“Recovering together” naturally: the case for natural flood protection in South Jersey’s coastal zones

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[LOOKING ACROSS JETTY AND ABSECON INLET AT ATLANTIC CITY]

Over at Design Observer, the preeminent geographer of New Orleans, Richard Campanella makes a strong plea for a balancing of the nation’s “sediment budget”, an inequality that some of our Jersey shore communities feel most acutely in the wake of Sandy.  As Campanella has pointed out, the anthropogenic changes to our coasts and waterways have laid the foundation for the unprecedented economic growth of the nation:

“We routed water from wet to dry places via aqueducts, canals, pipelines and reservoirs, to be used for hydroelectricity, irrigation, municipal and industrial purposes, and upon these systems we built the world’s largest economy.”

Similarly, Atlantic City’s resort economy is built on a series of man-made infrastructural interventions: from the railroads in the 1850s to jetties and groins to the partially private-funded AC-Brigantine Connector tunnel, Atlantic City survives due to a series of public infrastructural umbilicals.

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[GROINS HAVE EXTENDED ATLANTIC CITY’S SHORELINE FOR MOST OF THE 20TH CENTURY]

Many of these landbuilding structures currently in use by the US Army Corps along the Jersey Shore–jetties and groins primarily–do little but augment and reinforce natural depositional patterns.  They’ve served to extend Atlantic City’s northern section further into Absecon Inlet although there is not much density occupying this space.  As Campanella has also expertly noted, the successes of large scale landbuilding infrastructure projects often directs development into areas of muted danger.  Only during storms like Katrina and Sandy does the “obscured relevance” of these natural processes become violently apparent.

Though not a levee or a floodwall the 3,727’ Absecon Inlet jetty on the east side of the waterway is a piece of this quietly reassuring infrastructure.  Designed and built in 1948 for what the Army Corps calls “channel control,” the jetty functions by creating a hard edge to capture the fleeing sands of northern Brigantine Island from entering Absecon Inlet and blocking this vital thoroughfare.  Sitting 8’ above the mean high water mark, it’s also a formidable barrier which invited development along Brigantine’s Ocean Drive and Sunset Court.

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[LOCATION OF ABSECON INLET JETTYS]

Yet during Sandy, the inlet crested both Absecon inlet jetties, flooding Atlantic City and severely scouring and undermining the bulkhead along Ocean Drive.  According to the Atlantic City Press, a beach replenishment project amply protected the Atlantic side of the city, but the inlet and back bay sections were notoriously porous.  The City and the Army Corps will soon open bids for constructing a section of seawall between Oriental and Atlantic Avenues, with another section proposed but neither designed nor funded further north.

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[NOAA AERIAL IMAGERY SHOWING INLET CRESTING EASTERN JETTY 31 OCTOBER 2012]

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[AFTER CRESTING THE JETTY, THE INLET SCOURED UNDER THE BULKHEAD ALONG OCEAN DRIVE]
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[HOUSES ALONG OCEAN DRIVE SUFFERED TREMENDOUS EROSION]

A near constant commitment to new flood protection infrastructure has a predictable impact on development in both Atlantic City and Brigantine.  Despite the proximate danger of a swollen Inlet, a new residential complex at Rum Point has just broken ground–after extensive litigation with NJ Department of Environmental Protection.  Arguably, the people pay doubly when the Federal government subsidizes risky residential building through infrastructure and generous national flood insurance programs.

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[PROPOSED SECTIONS OF SEAWALL IN ATLANTIC CITY. MAP BY CHRIS DOUGHERTY]

Yet options do exist for “softer” flood protection.  One of the rare “successes” of Superstorm Sandy was found in Jersey’s protected marshlands.  According to the American Littoral Society’s report on Sandy’s impact on coastal habitats, coastal restoration projects like the south Cape May Meadows (a project developed by the Army Corps, the Nature Conservancy and NJDEP) “fared very well during the storm and achieved its goal of flood protection.”  Salt marshes and dune systems also blunted traumatic storm surges and waves.

The dialogue around the failures of rigid flood control systems and the embrace of more adaptive natural systems is becoming increasingly robust.  Increasingly, cities in littoral areas across the globe have developed fraternities to exchange more natural techniques for combating rising sea levels.  In these dialogues, ‘combat’ perhaps connotes the wrong mentality; rather many of these urban modifications allow water to coexist within cities.

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Immediately after Sandy, billboards along the AC Expressway urged Jerseyans to bounce back with “Jersey Strong” vigor.  One simply said “Recovering Together”.  What if this was an exhortation to rebuild together with natural processes? With Atlantic City’s lack of density, wouldn’t it be interesting to see an entire northern area riven through with salt marshes, tidal creeks and–instead of simply allowing north Brigantine Island to become south Brigantine Island–we balance the sediment budget and create an extensive urban dune system?

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“Local Color and Urban Grit”: Tagging the Rusticated Piers of the Henry Ave. Bridge

“Graffiti exists along nearly every inch of space that is reachable from the trail winding along the hillside of the lower Wissahickon Valley, providing only obvious visible distinction between the bridge today and its original appearance, while adding a splash of local color and urban grit to the tranquil setting.” —[Historic American Engineering Record, Henry Avenue Bridge / Wissahickon Memorial Bridge]

Movement on the Reading Viaduct

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[PERHAPS?, APRIL 2009]

It’s clear people are still thinking about the Reading Viaduct. Though a kind of vestigial organ of a vanished transportational body, the Viaduct is becoming to the neighborhoods it oversees. Artists are beginning to climb into its musty folds and call it their own and far from being a haunting piece of industrial detritus, the structure revels in transition and permanence.  A new public art installation set in a crevasse of the old trestle and a conceptual drawing tacked to the remains of the massive elevated structure facing Vine Street reflect this growing conversation. What first struck me was the delightfully perfect placement of the rendering against the faux-stolid stonework of the 1951 abutment.  But even more fascinating, upon closer inspection, is the future the rendering holds.

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[A VERY SUBTLE SUGGESTION]

People pass it not knowing that it shows a place in time, in exactitude, as it could be. While the authors are still unknown, we’re fast on the case It could be the work of the Reading Viaduct Project folks, it could be the musing of a citizen, or it could be a student project.  Basically, it depicts what could be the very inviting southern trailhead of the Reading Viaduct–four flights of steps and an inclined walkway. In what appears a very honest and natural depiction a real possibility: a couple lounges on the broad Art Museum like steps, a family ambles by while a jogger ascends the series of inclined planes.

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[NEW READING RR BRIDGE OVER VINE ST., 1951, LOOKING WEST]

The good folks at the Asian Arts Initiative, who themselves have sponsored an amazing sculptural project using the viaduct as a backdrop, are looking into the mysterious rendering.  Just a block down from the futural sketch, Jonathan and Kimberly Stemler’s the little red string consists of a series of tiny Chinese lanterns strung along the ceiling of the Carlton Street portal of the viaduct.  Even in the white hot heat of last Sunday afternoon, the tiny Baby’s Bottom lanterns shone bright against the ochre-hued blackness of the dank tunnel.  If you follow the sinuous electrical cables you’ll find that the tiny bulbs are illuminated by power from the Shelly Electric Company, a seemingly longtime neighbor of the trestle.  If you pass through the tunnel to the west, a placard affixed to the Shelly Company’s wall orients you to the piece.  the little red string is one of four public art pieces sponsored by the Asian Arts Initiative as a part of their Futurescapes–Chinatown in Flux project, a sculptural telling of how Chinese-American Philadelphians grapple with and ultimately populate austere cityscapes emptied of their personal content.

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[THE LITTLE RED STRING, JONATHAN AND KIMBERLY STEMLER, 2009]

Projects like these amount to something of a response to my earlier suggestion that the Viaduct Project fundamentally lacked support on the ground. To be sure, the obstacles to developing the viaduct into Philadelphia’s High Line still exist. But both these projects show a desire to reconnect the Reading Viaduct to a living city, to reconnect it to the people it was meant to serve, albeit in a different form.

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[VIADUCT, OLD SPRING GARDEN ST. STATION, JULY 2007]

And if we believe things have an essential and constant nature: the thing that once ferried so many will again be remade and in turn, remake.

Point Breeze, 1935

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[POINT BREEZE, 1935]

Much of the tidal Schuylkill is scarred by the the remains of an overbuilt petroleum distribution system whose scale is evidenced by the above photograph from National Geographic in 1935.  Perhaps ‘scarred’ isn’t the apt verb to describe the subterrenean impact of this petroleum drosscape: much of the damage affects soil and groundwater.  In retrospect, the calamitous Depression that created these vast sinuous tank centipedes portended the more sustained slowdown that would eventually render virtually all of this Fordist oil-moving infrastructure obsolete.

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Hog Island Shipyard: Context and Discoveries

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[GOOGLE EARTH/HOG ISLAND SHIPYARD OVERLAY SHOWING SHIPWAYS]

My essay on the machine island of Hog Island is available on Phillyhistory.org.  In that forum I present a nuts-and-bolts overview of the establishment of the facility, if a little indebted to James J. Martin’s revisionist essay on the mismanagement of the site. Martin’s essay, “The Saga of Hog Island, 1917-1920: The Story of the First Great War Boondoggle” is methodical and strident though slightly limited in its treatment of the social/labor dimensions of the site.  Martin’s direct point is that the site was an utter failure, producing no meaningful warships to carry the fight to Europe during the conflict. But the larger design of his piece is to demythologize our patriotic appreciation of a disinterested private sector laying down its essential business to help the country in time of war.

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“It will burn for a mile”: Fire Insurance and the Origins of the High Pressure Fire Service


[H.P.F.S. PUMPING STATION — DELAWARE AVE. AND RACE ST.]

On March 17, 1900 Philadelphia’s center city business elites balked at the news that two New York fire insurance companies, the Home Insurance Company of New York and the Williamsburg City Insurance Company were instructing their underwriters to stop issuing fire insurance policies to Philadelphia businesses situated in an ominously named “conflagration district”: the area from Broad to the Delaware, Arch to Chestnut Sts. It was usual for late nineteenth century fire insurance companies trying to limit unnecessary exposure and most firms acted collaboratively and shared information about known risk while setting rigid rates which were seldom undersold. Thus, the Home Insurance and Williamsburg City Insurance companies were emboldened by the Weed and Kennedy Company’s attempt to discontinue policies in the “conflagration district.” But its Philadelphia agents mutinied, refused to cut off its clients, and severed ties to the New York office.

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Our street corner friends

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I’ve always wondered what these large cast iron posts are and I imagine you have too. In the case of the above, someone has beautified the vestiges of what was Philadelphia’s early 20th century police and fire communication system. Judging by the height, on the top of this post would have sat a police telegraph box. I would have never known what these posts were if I hadn’t come across Citizenship in Philadelphia (1919), a wonderful book that credits city achievements in the way of urban health and welfare while calling for all sorts of municipal improvements in the Progressive vein.

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While modern commentary seems to suggest that Philadelphia lagged behind other cities who more avidly embraced the nascent health and welfare movements or implemented City Beautiful projects, the presence of these “street corner friends” in many parts revealed that the city did value a baseline level of civic security. Police and fire boxes, which in places like New York are still ubiquitious and functional parts of everyday life, were the necessary eyes and ears of the city’s command and control apparatus. Philadelphia was, and continues to be, a city dedicated to the preservation of life, liberty, and property–with a keen emphasis on the last of this series. Though fire had never ravaged the city like San Francisco (1906) or our neighbor to the south Baltimore in their often overlooked inferno of 1904, the prospect of a cataclysmic fire was not improbable. And if we wanted to interpret these boxes as means of social control, the possibility of large scale urban revolt was never out of the question, either. Old-timers could recall the urban unrest in 1877 and even before that the ghosts of the riots of 1844 still lingered.

On a more pedestrian level, however, these devices on streetcorners constituted more than an electronic panopticon but instead cast a kind of technological blanket of security across the city. Silent and almost robotic, they bespoke modernity to a city that had only known corruption, police somnolence, and general backwardness. They represent Philadelphia’s first attempt to become “wired” though their abandonment also reflects the hazards of making huge outlays for telecommuncations systems that are almost perpetual obsolete.

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Dobson’s Run Drainage Improvement Project Update

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JPC has completed the wingwalls for the outfall at Dobson’s Run in East Falls. Another company, Jaydee Contractors of Michigan is constructing the drainage tunnel from Scotts Lane down Allegheny Ave. and under Laurel Hill Cemetery to the outfall below the ex-Reading Railroad bridges at East Falls. Apparently, early projections that the tunneling through mica schist would be slow going have proven false. Down at the Schuylkill, to build the forms for the concrete walls below river level, the Blackwood, NJ-based general contractor had go above and beyond the normal sheetpile coffer dam and build an earthen dam reinforced with vertical steel piles. A series of pumps keep the work area relatively dry though the foreman on the site remarked that during heavy flow, the work area is allowed to flood and then water is pumped out.

Follow the jump for more images.

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