I spent the past two days in Buffalo, conducting research at the University of Buffalo’s Special Collections and at the Buffalo History Museum’s Research Library. My focus was on the Adeline Levine Love Canal collections at both institutions. It was a fruitful trip, tying up loose ends and discovering new avenues of inquiry.
I woke early this morning for the drive home, and stopped to visit the Love Canal site. The Love Canal story is fairly well known. In the 1950s, Hooker Chemicals sold a patch of land to the School Board for a nominal fee. The site included the incomplete Love Canal, which the chemical company had used as a toxic waste disposal dump prior to the sale (this was acknowledged in the sale, along with the proviso that the company was not responsible for any subsequent liability). A school was built on the site and a community eventually developed around it. By the 1970s, however, concerns that chemicals were seeping into basements and to the surface of the old canal line (where children played) instigated an unprecedented clamour for evacuation. This happened untidily and in waves. And it has entered in to the canon of American environmental catastrophes—along with being a pillar of the new grassroots environmental activism that typified the Reagan years.
Online, there is a wonderfully sober Encyclopedia of Forlorn Places. Love Canal is included. Which is apt. Paired against the anxiety and anger of Love Canal residents in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the tumult of multiple issues present in the archives, Love Canal is a strangely somber place. It has the quiet of a Civil War battleground, even if comparable care and landscaping are absent. And it lacks the commemorative status. No plaque or monument recognizes the recent history of this site. A fence rings 70 acres grassland, which caps the old canal and the chemicals within. Private Property. No Trespassing.
This is a wasteland. A forgotten place. Abandoned. Not just within. But the surrounds. Frontier Avenue to the south, 95th Street to the west, and 101st Street to the east are in disrepair. Where once these quiet numbered streets might have welcomed children’s bicycles, pocked cement, potholes, and weeds make for slow driving in the car.
To the west of the site are senior centers. At 6.30 in the morning, they are distinguished in their quiet.
The children displaced from Love Canal would be my age today. I don’t know that any sociological study has attempted to track them down and investigate the long term effects of the stress associated with the events of their childhood. Throughout the interviews and testimonies I examined in the archives, parents emphasized the fears and illnesses and stresses experienced by their children. Changing schools, worrying that their dolls could be contaminated, hyperactivity.
This visit had a morbid quality to it, in the utter silence of the morning. I wondered about who still lived adjacent to the closed-off site. Did they know what it was? I wondered, too, about my own participation: a kind of eco-tourism, but in reverse. There’s likely a growing fascination in eco-catastrophe tourism. See the Great Barrier Reef before it’s gone. Visit Love Canal. Times Beach today is a park. My interest in environmental disasters probably says more about me in macabre kinds of ways than I would like to consider.
And while the fence is straight, solid, and adamant that this private property should not be trespassed, the surrounding area outside the boundary is unkempt. I think this is 97th Street below. I’m looking north. The tree overhangs the road. Weeds are making considerable headway in their war against the concrete. This is a desolate place.
Conscious of my tourism, I decided not to walk down 100th Street, closed off to traffic, but open—it seemed—to pedestrians.
Turning right on 101st Street, to cover the final side of the Love Canal site before repairing to the safety of the Expressway (audible in the distance), more ramshackle homes and waste. The sacrifice zone of Love Canal extends well beyond the barriers that outline but do not mark the history of this place. Abandoned areas, refuse and waste on the grass and sides of the street. As forgotten as the place. If Love Canal is toxic, who cares about the boundaries and where are the explicit, objective boundaries between clean and contaminated? Of course they do not exist. One bleeds into the other and back again. But in the renounced areas outside the fence there is a clear expression that this place is not wanted.
Back out onto River Road to race for home. In spots, you can make out the top of the fence over the LaSalle Expressway. Fences (with similar private property signs) prevent access to the river on the left. This time, pollution is less the issue. But the fences demarcate where it is safe and appropriate to go. We are allowed to forget about the places we may not pass. Pretend they’re not there, and maybe never existed. Good fences make good neighbours. Then Woody Guthrie comes to mind.