South Orchard Street

If South Park were the deep African wilderness, then South Orchard Street would be its heart of darkness.

Orchard & Occidental

We reach this unlikely intersection by following 2nd Ave until its bitter end at the Duwamish shoreline. Nearby, the highway 509 that brought us here traverses what was once a wetland. Acres of pavement and fill proudly announce the reclamation, utilization and civilization of land from wilderness.

We fly on asphalt friction until gravel grinds and rainwater splashes. Unpaved roads and pothole swarms are no obstacle to our momentum. Containers smile and point the way. Abandoned cars gesture caution to temper our exuberance.

South Orchard Street begins here and ends a few hundred feet down the road. No more is needed.

Vacant lot

The heart of darkness is a vacant lot across from a blackberry thicket. Behind the thicket, a riparian inlet where salmon spawned before the world began.

The vacant lot is river mud softened by rain and scored with large-tread tire tracks. A barrel pyramid looms in the distance. Cement blocks imply potential architecture as yet unborn. This place is not yet what it will become.

No man's land

The rusted container signals its mysterious command to trespassers. The abandoned lunar probe sits forever awaiting rescue. The earth wonders why nothing will grow.

Beside the alien container ten thousand cannons lie silent, a machine gun nest of retired metal. These are the pipes that carried the flow, the links that connected the graph, the launch tubes that fired the torpedoes that won the forgotten war. Here retired they must rust.

Rusted pipes

The barrel pyramid is formidable archeology, more colorful than Cheops and more useful than Chichen Itza. But its moment too has come and gone.

Barrel pyramid

This is the eastern side of the Industrial Container Services site, where the firm’s most battle-scarred and least attractive barrels are stacked. Veterans of toxic waste spills meet containers used at nuclear accidents. They are stained beyond repair, rusted beyond hope. And yet still beautiful.

Barrel pyramid

An engine’s roar returns our attention to South Orchard Street. A pickup truck laden with debris appears, and pauses at the sight of us. In this no-man’s land, no mission could possibly be legal.

A nervous energy fills every opening. Snipers take aim. The innocent hide behind containers. Hammers cock behind trembling fingers. The pickup truck advances, its cargo carefully balanced by slender ropes. The air is dense, unbreathable. A decision is being made.

Then the truck turns around and departs. Mission not accomplished. Perhaps a more legitimate destination awaits, or another moment when the tourists have gone.

The snipers relax. Lungs refill. Oxygen tastes strangely sweet. But South Orchard Street remains. Beside the river, debris was dumped yesterday and debris will be dumped tomorrow.

No place becomes worthless on its own. No place becomes worthless overnight. Perhaps no place is ever worthless at all, except to the unworthy. But day after day, year after year, neglect accumulates into scar tissue upon the landscape. The unwanted becomes unwelcoming.

And eventually, it is no longer the debris that does not belong; it is us.

Ghost pipes

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Barrels on West Marginal Way S, revisited

Terminal 115 Viewpoint taught us to feel a certain trepidation when revisiting a favorite location. But as our route took us down to West Marginal Way, we had no choice but to pay another visit to the land of the barrel pyramids.

West Marginal Way barrels

Unlike the fisherman’s shack, the barrel pyramids still stood proudly in place. While noticeably smaller than a few months ago, their essentially artistic nature remained unchanged.

West Marginal Way barrels

A pattern that emerged was the highly dynamic nature of the pyramidal composition. While the yellow pyramid had merely lost a few barrels off the top – from erosion, theft, or perhaps even business – the multi-color pyramid had seen its coloration patterns significantly altered.

West Marginal Way barrel pyramid

There were more blacks and silver barrels, fewer blues and reds, but all the oranges were gone. Clearly orange barrels are a hot item on today’s barrel market.

West Marginal Way barrelsWest Marginal Way barrels

A little investigation reveals that the barrels are the property of Industrial Container Services, the self-described largest provider of reusable container solutions in the United States.

Their mission statement? An industrial container in every home. (Or perhaps not, but this writer wishes it were.)

West Marginal Way barrels

One of the values ICS provides its customers is freedom from environmental concerns. This perk is provided thanks to regular system flow analysis and a giant insurance policy.

As we pondered the environmental impact of reusable industrial containers, we found ourselves in a surprisingly appreciative mood. After all, somebody should have a standard process for handling the containers that transport toxic waste. Best to leave it to the professionals, to the guys who eat cyanide with their breakfast cereals instead of almonds. This was like returning our used milk bottles to the supermarket – although only if washing out milk bottles were illegal and required a hazmat suit to perform safely.

West Marginal Way barrels

Then we noticed the water carrier truck parked in front of the ICS offices. Not content to contemplate the barrel pyramids, it was busy flooding its contents into the street. A small river filled the deep potholes along West Marginal Way, splashing high into the air as bemused traffic swerved and dodged the flood.

We avoided the spray, took our pictures and left the area. We hoped we hadn’t become first-responders at a toxic waste spill. We wondered whether the insurance policy would cover us. And we began to question the utility of system flow analysis.

All told, we were glad the barrels were still there. To serve a higher purpose, perhaps, but mainly to look pretty.

West Marginal Way barrels

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Seattle Gear Works, emergency exit

Some days the soul requests not botanical gardens but industrial grit. Not perfection but broken things.

On those days, a drive down the Duwamish into South Park brings satisfaction like no other local road trip.

Our route extends along barely paved roads. We splash through puddles that are small lakes. We dodge potholes deep enough to drown a cyclist. We drive by mountains of barrels, piles of crates, and idle machinery left to rust by the side of the road. We breathe in the chaos of an unregulated economy.

The Duwamish waterfront is a land of enterprise. It has the vibrancy of a third world city. It is the American dream waking up on a Superfund site and stretching its legs.

Cain Bolt & Gasket front door

And while bolts and gaskets may be a nice change from cultivating the land, the broken pallets whisper that sacrifice isn’t always sufficient for success.

Across the street, another brotherly endeavor is doing quite a bit better.

Back door landscapingEmergency exit landscaping

In the black and white South Park landscape, even a spot of color and taste catches the eye. In the back alleys of S Portland St, we turned away from Cain and were surprised by something beautiful.

Emergency exit landscapingBack door landscaping

The emergency back door with the fantastic landscaping belongs to Seattle Gear Works. A family-owned gear manufacturing and repair company, the Gear Works was founded in 1946 by Ingwald Ramberg. It is currently owned and managed by his two sons Roland and Sterling.

What began as a small garage business has grown into an international enterprise with over $20M in annual revenue and over a hundred employees. Gear Works gears are used in virtually every kind of industrial endeavor on the planet, from wind energy to military machinery. The South Park location facing us is actually one of the largest gear manufacturing facilities in the country.

Tulips

Seattle Gear works, we salute your attention to detail and your taste in landscaping. We’d love to see the inside of your plant.

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Terminal 115 Viewpoint, revisited

Consider the balance between the already seen and the unforeseen.

A place, once visited and photographed, is committed to memory; saved on disk; gently processed for public consumption; and ultimately presented to the internet for the entire planet to view, discuss, perhaps reference. It is caught in amber, stale data already seen and now forever misleading.

Naturally, reality moves on while the virtual stands still. Electrons move fast, but atoms faster still. As the ancients might have said, things change.

Consider Terminal 115 viewpoint, already seen. Its gritty post-war beauty came not from the stagnant river or the military overpass, but from the old fisherman’s shack with its sunken barrels and boarded windows. A surprise, a touch of the handmade in a manufactured world. Unforeseen.

Eight months later, the shack is gone. Taken by the river, or a victim of the messy, unpredictable real world? Perhaps both.

Derelict shack at Terminal 115 is gone

So a second visit converts a place that was, in a way, special into yet another rock pile next to the Duwamish.

Terminal 115 viewpointTerminal 115 viewpoint

To be sure, the 1st Ave S bridge still has its East Berlin chic.  It’s mostly the sniper towers.

First Avenue South Bridge overpass

There are still random things lying on the banks of the Duwamish, particularly at low tide.  The river is a liquid steampunk landfill, and you never know what it’ll decide to wash up.  This time it was somebody’s metal pipe.

First Avenue South Bridge overpass

On closer inspection, more things had changed. As it turns out, the previous occupants of 100 SW Peninsula Pl weren’t a marine diving company, as the previous note might have suggested. Instead, behind the fence was an eponymous outfit called Commercial Fence. They demonstrated their business acumen through an inordinate fondness for razor wire.

Barbed wire

According to a sign onsite, Commercial Fence has now moved to greener pastures on W Marginal Way S. The vacant lot has presumably been purchased by the Port of Seattle. The Port of Seattle, of course, remains its usual charming self.

Our friendly Port of Seattle

Not only that, their first act upon taking over the property was to take down the fisherman’s shack. No doubt the space will be used for something eminently practical.

Alas. Perhaps better to remember the already seen and avoid the location forever more, unless the unforeseen invalidate the memory.

Fisherman’s shack, you’ll be remembered. That is, if we can get ourselves disentangled from the razor wire.

Barbed wire

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Elliott Bay Park

There are many ways to get to Elliott Bay Park.  My favorite is the Helix Pedestrian Bridge.

Helix Pedestrian Bridge

Helix Pedestrian Bridge

On the other side of the bridge lies Amgen’s Research and Technology Center, next to pleasant Puget Sound vistas.

Amgen amino acid polePuget Sound sunset

Built by Amgen after its acquisition of local Seattle biotech darling Immunex, the Helix Bridge provides safe passage over a highly active train line.

Helix Pedestrian Bridge

Seattle downtown train tracks

The train line is a commercial artery into the heart of Elliott Bay Park:  the massive grain terminal operated by Louis Dreyfus Corp.

Pier 86 Grain Terminal

Located on the Port of Seattle’s Pier 86, the terminal was built in 1970 to efficiently move grain from incoming trains to outgoing ships.  The terminal boasts 68 massive silos, each 130 feet high.

If Terminal 18 is a perpetual motion machine, Pier 86 is a robotized line dance.

Pier 86 grain terminal and trains

BNSF and Union Pacific trains run day and night through this corridor, loaded with soybeans and corn from the American heartland – the Dakotas, Minnesota, Montana and Nebraska.  Some token wheat from Washington and Oregon also passes through Pier 86.

Pier 86 Grain elevator

Most of the grain leaving Seattle will be used as feed for livestock in the far East, with Taiwan, China and Japan as primary destinations.  Central and South America also receive some portion of the grain.

Pier 86 Grain elevator

All told, over 6 million tons of grain move through Pier 86 every year.

Mass Glory loads up on grain

While most of the grain is buffered in the terminal’s 4 million bushels of storage capacity, some is transferred directly from train to ship.  This is apparently preferable, as it allows the grain to be loaded onto the ship in somewhat better condition.  It’s a rough life being a cereal.

Pier 86 grain terminal

The terminal is able to load 3,000 tons of grain per hour into a giant cargo ship.  It is also able to unload trucks at a rate of 250 tons per hour.  This throughput is only possible thanks to the facility being completely automated, with sophisticated mechanical devices and electronic controls.  Who needs humans when you have such infrastructure?

Helix Pedestrian Bridge over train tracks

During the day, the grain terminal is a spectacular sight.  At night, the facility expands and fills all other senses.

Pier 86 grain terminal

Freed from ambient noise, trains click and clack with wild abandon, advancing one car at a time to feed the grain elevator’s endless hunger.  Electric conveyor belts drone and hum.  The enormous ship sloshes and clanks.  In the distance, the city looks on proudly.

Seattle from Pier 86

Grain dust rises from the ships as seeds roll into the ship’s hold. The smell is pervasive and intoxicating. It is earth and sunlight, the deep smell of the harvest, the taste of late summer. It is carbohydrate and omega-6, the deep imbalance of our bodies. It is, above all, commodity.

Pier 86 grain terminal with flour cloud

The flour settles on the bay.  Algae blooms and metabolizes in the shallows, chaining together an entire ecosystem of micro-organisms, fish, and seagulls.  The breadbasket of the world also creates local food chains.

Pier 86 grain terminal

A nearby fishing pier invites the adventuresome, the foolhardy and the merely hungry to taste the results.

Pier 86 fishing pier

While probably not the world’s most unhealthy fish, Elliott Bay’s catch is surely somewhere high on the leaderboards.  This is why catch and release was invented.

The world's best liars

Nearby, the Amgen facility works until late into the light, glowing with science and artificial light.  Biotechnology meets corn.  Reason sleeps and spawns monsters.

Amgen facilities

Elliott Bay Park continues down to Pier 90 and 91, where moorage is provided for commercial workboats and fishing vessels.

Pier 90 lights

This is as far as the Port of Seattle reaches.  It is the end of the port, the northernmost tentacle of the monster.

Farther east, Smith Cove becomes the Elliott Bay Marina, an oasis of liveaboards and recreational vessels.  Children play on the piers and well-tended lawns.  Once again, the humans are unmistakably in control.

Pier 90 lights

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Jack Perry Memorial Shoreline

As night falls you find yourself somewhere along Alaskan Way, near the hulking ghost of the viaduct, writhing along an endless coil of street-level train lines.

A sign calls out to you and you head west through a landscape of parking lots, chain link fences, and buildings designed for bureaucracy. The road ends at a small rocky patch of waterfront at the mouth of the Duwamish East Waterway. It’s the Port of Seattle’s gift to you, a nicely wrapped box of required public shoreline access.

In front of you is Terminal 18, the largest container processing facility this side of Los Angeles. The sprawling scale of the operation evades comprehension.

Jack Perry Memorial Viewpoint

The terminal glows under a canopy of incandescent light. The sky resonates with infrared, but you only see pitch black. The crane stoops like a giant to gather containers. The work of a thousand men, performed in a fraction of a second. What is human here? What is machine?

In the distance you see a homeless man shuffle through bushes. You hear voices mutter on the wind. You consider the risk and realize it belongs to another world. What is human?

You hear the water splash against rotting piers, as the terminal dulls the air with bass and snare drum repartee. Containers rise, swing, and fall, transferring endlessly from ships to shore, shore to ships. The source code of the global economy, actions repeated as instructions, caught in the infinite loop of commerce. Empty or full, copied and pasted, repeat business. German ships with Chinese goods unloading on American shores.

Jack Perry Memorial Viewpoint

You are in someone’s favorite park, a small viewpoint born of unspeakable tragedy and the fortuitous availability of a hundred-and-twenty feet of unpaved shoreline. You are paying tribute to the life of Jack Perry, beloved son and father, someone just like you, someone not even the internet could identify.

The viewpoint is something small, less than promised, an inadequate tribute to a better man. It is also a window into something far greater than photography, than any still image. It is a honeypot for eyes that cannot close. It is an industrial elephant and your camera is blind.

This cannot last, you think. As the night deepens you will eventually tear yourself away and sleep, while the terminal remains standing. It will hum and snarl through the days and nights, a colossal perpetual motion machine bent on forever, until someone finds a way to disconnect it, or until the Earth itself breaks under its feet.

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Terminal 115 Viewpoint

Just north of the barrel pyramids, nestled between W Marginal Way S and the Duwamish, lies a park owned by the Port of Seattle.

You reach it by finding an address on the Port of Seattle’s website, scouring the area for something non-existent, pausing to curse, then using aerial photography to determine the actual location.

For a moment, you wish you hadn’t found it.

Barbed wire around Industrial Fencing Inc.

The viewpoint is located next to a facility whose owners are clearly not fond of visitors.  Depending on which part of the internet you believe, this is either part of the Terminal 115 complex or it belongs to an angry group of divers for hire.

Either way, you wisely decide to stay on the legal side of the fence.

Barbed wire around Industrial Fencing Inc.

Electric lines cross the Duwamish in front of you, taking advantage of what is effectively the most narrow point in the river at this stage in its controlled meandering.

Barbed wire and towerPower tower

This is also where the First Avenue South Bridge crosses the river.  Yet another drawbridge in a city of drawbridges, this one was built in the mid-1950s and has undergone several moments of reconstruction.  At one point in time, it had the honor of having the highest accident rate in the state.

First Avenue South Bridge overpass

So this is Terminal 115 Viewpoint.  Unfortunately, you can’t really see much of Terminal 115, so you can’t reflect on the ways in which the cargo cult has gained acolytes in this day and age.  There’s a river and a bridge.  The river is here because we couldn’t really move it, and the bridge is here because we needed a workaround for the river.

Barbed wire around Industrial Fencing Inc.First Avenue South Bridge overpass

So you walk down the Duwamish shoreline next to the barbed wire and look out across the river. Sunshine makes the day beautiful, and the toxic water is almost inviting. The bridge architecture is not unlike that of prison guard towers you’ve seen in movies, and the aesthetic is gritty and industrial. If Seattle were Berlin, this would have to be part of its Wall.

First Avenue South Bridge overpass

It’s not a place that invites you in. Instead, it begrudgingly admits its status as a viewpoint, unhappily tolerating your presence while wondering why you’re here.  This park is under martial law.

First Avenue South Bridge overpassFirst Avenue South Bridge overpass

The park’s mood changes from hostility to sadness when you see the derelict shack by the river.

Derelict shack at Terminal 115

The weathered boards and sunken floats conjure up images of your grandfather’s Seattle.  A time when men were men, fish didn’t glow in the dark, and nobody needed a “toxic shellfish” sign in Vietnamese to know when them thar mussels weren’t in their prime.

Derelict shack at Terminal 115

The mind’s eye imagines trees growing by the banks of a river, shadowing an old man living in a fishing hut.  The mind’s eye sees salmon navigating unconstrained waters to die in their very own spawning grounds, a cycle of continuous change kept in motion by everlasting stasis.  The minds eye see the cycle broken by a tribe with a different plan in mind, powered by the stored energy of millions of solar cycles.

Sinking barrels

The mind’s eye also sees a more prosaic reality:  a storage shed poorly built allowed to weather the rains and fall into ruin at its own pace, protected by wire from trespassers and adorned by every season’s supply of fresh invasive weeds.

Derelict shack at Terminal 115Derelict shack at Terminal 115

Terminal 115 Viewpoint offers little else to the mere human.

A dusty shoreline littered with plastic garbage.  A bench where the lost, incautious or homeless might rest.  The fulfillment of a rash promise made by industry – to provide the unwashed masses with token ways to dodge the container ships and reach the river’s edge.  A group of sad-looking trees.

And in the distance, the ghost of the Duwamish.

Ghost of the Duwamish

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