Children of The Grid

January 27, 2010

Manhattan is a grid of streets, and the pretentious provincialism of its chauvinistic inhabitants has been ridiculed, lovingly by many, most famously by Saul Steinberg.  I encounter the grid tribesmen occasionally, I mean those who see themselves as such, or at least a segment of that population:  white,  professional, more or less liberal.  (In Europe, perhaps they would be called bourgeois.)  Their company makes me uneasy – I feel as if I’m struggling for breath in an airless room if I’m with more than two at a time.  Bunuel makes me laugh at it.

It’s the suffocating atmosphere of caste.  I guess I am with Groucho Marx who quipped that he didn’t want to join any club that would have him as a member.   I have a bit of envy of people who can so strongly link themselves to a place and a scene, like a barnacle that’s found a home, but I also find it upleasantly restrictive. Nostalgia is not an emotion I feel very much.

It’s all very personal:  When I meet people like this, I sometimes feel as if they are checking me out unconsciously and automatically, seeking to determine if I know the secret handshake or eye movment that signifies that I am of the tribe.   Intelligent?  Went to a “good” school?  Lives in what neighborhood..?  Politics okay, check!”   “Oh hell, just tell me what you think, if you think!”

I guess I’m a wee bit oversensitive, but you see, I come from the antipodes of The Grid.  I am from The Valley.

These photos are from a high school classmate, c. 1975.  That decor, those colors, that landscape, the plush pointless comfortable mentality of it all…how I loathed it.  To move east to attend a university was my dream and my escape.  Those were the thoughts of a silly teenager – it was hardly hell on earth.  And as I learned, the urban sophisticates of the east could be equally boring and trivial, not to mention pretentious.

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Silent Sea, Salton Sea

March 27, 2009

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When I was in school, I picked off the shelf a copy of Oriental Despotism:  A Comparative Study of Total Power by Karl Wittfogel and learned of his thesis, not widely shared today, that this sort of government has its foundation in something he called hydraualic civilization. These are societies that depend for their existence on huge, government directed irrigation works.  My imagination was set on fire by the notion of what I later termed “Hydrologic Radicalism.”

Today, this sort of radical engineering is not in favor, not after the disasters of the Aswan Dam, the killing and disappearing of the Aral Sea, and the use, re-use, and use-again of the Colorado River until the unfortunate Mexicans are left with only a salty, meagre trickle into the Gulf of Baja California where once a life-giving torrent flowed.  Treaty be damned!

My interest in Big Water, most familiar to the general public via Roman Polanski’s film “Chinatown,” led me to the Salton Sea.

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This enormous inland lake lies east of San Diego on the other side of some mountains the make that entire region a desert.  The Salton Sea submerged the Salton Sink, which was the lowest point in North America before that, a place of honor now held by Death Valley.  When I was a boy, the Sea was still a resort destination in the winter, a place for the Rat Pack glitterati to boat and fish and drink when they tired of nearby Palm Springs.  My interest in it was piqued recently when I read about Albert Frey, an architect who designed in the Desert Modern Style, and built the Salton Sea Yacht Club.

salton_sea_yachtThis modernist paradise has seen better days.  You can see a very nice val_kilmer_deborah_kara_unger_salton_sea_001assortment of ghost town photos of the area on flickr, here.  The decay of the area, precipitous since the 1970s, made it a good setting for the neo-noir film, “Salton Sea,” with Val Kilmer in the lead.  Vincent D’Onfronio plays a meth lab monster who lost his nose to drug snorting and earned the nickname, Pooh Bear.  He’s pretty creepy.

 

caljsiol_sio1ca175_113_017So how did this dead sea come to be?  The satellite image at the top tells the story.  The dense patchwork of rectangles at the north and south end of the Sea are irrigated agricultural fields.  The southern area is known as the Imperial Valley, one of the most productive industrial agricultural sites in the world.   Desert soil is often very rich growing material – to make it bloom, just add water.  Some real estate types had been eyeing the locale for decades when a successful canal building venture was finally launched, and settlers were drawn from across the world to settle and farm the valley.   In the course of building this Garden of Eden, there was a slight miscalculation regarding the construction of the hydraulic gates and barriers.

There was unusually high water in one of the tributaries, and the works failed.  Water will seek a low point, and the entire flow of the mighty Colorado River rushed in with a torrential vengeance.  The cascade created some low waterfalls which were washing away the soil “like powdered sugar,” and they began backcutting the stream bed at nearly a 4000 feet each day, i.e. , the falls were moving upstream at that rate.  Crowds turned out to watch this “cosmical plunge of a great river.”  Parallels to the Biblical Flood and the results of man’s hubris were on everyone’s lips.  The Sink was filling up at a rate of  a half-foot a day.  More than four times the volume of soil removed for the Panama Canal was washed away.  Radical, man!  You can read all about it in this paper I wrote for a master’s level class in geography.

When it was filled, everyone thought the Salton Sea would just evaporate away on its own, but it didn’t.  The drainage from the vast irrigated fields surrounding it, and from some springs to the north of it, kept it filled.  Someone had the bright idea in the 40s to turn it into a desert resort after WWII, and it flourished for a while.  Like the Dead Sea in Israel, however, it has no outlet, and stuff just accumulates in it over time.  This includes salt, fertilizer, pesticide, and other chemcials that feed algae and make life for fish unpleasant.  The large population of fish that grew from some initial stocks began to die off, and the Sea became the stinking stagnant mess it is today.  Plans are floated now and then to clean it up, but prospects are dim as it would be a very big and expensive job, with uncertain results.

Stop by sometime when you’re cruising through So. Cal. and you want to see and smell something different!

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