Featured Landscape Coin Drops for 2003

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November, 2003

Site of Detroit's First Auto Fatality.


When we realize that landscapes can be traumatized, then we can see the city of Detroit as a survivor. Though most American cities are full of formerly contested spaces, Detroit's reputation is stigmatized by the heights to which it rose and the depths to which it is said to have fallen, and clouded by a long history of violence between antagonistic groups and within its own urban family. Except for brief visits to Comerica Stadium (the new home of the Tigers), the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Greektown nightlife area, and concerts at the beautifully detailed Fox Theatre, the city is absent from most tourist itineraries.

All urban explorers, however, should make Detroit their first stop. My first impression of "the dynamic heart of the Central States," as the city was called in a 1937 industrial film, was not decay, but rather quiet rebirth. Within the city, countless empty lots give way to green swaths that resemble nothing more than the outsized lawns of pre-1980s suburbia. Lone abandoned buildings stand on otherwise empty blocks as if to tease those who believe in historical causality: Why has this one survived? Where and how went the ones that once surrounded it? Arterial streets like Mack, Kercheval and West Grand Avenues enter and leave inhabited zones at unpredictable intervals. Drivers through Detroit pass scores of decayed blocks that give way to a still, semirural emptiness. That emptiness in turn gives way suddenly ends when the driver encounters a self-contained neighborhood of elegant 1920s houses (I'm thinking here of the Indian Village neighborhood). In these areas the streetlights still shine and expensive foreign cars are parked on the streets. But after passing through the centers of such habitation hubs, illumination cuts back to one light per block and buildings become sporadic.

The cult of trespassing in forbidden places finds many shrines in Detroit, such as the famous Michigan Central Railroad depot, abandoned since the 1970s and until recently a playground for artists and vandals. The station, a highrise homage to the economic power that railroads once wielded and evidence of the vast bureaucracies needed to keep the trains running, stands empty on a deserted plaza in a neighborhood where few now live and work. But there are many other places there that we might call shrines, places that speak in quieter voices.

One place to which all drivers owe respect, if nothing else, is a fenced-in lawn (photo 1) on the grounds of the Detroit Day School for the Deaf, just west of highway M-10, the John Lodge Freeway. It is accessible by the service road just south of Forest Street. This lawn is the closest accessible approximation of an intersection that has disappeared from the map, the corner of Brooklyn and Lysander Streets, at which Detroit's first traffic fatality (one of the first in the world) occurred on September 2, 1902. Had the lesson posed by this death been heeded, we might now be inhabiting a very different landscape; a world not completely dominated by the automobile. Instead, the risks introduced by the proliferation of automobiles were ignored, Detroit became the world's center of automobile production, cars conquered the land, and in fact this place now sits directly across from a busy freeway onramp (photo 2).

On November 2, 2003, I placed a coin on top of a fire hydrant on the west side of the service road, as close as possible to the fence blocking access to the school lawn.--RP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.

October, 2003

Muir Woods National Monument, designated First Amendment area.


The war in Iraq this year has inspired millions of people throughout the world to get out on the streets in protest. In the United States, our public spaces have been used for first amendment purposes to a greater extent this year than at any time in the past decade. When we came across this sign in the Muir Woods National Monument, we paused to let a stream of associations flow through our minds: The urban uprisings of the 1960s; Hare Krishnas proselytising in airports in the 70s; Moonies recruiting at the cable car turnaround at Market and Powell in San Francisco in the 80s. In the 90s the general public has taken to the streets expressing fury at the two consecutive Gulf Wars.

The shady glade in upscale Marin County, California, where this sign was found, brings most keenly to mind the timber wars that have ravaged northwestern California and the Pacific Northwest for fifteen years. In 1990 and 91, the timber wars peaked with the massive demonstrations of Redwood Summer (1 and 2, respectively). These demonstrations, north of Marin in Humboldt County, brought mainstream public attention to the endangerment of the last few stands of old growth forest. As a result, a few compromises have been constructed to preserve, for now, some of the endangered stands.

What's most currently most interesting about the first amendment is the breadth of social spectrum across which it is a politicized concept. The rhetoric that surrounds the amendment is thick with the language of flag-waving patriotism. For example, the website First Amendment.com, is bordered by a vivid 4th-of-July style national flag motif, which invokes a conservative style of nationalism, one that is bound up in the closely held value of capitalism. At the same time, the website presents an index of organizations that are directly involved in first amendment fights of one kind or another. Prominent on the list is the awesomeElectronic Frontier Foundation, which fights for digital access rights in contexts where information's need to be free steps ahead of the interests of capitalism.

Come to think of it, the kinds of battles fought by the EFF are even closer to this sign in Marin than were the showdowns of Redwood Summer. On another day when we revisited this site, it was occupied by a man from the Sierra Club who was quietly exercising his rights and gathering signatures to oppose timber sales on public lands. We left the coin tucked tightly between the back of the sign and the wooden fence to which it is mounted.--MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.

September, 2003

Ephemeral sculpture on unnamed beach along northwest border of San Francisco.

In the midst of the debris of an unofficial shelter of flotsam and jetsam, we coined a small shrine of driftwood, metal, stones, sticks, and playing card. The shrine was framed by a curved piece of iron bar that arched about eighteen inches in front of the assemblage. Behind the iron arch, a peculiar stacked structure was formed by a fist-sized stone, which was topped by a somewhat smaller chunk of foam, which was in turn topped by a smaller chunk of charcoal, which was topped by a small slab of wood. Into the top of the small slab of wood was affixed a cut-out silhouette of the Red Queen from a deck of playing cards. At the foot of the Red Queen's tower, a few inches in between the tower and the framing arch, stood an eight inch high crucifix formed by two pieces of driftwood lashed together with seaweed. Randomly scattered around the arch, the crucifix, and the Red Queen's tower were an assortment of selected beach stones and smaller, less ambitious balances of rock, wood, and foam chunks.

This remarkable little structure struck us by the density of its symbolic invocations. Its obliqueness challenged us to remark on how it figured itself so directly as a shrine. Of course the presence of a crucifix suggested that a religious figure and ground be interpreted into the assemblage. But a shrine to what? The rainbow-shaped arch could symbolize the gates of heaven, or just as easily could be read as an echo of the St. Louis Arch, gateway to the West. And the presence of the Red Queen suggested royalty, on the one hand, but alternatively the spectre of communist brainwashing and maternal manipulation as confected in the classic film The Manchurian Candidate.

The structure also invoked the genre of the roadside shrine. The use of junk to surround a crucifix which is figured somehow in relation to the image of a face or figure: this is the vernacular of the familiar roadside commemoration to loved ones lost in vehicular accidents. It was odd to see this vernacular echoed, or perhaps even invoked, in the distinctly auto-free environment of the cliffbottom beachlet. Could it have been meant as a commemoration to the victims of the many deadly shipwrecks that have happened off these shores? A small structure such as this, planted just a few inches deep in soft sand, has an essentially ephemeral nature that can only leave us guessing. And appreciating the transitory pleasure of architecture below the high tide line. The coin was left in the sand between the crucifix and the tower of the Red Queen.--MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.

July, 2003

Three sites on South Orange Grove Avenue, Pasadena, California.

537, 1003, and 1071 1/2 S. Orange Grove Avenue, where the mightily peculiar Jack Parsons lived and died, no longer exist. These structures, which existed as late as the 1950s, were removed during mid-century redevelopment. The recent rebuilding has transformed S. Orange Grove Avenue from a 19th century millionaire's row to a beige monochrome upper middle class monument to the art of lawn manicure.

Today a stiff silence permeates the shuttered houses that punctuate the greensward on S. Orange Grove. The motionlessness of these houses stands in stark contrast to the torrid history that preceded their construction. For in the first half of the twentieth century, a motley assortment of Satanists, science fiction writers, and amateur inventors populated the neighborhood and made the streets loud with conjurings and bonfires. Jack Parsons was among the most prominent residents: a practitioner of black magic, a devotee of Aleister Crowley, and a co-founder of Jet-Propulsion Laboratory.

As tantalizingly touched upon in Mike Davis' City of Quartz (Vintage, 1992) and explicated in detail in John Carter's Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons, (Feral House, 1999) Parsons' life was a kaleidoscope of sex, incense, conjurings, and uncanny abilities in rocketry. His personal life was characterized by adventures like sharing a love triangle with the young L. Ron Hubbard, before Hubbard grew dissatisfied with the limits on retail sales of fiction and started his own religion. Truly on the lunatic fringe of amateur science, Parsons was also perhaps the most successful amateur scientist of the twentieth-century. How many other backyard autodidacts culminate their careers by co-founding research institutions that attain the stature of JPL? Parsons died when he exploded in a rocketry experiment gone wrong in the carriage house of 1071 S. Orange Grove.

Coins were left tucked into the bare slots between sidewalk and sod in front of the lots on S. Orange Grove where Parson's childhood home stood (537), where Parsons and Hubbard lived together as adults in the 1940s (1003), and where Parsons died in 1952 (1071 1/2). --MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.

June, 2003

5555 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, California. Paramount Studios main gate.

Coin tossed into ten-foot diameter flower pot holding a magnolia tree surrounded by pansies. The flower pot decorates the main auto entrance of the Paramount lot. The coin was dropped in honor of Star Trek (the original series), which was filmed on a sound stage here in the late 1960s. --MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.

May, 2003

Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah: adobe-themed floating outhouse.

The hundred-mile long reservoir called Lake Powell was made possible by the completion of Glen Canyon Dam in 1962. The Dam that inspired Edward Abbey's environmental classic The Monkeywrench Gang filled a canyon of the Colorado River comparable in scope and grandeur to its downstream neighbor, Grand Canyon. The resulting water storage capacity is intended to ensure and regulate the water supply of the rapidly growing urban southwest. The improbable metropolises of Phoenix and Las Vegas are watered and slaked by the vast stores of Lake Powell. Its waters also make possible the incomprehensible growth rate of those cities' satellites. While we were visiting, we read in the Arizona Republic that the planning commission of one formerly small desert town in southern Arizona had just approved a 250,000-home housing development. The ongoing debate over the future of the dam is centered on the destruction that the Dam has wrought to the Colorado River ecosystem. But it the debate is also crowded with varied views of the Dam's inefficiency, its necessity, and the difficulty, some would say impossibility, of successful Canyon reclamation.

When the canyon was dammed, its rising water levels buried thousands of treasures and pulled thousands more within easy reach. Anasazi cliff dwellings, the trails and camps of early European explorers, sacred sites of contemporary native American tribes; all were drowned by the rising waters. At the same time, spectacles that once tested human endurance to reach and offered rewards of profound solitude are now within jet-ski reach. The Rainbow Bridge is perhaps the most contested site within this vast complex of contested drowned worlds.

A natural stone arch 290 feet high, the Bridge is unique in size, strength, and symmetry. It is an important part of Navajo mythology, and is held sacred as the center of an area where deities live. When the rising lake level brought the Bridge within easy access of day-tripping boaters, a way of life was lost for the Navajo, as well as for the few Europeans who had known the Bridge as one of the most isolated places in North America.

Since then, the Bridge has been hotly fought over by Native Americans, who wish some regulation around visits to preserve the sacred site, and the unyielding will of the American tourist population. A National Monument since 1917, the Rainbow Bridge is easily accessible by two boat tours per day from Wahweap Marina on the Arizona end of the lake, or by personal rentable watercraft. Upon arriving at the boat dock, we were amazed by the sight of a floating outhouse. A sensible resolution to a common situation posed by large numbers of visitors, the fact of the outhouse was not what surprised us. It was the architecture. Just like master-planned Santa Fe New Mexico, where all the buildings are of matching adobe masonry and none exceed three stories, this outhouse was designed to echo both the color of the canyon walls and to embody received ideas about southwestern design.

The coin was tucked at the back of the building, in between the outlet for the siphoning hose and the back wall. The exceptional volume Glen Canyon Dammed by Jared Farmer (University of Arizona Press, 1999) is a book-length site extrapolation of Utah's Lake Powell. In it, Farmer eloquently expresses the extremely complex cultural and natural history of this compelling site. Read it! --MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.

February, 2003

Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland, California.

The day after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated, we visited the Chabot Space and Science Center to pay our respects. In the atrium lobby a memorial had been set up centered around a tripod draped in black cloth. The tripod was hung with a photo of the lost crew and a list of their names. In front of the tripod stretched a long table covered in a ream of paper and supplied with indelible felt-tip pens. On this ream of paper mourners recorded their remembrances and their messages of support to the families of the crew. Next to the remembrance table stood a 1/100 scale model of the space shuttle, and in front of the model was a memorial flower display.

We appreciated that this memorial was available as an outlet for public grief. We were devastated by the loss of the Columbia for several reasons, and it was helpful to have someplace to go.

The space program is perhaps the only constructive outlet of the manifest destiny impulse. Humans are hard-driven toward expansion, frontiers, and pushing limits of endurance and knowledge. In the United States, this drive is frequently amped up into a destructive obsession. To have a demilitarized outlet for these energies is a great integration point. I don't doubt that space shuttles carry military payloads. But projects like the space shuttle attract and employ scientists from all over the world, all of them with motivations necessarily more nuanced than the urge to conquer.

At the memorial for the seven lost astronauts there was no convenient place to add a coin. Looking around, we found a climb-in model of the Mercury spacecraft in a second floor exhibit. The coin was tucked into a notch in the gear panels to the left of the seat.

On the memorial scroll for the Columbia astronauts we wrote: "Intrepid Explorers: Missions sometimes fail. Never dreamers, seekers, starchasers. Always remembered." --MSP Back to the main page of the Landscape Coin project.

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