Note: I originally planned to post this along with the Friday Fractal. Then, like chaos, fractals, and life, it didn't turn out the way I expected. Considering the length and tone of this piece, it will stand better alone. Never fear, the fractal is still on the way.
"They paved paradise, and put in an interstate freeway..." In order to visit the place where the studio/shack of Charles Lillybridge once stood, I have to drive down the I-25, the interstate freeway which runs parallel to the Front Range. It already looks like a gloomy day, with thunderheads looming ominously to the west. As traffic slows to a crawl, I watch black smoke belch from the back of a garbage truck. Ick. Why don't they hurry up? Impatient, I squint at the line of cars in front of me. I can't see what the holdup is. I want to get there. Suddenly, it occurs to me. A trip south to visit Lillybridge 100 years ago, whether by bicycle or burro, would have taken at least half the day. Maybe the extra 10 minutes isn't a big deal. Finally, I reach the Alameda exit, where I find the nearest parking spot. This is it. The Archer Canal, circa 2006.
In early part of the last century, many people traveled alongside the South Platte river, in canoes, or bikes, or horse-drawn carriages. In the late 1930s or 40s, the Archer Canal was filled in, in order to make room for several paved streets and industry. According to a CDOT environmental impact statement, the section of I-25 that I just left (better known as the valley highway) was built right on top of that landfill. (The EIS was written after years of industrial activity had contaminated groundwater in the area.)
Now, 100 years after the construction of the canal, people still travel along the river--now, most do it in SUVs and sedans and pickup trucks, flying by well over the recommended 55 miles per hour. They don't stop to pause along the river, to smell the flowers, and pose for a picture, as Lillybridge's subjects once did. In fact, they wouldn't want to. There aren't many flowers to be seen--most things growing around here are invasive weeds. As a matter of fact, they wouldn't want to smell anything at all. Here, the dank air carries a hint of body odor mingled with the stench of exhaust fumes.
Across the river from the freeway, nestled among warehouses and fast food joints, I spot a bike trail. So, people do still come by here on foot or bicycle. I walk down the path, in hopes of finding someone to pose for me in front of the Alameda bridge, as Lillybridge did a century ago. With the rain beginning to fall, it isn't looking good. A few cyclists zoom past without a nod. I'm about ready to turn back and just shoot the freeway, when I notice a little path down to the river. Just around the bend, I find the people I'm looking for. They're huddled under a tree, sitting on rocks alongside the river. They appear to have been there awhile. Not willing to turn back, I explain the project I'm working on, and ask if I can take their picture. They're more than willing. "Do you want me to get naked?" asks a man who's already halfway there. After I assure him that won't be necessary, they invite me to "pull up a rock" and hear about life on the Platte, from their perspective.
"I've been here 7 years," the shirtless man says. With a mental slap, I realize the obvious. They're homeless.
The woman seems to read my mind. "Yes, we live here all the time." She tells me she's in her 40s, but she looks as if she's in her 70s. I guess life down here can be pretty tough on the body. And on the heart... They are telling me about the friends they've seen come and go... not moving away, but lost to the cold, or to the swirling waters of the Platte. For them, life along this river is as much of a struggle as those who squatted here 100 years past. They are the survivors. Others weren't so lucky. Still, they don't seem to mind it. They all seem happy. The man who has been there for seven years looks well fed and content. "Life is simple," he says. "It's the people who make it hard."
I ask if they think people will still be living down here in another hundred years. Will we have replaced I-25 with something else by then? "It'll all be up in the sky, by then," he says, gesturing upwards at invisible vehicles flying overhead. And it'll be that much harder for folks in their cars to see the people down here, I think to myself.
I remember that I'm supposed to be taking pictures. I take a few, and excuse myself, mentioning that I need to find a few others along the way, to get more shots. They suggest I talk to a friend of theirs, who's in a wheelchair. He lost both of his legs to frostbite, they tell me. One right after the other. "All he's got is a couple a' stumps," the old woman says. I thank them, and find my way back to the bike path. Approaching the bridge, I spot the man they mentioned. He's sitting with a small crowd under the shade of the bridge.
Suddenly, I don't want to be writing this story anymore. I just want to go home, forget all about Lillybridge and the Archer Canal forget about the people living along its banks, then and now. Instead of looking for more shots of people, I take a few quick shots of the freeway and head back to my car. The changes in this area are just too much to bear. When I start the car, I realize this is just like Pandora's box. If I close it now, I might be missing hope. After all, that has been the focus of my study all along--unending change. It won't end here.
Just across Alameda, the greenbelt along the bike path widens into a small park. It is labeled on maps as "Habitat Park" but judging by what I've seen so far, I'm not expecting much of one. Still, vegetation grows thickly alongside the river, so I head that way. Originally, I hoped to see some of the same mountain hollyhocks that bloomed in Lillybridge's pictures, but now, I'm happy to see a clump of bindweed.
Looking closer, I find the habitat. It's still there... it's just hiding. A group of ducks sees me before I see them, and swim upstream. Their presence is reassuring somehow. I can see that even in the most urban, traffic and pollution-ridden areas, the wildlife survives. Maybe, just maybe, if we figure out other ways to get around besides this maze of concrete, asphalt, and smog, the wildlife here will have even more of a chance. Here are the ducks, with the freeway in the background. The tree in the background is growing on a slope which used to be the steep canal banks:
I can't expect this place to ever look like it did 100 years ago, when Charles Lillybridge lived here. After they dug the Archer Canal, they couldn't ever expect the land to look like it did 100 years before they arrived. Things change--the landscape, the ways we move, the ways we treat others--but the need to adapt lasts. What will this land look like a century from now? Flying cars? More homeless people? Or more ducks? I can't say until we get there... but I do understand this, as clear as a bell: the ways we are adapting our technologies and lifestyles today will shape the future. What kind of shape do we want it to be in?
Image notes: The photo of a woman standing by mountain hollyhocks from the Lillybridge collection via Western History Photos collection at the Denver Public Library. All other images were taken by the author.
Thank you for this. For me it's an appropriate conclusion to your series, even though it's not exactly a happy ending.
I'm really glad you closed with an opportunity for us readers to think about our values and to consider the kind of future we're so busy creating: "the ways we are adapting our technologies and lifestyles today will shape the future. What kind of shape do we want it to be in?"
It seems to me it would be helpful if more of us took the time to consider whether we're creating the future we want. Thanks for that reminder.
Thanks for the comment Steve. I actually wrote in a comment here a few weeks ago asking what was happening with this blog after the announcement that O'Reilly was dropping the Digital Media division. It's really refreshing to get an honest comment on what's happening. I really hope the blog picks up again.