Category Archives: Civilization

tripoli-pyramid

NIEMEYER’S TRIPOLI

Inside Tripoli’s International Fairground; an abandoned futuristic vision that survived a 15-year civil war and served as a base of operation through a Syrian occupation.

B

razilian architect Oscar Niemeyer—often described as a sculptor of monuments—was terrified of planes. When he came to Lebanon in 1962, he took the boat. At the time, the newly independent country was nicknamed the Switzerland of the Middle East. Beirut was the region’s financial hub, striving for modernity and international recognition. President Fouad Chehab encouraged the capital’s economic success, but tried to promote national unity and reduce social inequalities by counterbalancing Beirut’s dominance with decentralization.

The first beneficiary was the capital of the North: Tripoli. The ancient coastal city was considered highly strategic due to a number of reasons: it stood in close proximity to the Syrian border, and it had a deep-water port, direct boats to Turkey, and the remains of a railroad line.

Niemeyer was commissioned to create the structures for the International Fairgrounds, stretching over dozens of hectares of land, expected to be the crossroads of all regional commercial activities; a landmark for a modern nation.

Like many major urban development commission, the International Fairgrounds project was loaded with tension. Niemeyer brought his communist aesthetic into the design, favoring an open space that prioritized form over function. The Lebanese, in contrast, wanted a very functional center of business from which they could derive capital revenues.

In 1975, both respective visions for a grand future became casualties of the 15-year civil war that erupted and the nearly completed project was abandoned months before it opened.

W

hen she was a child in the 1990s, Mira Minkara would watch her brother play on the dome that sat silently in an empty park. Behind it, a derelict arch, a concert hall and a helipad stood as stalwart artifacts of the futuristic vision that had once united Chehab and Niemeyer well before her time.

Like most of her peers, Mira knew nothing of the history of the dome. The ashes of war were still settling and the northern city of Tripoli was under Syrian occupation. A few yards apart from young boys playing football, the Syrian Army held an administrative block. It’s long been rumored that Lebanese prisoners were tortured and executed under their watch.

Years later, as Mira completed tourism studies with a special focus in the hammams and khans of old Tripoli, the city was racked with political assassinations and car bombs. At war with Israel and facing Islamic uprisings, visitors weren’t lining up for tours—they were lining up at embassies for a one way ticket out. Wrestling with the gravity of the times, Mira became committed to showing the people of the world her city should they ever return. After the ceasefire, she discovered quickly that what caught the attention of most foreigners was not any number of local landmarks, but an abandoned fairground. “For thirty years I walked past this place without paying attention to it,” Mira laughs, “but as more and more people asked about it I got curious.”

I’m sitting beside Mira on the road from Beirut to Tripoli, a willing participant in the local tour, intrigued by Niemeyer’s historical pursuit. A massive metal sign stretches across the highway to greet visitors: “Relax. You are in el-Mina, the city of waves and horizon.” The fairgrounds lie dead ahead.

“You need to experience the architectural promenade. This is what matters here: texture, landscape, harmonies,” explains Mira. The entire project is built around three elements: concrete—the flagship of modernity—water, and wind. The Fair opens on the Exhibition Hall, a curved structure, with a long, wide and flat roof. It was under this roof that participating countries were to install their respective pavilion.

“When Oscar Niemeyer started working in Lebanon it was a cultural shock,” explains Mira as we stand at the vast entrance. “He wanted everything to be opened like in Brasilia but we have a different idea of private and public space.” Open meant no fence, no entrance fee, no ticket booth, perhaps even no windows. The Lebanese insisted on having it their way but Niemeyer had his own plans. The architect’s solution for the ticket booth? “He hid it underground so that it wouldn’t ruin his esplanade,” replies Mira, pointing to a recess in the ground.

From the entrance, the Exhibition Hall seems infinite; no edges, no columns, endless extension into the distance. For the host country, Niemeyer built a separate pavilion. In this building, large open arcades with a view of mountains and sea bring the native architecture into view. Surrounded by a shallow pond, the Lebanese pavilion’s sharp angles become watery reflections as soon as the wind picks up.

Further on, we’re standing in the Experimental Theater; this is the dome of her childhood. “If it weren’t for concrete, this structure could not hold,” she explains. Her voice resonates off the walls, intensifying all senses as we step further into the enveloping darkness. The theater’s acoustics are impressive. A large aperture at the center was intended to hold a mobile stage which would turn, enabling the audience to see the performances from different angles.

Back in the nearly blinding daylight, we climb up a sublime ramp that leads under a gate towards the concert hall, surrounded by reflective pools. Chairs were added in 1996, and the space is now sometimes used for conferences and musical events. (As a teenager, Mira saw the French band Zebda perform here.)

The Master’s Villa, originally built to house the general manager of the fairground, is almost completely covered in vegetation. Nearby are the remains of a white-tiled swimming pool.

“I enjoy the nostalgia of this villa” Mira explains, “I close my eyes and I feel like I’m in Latin America, I try to image what could have happened here. It opens my imagination.”

Walking back to the entrance and through the administrative buildings once occupied by the Syrian army, graffiti covers the charred remains of fire on a wall pockmarked with gunshots. I pause to stare. “Executions,” notes Mira.

Moments later, from the terrace of a bustling restaurant, the fairground appears anachronistic, like a silent phantom on the outskirts of a bustling city. Fatteh is served, a traditional mixture of bread, yogurt, chickpeas and olive oil. I ask about Tripoli’s future.

Some rehabilitation projects have been put forward, including the creation of a theme park—something to rival Disneyland for the Middle East. Another proposal was to create a mega distribution center for Chinese products, but the investors were discouraged by political instability.

“Tripoli is a forgotten city, people are scared to come, even the Lebanese,” says Mira. “I hope I can change this perception because in reality, the city is full of life and has great potential.” She reminds me, in ways, of the men who came before her.

dewolf-vendor-2

VANISHING VENDORS

Inspired by American media, the cornerstones of Hong Kong’s vibrant street food scene are disappearing in the wake of a Westernized food truck trend.

S

treet food has become the latest political fault line in Hong Kong, nearly two years after the birth of the Umbrella Revolution, the pro-democracy movement that occupied the city’s streets for 79 days in 2014. On one corner, you may stumble across a vintage food truck selling dry-aged steak and ale pies for the cost of lunch in Los Angeles. On the opposite corner, an itinerant hawker sells a bowl of fish balls for a tenth of the price, at the risk of imprisonment.

In his 2015 budget speech, the city’s financial secretary, John Tsang, announced a plan to legalize food trucks, which so far have been limited to festivals and other private events. Tsang was reportedly inspired by Chef, Jon Favreau’s 2014 movie about a beleaguered restaurant chef who reinvents himself by selling Cuban sandwiches from a food truck. Tsang’s enthusiasm was shared by local restaurateurs whose menus already reflected the food truck ethos of the United States, featuring kimchi burgers and tacos made with Cantonese barbecued pork.

While it may be an innocent enough agenda in most Western cities, Hong Kong’s traditional hawkers see this as the death of their livelihood. “This will just end up helping the chain restaurants or big companies as a marketing ploy,” said one hawker, Chan Kong-Chiu, after Tsang’s speech. “We may never see those licenses.”

Hawkers have reason to be cynical. When the details of the government-funded food truck pilot program were finally released last December, it revealed that the trucks would be restricted to a handful of tourist-friendly locations, and each would benefit from estimated startup costs of HK$600,000 (US$77,000), to cover license fees and detailed design specifications.

2_26540919791_b6c863e9ce_o

Meanwhile, traditional food vendors have found themselves in the middle of pitched battles between activists and police. A few days before Tsang’s speech in 2015, hawkers selling Chinese New Year snacks in Sham Shui Po were chased away by swarms of government inspectors and police. They found shelter in busy Mongkok, where democracy activists shielded them from police. Thousands of people thronged the food stalls until four o’clock in the morning.

At the start of 2016, things took a turn for the worse. When government inspectors tried to clear an illegal New Year’s market on Portland Street, they were met by a crowd of angry activists. Police arrived in riot gear, prompting an overnight confrontation that has been dubbed the Fishball Revolution. Activists tore up sidewalk bricks and threw them at police—some of whom hurled them back into the crowds. At one point, a police officer fired his service weapon into the air—a shocking turn of events in a city where guns are few and far between. By the time the battle ended 10 hours later, nearly 100 people were injured, including police, journalists and protesters.

Hawking wasn’t always a blood sport. Street food has always been a part of Hong Kong’s culture and economy. In the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the British-controlled city from Communist mainland China, running a food stall was one of the best and only ways to make a living. Wooden pushcarts and green-painted roadside shacks pioneered a new kind of fusion cuisine: curried fish balls, stewed offal, chewy egg waffles, noodle soups and rich milk tea that gave heart to factory workers, longshoremen and manual laborers.

“Back in the day, there was food everywhere,” says Edmond Ma, the second-generation owner of Keung Kee Dai Pai Dong, one of the original 1950s-era street food stalls licensed by the government. “The food culture was so lively. The only issue was hygiene. People left their rubbish on the street.”

By the 1970s, it was enough of a problem that the British colonial administration decided to crack down. In 1973, when there was one hawker for every 80 people, the government stopped issuing new hawking licenses. In the 1980s, it began to buy back those licenses. Today, there are fewer than 7,500 licensed street hawkers, most of which sell dry goods and groceries. Another 3,000 ply their trade without a license.

At the same time, Hong Kong’s shift to a post-industrial economy has led to stagnant wages and economic forces at play, engendering worsening inequality and a job market dominated by finance and real estate. An influx of tourists from mainland China has pushed up retail rents to mind-boggling levels, driving many family-owned restaurants and shops out of business. Meanwhile, food prices have doubled since 2007.

3_IMG_6225

Ironically, many of the poorest parts of the city—far-flung new towns built in the 1970s and 80s—have the most expensive food, thanks to the dominance of conglomerate-owned chain businesses. In response, illegal street hawkers sell everyday items at a discount, always on the lookout for hawker control officers who tolerate them on some days and arrest them on others. It’s a game of cat and mouse that has in one case proven deadly: in 2006, a 65-year-old Chinese herb vendor named Lo Kong-Ching drowned when he was chased by officers into a river.

Chinese New Year is the only time of the year when unlicensed merchants are given a reprieve. Streets fill with the savory aroma of barbecued meat and charcoal-fired fish ball carts. Many of the vendors are young people earning entry-level salaries that haven’t budged in decades, says Kel Lee, a recent graduate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “For years, the wages for university grads is the same, about HK$10,000 – HK$12,000 a month [about US$1,300]. Nowadays a cart costs less than HK$10,000, so they can sell fishballs during New Year and earn a lot of money.”

Lee is a member of HK Indigenous, a so-called “localist” group dedicated to livelihood issues that was founded during the pro-democracy protests in 2014. Over the past year, the localist movement has grown unexpectedly powerful, drawing condemnation from Beijing but surprising support at the polls—one localist candidate earned 15 percent in a recent by-election, a remarkable turn for a group that had until recently been dismissed as fringe extremists.

The support reflects a shift in mentality among young Hongkongers, many of whom see Hong Kong, not China, as their home. In 2014, when the Chinese New Year hawkers fled to Mongkok, Hong Kong indigenous activists didn’t just protect them from police, they helped clean up the street to set a good example. “We were patrolling the area, sweeping, cleaning, tidying up the street,” says Lee. “The government tries to say the hawkers are dirty, but we showed they aren’t. The environmental issues can be managed.”

4_IMG_7998

It’s part of what Lee calls the “Lion Rock spirit,” a reference both to a local mountain peak and a 1970s-era TV show, Below the Lion Rock, that depicted the lives of Hong Kong people lifting themselves out of poverty. “If you work hard, you’ll have the opportunity to move up, and hawker culture is part of that spirit,” he says.

So far, the government hasn’t done anything to dissuade the notion that food trucks will help established interests instead of the poor. Introducing food trucks “is not the same as reissuing hawker licenses,” said Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce, Gregory So. Official policy still calls for the eventual elimination of street hawking.

Meanwhile, Edmond Ma’s Dai Pai Dong has outlasted all of the buildings on his street in Sham Shui Po, which have been torn down one by one for redevelopment. Standing over a vat of steaming fish broth, he says food trucks could be a trojan horse to reform the government’s approach to hawkers. “If people keep it clean, everyone will benefit,” he says.

And if they don’t? He shrugs and glances around at his stall. “We’ll still be around.”

cats

Stupid Trife Shit

The famously wry author of Go The Fuck to Sleep sketches a semi-autobiographical portrait of 90’s Brooklyn and rap dreams gone up in smoke.

T

he apartment in Fort Greene was like a dynasty in the late stages of decline by the time I moved in.  When 156 Adelphi Street started getting handed down from friend to friend, it was a princely thing, an honor, to live there—and it was a direct line of descent. Guys and girls as cool as the original three—who were all musicians in a funk band that became a different funk band, then became a reggae band, then became a High Life band, then blew up—filled up the vacancies, and for maybe ten years during the lateish eighties to lateish nineties, it wouldn’t have been unusual to walk into the living room and find anybody who’d ever lived there hanging out still.

I inherited Carlos’s spot when he bounced to Williamsburg in the spring of ’97, but then I had to take a trip and couldn’t actually move in until the fall, so I sublet the room to my man Twenty-Twenty, who’d been looking for a chance to leave Boston (like every hip-hop producer living in Boston) and, more specifically, his parents’ basement. This cool-ass girl named Sue, who was most definitely in the direct line of descent and her then-boyfriend were about to occupy the big room, which had also just become vacant, and this off-brand cat named Dakar was in the middle room.

By off-brand, I mean he was nowhere near the line of descent, in terms of this particular circle of artist-musician-writer types, who had mostly attended one of two colleges uptown, some graduating and an almost-equal number dropping out. Dakar worked with Carlos at an after-school center around the way. Carlos taught the kids to paint and stuff; I never really knew what Dakar did, unless he taught them to be thieving lying scumbags, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In terms of my own lineage, I was a half-prince, maybe.  I’d arrived at college just as the dynasty’s founders were leaving, but I’d rhymed with the band a few times and briefly dated a girl who was a definite dynastic queen and a former 156 Adelphi resident herself—although dated is too strong a word.

By the time I got back to town, 156 Adelphi had been reconfigured. Sue and her man had broken away, citing “bad vibes.” A couple hundred bucks they’d left lying atop a dresser had vanished, and they blamed Twenty-Twenty—he was the guy nobody knew, after all, and an oddball to be sure: six-four, bigheaded and long-dreaded, a mumbly cat who stayed in his room making beats and smoking blunt after blunt with our other man from back home, Knowledge Born, who was living with his moms and little brother a few blocks away.

Dakar, meanwhile, had been holding down 156 Adelphi for two years, plus he had a nice smile and he worked with kids. He was Your Friendly Neighborhood Dread, and he knew how to make white people, which Sue was one of, heave invisible sighs of satisfaction when they realized that this burly, ex-college-football-playing dude was just a big ol’ teddy bear.  He dated white women exclusively (that is, the women he dated three at a time were exclusively white), and all his homeys were white too, facts which would later coalesce into supporting evidence against him—as would his tendency to bump the Wyclef Jean album while getting his ass whipped in chess by me or Twenty-Twenty, or even Knowledge Born who couldn’t play for shit.

Sue didn’t confront Twenty-Twenty or anything, she just packed up her stuff and bounced, leaving Twenty-Twenty enveloped in a cloud of suspected sketchiness but also with a vacant room to move into rather than returning to Boston when the summer ended.  So the reigning crew was me, Twenty-Twenty and Dakar, and 156 Adelphi’s illustrious past became a flickering memory.

It was an awkward situation at first, in that Dakar was on some real “Hey fellas, what’s the plan for tonight” instant-Three-Musketeers shit.

Twenty-Twenty and I had known each other since the days of jumping over our own legs at house parties, and we both came up at a time when hip hop was a participation-based, dues-paid-up-front thing. If you didn’t rhyme, breakdance, spin records or write graffiti, you weren’t shit—you were corny, a civilian. That’s what Dakar sounded like to us: a civilian trying to find out where the jam was at. He’d come hang out in Twenty-Twenty’s room when K Born visited and we did our customary freestyle-and-blunt-cipher thing, but he couldn’t flow or deejay so he just kind of took his hits and took up space.

Nevertheless, by October we’d more or less upgraded Dakar to the status of family—partly because it’s hard not to treat somebody that way if they’re already playing the role, and partly because, through a misapplication of the transitive law of mathematics, we’d decided that if you’re cribbed up with a dude, then by definition he’s gotta be fam or else you’re wack for living with a sucker. Also, to be fair, Dakar was a perfectly plausible cat to sit around and smoke and play chess and talk shit and listen to music with. He brought home more food and beer than any of us, and better weed, and he was generous with all of it. Another factor was that Knowledge Born was quickly revealing himself to have become—in the two years we hadn’t seen him much—something of a freeloading wino, although he could still rhyme his ass off. The spectacle of him crashed out on our living room futon, after keeping everybody up until 3 with one of his cokeheaded God-Body-Science slick-talk rants, tended to provide the bulk of the domestic unrest at 156 Adelphi in those days.

In hindsight, Dakar did plenty of things that, to quote your boy Arsenio, should have made us go Hmm.  Or did make us go Hmm, but didn’t form an alarming enough of a pattern for us to really say “Hold up, this bears serious investigation.” He was always conniving one or another of his waifish, none-too-brilliant girls for one thing: screwing Chickenhead A while Chickenhead B thought he was out of town for the weekend. He’d make me and Twenty-Twenty answer the phone and lie for him sometimes, and once or twice even get the door while he hid in his room. So it’s not like Dakar was fuckin’ Airtight Willie with his mack game. I know now, as a grown-ass man, that anybody so gleeful and braggadocious about dogging women will dog anyone, given the chance, but at the time I probably half-admired Dakar’s half-assed pimpology.

kozyndan_converse (1)

A

ll our friends were young and idiotic and a little sleazy back then anyway. Twenty-Twenty, for instance, was so broke he’d buy a Heineken at the bodega, hide it in his jacket, and bring it into a bar so he didn’t have to buy a drink, then approach women with the same moronic line about being Puffy’s cousin over and over until he’d been categorically rejected by every female in the place—unless enough of them complained to the bouncer first, and he was asked to leave. Knowledge Born, in lieu of a job, would resell nickel bags as dimes to the outtatowners with whom his mom attended grad school.  I myself trooped up to my old college radio station at least once a month and stole as many rare slabs of vinyl as I could inconspicuously carry, then sold them to Son, You Ain’t Hip-Hop, the snotty British record spot in the Village. And I had a job.

So everybody did their little dirt or whatever. I guess it’s ironic, then, that Dakar’s squeaky-clean routine was what made us perk up our ears and be like, This dude is
full of shit.  For me, bells started clanging the day he came home from work with a zip drive (they probably go for 13 cents on Ebay now, but in ’97 they were the new computer thing) and was like, “My job let me borrow this. Can you use it?” I said no. Then a few days later it was, “My job said I could keep it. Do you know anybody who might wanna buy a zip drive?”

Maybe everything would have turned out different if I’d looked him in the eye right then and said, “Motherfucker, nobody cares if you boosted a zip drive from your job. Just say ‘Yo, I boosted a zip drive from my job’ and don’t expect me to believe your boss strolled up to you and said ‘Hey, Dakar, why don’t you take this random expensive piece of computer hardware home for a few days, even though your ass doesn’t own a Playstation, much less a computer?’”

Or the time he claimed he’d done this painting we had in the crib. It was of the metal latticework on the fire-escape door, which might sound dumb but it was actually quite a beautiful piece that kind of tied the indoors to the out, if that makes any sense. I knew for a fact that the dynastic queen I mentioned before, the one I’d semi-dated, had painted it when she lived at 156. One day when I ran into her at a party she said she’d like to have it back. I thought it was a shame to let it go, and also that it wouldn’t really make any artistic sense divorced from its inspiration, but I said cool, come over whenever, I’ll put it aside for you. So I went home and took it down, and that’s when Dakar told me he’d painted it.  That there were two versions of the same painting—she did one and so did he, and this was his.

Never mind that nobody had ever seen the dude anywhere near a paintbrush in his life.  He got me. I was like, “Okay, if you say so,” and I left it alone. Because—and this is a good lesson—the way to tell a lie is not to make it simple, like some people say, or outlandish, as others believe. The key is for the lie to appear completely unmotivated.  That will throw 90 percent of the lied-to off the trail.

Shit got heavy around February. By that time, our hip-hop thing had evolved from freestyle ciphers to actual recording sessions, albeit on a crappy-ass eight-track in Twenty-Twenty’s room. But the music was starting to come together, and a local label was offering to press our 12-inch. We’d added a fourth cat, my man Roam the Wanderer from Queens, who was keyed into the dynasty by way of rhyming in a hip-hop offshoot of the original 156 Adelphi funk band.

His living situation was a little tenuous, some murky thing involving a relationship that had ended well before the lease on the apartment he and ol’ girl shared, so Roam just started unrolling his sleeping bag on our living room floor every night. He was one of those camouflage-wearing urban-frontiersman-monk-weedhead-mad-genius motherfuckers, who traversed the city with all kinds of gear and ponchos and Wilkerson wrenches and flare guns crammed into a big Army-surplus rucksack, and he could pass out anywhere—sometimes with a lit blunt in hand or a fork halfway to his mouth. He got up before anybody, however, and used the alone time to clip his toenails on the kitchen floor, or do calisthenics in his drawers. Twenty-Twenty would walk out of his bedroom in the morning, empty tea mug in hand, see that, wrinkle up his nose and turn right back around.

It’s pretty shortsighted to be crapping where you eat when there are four dudes holding down the spot, none of them with any loyalties to you, right? I mean, if you’re Dakar and you’re move-faking on a major level, you’ve either got to truly swear you’re slick or have major psychological issues and not understand the ramifications of your actions. When all the facts were out in the open, a good case for the latter started to emerge, in light of some of Dakar’s lies being totally nonsensical—like telling us the rent was 80 bucks less than it really was.

It started with a phone bill. Dakar called Twenty-Twenty from the Verizon office, where he’d gone to get our service turned back on after we’d been sloppy and forgotten to pay, and told him that we owed another 60 bucks for reinstatement or whatever, and he, Dakar, didn’t have it. Twenty-Twenty reluctantly gave the Verizon guy his credit card number and we got our dialtone back. The next day Roam swung through and told us that when his phone got turned off there hadn’t been no 60-dollar reinstatement fee. Hmm. Twenty-Twenty called Verizon. Sure enough.

We sat on that until the weekend, knowing Dakar was going upstate to see some buddies he worked with at a summer camp or something. The minute he was gone, me, Twenty-Twenty, Knowledge Born and Roam convened a council of war. First we ransacked his room, on what you’d call a fact-finding mission. And boom, some petty you-deserve-an-asswhipping money shit became a beef you could legitimately kill or at least permanently disfigure a dude over.

kozyndan_takadanobaba_on_acid

W

hat we found, aside from a bunch of nasty porno mags (which, oddly, featured nothing but black women) was a nightstand drawer full of the kind of overdue rent notices they slip under your door when you’re seriously fucking up. Month by month we’d been falling deeper into debt, by the amount Dakar was supposed to pay plus 80 bucks. As the ranking member of the apartment, he made it his job to collect our checks to the holding company. He’d been mailing them in, he just hadn’t been writing his own. We owed about 4,000 dollars, and they were threatening to take us to court and throw us out. Why they’d even been this patient was a mystery.

Then we found the lease and it started to make more sense, and less. I have no idea how E.B. Holding Co. managed to botch a simple document so badly, given that they’d been getting checks with people’s correct info on them all along, but damn near every name on the thing was an amalgam, a misspelling, or an outright fiction. They had Dakar as Darnell, and instead of his last name, Troutman, they had him as Fuentes—Carlos’s last name. I was Alan Mursbucci. Twenty-Twenty wasn’t listed at all, but one of the original dynasty dudes, a trumpet player named Joel who’d been gone for probably eight years, was still a lease-holder. His was the only name typed right.

Again, and maybe I’m just saying this to make myself feel better, if Dakar had sat us down, shown us the lease and said, “Fellas, none of us is legally responsible for this rent money. How ‘bout we stop paying and ride it out as long as we can?” me and Twenty-Twenty woulda been like “Bet.” Who knows, maybe Dakar figured consistent two-thirds payments would keep the holding company at bay—or maybe he figured nothing at all. As I stood in his room, sifting through this mess of sheets red-stamped with Past Due and Final Warning and Eviction Pending, I imagined Dakar sneaking to the front door early in the morning and snatching up the notices before any of us saw. Why had he kept them, though?

In the same drawer was Dakar’s phone book. Twenty-Twenty grabbed it. “I’m calling everybody in this nigga’s life,” he said. This might be the time to mention that despite his various and sundry eccentricities, Twenty-Twenty had grown up in a household where chess was important, and his end game was no joke. He saw the board the way they say point guards see the floor, he knew how to cut off the enemy’s retreat routes before commencing his attack. I looked at him then and knew that’s what he was doing. He’d already decided that Dakar was about to be homeless. Twenty-Twenty wanted to make sure he stayed that way.

None of us was ready to put a plan together yet, and confirming the breadth of Dakar’s scumbaggery seemed like a way to build up to it. I called the after-school center, got his boss on the line and told him the zip drive story, and the rent story too just for context’s sake, careful to frame my motivation as concern, not vengeance. By the time I hung up, Dakar’s job was all over but the shouting.

Knowledge Born left a detailed message for the summer camp director Dakar was so chummy with, on some very convincing think-of-the-children shit. Twenty-Twenty hollered at every one of Dakar’s girls we’d met or talked to or heard of, and even gave them each other’s phone numbers in case they wanted to cross-reference the dates and times on which they’d been two-timed. He tried to get one of them to meet him at Frank’s Lounge for a drink, too, but that’s another story. When there were no bridges left to torch, the four of us sat down over a bottle of Ray & Nephews overproof Jamaican rum and 25 dollars worth of cheap, greasy Chinese takeout and got serious.


It was Twenty-Twenty’s idea to run the portable tape recorder when we confronted Dakar, so whatever he said he couldn’t unsay. But it was me and Knowledge Born who sampled the sounds of screams and baseball bats against flesh, and made a song called “The Truth” the following afternoon. I’m listening to it right now, on a Maxell cassette labeled in black marker, and it’s some disturbing shit. Part of me is proud that we turned an ugly thing like kicking a dude’s ass and throwing him out of his house into art, but it’s some pretty ugly art.  Even though I was going through my sound-like-Rock-from-Heltah-Skeltah phase, dropping my voice about 12 octaves, you can hear the emotional rawness there, the attempt to tell a story that hasn’t been processed yet, the bravado layered over something rappers are supposed to pretend doesn’t exist—maybe remorse. The song starts with us trading off, line for line. Knowledge Born sounds like he’s still amped, like he took a quick time-out from the beatdown to step into the studio and drop a verse. I sound exhausted.

You got treated like family
Uncannily, I got suspicious
The truth shall set you free
But if you lyin’ we turn vicious
Extended the benefit of the doubt
and heard you out
your facts don’t correlate
Grab your shit and just be out
Before I have to go upside your head
to change your mindstate
When I find snakes, there’s no mistake
I’ll see you at the wake
I peep every move you make
plus I know the girl you date
She told me everything…
that’s how I know you fake

When Dakar arrived home, the four of us were sitting in the living room, waiting. Twenty-Twenty, as planned, told him, “Sit down, we need to talk to you.” Dakar’s eyes darted to me as he sank onto the futon, but I kept my face flat. Knowledge Born and Roam were on the other couch. All our weapons were beneath our seats: Roam and K Born had bats, I had a hammer, and Twenty-Twenty, standing above Dakar, was leaning on a metal cane someone had left behind.

“I called Verizon,” Twenty-Twenty said, hand on his hip. “There’s no such thing as a reinstatement fee. You owe me sixty bucks.” Dakar looked up at him—probably relieved that was all, and ready to talk his way free of it. The cane hadn’t registered yet.
“It wasn’t a reinstatement fee, dude, it was the money we owed on the bill. Plus they said they had to charge us for basic service in advance because we didn’t pay.” Dakar looked around the room, then raised his voice a little, slapped his palms against his knees and bowed his arms out from his sides. “What, you think I tried to rip you off?” he asked.

It was interesting to see how quick he played the wounded indignation card. I could see why it was so effective with people like Sue, or even Carlos: it forced your hand, made you feel guilty and unsure, yet at the same time there was a note of intimidation in it, like You’d better back off quick because even a righteous man will rise up to defend his honor, and lest you forget I happen to be a large bear-like motherfucker.

We’d agreed to pick Dakar apart point by point, try to get him to cop to the small offenses before we raised the major stuff, but that opening statement killed Twenty-Twenty’s patience. He dipped into his room for a second, Dakar still trying to clarify the phone situation to our satisfaction.
“You can call Verizon right now. Ask them if we—”

Twenty-Twenty reappeared and dropped the stack of overdue notices into Dakar’s lap. “You know what? Fuck the phone bill. Why are we four thousand dollars in debt?”

I gotta give Dakar credit. His face fell, but he picked it right back up and tried to turn the shit around.

“What the fuck were you doing in my room?” he said to Twenty-Twenty, rising off the couch a few inches.

K

nowledge Born sprang to his feet. “These niggas ‘bout to get evicted!” he shouted. “You better tell ‘em something!”

“This has nothing to do with you, K Born,” Dakar said, all paternal like this was family business and if the guests couldn’t keep quiet then he’d have to ask them to step outside so the three of us could discuss matters in private.

“It’s got plenty to do with me,” I said, cold, and Dakar’s head snapped over. I reached under my seat and picked the hammer up. “Why are we four grand in debt, Dakar? Why are you hiding bills?”

The bats came out from under the couch and Dakar stood. “I can explain!” he yelled, finally starting to appreciate his situation. He sputtered for a second, just long enough not to explain, and then Knowledge Born hit him in the shoulder with an aluminum bat left over from some long departed’s softball league of yore. Roam swung next, another body blow, and then Twenty-Twenty doubled Dakar with a cane jab to the stomach. I dropped my hammer. I’d been pretty sure I wasn’t going to use it.

We all backed off, and Roam yelled, “Why are we four grand in debt?” and Dakar, balled up on the couch, said “Fuck you, you don’t even live here!” and got hit again.
We all deserve a lot of credit, in some ways. Four on one, with baseball bats and whatnot, you could easily kill a dude. We kept it civilized. Nobody hit him in the head—except once, sort of, ten minutes in, after countless starts and stops and fruitless tell-us-the-truths. Dakar was punch-drunk and leaning back against a wall while Twenty-Twenty shouted the same questions at him and swung the bat in the air to keep him at bay. For some reason, Dakar walked into the swing and got clipped in the forehead.

When all the facts were out in the open, a good case for the latter started to emerge, in light of some of Dakar’s lies being totally nonsensical, like telling us the rent was eighty bucks less than it really was.

It was scary. His eyes rolled back and he buckled at the knees, but he stayed on his feet. That’s what Dakar gets credit for—being tough as rocks. He took a ton of punishment, and he never really went down, or gave up. But he never admitted anything either, except that he didn’t really paint that painting. I threw it at his feet somewhere in between, during a bit of a lull—right after I flipped the tape over, as a matter of fact, so 45 minutes in—and was like “Who painted this shit?!” He looked up at me, groggy-eyed from being beaten, and muttered the dynasty queen’s name.

Our goal was to get Dakar out of the apartment, to convey the clear message that he was no longer living at 156 Adelphi. It was harder than it should have been. For a while in the beginning he kept trying to break for the door, but we weren’t done with him and he couldn’t get past us. By the time we were ready to throw his ass out, though, Dakar would not be moved. That was when the whole dreadlock justice thing went down.

Roam, Knowledge Born and Twenty-Twenty, all dreads themselves, decided that Dakar had forfeited his right to wear locks, and so Twenty-Twenty went to get a kitchen knife. Dakar went wild when he saw it, lifting up his tattered shirt and yelling, “You gonna fuckin’ cut me, Twenty-Twenty? Huh? Go ahead then, fuckin’ cut me!” Twenty-Twenty, in his goofy nasal voice, answered “Naw, man, I’m not gonna cut you, I’m gonna take your locks”—and that freaked Dakar out more than the thought of being stabbed. We got him on the ground, and the three of them yanked each and every last dread out of Dakar’s dome. I helped hold him down, but a white boy has no place ripping out a dread’s locks, so I took no direct part in that. Dakar was wrenching back and forth, bellowing “Take them! Take them all!”  So that was what finally broke him. When we let him up, he took off running.

You know a man has done some foul shit in his life when you kick his ass and throw him bald and bleeding into the street, and the person he runs to calls you and instead of yelling “What the fuck!”, she just sighs and says, “What did Dakar do now?” That’s what Christine, his ex-girl from up the street, asked me an hour later over the phone. I told her, and then she asked if Dakar had cheated on her while they were together. Hell yes, I said. With that girl Barbara, she wanted to know. Among others, I said. Then Christine threw him out, too.

Dakar came over the next day to get his stuff when I was the only one home. I took a knife out of the dishwasher and slid it up my shirtsleeve before I opened the door. He was twice my size and could have killed me a dozen different ways in a fair fight and I was scared to death. I only let him in because I suspected he was too humbled to attack me—not by the violence, but his own unmasking.

I was right. We smoked a blunt over the chessboard, and he begged me not to call anybody else in his phonebook, especially his mother or the camp people. He’d already lost his job, he said. I promised I wouldn’t. I didn’t tell him the light on the camp guy’s answering machine was already blinking.  He filled a duffel bag with clothes and left.
That was the last time I ever saw Dakar. For as long as I lived in Brooklyn, I kept expecting to run into him, or hear something, or get jumped on my way home and beaten senseless. But he just disappeared. When the story of what had happened at 156 Adelphi got around, all kinds of people stepped up with, “Yeah, I always knew that dude was shady” stories. None of those clowns had said the first thing by way of warning when I was moving in. That’s that hippie shit, I guess.

Knowledge Born moved into Dakar’s room, and Roam took over the futon, and we never wrote another rent check. You’d think a free crib would help cats get ahead—let them stack dough, give them time to do music—but it was the opposite.  Twenty-Twenty quit his job. Knowledge Born became a full-time drinker, and eventually killed our record deal by going to the studio hammered and belligerent one too many times and convincing the label dude that he was more trouble to work with than he was worth. The label dude was Roam’s boy, and when the deal fell through Roam and Knowledge Born came to blows in the middle of the living room. Twenty-Twenty and I broke it up, but the two of them couldn’t really be in the same room after that—not alone together, anyway.

N

o more music got recorded. Cats started having arguments over who’d smoked the roach in the ashtray, who’d eaten the last of the rice, whose turn it was to go to the bodega—petty shit that only broke fools squab over. One night around two in the morning, when Knowledge Born refused to stop running his mouth, Twenty-Twenty walked across the room and just straight knocked him out, big right hand to the jaw. The next day, it was like it hadn’t even happened.

By the time E.B. Holding finally took us to court, we owed a little over ten grand. Twenty-Twenty and I put on ties and went to housing court, already talking about how much a storage unit would run us. We spent all morning listening to folks who owed five, six, seven times what we did plead their cases, and either get put on payment plans or get their two weeks notice. Our case was the last one called before lunch. E.B. Holding hadn’t bothered to show up and the judge dismissed their complaint.

I moved the fuck out of 156 a month later, one week after Twenty-Twenty pawned his eight-track and the possibility of any more music being made had vanished. Most of the furniture was mine, so when I bounced the apartment was reduced to crackhead status, two chairs and a half-broken TV. The phone got disconnected shortly afterward, so if you wanted to visit you just had to show up. Cats were always home, anyway. The doorbell didn’t work, but neither did the deadbolt, so it all evened out. I didn’t go that much, though. Blood was still smeared on the one lampshade I hadn’t taken with me, and I knew Twenty-Twenty kept Dakar’s yanked-off dreadlocks stored in a Dutchmaster cigar box in his room.

K Born and Twenty-Twenty lasted another fourteen months, running the tab past thirty grand before E.B. Holding finally threw them out. Twenty-Twenty lost it when that happened—got drunk, broke back into the apartment, and smashed every window in the place. Somebody called the cops, and he spent the night in The Tombs before migrating back to his parents’ house with nothing to show for his two years in New York but a backpack full of eight-track tapes. And like all things, the dynasty came to an end. Whoever lives at 156 Adelphi now, I don’t know them.

Tuvalu-images-edit

POST ISLAND FUTURES

“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

A

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.

Wharf
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.

Tuvalu-Edit_4
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.

Ocean-Side
In contrast to the calm, crystalline lagoon, ocean waves are aggressive and intense. No one swims on the ocean side of the atoll.
anapurna-shift5

MOUNTAINS SHOOK

A firsthand look inside the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake.

T

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.

Nepal-Edit_2

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.

Nepal-Edit_3

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.

concorde2

AEROTROPOLIS LOST

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.

I

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.

F

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.

W

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.

rosee

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.

M

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.

T

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.

B

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.

rose2
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.