The thread increasingly surrounded by darkness Riding out the winter (decline) of industrial civilization


Celite Corporation’s Lompoc Diatomaceous Earth Mine

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Celite Corporation’s Lompoc Diatomaceous Earth Mine
I’ve already mentioned how difficult it is to photograph this place. Its location on a mountainous tract of private land effectively limits access and keeps the ruined landscape out of sight/out of mind. There is, however, a single road that leads into the heart of the operation where a towering industrial erection is superheating the white sedimentary rock; pulverizing it into a fine powder.
On the day of my visit, a friendly young man named Dennis was standing guard over the facility’s entrance. Assigned to the mine a year earlier by the private security company whose uniform he adorned, it was Dennis’s last day on the job. Obviously looking forward to the transfer, he was in a decidedly chatty mood. After a supervisor (who emerged briefly to confirm that I was indeed a “tourist”) had scurried back to the hole he came from, Dennis and I were free to talk. He described the hidden topography as a nearly unbroken expanse of pure white: blinding to look at. Rubbing his palms together, he insisted that getting the powder on your skin induces extreme dryness and the immediate desire to, “wash it off.”
Apparently a mysterious Frenchman owns the mine. His employees will confirm his existence although none seem to have ever actually seen the guy. Perhaps the most interesting of Dennis’s tidbits dealt with an environmental upgrade the mine had been forced to make. Because of their operating costs, recently constructed cleaner-burning furnace units have made the facility unprofitable. Like many industrial installations suffering in the current economic climate, Celite’s Lompoc mine appears to be facing an uncertain future.
Thanks Dennis for the info and allowing these forbidden images to be taken.

Knapp's Castle

I don’t know much about this place other than it was probably a grand structure before being destroyed by fire. A few stone walls, arches, stairs, and the base of a chimney remain to give the site the feel of a Roman ruin. Views of the surrounding Los Padres National Forest wilderness are breathtaking and likely what attracted the builder to such a remote location.
Jessica was correct in assuming I’d dig the place and lovely enough to pack a few snacks and drive us up. It was chilly at altitude and without the warming effects of alcohol we didn’t stay long, leaving the incredibly romantic spot to a couple that had arrived for the sunset with a bottle of red wine.
Day Twenty-five: Santa Barbara, CA to Ventura, CA
The prevailing winds that made the final leg into Santa Barbara so effortless were back with a vengeance to make this short hop even shorter. I kept thinking how miserable it would be if I were heading the opposite direction, and only spotted one determined cyclist making an attempt.
The most curious thing encountered on the ride was a line of RVs parked single file along a bleak stretch of windswept coastline. Many of the wheeled homes sported flags, adding to the remote outpost feel of the transient community. As I passed by the blur of bad graphics and beach chairs, I realized that not a soul was about. I wondered if this was how they envisioned their motorhome vacations on the day of the big purchase: the family huddled inside a fiberglass box watching television. I’ve never understood the logic of RV living, thinking it just another monstrous manifestation of the automobile age. It amounts to saying, “Hey, lets go hang out in a parking lot with our cars!”

My intention for planning an overnight in Ventura was to visit the well-into-decline Ventura oil field. The field apparently remains productive enough to require security, and its wells are hidden within the mountainous terrain west of the entrance gate. All was not lost, however, and my ride up into the canyon yielded a valuable discovery: an abandoned refinery.

Ventura Refinery
The Ventura Refinery’s reason for existing vanished when the nearby wells that fed it went into rapid decline. Today it’s a rusting industrial city with processions of enormous aboveground reservoirs and oxidized distillation towers. Bundles of pipe in every diameter crisscross the property, sometimes running twenty feet overhead before plunging underground. The whole place smells faintly of the petroleum derivatives that permeate the bone-dry ground.
I’d arrived at the forgotten metropolis late in the afternoon and the remaining daylight proved insufficient to complete my documentation routine. Intending to photograph the facility bathed in warm, early morning light, I bedded down beneath two immense spheres designed for the storage of some highly volatile gas. Hundreds of swallows had built mud huts around the tanks’ equators and orbited incessantly in loose formation—gorging themselves on twilight insects.
Waking with the sun in the middle of such a severe landscape put me in a heedless state of mind. I behaved as if entirely alone on what might as well have been another planet. I clambered up and down rust-covered spires and across the wide, flat tops of empty storage tanks, each step a noisy rap on an oversized steel drum. I poked into bombed-out control rooms where walls of gauges once reported the real time movements of refined product from one end of the plant to the other. I was a child—completely enraptured.

Awareness of a world outside the refinery’s walls returned abruptly when my body crossed the threshold of a window armed with a motion sensor. As an alarm blared monotonously, I scolded myself for having been so careless. Cursing the last booby-trapping members of whatever alien civilization abandoned this city centuries before, I continued my explorations with added caution.

I might have stayed at the refinery all day if a security officer piloting a pickup hadn’t interrupted. He appeared twenty minutes after I triggered the alarm and was frustratingly persistent in his search for whomever was lurking about. Our extended game of hide-and-seek had me performing duck-and-cover maneuvers amid scattered chunks of concrete and steel. Half an hour of simulated post-apocalyptic urban warfare came to an end when I slipped through the fence hole that was my exit portal.
Day Twenty-six: Ventura, CA to Los Angeles, CA
left: "Construimus, Batuimus"
right: This billboard overlooked a BMW dealership. A stretched Hummer sporting a ‘for sale’ sign was parked on the street nearby. Perhaps it’s the metaphorical center of LA.
Driven out by security, I reluctantly left the abandoned Ventura Refinery where I’d spent the previous night and most of the morning. After a stop at the market for breakfast complimented by a flattering remark on the quality of my “rig,” I started off on an improvised route across town. Several frustrating dead-ends later, I broke out into the agricultural lands of the Oxnard Plain. The lowland confined by several mountain ranges is known for having some of the world’s most fertile soil. This geological endowment, coupled with a coastal climate, makes it an extremely productive strawberry growing region. As I’d done several times before on the leg, I bought a basket of the fruit off the tailgate of a pickup parked on the side of the road.

A military firing range sits at the spot where The Pacific Coast Highway is forced back against the ocean by the Santa Monica Mountains. The red flags were flying (which means the bullets were too) and I felt a bit anxious snapping pictures from the perimeter fence. I deduced from some rather conspicuous signage that the “SeaBees” were the battalion with the guns. They’re the navy’s wartime engineering and building force deployed at nearby Point Mugu Naval Air Station. E-2 Hawkeyes, aircraft piggybacked by 24-foot rotating domes, had been flying touch-and-goes from the base all morning.

A considerable portion of the day was spent pedaling through Malibu’s “27 miles of scenic beauty” (a misleading thing for the town to proclaim since, unless you’ve got ocean frontage, there’s not much beauty to behold). A strip of mansions owned by the movie industry’s darlings hardly qualifies as a town anyway. Besides the smell of affluence wafting about Malibu, two things told me I’d arrived in Southern California. The first was that the safety buffer drivers afforded me suddenly shrank to a few inches. The second requires a more thorough explanation:
Since many of Malibu’s residences overlook the ocean, they have long driveways that connect the home to the main highway. Lavish front gates control access to the driveways and very little property lies between them and Route One: at most a shallow pullout and a bit of landscaping. Having found these pullouts to be safe places to pause, I pulled off the road to rest after climbing a substantial hill. While I straddled my frame, taking great gulps of water, the sprinklers started up on a thin strip of nearby lawn. The overspray was in dander of wetting the bike and I, thinking my timing impeccable, rolled a couple feet toward the highway and safely out of range. Seconds after I’d moved the sprinklers shut off. This couldn’t be a coincidence. I’d been shooed off the property by someone insane enough to be watching their front gate on closed circuit television with one trigger-happy finger on the watering cycle start button. I flashed the bird at the invisible eye and started off down the road feeling angry and confused. Welcome to Malibu.

Malibu bleeds into Santa Monica, which bleeds into Los Angeles. By the time I reached the Beverly Center Mall I was thoroughly exhausted and Alex, the friend I’d be staying with, volunteered to intercept me. We chose the Mobil at La Cienega and Beverly Boulevard as the pickup point: a location with a certain irony I wouldn’t recognize until later. The leg began at a decommissioned oil refinery and ended seventy miles away at a Los Angeles gas station.

Time in LA:
Standing in an afternoon shaft of sunlight stretching—watching the cars stream by.

The Carls Jr. coupon book fundraiser lady. Outside the Walgreen’s.


Los Angeles, CA to Fullerton, CA
upper left: I’d be surprised if whatever deal is in the works here had anything to do with all that crap on the sidewalk.
lower left: How most Los Angeles residents experience their city.
lower right: This muffler shop avoids becoming a meal for its predators by displaying these dazzling stripes.
It’s difficult to say exactly what it is about Los Angeles that makes me so anxious. Perhaps it’s the frantic pace everyone seems to be keeping, or the crushing monotony: block after block of RiteAids and fried-chicken shacks. Maybe it’s the police helicopters that circle incessantly, or the necessity to drive everywhere. It could be the perpetually sunny weather, or the cell-phone towers painted blue to match a dingy cloudless sky. Or maybe it’s in the simple declarative statement I overheard spoken by a teenage girl as she passed on the sidewalk: “See that’s the thing about LA—you can’t just cross the street when you want to.”
I’d been staying with Alex at his place in Atwater Village. We’re good friends from our undergraduate days in Davis and as we did when we lived together, spent hours discussing our respective artistic pursuits. Before my time with Alex was up, we’d seen an Armenian comedy show, biked the LA River, visited an abandoned zoo, and strolled a private farmer’s market. Alex was an incredibly generous host and beginning to feel guilty about all the meals he insisted on paying for was what prompted me to move on.

The route from Los Angeles to Fullerton tours the Mexican neighborhoods east of the city before passing through the successive (but indistinguishable) towns of Montebello, Pico Rivera, Whittier, and La Habra. Early in the leg I’d happened upon The Brewery Art Colony: a vast industrial space converted into hundreds of studios. The collective of mediocre artists was in the middle of an open-studio’s weekend and I sauntered in and out of workspaces while casually keeping an eye out for a toilet. As my need grew increasingly desperate, it became clear that they’d hidden (or at least locked) any restrooms within the sprawling complex. Forced to inquire, I was informed of a small contingent of porta-potties marooned in a remote parking lot. Insulted by the lack of accessible indoor plumbing, I refused to use them.

The extraordinarily poor condition of LA’s streets finally knocked my rear wheel out of alignment. Nevertheless, endorphins from the day’s ride prevented the slight wobble from dampening my triumphant arrival. Awash with self-confidence, I sat myself down at a café table occupied by three college-age girls. I’d just completed my first solo tour and someone (attractive) was going to hear about it.
Postscript: Reaching Fullerton marked the beginning of my multi-month stay in Southern California. That night was the first of many I’d spend in the guestroom at the Fullerton House, which in the weeks ahead, would come to be referred to as “Brett’s room.” Jessie, Nathan, Nick and Leslie were incredibly patient as my plans changed weekly and I gradually became the household’s fifth member. I thank them for their generosity in sharing their space.
Disneyland Garage
Wanting to get a sense of the typical Disneyland visitor’s first impression of the park, I rolled into this immense structure on one of several entrance lanes fed by an I-5 offramp. (Picture that scene in Star Wars where the Death Star swallows the Millennium Falcon.) Assuming no one at the happiest place on earth would mind, I set up the camera and started shooting. In reality, I’d vastly underestimated security’s level of seriousness. Caught up in documenting the cavernous interior, the sudden appearance of two bicycle-mounted officers took me by surprise. They had been sent in ahead of the supervisor who arrived a minute later in an SUV. (I was pleased to find him resembling a young Walt Disney; an incredible likeness in his bone structure and thin moustache.)

While my photography had gotten their attention, declining to hand over my identification was what really set them off. I realized I’d made a tense situation worse when two officers, dispatched by the Anaheim Police Department while I was still under surveillance, turned up and were visibly unamused. My little act of defiance had been interpreted as one of self-incrimination. I was ordered to dismount and sit on a curb where they hit me with a barrage of questions. When I happily surrendered my driver’s license to one of the two real police officers, explaining why I don’t give my ID to private security, they lectured me on choosing my battles more carefully.

The encounter dragged on and threats were made. I was told I’d need to erase the images I’d taken but the officers quickly backed down when I vehemently refused. Then there was the ludicrous assertion that, had I fled before being questioned, they’d have had no choice but to assign a helicopter to follow me around. It took the group, now six or seven, an exceptionally long time to arrive at a consensus on what was to be done with me. My numbers had come back clean and, after receiving a stern warning not to return, I was escorted off the property.
I’d gotten some excellent shots, but not having explored beyond the garage’s first floor meant the mission was a failure. I would have to go back. Considering all the fuss surrounding my initial drop-in, an alternate and perhaps softer approach was in order. Several days into my banishment I wrote to the Disneyland department that handles press visits and park photography:
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing to request permission to photograph the interior and exterior of Disneyland’s Mickey & Friends Parking Structure. I’m a visual artist with a graduate degree from the University of Chicago and am currently traveling the country by bicycle: visiting, documenting, and writing about various structures and sites along the way. I’m interested in the Disneyland garage because of its immense scale and cultural significance, as well as aspects of its design and construction. I intend to place low-resolution versions of perhaps six to ten images in the context of a blog I’ve maintained throughout the ongoing journey. The project is non-profit and none of the images will be sold. I am not a professional photographer and photograph the sites I visit as a visual supplement to the articles I write about them.

I have already visited the garage once, and my presence was met with suspicion among Disneyland security personnel. I hope to avoid repeating such an uncomfortable situation by announcing my intentions in advance and having a future visit sanctioned by official channels. I understand your security policies have changed since 9/11 and do not wish to complicate the lives of Disneyland employees. However, I am deeply concerned by the fact that an architecture buff such as myself can not take a few snapshots of a structure used by thousands of individuals a day without being suspected of mischief.

Whatever help you can provide on this matter would be greatly appreciated.
Sincerely,

Brett Tracy
Not surprisingly, my request for an authorized visit was ignored. Also not surprisingly, I went back anyway. Assuming the weekend security staff would be unfamiliar with my appearance, I chose a late Sunday afternoon. I was sneakier with my image taking this time, getting the shots I wanted before security caught on. When they eventually did, I disarmed my captors with light conversation while we waited for Anaheim Police. The Mexican bicycle-mounted security officer, tasked with making sure I didn’t cut and run before their arrival, told me he averages thirty miles a day within the garage: repeatedly riding the elevator to the top then descending through the structure’s six levels.
Both discussions with park personnel centered on the difference between an innocuous snapshot and a security breach. The Disneyland property is one of the most heavily photographed places anywhere. But because no one ever takes pictures of the parking garage, doing so raises a great deal of suspicion. I was told that a tourist photo’s key ingredient is people. If security spots a guest clicking away at buildings and rides with no sign of the wife and kids, they drag them in for interrogation. I promised that in the future I’d bring a human subject to stand in front of the concrete pillars I wanted pictures of.

It’s not inconceivable that I was allowed, both times, to keep my images. After all, I spoke the truth with regard to the nature of my interest in the structure. Enthusiasm in my voice, I persuaded the officers I believed the important piece of architecture should be documented for anthropological study. Supporting my case, I informed them of its longtime reign as North America’s largest parking garage: over 10,000 spaces. I revealed that, because of a design flaw, the northern half had to be torn down and rebuilt at enormous expense. I even shared the horror stories of friends lost in its labyrinthine interior. But what really convinced them I wasn’t a threat to public safety was one tall handsome officer bringing up The Illuminated Thread on his PDA.

Brea, CA: ecology of an oil town
Upper left: God was like, “Yeah… thanks for the effort guys but this structure ain’t honoring shit.”
Upper right: “When we build the Utopia, Phil Collins will be heard from every street corner!”
Lower left: Take another look at that window.
Lower right: Things found in the backyard: patio furniture, grill, dog’s water bowl, 30-foot brick wall.
Jessie and Nathan were adamant about me experiencing this place. They had gone to see a movie in the town’s heavily redeveloped entertainment district and discovered a “creepy” residential neighborhood adjacent to the equally weird downtown. The three of us got on our bikes and pedaled over the hill from Fullerton, arriving before dusk to stroll around and snap some photos.

A quick Wikipedia read on Brea reveals it to be an interesting case study. Recorded in its history is the evolution of a town that got its start in resource extraction. Brea is the Spanish word for tar, a reference to the “black gold” that attracted the area’s first corporate landowner: Union Oil. Typically when the original resource dries up, the boomtown either dries up with it or adapts to exploit some other local resource. When its oil production began to wane, Brea’s succeeding resource was a climate suitable for growing citrus trees. After WWII, its orange and lemon orchards were gradually replaced by residential developments: the beginning of the Great Suburban Build-out that so thoroughly ruined much of the American landscape. Highly symbolic of this process was the 1956 opening of the first two restaurants in the now ubiquitous Carl’s Jr. franchise: one in Brea, the other in nearby Anaheim. Although accompanied by some industry, the construction and servicing of tract homes, strip malls and fast-food joints is a questionable foundation for a local economy. In some ways, Brea is a microcosm for the country as a whole, demonstrating how our national economy came to be one based on real estate (suburban home building) and credit spending (shit to fill the homes with). In the long run, such an economy produces little more than waste streams and is about as real and substantial as that painted on window.

It’s useful to think of Brea’s history in ecological terms. In a process not unlike that by which a meadow becomes a forest, the town has passed through several stages of succession before arriving at its current form. The wooden oil drilling towers that first sprouted on the hills gradually gave way to citrus trees, which in turn gave way to single-family homes. Each local economic model replaced the one before it as niches disappeared and new ones emerged. Said another way: oil production was an early seral stage in the succession of Brea’s local economy types. The master-planned downtown with its shops, movie theatres, sidewalk cafes and restaurants is a later stage in the same sere.
So why is downtown Brea (a.k.a. Brea Downtown) so strange? The primary reason is that when the 50-acre swath at Brea Boulevard and Birch Street was torn down and rebuilt in the late 90s, it was likely done as cheaply as possible. Low-bid construction employs corner-cutting techniques that can make a place appear slightly off. Second, successful downtown districts, like those found throughout Europe, have taken many years to become what they are. Charm takes time; more of it than developers care to admit. Brea Downtown is a caricature of a successful downtown district. The parody is based on a handful of architects’ collective vision of what such a place should be (or at least look like).

Postscript: To be fair, Brea’s waste streams do provide a source of income. In addition to receiving a third of Orange County’s trash, Brea’s Olinda Alpha Landfill actually imports garbage from neighboring Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. In fact, 35% of the waste that ends up there originated outside the county. The importation scheme began in 1994 when a bankrupt OC desperately needed to generate some cash. The county has since raised millions of dollars letting outsiders contribute to Brea’s heaping pile of refuse. The landfill was supposed to close in 2013 but its life (and projected size) was recently extended—a move worth $30 million dollars to the city over the next twelve years. We can (appropriately) write in “importing trash” next to “retail shopping” on Brea’s list of revenue sources.
Check out this report by the OC Register. I’ll bet that mountain hits the 1,415 foot mark before 2021. Then they can plant some trees on it and pretend it was there all along.

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