Sunday, December 20, 2009

CLUI Tour: Oil Extraction in the LA Basin

On Friday morning Bobby and I braved the midtown traffic and rode our bikes to the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City. Bobby had been lucky enough to buy tickets for a tour the CLUI folks had planned before all the tickets sold out, seven minutes after they went on sale. The tour expanded upon the current exhibit there, which details oil extraction in the Los Angeles area.

We all piled onto a tour bus and headed to Beverly Hills, the first stop on the tour. At Beverly Hills High School stands a large, oddly camouflaged tower. It is an oil derrick that produces enough oil to make money for the school district, the oil company, and the property owners in the area.

A property's mineral rights can be separated from the land up top, so one person might own a house while another owns the rights to the mineral wealth underneath.

Extracting oil in urban areas requires tremendous PR work on the part of the oil companies, not to mention complicated machinery to ensure that wells do not leech into the surrounding soil. Much of the oil that is extracted must be separated from water, so from well sites flow two liquids: oil to the refinery, and water to the sewer (although often the water gets reinjected into the ground to encourage oil to come to the surface, or to simply prevent the ground from sinking, known as subsidence).

It occurs to me as strange that the oil companies have not yet decided to greenwash their product as a local one. Presumably some of the gasoline sold in gas stations around Southern California came from crude that was delivered to the refineries west of the 405; why not slap a big "local" sign on those gas pumps so that Prius owners can delude themselves even further?

Our bus took us all over the basin, from Beverly Hills along Pico, where there are many wells, to downtown, which no longer has functioning wells. Near MacArthur Park sits the last operating well in the City of Los Angeles, tucked inauspiciously between two commercial buildings and across the street from apartment buildings. It is managed by a guy who leases oil wells all over the region, sucking out little bits of oil, in decreasing quantity, for profit.

Matt Coolidge, CLUI founder and tour leader, wanted to show us that there is a human face to the oil industry. He did this by having people meet us at most sites, friendly people who work and live in the LA area. In Signal Hill we even ate lunch at an oil-themed diner, Curley's, which has served oil workers since the 1930s.

Like much of Signal Hill, Curley's shares its lot with pumpjacks that tirelessly move up and down, pulling crude out of the ground.

After lunch, a corpulent gentleman representing Signal Hill real estate and oil interests joined our tour. At that point things got a little weird for me, as we were in a cookie cutter suburb crammed with faux Italian or Spanish stucco strip malls, pumpjacks in the gaps, and this large, red-faced man told us how great Signal Hill is, and how soon a Ross will replace the failed Circuit City in one of the larger commercial developments they've added in recent years.

Things got worse as our bus climbed Signal Hill itself, passing hideous condos with views of Long Beach and ending at a park with a monument to the geyser of water that drained this area's groundwater in the early twentieth century.

A Hawaiian shirted old surfer met us there to tell us about the geological details of oil fields. He ended his cheerful, frenetic talk with glowing praise for people like the corpulent gentleman, who believe there might be billions more barrels of oil under the LA Basin, and that they just need to go out and find it.

Through the haze in this picture sits downtown LA. I felt more and more unsettled as I listened to a friendly human face speak without irony about the great profits property owners and prospectors would gather if oil were to be found under LA, with no reference to the yellow smog visible in all directions from our hill location. No connections were made between the extraction of oil and its associated wealth and the eventual particulate matter that gets spewed out of exhaust pipes every time a vehicle carries a human around our city. What does the smog have to do with getting rich, the American Dream?

Finally, a sunset, for, as Don Delillo pointed out so eloquently in White Noise, some good does come of airborne toxic events.

This sunset glows beyond the Grissom oil extraction island in Long Beach harbor, decorated with modern forms to soothe the untrained eye, which might not see beauty in the straining metal of a pumpjack.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Moment in Brooklyn

When I briefly visited a dear friend in New York recently, she took me to a fascinating place in Brooklyn.

I guess there's some post industrial sewer called the Gowanus Canal that people like to think about, and they've made a little reading room/museum about it called Proteus Gowanus.

It is nestled in this old alley and it reminded me of the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation here in LA.

One funny thing, though: their current exhibit focuses on transport, but there was nary a bicycle to be seen. They had recycled books about cars, ships, and planes, and even walking, but nothing on bikes. Maybe all the items had sold?

Our main reason for visiting was to hear a lecture about the weird old practice of medical students taking pictures of themselves with cadavers. James Edmonson, who curates the Dittrick Medical History Center in Cleveland, co-wrote a book on the subject. This woman who blogs at Morbid Anatomy had arranged the lecture. Morbid Anatomy has a museum space in the Proteus Gowanus gallery, hence the location.

It was all very interesting. Then we had nachos and returned to my friend's home in Washington Heights.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Views from the Train in New Mexico

Philadelphia is for Anthropologists

Last week I made it to Philadelphia, taking the train from Albuquerque to Chicago, then to Pittsburgh, then on to Philly.

Pittsburgh has a terrible train station. It seems like they should have a grand old lovely one, but it's really more akin to a Greyhound station than a quaint public space from before the automotive age. It appeared to have been constructed in the 1970s or 1980s. Hopefully it wasn't the product of some ill-advised redevelopment scheme that razed an older station in favor of the existing depressing one.

Philadelphia, though, is reached via beautiful 30th Street Station, a cavernous marble hall of food courts and information booths.

When I got there I walked through a light mist to my hotel. I'd decided to forgo a sleeping compartment on the train in favor of staying in a cozy hotel room my first night in town, and it felt wonderful to arrive there. There was even a weird channel that played shitty programming about Japan.

Then I did some anthropologist stuff at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. I didn't present a paper, so I just sort of ran around attending talks and waving hello people.

I also played a fair amount of hooky, sightseeing around Philly with a friend of a friend. We had delightful brunches, ample sour ale, and even fifty cent gourmet dumplings.


Urban decay

Second national bank of the United States

Glass lit from below the sidewalk

One surprise in Philly: the subway ridership more closely resembles that of LA than New York. Public transit seems to be left to the transit-dependent. It's not a very crowded city, either. I didn't get to see any outlying neighborhoods, just the city center and some adjacent areas.

Empty subway station

Ultimately I think I'm a better urban explorer when I'm by myself. Other people distract me from flânerie. That's not a bad thing, but it does leave me with a feeling that I didn't really see the city, just had lots of conversations somewhere.

Briefly, Chicago

One of my favorite things about traveling by train: spending your layover in a city instead of in an airport.

I've had many a layover in Chicago at this point, the transfer point for all trains crossing the country. Not only does Chicago have a large and interesting station, it spreads out around the station in accessible fashion. I can wander around and visit artisanal coffee shops and delis. Today I'm just sitting in a chain café (and being subjected to some record executive's idea of what would make midwestern moms cry and buy more Christmas-themed CDs) because it is snowing, and I am wearing thin leather moccasins, so exploring isn't really a possibility.

But when I was here on a layover last week, I did lots of walking, which felt great after being cramped in a coach seat on the Southwest Chief for hours.

I've been silent on this blog for a while because I was helping to mastermind a very special surprise visit to Newark, and I couldn't very well blab about my surroundings and give something away. But now that adventure is successfully completed, and I can write about my current cross-country trip.