a lot to blame big oil for, good reason to point the finger at government regulators, but we are the consumers, and as long we support and buy their products, they will continue to produce those products that pollute and endanger our planet and environment. End of sermon!

Vernon - “Exclusively Industrial”

What can I say about Vernon that hasn’t been said before? Actually a lot I would guess. Vernon is not the type of place that would inspire many people to prose, but I found it interesting enough to make several trips to photograph what I consider a pretty bizarre place. I first mentioned Vernon here a few weeks ago when I posted about the Toxic Tour, much of which took place in Vernon. It is a strange place because it is a completely industrialized town, according to the last census it has a population of 91, and you would be hard pressed to find them. What you do find is street after street of factories, food processing plants, warehouses, railroad tracks and abandoned buildings. People are very scarce except at closing time, when one or two intersections host a few folks waiting for a bus or a ride home. Just so you know, Vernon’s official slogan is “Exclusively Industrial”.

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The town of Vernon along the Los Angeles River with downtown LA in the background

Vernon almost from the beginning was fated to be an industrialized city, the site of the town was picked because of the confluence of railroad lines. Founded in 1905, by the 1920’s twenty-seven slaughterhouses lined Vernon Avenue and major industries such as Bethlehem Steel, Alcoa glass and Studebaker made their home there. Needless to say there is a vested interest in keeping the town industrial as the tax revenue from Vernon is quite a bit higher than equal sized residential communities. Leonis C. Malburg, the grandson of the city's founder John B. Leonis, was Vernon’s Mayor for over fifty years until he was convicted of among other things, voter fraud, and had to resign last year. There is a lot of money to be made in a town like Vernon, but you gotta hand it to a guy who tries his hand at voter fraud in a city of less than a hundred.

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Old Water tower in train yards on Vernon illuminated by moonlight

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Old warehouse and railroad tracks in Vernon

There is an old water tower that looms above everything else, and although I could not get a lot of historical background on it, I would guess that the tower was the center of town at some point and is the last vestige of what was. I’m a sucker for old railroad tracks and if you throw in an old water tower I’m a happy fellow. I always found my way back there trying to get the best light or angle for a shot that would capture it, and the last night I was there a full moon helped with the lighting and mood, and I was happy.

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Mural on the side of the Farmer John meat processing plant

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Sara Lee plant with large bagels on the side of the silos.

It is also home to many of your favorite food processing plants, Sara Lee, Farmer John Hot Dogs (a Dodger Stadium favorite) all cook up their special goodness in Vernon. The Sara Lee plant intrigued me, as it looks like they are storing some humongous (my son’s favorite new word) bagels in their giant silos. The Farmer John plant has a mural that adorns its perimeter with strange pastoral images of pigs, farms, pastures and even a Daisy Mae look alike reminiscent of Lil’ Abner. The mural was actually commissioned in 1957 and a movie set painter named Les Grimes worked on it for eleven years until he died from a fall from his fifty-foot scaffolding.

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Malburg Generating Station, Vernon Power Plant.

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O-I Plastic Products.

The only time I actually talked to someone in Vernon was when a couple of cops pulled up to where I was photographing the Malburg Generator plant. I can’t blame any cop who checks me out, if I saw me photographing half the things I photograph, I would want me checked out too. A few years ago the City of Vernon had proposed a large new 943 megawatt  power plant at a location nearby the Malburg plant to supply more juice to its industrial residents. The new plant would have spewed millions of tons of emissions into the nearby residential communities of Maywood, Bell Gardens and Huntington Park. Last September, the efforts of community groups and environmental organizations such as CBE, forced the town to withdraw the application of the new plant, a big victory and proof that the little guy can sometimes win in the protection of their community.

The Winter Rains

Last Winter's rains here in Los Angeles provided an opportunity for me to photograph something I have been interested in for a while, the difference between the normal river flow and the urban runoff created by major rainstorms. The contrast can be quite dramatic.

Ballona Creek during Rain Storm and Normal Water Flow

First a little background. The Los Angeles River is probably most famous for being in movies like Terminator, Them and a host of other films that made use of its paved banks for dramatic car chases and such. Some people don’t even realize that it is a real river, but the first settlers to Los Angeles made their encampments along the banks of the river, that is until the first rainy season, when the river flooded their camp and the rising waters of the river did what they have always done, drain the Los Angeles Basin after a rainstorm and charge down the river to empty into the sea at what is now Long Beach and Playa Del Rey.  In the thirties, the floods got so bad they destroyed many homes and buildings near the river, which eventually led the Army Corps of Engineers to pave the river in order to help the waters rush out to the sea faster with less risk of flooding. A good idea for the thirties perhaps, but in a time when we spend untold amounts of money and energy to pump water over hills and valleys all the way from the Sacramento Delta for drinking and irrigation, it makes little to no sense. So much of our rainwater could be captured and used for irrigation and other greywater uses.

Los Angeles River after Rain Storm and Normal Water Flow

Although the before and after shots of the Ballona Creek were taken on different days, I watched over a 45 minute rainy span, the waters go from a gentle flow to the raging waters that you see in the picture.

I have seen images of the LA River during rains on television, usually involving a dog being rescued or such, but I was unprepared to see it up close. Paths along the banks that I had strolled along were completely covered by the torrent, and although the color of the LA River is not what I would normally call crystal clear, after the rains it is brown, mucky, sludgy brown.

Cranes picking up garbage debris from the LA River after first rain of the season in Long Beach

Did I mention the garbage? If you stand on a bridge above the river, you can see a steady stream of plastic bags, styrofoam cups and an assortment of nasty looking debris that only minutes before had been lying peacefully on some Los Angles street minding its own business. They don’t call it urban runoff for nothing! If you ever wondered why the Pacific Ocean is filled with so much garbage, plastic and other junk, it all starts on some street in LA, Tokyo or other populated Pacific rim location, where the litter that humanity lazily disposes of, waits patiently for the rains to come and send it along its merry way down the storm drains and pipes, and eventually to the river or some other channel that leads to the ocean.

I went down to the mouth of the LA River in Long Beach after the first rain of the season last October where there is a garbage boom that attempts to collect as much floating debris as it can before it heads out to sea. After the first major storm of the season, the boom may collect over 50,000 pounds of trash. But if that is what it catches, one can only imagine how much it doesn’t catch.

Garbage boom on the Los Angeles River in Long Beach

As a photographer I am attracted to power and beauty, the LA River and Ballona Creek have an abundance of both despite some of the ugliness. But that ugliness is not theirs, the rivers are simply the repositories of our neglect and short-term thinking. There are many efforts to clean up the LA River and some long range plans to revitalize it. In future posts I will show some of the places where the LA River is still in its unpaved natural state. If we can someday bring the rest of the river back to this state, never again will anyone wonder if the LA River is in a fact a real river, it will be evident to all.

Palmdale

I first heard of Palmdale in the Frank Zappa song “Village of the Sun” many years ago, turns out he grew up in the neighboring town of Lancaster. It is a high desert town, and although the surrounding San Gabriel Mountains and outlying desert are beautiful, the town itself is a series of strip malls and housing developments. They do have one thing going for them though, it is very windy, and the day I went there it was very, very windy.  Zappa’s lyrics say it all.

…good God I hope the Wind don't blow. It take the paint off your car And wreck your windshield too, I don't know how the people stand it, But I guess they do.

I went up there to photograph wind turbines, not the massive wind farms they have near Palm Springs, but smaller residential and business wind turbines that are a perfect energy source in this breezy desert town. You get to Palmdale on route 14, the Antelope Valley Freeway, and the first thing you see from the bluff overlooking the town is a huge 318 foot wind turbine on the edge of Lake Palmdale. There is just the one, a giant sentinel standing guard over the town, and you can easily see it is the tallest structure for miles around. It was built in 2004 to help power the district's Lake Palmdale water-treatment plant and can produce up to 950kw of electricity.

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The Walmart/Sam’s Club just recently installed a mini wind farm on their parking lot. Seventeen micro wind turbines were humming along pretty furiously the day I was there, standing at respectful distances from each other and producing 76,000 kilowatt-hours of energy annually for the store. You may not like Walmart for some of their business practices, but they are making an effort to make their stores more sustainable.  I included a video I took of it, it’s not very exciting, but it gives you an idea of just how windy it was.

I came across a few small residential wind turbines as I toured the town, but could not help but think how much more could be done to take advantage of the winds that whip pretty consistently across this high desert town. As I drove around I was listening to radio reports about the oil spill in the gulf, it was hard not to be discouraged by the lack of will to make a serious effort to get this country and the rest of the planet off our addiction to fossil fuels. It seems environmental disasters and the price of gas are the only things that get us to even start talking about alternatives. What a cliché, but it is the truth.

The travel photographer in me wanted to see if I could find any vestige of history in this town, but the only things I could find were an old schoolhouse and a motley graveyard called the Palmdale Pioneer Cemetery. No coonskin caps or stagecoach remnants I’m afraid, it wasn’t very inspiring. But passing through the town is the great California Aqueduct, bringing water from the north to Los Angeles and Southern California as it begins to wind down its journey in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. More on the aqueduct later.

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.

Ballona Creek Footbridge

I just recently moved to Culver City and was immediately drawn to the Ballona Creek, a nine mile waterway which was once a meandering creek that could quickly turn into a torrential river after severe rains. It was paved over, á la the LA River, by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1935 to prevent flooding and damage to surrounding homes. Needless to say, much of it’s quaintness would seem to be lost at first glance, but after spending some time along it’s banks and its 7 mile bike path, I started to feel the allure.

Shopping cart in Ballona Creek

On a clear night last week I went down to a particularly photogenic footbridge that crosses the creek just west of Overland. I had made up my mind to make the creek an ongoing project and the footbridge had caught my eye as a nice subject to photograph. I took a few initial shots from the upper banks, focusing on an abandoned shopping cart that had been dumped into the river. It was not the first cart I had seen in the creek and I guarantee not the last. I think the only reason people dump them in the creek is to watch them roll down the slides of the creek banks and splash into the water.

Ballona Creek footbridge at dusk

I slowly descended down the paved slope to the water’s edge for a final shot of the bridge at dusk, and I set up my camera inches away from the water, about a foot off the ground. I often get my best dusk shots when it looks as if the shoot should be over, when the sky is dark with only a hint of blue in it. The digital capture (we used to call it film) records it brighter than our eyes do and it can balance out quite well with the darkness of a foreground or whatever else is in the frame.

I clicked away some 30 second to one minute exposures and sat cross-legged by the water as it gurgled by. I was totally unprepared for the calmness of the setting and how nice it was to sit by an urban stream. What a great place to watch the sunset. I could only imagine how it might look if someday the pavement is removed and the natural state of the creek returns. More on the Ballona Creek in a 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.