Tag Archives: land

This Space Between

In the city, there are still unclaimed places, sites that are betwixt and between, undesirable leftovers that serve no purpose and have no value – or so it seems. Sometimes these sites are adjacent to developed plots and contain the dumpings from the development, as the remainders and reminders – blank spaces that punctuate the thing that was erected.

In other areas, places exist that were once fully functional but because of changing needs and technologies, and lost means, they have fallen into “ruin,” and are left to rot. We have seen many of these, resulting in a once-valuable and useful property devolving into decrepitude; a deteriorating house or commercial building. And we have found wonder in the reassertion of nature on a manmade site such as the below- and above-ground railways that were once more function than form, but, in their present unused state, are excellent placeful places, more nature than nurture.

The spaces surrounding waterways in urban environments have always been problematic, historically developed and laid waste to, currently a discarded legacy of dead rivers and eroded and depleted river banks. Revival is occurring, but some of these spaces, created without forethought, are downright weird, like old sewer lines. There is an unusual juxtaposition of river and expressway in many places in this country, including here along the western bank of the Schuylkill.

Here, we are walking along such a forgotten space, the useless void between the river and the road. Being here, in this place, feels as though there was an attempt to obliterate the river as a transportation hub in favor of the car; however, the road follows the river’s navigation and clings to its contours along a steep cliffside, generally about thirty feet above water level. The width of this swath of land between the water’s edge and the road varies, sometimes leaving only a narrow strip of sandy lifeless soil barely wide enough for a path. Then the road recedes from the river, enlarging its visible bank by fifty feet or more. This view from below, in the bottomlands, reveals that the construction and road-laying required removal of huge rock outcroppings, many scattered down the grade and lodged there until the next upheaval. Some of the larger ones are intact, others were blasted and have perfect holes drilled into them – occuli into human hubris.

It is other-worldly here, in this space between. We are in a culvert really, but it is a culvert that becomes a river on one side. And a mighty one, at that. The water is high and swift, carrying uprooted trees. Along the bank there is a large hull of a metal boat, umber with rust, a few similar-looking car bodies, and eerie, tattered, shreds of plastic hanging like sphagnum moss from the leafless branches. The irony is that, in a city, usually, there are such rivers and, yet, it is strangely unusual to be this intimate with one; often there is no access – possibly, because this is what you would find. But the weirdness of this leftover space is not the river, it is the expressway above, loud and insistent. I feel like perspiring and panicked Jiff, in Bowfinger, facing into speeding traffic and its horrific sound. I am not in it, I am below it, but that is harrowing, too. Plus, there is trash everywhere, apparently flung from speeding vehicles toward the river. Hey, let’s continue to lay waste to our natural environment in every way we can for as long as we inhabit the place. WTF.

Someone has forged this path so we are not the first humans to be here. We are the only ones today, though. Another kind of eerie. There are numerous creeks that feed into the river, running underneath the elevated highway – large drainage pipes, many broken or disconnected but flowing steadily – and we must navigate across these inlets on rocks or fallen trees, to continue forward. We come upon a low point, almost a beach, where the river has burst through its bank and has created a second, smaller river branch, encroaching on the limited supply of land mass in this contained but wild and wounded nether-land. At this point, we are unsure if it is passable, but we find that there is a narrow stone path right up against the towering retaining wall of the expressway, now higher than thirty feet.

Because, at this point, the road rises up for train tracks that tunnel under the road bed and cross to the river-side. This pairing of water’s edge and railroad is a more familiar landscape than the one we have experienced for the last two miles; it is a welcome relief to the containment. Talk about rocks and hard places.

This forgotten ground between rushing water and rushing traffic feels secret and scary. We are sandwiched between nature and engineering, in a place that to most people has no place, or is no place. It is a throw-away zone. Literally. This strange space between waterway and hugely high structural wall is an orphan space that is ignored, misplaced and abused, both by nature and humans. Its soil appears dead. Since no animals could access it, except birds (should they tolerate the relentless traffic noise), it feels as lifeless as a lunar surface. Except for the river, full of energy and movement, frightening in its power up close and personal. In these urban places, we don’t get this close ordinarily, rivers being something you usually look down on from a bridge; we don’t meet them on their own terms like this. This amazing space, unwanted, unvalued and forsaken, is a marvel because of its anonymity, and also because it is unlike any place I have ever been. It is alien because it is such a hybrid, some kind of Frankenstein creation. But there are, in addition to the rock formations, also trees and ground covers, mosses and lichen. Despite the bad treatment and imprisonment, there is in this place a unique quality of survival and placeness, a haunting kind of placeness.

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That Ugly Piece of Land

For all the years we’ve lived in our house, the lot diagonally across from us has been an eyesore. Originally a small farm, at one time another structure had stood on that largish, now-urban piece of land; today, only a house, one of the oldest in the neighborhood at nearly 150 years, and a similar-age former stable (now, since moderate gentrification, an artist’s studio) remain, acting as two sides of a frame around the plot, the other two being sidewalk and intersecting streets. The land – maybe 70‘x 66’ – is, essentially, the house’s ample side yard.

For a while, when an elderly woman lived in the house, there was at least an attempt at keeping up the yard. Grass grew patchily on most of it, and the woman had a neighborhood man (in some way related to her) cut it, as well as occasionally trim the scruffy bushes that grew wildly in and around the once-beautiful, classic cast-iron posts and rails that bordered the property. But there was also an improvised barbecue pit – literally a pit, dug deeply into the ground. And a ramshackle, lean-to of a shed housed an old yellow dog named, ironically, Champ (the first in a series of poor dogs over the years, one of whom had the good sense, fueled no doubt by desperation, to slip his chain, dig under the gate and race into the night, never to be found).

“The Idiots” moved in after the old woman got sick and died. “The Idiots,” as we came to call them, were composed of the old woman’s sister, the sister’s grown children and an assortment of kids whose parental lineage would give pause to scientists doing genome mapping. This crew hissed and ranted in frustration and bigotry, making no friends except for the paranoid zombies they sold drugs to. And, under their stewardship, the yard went to hell: it became a dust bowl, as most of its grass died or was worn away, and what remained grew as crazily as its untending and untended humans; the graceful fence was torn down and pillaged, replaced with chain link; trash, broken toys and detritus of all sorts were strewn all throughout the yard; and cars, dragged in, unworking, were left there, the silent victims of the elements and the house’s perhaps mentally disturbed and certainly surly teen boy, who would attack them with baseball bat or an axe, smashing them into ruin when he wasn’t otherwise occupied in hacking at the bare earth with whatever destructive implement he could find.

The people were horrible; the yard was terrible.

And yet …

After police raids, foreclosure pressure, housing-inspector revulsion and several ownership changes, what sits there now is an earthmover that has scraped the land raw into a simulacrum of the lunar surface and scooped out a network of trenches in preparation for the construction of three new houses – a foolish project of truly pedestrian design, built unnecessarily in an economic climate that predestines its doom.

As I try to picture that trio of sticks and stucco creating a wall of residential impermeability, I find myself experiencing something akin to nostalgia for that ugly, gap-toothed yard. It had some, if not much or lovely, greenery. It had a rolling contour and non-uniformity. It provided, if not the open space beloved by environmentalists, then a sense of welcome, air- and light-filled elbow room. It said: Not every square foot of a residential community needs to or ought to be covered with the fruits of a design-built imperative, not every square inch needs to host development. What will be lost is standing on a sidewalk with ground-level all around you; where there was a breeze there will be a curb cut, a garage door, a three-story cliff face and the hum of air-conditioning units. What that homely piece of land said was: Even an unkempt, ignored, even abused space has something of communal value to offer, if only to be a landmark and a bit of shared history.

Once the houses are built, no longer will I be able to glance out my window and see the lumpy and irregular wall of the former stable, the elegant hawthorne and redbud trees in its backyard, the houses and chimneys beyond – the art of years-long, organic, unplanned growth of a human-scale settlement.

Often, one will not realize that a place has placeness until it is a casualty of “replaceness.” One can frequently not see the art until it is succeeded by the artless. Already, with its terrain stripped and full of ditches, that old, ugly, rotten piece of land, with its genuine “beauty” and rarity, has become something I miss, even as the genuinely crass pushes it out of everything but memory where, oddly, it will only grow in my affection, and be a place I recall not just with fondness, but with the weight of a keeper of the keys to things past and gone.

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