All posts by Tommy Dunn


“No national leader in the history of humanity has ever faced this question. Will we survive, or will we disappear under the sea?” — Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sosene Sopoaga


rriving from Fiji on a twice-weekly flight, the three-hour trip is bumpy and cramped and mostly spent staring out a dense window looking for signs of life below. Floating closer, they eye catches flecks of green; nothing however that looks able to support human life. Finally, palm groves and rectangular iron roofs in an irregular row come into view, cutting through a narrow strip of habitable land.

This is Tuvalu, population 11,000. Halfway between Australia and Hawaii, an archipelago of nine atolls and coral islands rests precariously, one of the smallest and lowest-lying countries in the world.

Tuvaluans are one of a few nations of people whose very existence is threatened by the planet’s rising seas. In fact, the nation has developed a reputation as the ‘front line’ of sea level rise, and is now playing a role of design in environmental risks—and is an oft-referenced case study in academia. As part of a graduate thesis at M.I.T., I’m here to envision alternative futures catalyzed by climate change.

Atoll nations like Tuvalu, the Maldives or Kiribati have proven extremely vulnerable to changes in oceanic systems, rendering them urgent symbols of climate change’s impact. This isn’t about postcard-perfect lagoon isles slowly sinking below the waves; the actual risks to Tuvalu are far more complex and closely tied to the geological and natural systems that form the basis for atolls and their inhabitation.

As we step off the plane into the weighty tropical heat, it seems the entire population of Tuvalu’s capital—Funafuti—has come to greet our arrival. Likely because I’ve arrived with Eliala Fihaki, a Tuvaluan working in Fiji for UN Development Programme. Her aunt greets us and leads us to the road, pushing me and my suitcase onto the back of a motorbike. Fihaki explains as we ride that Fiji is a volcanic archipelago, with lush mountains, waterfalls, and a rich and complex tropical ecosystem. In contrast, Tuvalu is on an atoll: low, flat, and so close to the salty water that only a few plant species can survive.

While the market in Fiji’s capital bustles with villagers selling mangoes, bananas, pineapples, leafy greens, avocados, and even tomatoes, the fare in Tuvalu scarcely varies from the standard of tuna or reef fish (often raw) and coconut. As one of the few and precious natural resources in Tuvalu, coconut trees are used to make everything: food, beverage, liquor, body oil, building material, rope, and utensils. When I asked one woman what made Tuvalu unique she responded simply “the coconut.”

Tuvalu Edit_2
An islet from Funafuti atoll as my plane approaches the airstrip.

Atolls are a type of island formed by the build up of coral reefs and debris on the rims of subsiding volcanoes. As these volcanoes sink below the sea, all that’s left is ring-shaped build up of eroded coral sand, washed onto a framework of coral limestone. In other words, there’s a dizzying amount of coral in the natural infrastructure. As living systems, atolls maintain a symbiotic relationship with the coral surrounding them, making them highly susceptible to wave action, sea level rise, and changes in coral health.

Interestingly, coral has a biological ability to compensate for sea level rise by growing upwards towards the light; atolls have survived pre-historic sea level rises in this manner. Despite this adaptive capacity, projected environmental calamities going forward are more severe and active threats: the collapse of Antarctic ice sheets, massive coral bleaching due to the changing acidity of oceanic waters, and coral death due to increased water temperatures. Without a constant supply of sediment from healthy coral reefs, atoll nations such as Tuvalu would quickly erode into the sea.

My visit to Tuvalu in January coincides with the king tides, an annual phenomenon that results in several days of flooding and tides that creep higher and higher every year. During this time, saltwater bubbles up from the ground along the airstrip, which doubles as the community’s main recreation space.

Here, soccer players splash through ankle-deep puddles, while motorbikes skim through large pools, well acquainted with the aqueous ground. Along the road which hugs the lagoon for the length of the islet, waves crash steadily onto the pavement, dumping remnants of eroding sea walls and other debris onto the roadside.

King Tides Bike
A Tuvaluan man continues on his daily activities is spite of the flooding caused by the King Tides.

More than just novelty or inconvenience, the saline infiltration makes it impossible to grow most crops. Pulaka, a root vegetable similar to sweet potato, is cultivated by Polynesian islanders by digging shallow pits and cultivating fertile soil by years of composting. King tides inundate these pits with saltwater, damaging and eventually killing off the Pulaka crops.

The king tides also contaminates the freshwater lens, a delicate reserve of potable water sustained by rainwater seeping into the soil. On most islands of the archipelago, the freshwater lens is no longer viable, and Tuvaluans now rely on rainwater collection for drinking, cooking and bathing; a strategy which is particularly risky in light of increasing droughts in the region.

Lomiata Nuiatui, Tuvalu’s only trained design architect, has experienced environmental change firsthand. He tells me, “Just in case someone ask you about water rising tell them: Since 2006, seawater level where my pig pen is has risen by more than 250mm.” That’s about an inch a year.

Tuvalu’s 2015 damage during Cyclone Pam was, from a global perspective, only a footnote to the devastation that the storm brought to the volcanic nation of Vanuatu, destroying its capital, Port Vila, and many remote islands.

Children swim off the end of the wharf. Throughout the day, the wharf is used for swimming, meeting, gutting fish or pigs, and launching boats.

While news sources showed the large scale flooding in Tuvalu and reported on the National State of Emergency, it went unnoticed that Pam passed a full 700 miles away from Tuvalu. The flooding which displaced 45 percent of the country’s residents was from a storm surge nowhere near the nation.

In 1972 Hurricane Bebe slammed Funafuti, destroying 90 percent of the housing stock and killing seven people. While severe storms pose issues for any low-lying islands, in this case risk was amplified by Funafati’s cheaply made housing, built to replace traditional island-friendly homes leveled by bombs during WWII when—due to its proximity to Japan—Funafuti hosted a U.S. Marine base.

Traditional Tuvaluan structures, like their many Polynesian counterparts, have aspects that enable them to weather intermittent tropical storms. Thatched roofs wick away water, coconut trunk columns embed deep into the earth for stability, and bases of coral rock elevate inhabitants away from floodwaters. In contrast, the U.S. Marines’ replacement housing had tin roofs that were easily ripped from the structure and flimsy clapboard frames that crumbled under the waves. Forty years later, construction methods have barely evolved and, there is unsurprisingly no building code for Tuvalu.

Atoll dwellers have typically been mobile peoples, moving from island to island when freshwater was tapped out, crops came up short, or conflict erupted. This was mitigated in the 1700s, first by Christianization and then colonization, each serving to anchor groups of people in place.

A single-room wood frame home on Funafuti atoll.

It was shifting claims by the Western world —first Britain, then the U.S.—that conceptually tied this archipelago into a territory of one island nation. This nationhood plays strongly into the future Tuvuluans face as their land becomes increasingly uninhabitable, binding their identity and rights to these sinking islands.

Adding depth to the dilemma, the parameters of the Law of the Seas (set by the UN Conference) allots each nation a 200 mile perimeter of oceanic territory, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. For Tuvalu, this results in a territory of 10 square miles of land, and 350,000 square miles ocean. However, the liquid territories are only valid when they surround habitable land. One unprecedented response to this law was China’s controversial construction of new islands and territorial claims in the South China Seas.

Without China’s financial reserves, if and when Tuvalu subsides below the waves, the people of Tuvalu will have neither land nor water to claim as their own, and they will have no nation; they will be refugees.

Various proposals have been brought forward forward as to what this future might look like, from a mass resettlement to a Fijian island, to the even more costly and potential futile proposal of raising the islands. However, without a massive policy investment, creeping migration is likely to continue. (The most favorable migration policy for Tuvalu rests with New Zealand, which only allows 75 migrants per year via a lottery system.) At best, Tuvalu stands to become a diaspora, with those Tuvaluans who are slow to migrate at an ever-increasing risks for a catastrophic event.

Perhaps a relic of their ocean-going pasts, Tuvaluans place more significance on goodbyes than they do hellos. On the day of my departure, I check in to the room adjacent to the women’s center that serves as the local airport, and am told I can leave and return when I hear the plane land. While lingering outside, a downpour begins and the prospective passengers, including myself, Fihaki, and the ex-Prime minister, duck into a small pavilion to wait out the rain. There, the goodbye ritual begins, with damp hugs, shared coconut drinking, and assorted sea shell jewelry. Bedecked with half a dozen necklaces and earrings, Fihaki and I depart back over the stormy seas to more stable ground.

In contrast to the calm, crystalline lagoon, ocean waves are aggressive and intense. No one swims on the ocean side of the atoll.

Gail Albert Halaban

“Voyeurism implies that you’re going to look at somebody and not acknowledge the exchange. To me, with this work, you’re acknowledging that there’s actually a two-way relationship.”

Inspired by time spent as a temporary shut-in following the birth of her daughter, photographer Gail Albert Halaban began shooting pictures of her neighbors (with their permission) through the windows of her Manhattan apartment. The exercise soon became her means of connecting to the outside world, an escape from the exile of diaper changes and sleep deprivation. The artful result, Out My Window, a photo series showcasing city dwellers at their most unguarded, caught the eye of Cathy Remy, an editor from French newspaper Le Monde’s M magazine, who subsequently commissioned Halaban for a Paris-focused spread. After the assignment the photographer was inspired to continue shooting the city and temporarily expatriated, gathering much of the material for her book Paris Views (published in October 2014 by Aperture).

Each of Halaban’s images transforms the ordinary and the routine (like the image of a young girl practicing the clarinet, or a lone woman scolding her dogs) into an intriguing world with unspoken backstories. One of the series’ greatest strengths is its ability to confirm aesthetic Parisian tropes—elegantly decaying buildings, climbing-ivy windowsill gardens, and seemingly neverending glasses of merlot—while displaying the reality-bathed day-to-day life of one of the most romanticized cities in history. The result is unretouched and full exposure—unmade beds and all.

While though Halaban’s Manhattan subjects proved exceedingly easy to win over (“From the over 200 people I asked to take part in the New York project only one said no,” she told Ruins), she came up against a few roadblocks with their French counterparts. “In Paris no one wants to admit that they do it [spy on their neighbors]. They are much more private, so at first it was very hard. Some of the initial people I asked said, ‘That must be illegal’, or ‘Nobody is going to do that here.’” However, the photographer’s exposure in Le Monde, coupled with her engaging personality, put potential subjects at ease and elevated her status from peeping tom to esteemed artist.

Halaban may have executed this project with the impersonal gaze of a surgeon (a tad ironic as she originally attended Brown University for pre-med), but she still managed to infuse her work with warmth and compassion, making it feel more akin to a visit from a family friend than a still from Rear Window. “I became a photographer because I’m interested in people, and really wanted to get to know and connect with them,” she says.“My first job out of college was in a pediatric psychiatric hospital. Part of my role was to film kids and their families, and code for certain behaviors and actions for signs of mental illness. I began to realize that there were certain gestures and subtle ways people interact that tell you so much about who they are. I loved that job and how I connected with the families—that has been much of the motivation for my photographic work.” After swapping med school for an MFA from Yale, Halaban went on to study with downtown docu-photographer Nan Goldin, whose intimate and occasionally tragic portrait studies are echoed through her protégé’s work.

While Halaban is essentially inviting the public to peer into someone’s private life, she insists her art is the farthest thing from voyeurism. “Voyeurism implies that you’re going to look at somebody and not acknowledge the exchange. To me, with this work, you’re acknowledging that there’s actually a two-way relationship.”


A firsthand look inside the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake.


ibetan myth claims the Kathmandu Valley was created by Manjushree, a powerful saint who flew across the water-filled hollow and sliced the spiny Chobhar ridge in two, just south of the modern capital. With his mighty sword he opened this great fissure, allowing the water to funnel away and civilization to begin.

Geological research suggests Kathmandu was an expansive lake thirty thousand years ago. As epochs unfolded, a terrain surfaced, and the receding water unearthed a fertile valley, ideal for human settlement. These verdant plains gave rise to the Licchavi, a kingdom of northern Indian descent, whose kings would build the Pashupatinath Temple and the royal palace of Durbar Square. Later centuries saw the division of Nepal’s three kingdoms —Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur— before Prithvi Narayan Shah, a ruler of the Ghurka people, unified this small nation in 1769.

At 11:56 am on April 25, 2015, a great force ripped through the soft layers of sediment. Its source was not mythical, instead the result of two tectonic plates sliding across one another nearly 15 kilometers below the earth’s surface. The tremor shook the small land-locked nation of Nepal for 30 seconds, from the soft valley floor to the peaks of the Himalayas, shifting the earth’s crust ten feet.

It’s been just under 24 hours in transit from Hong Kong, and I’m dozing off on a Thai Airlines commercial flight-turned-emergency relief vessel—passengers dressed for disaster separated by a handful of reporters and photographers. The pilot breaks the hours-long silence as we enter Nepalese airspace, “We are currently number eight in queue.” Three hours later, we land under the haze of light rain and get our first glance of Nepal.

In the 200-meter walk from tarmac to terminal, we pass Chinese, Indian and U.S. military aircraft. The latter, which arrived just hours earlier, lay open with personnel and supplies still littering the runway. Arriving in the hangover of a natural disaster renders one temporarily speechless; my open notebook dampens in the haze of a light rain.

The 7.8 magnitude quake had fractured and tumbled infrastructure throughout the capital of Kathmandu. The night before I arrived, thousands of people—residents and visitors alike—attempted to flee, lining the airport entrance and spilling out into the approaching road. Today, frustrated faces of those who remain are pressed up against the small terminal’s glass windows—their eyes alight with hope that the plane we’ve only just disembarked from would soon be their escape route.

At baggage claim, bags stuffed with tents, dehydration salts and instant noodles fill a conveyor belt struggling under the weight. Beside stacked flats of bottled water are camera and video cases heavily adorned with stickers and logos. Beside them, a disoriented young couple’s baby bag and stroller mark an unceremonious return
to their native Nepal.

The airport is the heart of Nepal’s disaster response, pumping much-needed resources throughout the country. American medical technicians stand beside consular staff, who stand shoulder to shoulder with Japanese relief workers, all studying the slowly rotating conveyor belt. Behind them, waves of urban search and rescue teams in bright colored helmets and matching uniforms stream down the airport’s only escalator into the crush of emergency responders now forming amid the chaos.

In Gortex, flourescence, and often Keen shoes, the groups huddle like professional sports teams waiting on equipment, their conversations consisting of anxious snippets at levels just audible over an impatient and growing din. As team members check their phones for signals and hurriedly thumb arrival messages to colleagues, I’m drawn to a backlit welcome sign in the arrival bay: Are you a tourist? Looking for a Kathmandu Tour? asks the first, with sunny photographs of Pashupatinath Temple, Boudhanath and Bhaktapur.

Only one of those three sites survived the earthquake unscathed.

“Everything is crooked.” I write on my first night on the ground, while walking the broken streets of Kathmandu. Near one of the city’s teaching hospitals, in a neighborhood called Baluwatar, I stumble across the skeleton of a five-story building, its innards spilling into a street filled with responders.

This building had housed a tax office, a fruit market and a tea shop. Just yesterday, police and rescue workers extracted six dead bodies. Now, crews are still there scraping and bending the piled debris with an industrial backhoe. Locals stand off to the side in silence, some because the last text messages sent by their loved ones lead them back to this mound of mangled office chairs and half-buried binders.

From behind the caution tape, my gaze falls upon a pile of brick and splintered wood denting in the roof of a car it had fallen upon, killing a passenger. The impact had bent the chassis with unthinkable force. As the dusk fades to darkness, I come across a dog, unseen but unsettled, baying endlessly—longingly—into the anxious night.

By morning, I’m traveling to Bhaktapur in the back-seat of a van organized by the United States Consulate, following the US Disaster Assistance Rescue Team (or DART) on one of their daily reconnaissance patrols. We pull into the ancient village—a former seat of the Newar King—and understand the term exacting damage. The Vatsala Durga Temple, built by King Jagat Prakash Malla (debated as 1672 or 1727), has been reduced to a pile of stones in the town square. Nepal’s tallest temple, Nyatapola, lay in pieces; its sculpted guardians, fused to the simple stone staircase, are all that remain.

Ducking underneath low-hanging electrical wires, I climb through countless debris-filled trenches and narrow alleyways. Every few steps I glimpse corners of a scarf, a book, a utensil. I come upon residents digging free these very fragments of everyday life, after days without assistance. The DART team members, structural engineers in tow, scour available sight-lines for evidence of voids: pockets within collapsed buildings where the living might survive for days. “There are always miracles,” Mike Davis, an urban search and rescue team leader for DART, told me earlier that morning. “This isn’t so much science as it is an art.”

Residents and experts insist the worst structural damage has occurred somewhat paradoxically in the country’s oldest and and newest construction: older structures lacked earthquake proof designs, while some of the newer had been hastily constructed with little regard for safety codes. As a result, rescue and recovery teams have spent hours trying to ensure their patrols are effectively targeted.

I walk the rubble with Sajan Timilssina, 30, who says he has counted 50 friends and family members among the missing. He speaks of the hidden impact of the temblor: the price of tents and basic food supplies had doubled in the 24 hours following the quake. Timilssina is heavy-set, his deep voice tinged with anger and disbelief. He breaks the flow of conversation often, asking—as if to some power beyond these shattered streets, How can this happen to his city? Of course, there are many people—from seismologists to development and disaster relief workers familiar with the geological underpinnings who knew an earthquake like this was not a question of if, but when.

Nepal sits on a terrible crack, one of the worst on the planet: a trough of soft silt directly above the young and active Eurasian and Indian plates. Their fault lines traverse most of Kathmandu Valley’s floor, making it vulnerable to the earth’s instability. Therein lies Nepal’s prolific history of high magnitude earthquakes.


In 1934, an 8.4 magnitude quake killed more than 16,500 people and damaging 318,000 homes. In 1988, a 6.9 quake killed 721, injured 6,500 more, and destroyed just under 65,000 structures.

For any given year, there are roughly four earthquakes in excess of magnitude 7.5 worldwide. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, larger earthquakes can have “larger rupture surfaces” which radiate something called “long-period energy”. In these quakes, like the April 25 shock, the earthquake’s energy is spread over more time, reducing the violent shaking that often shatters foundations and topples structures.

But April’s earthquake was different: the disaster showed the “tremendous disparity in the lethality of earthquakes,” Brian E. Tucker told The New York Times. Tucker runs GeoHazards International works with officials in Kathmandu in conjunction with his other NGO, National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, to improve build characteristics of schools and hospitals, steps that maybe able to curb the average death toll in an earthquake from tipping into the tens of thousands. Whether referring to the laws that control how buildings are constructed, or how city services are organized, Tucker’s implication was that the true damage of an earthquake is not tied to seismic measure, it is intimately related any country’s persistent weaknesses.

Published estimates claim 75 percent of Kathmandu’s buildings were destroyed or deemed unsafe after the 7.8 magnitude tremor. In addition, 60 percent of heritage buildings had also been badly damaged, according to Nepal’s UNESCO chief Christian Manhart. According to the Nepalese government, post-quake reconstruction would cost more than 10 billion dollars and experts warned the number of deaths might climb to the tens of thousands. By that Tuesday evening, three days after the nation shook, the number was 4,800, with more than 9,200 injured.

But none of this was a surprise, either.

In a report authored by GeoHazards International in 1997, experts noted the “seismic record of the region, extending back to 1255, suggests that earthquakes of this size occur approximately every 75 years” and that a devastating earthquake is “inevitable in the long term.” This event was already written.

Five days after the quake, I’m standing outside Kathmandu’s American Club scanning a sea of climate controlled tents fanned out across what was once the club’s baseball diamond. Two American flags hang from the chain-link fence. Team members roam freely through the dawn, refilling cups with coffee and picking out their day’s MREs.

I stash peanut butter and pretzels into my bag and set out in a smaller convoy with a canine recovery team on loan from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. When working abroad, the team is known as USAID Disaster and Relief Team, or DART, and are specifically equipped for assessment, urban and rural search and rescue.

We make a roadside stop to survey the debris of three collapsed buildings just off one of Kathmandu’s ring roads. Over the pile of rubble in front of a building precariously pitched forward at 21 degrees, the US team is walking their live scent dog, Ripley, when the call comes in.

A live victim had been found five blocks away.

Abandoning his vehicle, Andy Olivera—another urban search team leader—starts to jog. I follow, turning a corner into yet another landscape of destruction: some buildings had collapsed fully, others simply hung precariously over a dense pile of heavy debris.

In a pit that lay between the remains of two buildings, a crowd of Nepalese police had gathered around a small, dark opening: a space of inches between what had once been floor and ceiling in the seven-story building.

Off to the side, four Nepalese police were standing in a deep pit, straining to look into a narrow gap between two concrete slabs. Six days earlier, these concrete slabs had been the floors and ceilings of a seven-story office building.

Wedged between these layers, a young man had been trapped, his own body saved by a nearby motorcycle which had been caught in the collapse. The motorcycle had braced the collapsed roof, creating one of the coveted void spaces rescue teams had been searching for during the week’s patrols. In those moments, void spaces seemed little more than a euphemism for hope in a country of ruins.

Workers and rescuers flood the scene. With each team comes more material—water, power saws, back braces, battery-powered lights—even glow sticks brought in by the DART team. Some Nepalese policemen fumble with the pink and yellow phosphorescent sticks, trying to cut them in order to light them up before their American counterparts intervene in an unexpected moment of levity. Meanwhile, photographers and reporters crawl over one another on the precarious debris for better angles and new details.

Hours later, Pemba Tamang, 18, is pulled from the four-foot crevice, his body caked in red-dust. He is dehydrated and disoriented, and repeatedly asks for juice. His survival owed as much to chance as to the myriad relief teams who cut through re-enforced concrete, dulling industrial blade after industrial blade, in a race against against time.


The rescue team carries him towards a waiting ambulance while a crowd of several hundred native Nepalese gather street side, cheering and clapping for both the rescued and the rescuers. In front of local media, the police chief is hoisted onto shoulders in a fleeting spirit of triumph, before returning to the hard work.

“We had a really good day,” Bill Berger, head of USAID DART would tell a room of reporters that night. During the seven days following the earthquake, 50 urban search and rescue teams from 23 different countries would pull 16 survivors and another 179 bodies from the wreckage. These were small victories, but victories nonetheless.

On my last day in Kathmandu I decide to return to the waters of the Bhagwati. Acrid smoke stings the back of my dry throat. This river slows to a crawl as it passes the Pashupatinath Temple, and I stand watching flecks of ash, particles of the once-living released by their beloveds, floating across the warm winds, a few flakes catching on my arm before continuing their drift. I commit a few thoughts to the page, concerned for a moment I might forget this.

Goats walk the riverside
Spare bricks crowd the footbridge
Bodies wait in garbage bags
They drop the fire into the mouth first.

Without sleep, the caffeine-fueled focus of recent days is starting to falter. I become aware of the sun’s scratching heat on my bare neck and I want to feel still in a place made nervous by sudden movement. My eyes drift downstream to the scurried activity, the din of an amassing crowd, and the light reflecting off strange new naked bodies.


How the former outlaw haven of Pine Barrens, New Jersey flirted with and faltered on its planned reinvention as an unprecedented American aerotropolis, leaving behind a vital blueprint for the future of cities.


t’s hard to know exactly when you enter the Pine Barrens. There’s no clear border; instead, it’s a slow immersion, suburbs and exurbs giving way to rural spaces, and those in turn transforming into something more primal.

The forests and wetlands of southern New Jersey were once home to colonial-era industry—a place where residents of the newly independent United States could find refuge after being cast out of their communities. It’s a region whose history brings together Al Capone and cranberry farmers, supernatural creatures and early American Quakers.

This vast wilderness contradicts the New Jersey cliches of suburban sprawl, shopping malls, and industry. It almost wasn’t so. In the peak of the 1960s Jet Age, the pines were very nearly paved over to make way for an airport designed for supersonic jetliners, along with a city that, had it been built, would now be the third largest in the state. The plan presented a newfangled concept that would attract renewed interest decades later, when author Greg Lindsay would coin the term aerotropolis to describe a metropolitan sub-region where the layout, infrastructure, and economy are centered on an airport which serves as a multimodal “airport city” with a commercial core.

In John McPhee’s 1968 non-fiction book, The Pine Barrens, the author meets “pineys”—as its residents are known—on the verge of being displaced by plans to create a supersonic jetport. This development would be “connected by a spur of the Garden State Parkway to a new city of two hundred and fifty thousand people.”

By the time that McPhee began researching his book, the concept of an airport in the Pine Barrens had already been floating around for a decade. Then as now, the New York metropolitan area’s airports were overcrowded; an additional airport would, in theory, relieve some of that congestion. A January 1960 New York Times article alluded to a planned airport site in Morris County, New Jersey, also noting that a site in the Pine Barrens was also under consideration. By August, opposition to the Morris County site had made the Pine Barrens site more appealing. An article in the Times contended that the more southern location—a 40-square-mile tract that sprawls across much of eastern Burlington and western Ocean Counties—would make it ideal for residents of New York, Philadelphia, and even Baltimore. The jetport would be four times larger than Newark Liberty, John F. Kennedy, and LaGuardia airports combined.


or a handful of days in the summer of 2009, New Yorkers focused on a particular corner of the internet had cause to panic. A group, it seemed, was advocating for the building of a new airport right in the middle of where Central Park currently exists. To say that the image of one of the largest section of green space in the middle of an increasingly-developed city being paved over for a single-runway airport caused consternation in readers would be an understatement.

The airport plan turned out to be a hoax, but one that stung, tapping into deeper anxieties and feelings of inadequacy when flying in or out of the city. “American airports are commonly seen abroad as symptoms of some deeper malaise,” wrote Greg Lindsay in a piece for Fast Company about the hoax. As co-author, with John D. Kasarda, of the book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, he’s a writer who’s spent a lot of time thinking about the subject. As he points out, there are aerotropolises being developed in nations abroad as we speak.

Before the end of this year, on a still-soggy tract that now lies at the creeping border of Bangkok’s suburbs, a new $4 billion mega-airport will finally open, forming the heart of a nascent city. When it’s finished, the erstwhile Cobra Swamp, now Suvarnabhumi (the “Golden Land”), will pump more than 100 million passengers a year through its glass portals, about as many as JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports combined. Within 30 years, a city of 3.3 million citizens—larger than Chicago now—will have emerged from the swampland.

Travel within the United States generally involves a separation between city and airport. There are plenty of reasons for this: concerns about noise and public safety come to mind. That same separation can make airports difficult to access. Portland, Seattle, and Chicago all have direct public transit connections to their local airports. If you’re in New York, however, traveling to certain airports from within the city can involve long waits in traffic or multiple transfers on public transit.

The headquarters of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission houses an archive of materials related to the planned city and airport, including several plans from consultants Herbert H. Smith Associates that date from 1962 onwards. The city, referred to simply as “New City” in the plans, was one of several proposals made in response to the question of developing the land around the airport.

Illustrations interspersed throughout the plan suggest a city both futuristic and anonymous, the kind of skylines one might see on display at a World’s Fair from decades ago. Aerial views show a modest skyline, with housing extending away from it. The plan features a dense “inner ring” surrounded by an industrial park, high schools, hospitals, a lake, and golf courses. Eleven miles away sits the jetport—convenient, but distant enough to prevent the sounds of takeoffs and landings from being overly disruptive.

Throughout the proposal, one finds passages that seem designed to boost the idea itself. “The New City concept offers a unique opportunity, unmatched in the country, to build a modern major city from a unified plan in a relatively brief period,” reads an introductory section. Elsewhere, an argument is raised to combat the notion that this idea is “a foolish scheme of wild-eyed dreamers.” The report argues that the plan, in fact, “represents a modest expansion of similar developments that are presently being effected.”

It can be difficult to read the descriptions of moving sidewalks and airports populated by supersonic airliners without feeling slightly disoriented. The day of the Concorde has come and gone, but to see charts and tables in the Pinelands Commission archives trumpeting a day in which direct flights from New City to Australia might take a handful of hours can fill a reader with regret at what never was.


hile there was heavy and sustained opposition from local conservationist groups, there doesn’t seem to have been one decisive moment where the fates of the airport and city were sealed. (Of noted detail, the U.S. Department of Defense has since been revealed as one of the biggest land owners of the Pine Barrens, with 3,200 acres at hand.) Instead, references to it in news reports became less frequent over the years. A plan that had been taken as an article of faith by the residents who spoke with McPhee in the 1960s had become, by the time of a 1974 article, a “dead issue.” There are no massive cities or trans-Atlantic flights emerging from gleaming structures where forests once stood; New Jersey does not have its own equivalent to Brasilia. No aerotropolis–at least, nowhere in the Garden State.

The mythology of the Pine Barrens continues to trickle into the larger culture in unexpected ways: it gave one of the best episodes of The Sopranos its title and setting. It’s also home to the Jersey Devil, the state’s most famous cryptid, a possibly demonic creature that’s been the stuff of legends (and an X-Files episode) since the mid-19th century.

With or without New City, the region continues to grow, and it’s something that McPhee’s work forecast. Early in The Pine Barrens, he references “the great unbroken city that will one day reach at least from Boston to Richmond”—a nonfiction forerunner to the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis featured in the universe of William Gibson’s science fiction classic Neuromancer and its sequels.

But whether we’re creating cities in spaces that have never seen such structures, or extending metropolitan areas further and further afield, questions will need to be asked about what we’re willing to sacrifice to get to that point of progress, and whether the loss of singular spaces is worth the extension of more familiar ones. The allure of creating something new and better is hard to shake. At the same time, this is at odds with the desire to keep pristine stretches of nature viable and thriving. Decades ago, a clash between these two ideas was averted in southern New Jersey, but another manifestation of the same debate seems inevitable, and perhaps more decisive.

Image Credit: The Concorde supersonic airplane on the airport runway. ©Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos. All archival photos courtesy of Ocean County, NJ collection.

My Pacific Northwest

The cult actress turned filmmaker pens a poignant reflection on a turbulent passage during her coming of age in the rains of rural Oregon.


y one and only school dance took place in a squatty brown building surrounded by pretty, forest-like grounds. Inside, the room was lit up with inappropriate mood lighting and cut-rate decorations. I was skirting the crowd trying to dodge Linda, my annoying Mormon friend, when I came face to face with Tracy Lariat, the most popular girl in eighth grade. She held a grudge and, oddly enough at this time, a chocolate truffle. She lifted her hand and smashed the chocolate into my face, then said, “That’s for stealing Mark!” I wasn’t upset about the ambush, I just remember trying to figure out who Mark was and why someone would bring truffles to a dance.

I was wiping my face clean when I heard a gravelly voice say, “Heyyyy, you wanna hallucinate?”

His name was John Fufrone, Jr. and he had a curly oiled mullet and that downy molester mustache young rednecks like to cultivate—kind of like perverted peacocks. It was clear this teenage drug dealer had been held back a few grades. He tore off a tiny piece of paper and told me to put it under my tongue. I had no clue what acid was, I’d never done drugs before, but I was all in for the adventure.


he music started to pulsate off the rec room walls, and even the smallest sounds were being amplified in my head. I left the dance to wander the grounds; trees started to breathe, my soft young mind was on fire. Linda the Mormon took me home and unceremoniously dumped me on my front lawn. My mother dragged me inside the house and started to interrogate me, but the acid had rendered me mute. She was exhausting me with her questions.

I marshaled the strength to speak. I looked her in the eye and said, “Fuck. You.” It was like a silence bomb went off. Two weeks later I was locked up in a drug rehab center, and for the unforeseeable future my home was now the top floor of Sacred Heart Hospital in miserable Eugene, Oregon.

I told the doctors that I wasn’t a drug addict, that I’d only ever taken that one hit of LSD, and they would say you’re in denial and therefore could not possibly not be an addict. Hats off to them, there was no way out of this one. So I knew I had to take matters into my own hands, that there was no way I was going to spend months in that hell.

My first attempt at escape was disastrous. I made it out to the street and just ran wildly. No small feat considering I was wearing those flimsy hospital sock booties with little gripper pads on the bottom. I quickly made friends with a homeless girl. Later that day she introduced me to two older punk rockers named Slam and Mayonnaise.

It rained hard my first night as a homeless teen, so the four of us sought shelter in the cold dirt under a church porch. It was the oozing mud that woke me up first, it was seeping into my ears and distorting my hearing, but I could still make out warbly high-pitched screams. Slam the punk was on top of the girl, raping her. Mayonnaise was still asleep. I slowly slid out of there, inch by muddy inch, losing my booties in the process. My ears were killing me, my vision was starting to double. The only place I knew to get help was the hospital I’d just escaped from.

My father had told me to never befriend anyone with popcorn ceilings, but this was not the time to be elitist.

Barefoot and covered in mud, I ran into the emergency room
and saw a nurse with perfectly feathered hair, then collapsed at her feet. When I woke up, I was back in my room on the sixth floor rehab center. No one believed me—I tried, believed me, I tried.

One week and many educational drug movies later, I got away for good. My compatriots were begging me not to go; my roommate even gifted me her too big shoes. My first stop was a nearby coffee shop, where I met James. He wore a black turtleneck, a long black skirt, and Doc Marten boots—it was love at first sight. He turned to his female companion, a chubby goth named Amy, and promptly broke up with her. She burst into tears, her white powdered makeup running down her face. James turned back to me and asked if I’d go to Portland with him. He’d stolen a hatchback and was wanted for auto theft, necessitating his spontaneity. I took a dramatic pause and said, “James, I’d go to the moon with you.” His newly acquired hatchback took us from Eugene to Portland. We listened to The Cure the whole way while Amy cried in the back seat.


eing homeless in Oregon is deeply unpleasant and inhospitable. There’s the rain, always the rain—gnawing hunger and wet jeans perennially clinging to my legs, that was my northwest. One night while piercing my nose in a coffee shop bathroom, I met a pasty Nancy Spungen lookalike with a mane of fried white blonde hair. Her name was Tina and she told me she was a stripper. I’d once seen a movie about Gypsy Rose Lee with my dad, so I was pretty sure I knew what her industry entailed. I asked Tina if she could spin her tassels for me and I was rewarded with a blank stare. She took me back to her place to stay. My father had told me to never befriend anyone with popcorn ceilings, but this was not the time to be elitist. Plus, Tina was nice, and gave me Top Ramen when she remembered. But then she told me I had to put in money for the heating bill. Shit. Money. Christmas was coming and even though I probably wouldn’t eat that day, I did want a roof over my head. In rehab I’d met a charming young burglar who told me all about pawn shops, so I knew exactly what I was going to do: I was going to rob my mother’s house.

Chinatown, New York City.

I hopped a bus and made my way back down south to Eugene, driving through small green town after small green town. It was a weekday so I knew everyone was out of the house, but I still spied through a hole in my neighbor Babette’s bushes, just to make certain before I made my move. I crawled in through the cat flap, just as I’d done many times before when I was locked out. The house smelled like Christmas. Fuckers. I picked through the presents, still taking the time to be offended that none were marked for me. In the movies there would have been, and the runaway daughter would have stopped in her tracks, her eyes filling with tears, then her mom would have walked in the door, also crying, and embraced her.

But in reality, there was no sign I’d existed. Merry Christmas to me. I loaded up the wrapped presents satchel style and shimmied out the cat flap, like Santa in reverse. I thumbed a ride back to Portland in a Datsun 280Z with a guy that looked like Weird Al Yankovic. He dropped me at Pawn N Such, where I charmed the owner into buying some of my brother’s Nintendo games. I got $27, enough for Tina’s heating bill and a dry Christmas.

I was thirteen years old and punk as fuck.