Sunday, April 25, 2010

Abandoned Things: Love Canal, New York

I first saw Love Canal, a modest suburban neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York in May of 1983. I’d been visiting my friends Walt & Ruth in Buffalo, a stopover for a few days when traveling from Chicago to Boston by train. Walt, a photographer who’d been a classmate of mine a few years earlier, wanted to show me the neighborhood he’d been photographing which had been built atop an industrial waste landfill. It was one of the spookiest things I’d ever seen – a true modern day ghost town of boarded-up houses on street after empty street.

I regret that I didn’t photograph the neighborhood that day. We’d simply done a drive thru on our way to another destination – probably Niagara Falls. I have photographs of Walt & Ruth posing like tourists in front of the falls, but I don’t have a single shot to document the abandoned homes and school at one of the biggest man-made environmental tragedies known.

Last week, I returned to see what remains at Love Canal. There’s not much left to photograph now. A fence now surrounds the most toxic section, the containment area where the 99th Street Elementary School and the homes nearest it once stood – until evidence of the chemical dump they’d been built upon seeped into basements and storm sewers, and formed puddles in yards and the school playground during a particularly rainy period in 1976.

The elementary school and some of the neighborhood homes had been built on a chemical dump site where Hooker Chemical Company had buried drums of toxic waste from 1942-1952. The dump site was an old canal, a project begun in the 1890s by William T. Love (thus the name Love Canal) but never completed. Hooker Chemical Company buried an estimated 22,000 tons of chemical waste in 55-gallon barrels in the partially dug canal, and then sold the land to the Niagara Falls School Board in 1953 for one dollar. Among the chemicals buried there were dioxin, benzene and other substances known to be carcinogenic. Included in the deed was a disclaimer stating that the land had been used for chemical waste disposal and notification that the sale of the property released the company of responsibility or liability for future damages. In 1955 the 99th Street Elementary School was built on that property and new homes were built on the adjacent land.

I’ve written previously about memory images. Since 1983, my only images of Love Canal are those visions stored in my brain. Fortunately, the University of Buffalo has an extensive archive which includes records, a newspaper database, and a photo database of images available online with images of the school, homes, and toxic waste barrels. Looking at these photographs, I was surprised to find the homes were more modest than I remembered them. Even more surprising to me is that I didn’t even mention seeing Love Canal in my journal (I searched for an entry when trying to pinpoint the date of my earlier visit).

How could I not write a single word about that experience or take a single photograph? Granted, this was before I was writing seriously, and my journaling efforts were more of a general account of my days than a place to explore thoughts and feelings. I was a reader back then, and not a writer. But I did carry my camera with me nearly everywhere I went, and yet I didn’t use it. I do recall feeling overwhelmed by what I saw, but instead of trying to record it I simply rode away.

Last week as my husband and I drove around the vacant lots of what had once been a community, I tried to align what was left with my memory of what had been there 27 years earlier when I’d ridden on those same streets with Walt & Ruth. Outside the containment fence are blocks where children once skateboarded and rode bikes and played games. All that remain now are street signs, fire hydrants, and sidewalks with driveway cuts leading to overgrown yards where houses once stood. Inside the fence, the sidewalk continues past acres of ground where vent pipes jut up at regular intervals amid a feeble landscaping attempt using shrubbery along the edge of a slight rise. In the distance a single building, which I believe is an EPA Treatment Facility, is located deep inside the fenced area. Underground behind the fence, an estimated 2,000 tons of chemicals are still buried.

While my husband and I walked along the streets outside the fence, another car circled the area. Later, I saw the driver and passenger stop and get out to shoot a photograph. Were they like me? Or were they former residents? What would it be like to return to this place if it had once been your home? And, I couldn’t help thinking about our recent visit to Centralia, PA where there had also been other visitors at that site. Are we becoming environmental disaster tourists?

Memory is fallible. The images in my memory don’t quite match the photographs in the database at the University of Buffalo’s Love Canal Archive, but luckily those images exist and are available for all to see. Memory images are not as accurate as those captured in negatives and slides. Instead, they’re a little more like the latent images on undeveloped film. I imagine there are lots of other photographs out there of Love Canal, including those of my friend (and I’ve been badgering him to dig those negatives out of his files). These are important images that document the demise of Love Canal, particularly because memory itself is so unreliable. It’s amazing that only a few years before the school and homes were built on that contaminated site, it was still being used as a dump site. What were people thinking? This had not been a distant history; it was the recent past. The time line from the construction of the elementary school to the destruction of the neighborhood occurred within a single generation.

There is an ongoing long term observational study which follows the long term health effects of former residents who choose to participate in it. More information and other reports can be found at the New York State Department of Health website.

Perhaps last week’s Earth Day has me thinking about Love Canal again. I’d heard an NPR story on the radio about this being the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. That show noted that the first Earth Day occurred on April 22, 1970 and had been intended as a singular event, and that the EPA had not even existed until then. Hard to imagine. Even harder to imagine how reckless and naïve we were about our land, our water, and our air. Let’s hope our collective memory improves.

Photo Credits: All photographs copyright 2010 by Dory Adams

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Frances Archer said...

The town of Times Beach, Missouri,was also contaminated by toxic waste, and eventually became the first town bought out by the EPA. It was the subject of a documentary,, made by a friend of mine.

Dory Adams said...

Frances, thanks for the link to the video about Times Beach. In the rural part of PA where I grew up, dirt roads were oiled down in the summer in a similar way -- but luckily that oil wasn't mixed with waste oil contaminated with dioxin as it had been in Times Beach.