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(Photo: Jin Chen Lan)






                                Note to amused Readers: To provide plenty of visuals

                                         on this rather loopy rant, we have added links for you.

                                             Thank you,                         

                                                                                   Folks at Folksizhome


     At the top of the isle Manhattan, in what we call Inwood Park, you will find the last patch of this borough that has eluded landscaping. The terrain is as it was when blue-eyed savages first graced these shores: unspoiled and virginal.

     On forays to that place, we would sit on a boulder and take it all in. Imagine. Hudson landed here in the first decade of the 1600s, Verrazano 75 years earlier. In a short 400 years, we have landscaped, built up, and paved over the entire island except for those green bits which we recreated in our own image. Central Park is an example of that.

     Plain talk, this 13-mile-long fish-shaped island is a monument to and of concrete in one form or another.

     Instead of a boulder, now I perch on a chair, on a pier, peering down at the Hudson River 10 feet below. Facing to the east, that portion of the skyline visible to me is dominated by odd new glass and steel buildings, but bet yo mama’s pearls they’re standing on concrete.

     At 390 Park Avenue, there is a building called “the Lever House.” In 1952, it was arguably America’s first glass-exterior building, providing you don’t count the U. N. tower, which has masonry short sides. Of course, any student of architecture will object to my description(s). But now, 390 Park looks like the glass and steel towers that surround, dwarf, and reflect it.

     Only it is beautiful and elegant because it is original...was original. Originality is tough and rarely happens, like a Schumann symphony or  “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon.” Works of original genius may appear to lose a measure of luster after spawning a school of imitators.

     Where ever I wander, on this my island home, now turned to stone as though gazed upon by Medusa, if there is a crack in a sidewalk, a gap in the brick, or any chink in the concrete armor, on careful examination I might find a teensy weensy plant that harbors safe and content in that seemingly inhospitable itty bitty crevice. Sometimes they appear to thrive. A little sunlight, some moisture, and a steady supply of minerals leeched or leached from the brick or asphalt, and those bad boys are off to the races. Sometimes they flower, and sometimes a variety of species might share a bit of prime crack. I’m not a botanist either.






















    (Photo: Katherine Figueroa)

      What tenacity! How furious their lives are and must be. Would I could I be so indomitable, so resolute? Then some schmuck with a spray can of Round Up comes by and the honeymoon is over.

     The “Concrete Revolution” began around the Third Century BC or BCE, whatever. The development, refinement, and application of concrete technology was to the Roman Empire as double-entry bookkeeping was to the Renaissance.

     Reaching and grabbing like weeds, the roads that shifted Roman military power, commerce, and culture through the Empire were reinforced with formulations of concrete.


     The aqueducts that brought good drinking water to urban populations were engineered to last, and in some parts with concrete.


     After Nero, it is purported, allowed a large portion of Rome to burn down (Great Fire, July 18-23, 64 AD), when rebuilding those neighborhoods, concrete was employed to retard fire. Regulations, ’magine that.

     The dome of the Roman Pantheon (grand opening in 126 AD) is concrete and still standing, as are some of those arched aqueducts. Not bad, 2,000 years. How old do you think America’s oldest standing stadium or arena is?


     Yup, concrete was a big part of the foundation of the Roman Empire, pun intended.

     Flying low over the jungles of Central America in the first half of the 20th Century and looking to the horizons, the terrain appears to be an undulating green sea without landmarks or irregularity. From this vantage, we see only the top of the forest canopy. Below it is dense and multi-layered, not much different from the ocean, our cities, or our Congress.


     If flying over the same jungle in 400 AD, we would have seen cities, not towns or villages, but cities with plazas and pyramids, suburbs, and markets.


     These cities—often some distance from one another—were connected by roads that weeded through the jungle and stretched to both coasts and north to what is now southern Mexico.

     I would add here that this civilization had organized irrigated agriculture, which of course infers land management and records-keeping supported by advanced mathematics and astronomy. Those were the Mayans. Though quite fancy, they were very meshuga. Bloodthirsty really, much like ourselves.

     By about the year 950 (our primitive calendar), their labor and soldiering population had had about enough. They said, “Fellas, screw you, we are outta here,” and that was the end of the Mayan empire, pfft. The exact causes of the collapse are not satisfactorily understood but they’re working on it. After the population dispersed, the jungle reclaimed the real estate as if the Mayans were never there. The jungle is being peeled back now, and we can visit the sites and take pictures of ourselves in front of the pyramids.

     How long it took the jungle to erase Mayan edifices, roads, and infrastructure is not known. Safe to say, within 100 years of the skedaddle, we would not have seen it from the airplane.

     And, it started with little plants, not creepers or trees. Just those tiny plants so opportunistic as to be credibly predatory. Just like the ones we have here, the kind you don’t see until you notice them.



(Photo: Katherine Figueroa)

     There are other places, some known to you and some less so, which when no longer inhabited or maintained were repoed by the indigenous flora in that locality.


     Angkor Wat was constructed in the first half of the 12th Century (our calendar). By that time all of southeast Asia was the Khmer empire in its zenith.


     They started as Hindu but shifted to Buddhist. The empire lasted about 600 years, a pretty good run, but. Angkor Wat was not the only dazzling construction project of the Khmers, Angkor Thom is splendid too. Thom was both religious and civic in purpose. Wat was primarily religious but both, and others were de-purposed by the jungle when the Khmer empire collapsed around the 15th Century. Angkor Wat was never completely abandoned, but not enough folks remained to mow the lawn. After that, the largest religious edifice ever constructed (way way bigger than the Vatican) had mostly monkeys and snakes for tenants. The monkeys liked it just fine, and the snakes liked the monkeys. Again, cities of a fallen empire conquered by vegetation, no shots fired. Someone of heft said it was a mistake to attack cities, but who reads anymore? Plants never did.

     On my block, my street, we have those sidewalk tree pit things which sometimes support pretty big trees. Should one of those trees get big and muscular, the roots get under the sidewalk, lifting and fracturing it. This happens often. Repairing that sidewalk is a big pain in the ass as you have to get under there and chop out the big roots, which would, if left intact, no doubt offend again. This happens regularly...predictably. The little plants though, no shrinking violets, do a similar thing but they do it to scale. Deteriorate a brick, you deteriorate a wall. Had I had a football coach, he might’ve said something like that.


 Leach: with reference to a soluble chemical or mineral) drain away from soil, ash, or similar material by the action of percolating liquid, especially rainwater.


     So the itty bitty roots get in there and soften up the brick or concrete or asphalt and then the water gets in and… rinse and repeat. In a temperate climate with seasonal freezes, this process may be accelerated. Old shipwrecks breakdown like this too but in very cold water they last longer.

     It must be asked; what conditions would lead to near total population collapse in a major U. S. city or region equivalent to that which put the kibosh on Mayan America? The answer is entirely beyond my pay grade. However, scientists once developed “neutron bombs” that would kill the living but not ruin the real estate. These labor savers proved impractical as the enduring fallout proved to be unmanageable.

      Other scenarios:

  - The unregulated use of herbicides and pesticides just made the place too damn toxic to live in. Add to that pedestrian air and water pollution, plus asbestos, plus litter.

  - Renovating and/or repairing a 19th-century infrastructure is perceived as a waste of time and money. Additionally, the rent is too damn high. And for what? You can move to the suburbs and work from home.

  - The American empire does get a haircut and our big cities simply cease to be viable. It is no secret that in the 20th century, we have witnessed once vibrant urban/industrial regions eclipse and whither into large chia pets. Don’t feel bad folks, it happens to some of the best empires. Does “rust belt” ring a bell? For whom does the rust bell toll? (So bad!!)


  - A saltwater flood event devastates the electrical infrastructure beyond a reasonable cost to replace it. Likely, it would just happen again anyway.


 - A small to medium earthquake would “compromise the integrity” of so many buildings that even the adjoining buildings would be deemed “I don’t think so”. I can’t imagine how many water main breaks would occur in such an event.


     No one ever believed that their “world” could come to an end BUT. The exceptions that did not become the stuff of archaeology can be counted on one hand.

     When walking around town, mine or yours, always pay attention but pay attention to those little courageous plants who seem to fear nothing. Tell me again please, who is invasive and who belongs? Nothing is writ in stone and even if it were, the little plants will have at it.


Photo: Caleb Davison

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