Under the cover of darkness, we drive into the Pierson-Sage parking garage, just north of Yale’s Science Hill. It is nighttime in mid-March. Two recent graduates, now Yale employees, promise a juicy story. I can’t help but think of the scene in “All the President’s Men” when Bob Woodward coaxes the Watergate story out of an informant in a parking garage in Washington, D.C. But our target that night is not a national scandal (though I still kept my hopes up); it is an unlikely fleet of abandoned cars.
“Welcome to the graveyard of elephants,” one of the Yale employees says as we descended into the bowels of the garage. We creep up on a handful of tarp-covered cars, vaguely resembling sleeping pachyderms. Upon closer inspection, three or four of the cars appear luxurious enough to belong in someone’s private collection. One stands out from the crowd.
The 1965 Dodge is so old that it has sliders instead of knobs for the car radio. I worry that I will find a body inside, but instead I find a rusty paint scraper and a pair of shoelaces. The stuffing explodes out of the back seat, but I cannot locate the animal that has been gnawing on the fabric. The odometer reads 67,256, and a 1994 New York emissions test sticker indicates the exact same mileage. Either the odometer is broken or this car was moved from New York to Yale’s Pierson-Sage garage two decades ago.
The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles doesn’t help, but not for lack of trying. A license plate search returned no registration or inspection records — records are deleted after ten years of no activity, according to Pete Bucci, the department’s public information officer. The decaying sticker provides the only evidence of this car’s strange journey.
While nobody — except one intrepid journalist — seems to have been thinking about this car in over a decade, parking lot patrons are taking note of other abandoned cars. On the top level of the garage sits an old pickup truck. Its flat tires hint that it hasn’t been driven in a while, but that hasn’t stopped people from using it — as a trash dump. Garbage litters the Chevy’s bed. Broken windshield wipers poke through a layer of plastic bottles, coffee cups, and rusty hubcaps. I can’t find the shredded documents; maybe they have already decomposed.
Someone has stuck a note underneath the windshield wiper that reads, “Is this truck for sale? If so, let me know.” I give Bill, the man who left the note, a call. He says that he noticed the pickup in July 2013, because his son has an identical one that needed some spare parts. Now, at the end of August, he hasn’t received a call back. When I return to the garage, the note is gone, but the truck remains.
It’s unclear why the truck hasn’t been removed. The Chevy’s last visible Yale parking permit expired on May 28, 2012. Another five vehicles appear similarly abandoned in the garage. Some of the cars I found did not have any sort of permit altogether, and others had permits that expired years ago.
Ed Bebyn, Yale’s director of parking and transit, writes in an email that “essentially, these cars are permitted vehicles.” That is to say: Cars that are parking in the garage are required to have permits, so if a car is parking in the garage, it must have a permit. There are always some abuses, he adds, but a new sticker program to be implemented this fall should make the few offenders comply. Karen Peart, a press officer at the Office of Public Affairs, explained that only cars in open Yale lots are currently required to have stickers; Pierson-Sage is not an open lot, but rather a garage. The new program would extend the sticker requirement to Yale’s garages starting on Sept. 2. However, she declined a phone interview, so I never received an answer about what would happen to these abandoned cars. If the New York DMV can’t even find a record of the ’65 Dodge, I doubt Yale can.
In his email, Bebyn said that some of the dust-covered cars belong to students who buy long-term parking and just keep the cars in the garage. Some cars thus only appear to be abandoned. No conspiracy there. But others have tires that look like they have not functioned in years, and their windshields do not display valid parking permits. One has to wonder whether someone is really paying Yale nearly a hundred dollars a month to store his or her junk. The persistent, suspicious presence of these cards indicates they are low on the list of the priorities of the parking administration.
Some people who pass through the garage are taking justice into their own hands — more accurately, their own fingers. Some have wiped messages into the grime covering a few of the cars. The front window of a red Metro Geo: “DANG WASH ME PLZ.” Someone has drawn a frown, nose, and eyebrows on the hood. But nobody has taken up the task set forth by the anonymous complainant.
When I leave the parking garage with the employees that cold night in March, I am still searching for a story. But sometimes a garage full of cars really is just a garage full of cars. There are no secret documents here — except, perhaps, those related to the new sticker policy. This story is full of actors who go half way: laypeople interested enough to demand cleanup but lazy enough only to scratch off enough dust to leave their message, and a parking office interested enough to promise amorphous change but stubborn enough to not explain it.
Not all mysterious parking lots will bring down the presidency.
Ike Swetlitz is a senior in Silliman College. He is the executive editor of the New Journal.
“I should have seen the peak of my house,” recalled Andy Weinstein. “It wasn’t there.”
On August 28, 2011, Weinstein stood next to his car on Philip Street in East Haven. The roads sloped down toward the coast. The formerly well-defined border of sand and sea walls had been erased. Hurricane Irene had made her way up the Atlantic shoreline, pummeling the coast and everything on it. Somewhere among the soup of seawater and debris sat the remains of Weinstein’s house. He set out on foot to find it.
Weinstein’s house was built nearly a century ago, when the beach stretched for fifty or a hundred feet behind the homes, a comfortable buffer. By the time Weinstein started renting the property in 2001, the beach had shrunk drastically. At low tide, there might be twenty feet between water and land. At the highest of high tides—twice a month, under the new or full moon—the water rolled up the beach and ran underneath his house which was elevated off the beach a few feet. When he stepped out of his house on the road-facing side, the water might cover his toes. Weinstein’s beach house was its own island in the Long Island Sound.
Even so, the house remained dry. Weinstein never had water inside the house, and he saw little reason to worry about the hurricane. But just in case, the Friday before the storm, he took the day off from his job at the auto shop he owns to prepare his house. He packed up two days’ worth of clothes, boarded up windows and doors, and moved porch furniture inside. He drove about thirty minutes with his wife and daughter to their primary residence in Woodbridge, expecting to return to East Haven on Sunday afternoon.
Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time she barreled through Cosey Beach on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, Weinstein got a call from his sister-in-law. She had heard that some houses on the beach were badly damaged, but she didn’t have any details. Weinstein drove down to investigate, expecting to find flooded roads, maybe some water damage.
A mile from his house, he saw water on the road. He parked the car and continued on foot. By the time he made it to Cosey Beach Avenue, which runs parallel to the shoreline, he was waist-deep.
Weinstein found his house—half of it, at least. Wet wooden beams lay crisscrossed in a pile of rubble ten feet high, with electrical wires looped over a dirty volleyball and hubcap. The other half was never found, swept into the Sound by the hurricane.
Before returning home to break the news to his family, Weinstein walked to the house two doors down. His cousin, Sara-Ann Auerbach, who owns a home on Cosey Beach Avenue with her husband Hillel, had asked him to retrieve her jewelry and other valuables. She was afraid the water would wash them away. Faced with another pile of rubble, Weinstein took out his cell phone and called her.
“There is no house,” he said.
“What do you mean, there is no house?”
“There is no house.”
In 2011, Hurricane Irene swept away much of Cosey Beach. It might have seemed fast to the inhabitants, but the damage had been centuries in the making. Waterfront development destroyed natural dune systems that held the sand in place, hastening erosion of the beach. Beachfront homes are visibly losing their beachfront, their last line of defense against severe storms. Yet few residents are leaving Cosey Beach. Sara-Ann and Hillel Auerbach rebuilt their home atop thirteen-foot concrete pillars, but Weinstein and his family moved to Woodbridge for good. Some residents of Cosey Beach Avenue have worked to bring the sand back, but scientists caution that this only responds to a symptom, not the cause. The only permanent solution, they say, is to relocate.
Curt Johnson has seen erosion sweep away dozens of feet of beach sand during his lifetime. The Executive Director of Save the Sound, a program run by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, he grew up less than half a mile from Cosey Beach Avenue. Houses that once sat at a comfortable distance from the shoreline now butt up against the water.
“At some point in the not-so-distant future, [the beach] is going to move out from under them entirely,” Johnson said. Tanned and relaxed, he looks like he might have spent idyllic childhood summers on the beach, but now his hair has turned gray and his mouth curves down at the corners; it looks like he’s frowning even when he smiles. “And they’re going to have waves crashing around them every day. It’s horrible.”
Irene and Sandy killed nearly two hundred people and caused about $66 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center. Tens of millions of dollars in federal funding is flowing into coastal areas like New Jersey to restore their beaches to pre-Sandy conditions. And all around the world, scientists and laypeople are on the lookout for more powerful storms, which many believe to be linked to climate change. Whatever is causing these storms, one thing is clear: the storms are putting lives and livelihoods in danger.
Beaches can protect residents from this danger. During Irene and Sandy, the houses with the least sand between them and the water were the most likely to be destroyed, according to James Tait, an associate professor of science education and environmental studies at Southern Connecticut State University. “Each wave is like a packet of energy,” he said. “That energy can do work. And that work can either be moving sand around or moving houses around.”
During the peak of the storm, Tait drove out to East Haven to see the waves in action. He parked near a retirement community about seven hundred feet from the beach, and at an elevation of about twenty feet higher than Cosey Beach Avenue. The storm arrived during high tide, which meant that the storm surge—the rush of ocean water brought on by a hurricane—flowed on top of an already-higher sea. In one of the photographs Tait took the morning of Irene, surf sprays around one residence, its neighbor house collapsed into the sea.
“When you go down there, [you think], ‘how could people possibly be so stupid to build their houses right now at the high tide mark?’” Johnson said. The answer: when many of the homes were built, over a hundred years ago, there was at least fifty feet of beach separating them from the water. The years of beach erosion have caused the distance between shoreline and houses to shrink, in some cases, to zero.
The amount of sand on a beach is determined by the type of waves that break there. When waves crash down, they loosen sand on the beach and suspend it in the water. If the waves strike rapidly, none of the suspended sand has time to settle down; instead it washes out into the Long Island Sound. Winter storms frequently bring these rapid waves to Cosey Beach.
If the waves strike less rapidly, sand carried from the ocean bed by the wave can settle on the beach before the next wave arrives. In this case, the beach grows. But less rapid waves powerful enough to deposit sand don’t reach Cosey Beach. Such waves originate from faraway storms and are blocked by the Long Island Sound. And there isn’t enough water between Connecticut and Long Island for the wind to form restorative waves. So the sand never comes back.
The beach shrinkage is compounded by the presence of humans—specifically, by the homes, hotels, and restaurants they build. According to Johnson, there used to be a line of dunes on the beach—piles of sand three to five feet high. Beach grass grew on top of the dunes and sent roots down deep, holding the sand in place. But when people started building on the beach in the late 1800s, they knocked down the dunes, and the beach grass had nowhere to grow. Now, the beach is not only flat, but also rapidly shrinking.
In 1891, seven cottages dotted the shoreline. Seven years later, the New Haven Street Railway Company ran a trolley line from downtown to the beach. The ride cost a nickel and took about forty-five minutes. Hundreds flocked to the beach, building summer cottages and patronizing restaurants and hotels. A boardwalk stretched across Cosey Beach Avenue; there were pool halls and old-fashioned ice cream stands. Women relaxed on the beach in long white dresses, their husbands standing nearby in black suits and flat straw hats.
Anne Hines’s grandfather purchased a squat cottage about a quarter-mile from the beach in 1910. Five years later, he outfitted it with a cellar, a second story, heating, and electricity. Hines was born in 1938, and she has lived in the same house ever since.
As a child, she spent most of her summers there. She was on the beach by 8:30 every morning, half an hour before swimming lessons began. Anyone who forgot a swimming suit could rent one for a quarter, and boat rentals cost a dollar a day. Hines and her friends passed the day playing card games, volleyball, or tennis, and working on their tans. “It was the greatest place in the world to be,” Hines told me.
In the evening, they gathered at the firehouse, a few blocks landward of the beach, to watch the Branford Manor Drum Corps. Decked out in beige slacks, white shirts, and red jackets with gold buttons, the Corps marched up and down the street, playing their instruments. Hines and her friends marched right behind them.
“We just passed the time away together,” Hines said. “And that’s what it was all about.”
The golden age of Cosey Beach came to a close after the Second World War. Development in the second half of the twentieth century brought a new, retirement-age crowd to the area. Joseph Vegliante, who built about three-dozen houses in East Haven at the time, credits the boom to the low interest rates of the seventies.
Some long-time residents remain, but they agree with Johnson and Tait that the beach has been shrinking over the past century. The sand that used to be on the beach is not, however, gone—it’s just sitting out there in the Long Island Sound. And that means that people can bring it back. With the right technology and enough money, they can pull sand up from the bottom of the Sound and move it back onto the beach. Beach erosion plagues coastal towns around the United States, and people have been replenishing beaches up and down the Atlantic coastline. The Army Corps of Engineers carries out the work, and any nonfederal government body—a city, a state, or a special tax district, for example—can apply to receive this service.
Over fifty years ago, the Army Corps replenished the beach of West Silver Sands, which lies directly to the west of Cosey Beach Avenue. West Silver Sands resident Donald DiPalma said that his house sustained little damage in Irene and Sandy, for which he credits the Army Corps.
But DiPalma has noticed that the beach is smaller than it used to be, even after replenishment. More than half the sand added in 1956 has already eroded. DiPalma is meeting with officials from Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to secure permits for another replenishment project. They need the permits before they can apply to the Army Corps. DiPalma doesn’t expect anything to happen for a few months.
Irene inspired Cosey Beach residents to take action. State Senator Len Fasano held a meeting in September 2012, about a year and a month after the storm, to inform residents about their options for keeping their shoreline homes safe. One option was to apply to the Army Corps for beach replenishment.
At that meeting, Virginia Cellura, a full-time resident of Cosey Beach Avenue, volunteered to coordinate community efforts to replenish the beach. She assembled a team to gather information about what would be required to complete the replenishment and to distribute that information to residents. Hillel Auerbach is a New Haven lawyer, and he volunteered for the project.
In order to petition the Army Corps, the residents needed to apply as a tax district, rather than a group of individuals. Residents planned to fund the project with a tax to be levied upon the district, but they didn’t know exactly how much it would cost. Rough estimates from the Army Corps ranged from five to ten thousand dollars per house, said Steven Ruotolo, who rents property on Cosey Beach Avenue. But, mired by miscommunication and misinformation, the project fell apart after a few meetings. The group has not yet been able to form a district, much less petition the Army Corps. Cellura has since handed off the reins to another Cosey Beach resident, who will soon be re-launching the effort to petition the town for the creation of the district.
But even if the residents can get the Army Corps to restore some of the sand, it won’t remain on the beach for long. Dumping sand on top of a beach might make the beach larger, but it’s a temporary solution—it’s only a matter of time before the water sweeps it back out to sea. It’s like building a sand castle. You pack sand into buckets and then overturn them, forming turrets. You form a wall around your structure, patting it all down to make it last. But all you did was put something in the way of the water. Eventually, the water will wash the sand away.
“It’s sort of a Sisyphean task,” Tait laughed.
This has happened to beach replenishment projects in other parts of the country. The Army Corps has replenished Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, twelve times from 1939 to 1986. The sand never stuck around for more than four years.
Even so, Tait thinks that beach replenishment is the best solution for the residents of Cosey Beach Avenue. Moving the sand from the Sound to the shore could protect more homes, even if it’s just for now. Beyond that, Tait thinks that the only long-term fix is moving away. Many residents are trying; at the end of November, at least eight houses along Cosey Beach Avenue sported “For Sale” signs. Weinstein has been trying to sell his property for the past two years, but hasn’t received a single offer. Residents say that they haven’t seen anyone new in the neighborhood in years.
Some, like Weinstein, could retreat to other homes away from the beach. But others have nowhere else to go, and policymakers are at a loss for how to help them. In late January, a Connecticut state agency determined that homeowners who want the government to buy their homes would get no money from a recent grant from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The committee decided that all FEMA funds would go to infrastructure projects instead. In a January 31 letter, however, Governor Malloy directed the committee to reconvene and reconsider their allocation of funds.
Local legislators presume that state money will likewise be unavailable. James Albis, East Haven’s state representative, said he isn’t aware of any conversations about state-funded buyback programs for coastal properties in dangerous areas, but he is concerned with the state’s ability to fund such a program. And in Connecticut, municipalities have jurisdiction over zoning—cities can decide who can build what where. Towns like East Haven have an incentive to promote development, even in potentially dangerous areas, Albis said, because more development means more property taxes. He knows that people shouldn’t build homes in hazardous places, and he has had conversations privately at the state level to try to change zoning laws. “It’s an uphill battle,” Albis told me.
Meanwhile, at the town level, East Haven has its own battles. It wants to help people who lost property during the storm, but also recognizes the need to adapt to a changing environment. For now, the scales are tipping toward short-term assistance. “We’ve done our best to get people back to normalcy as quickly as possible,” said Frank Biancur Jr., East Haven’s director of planning and zoning. His board has approved all permits to rebuild and elevate homes on Cosey Beach Avenue, but he can do little more. “We can’t force people to come in and rebuild,” he said.
Higher-level government agencies have different priorities. Dan Esty, who was the commissioner of DEEP during both hurricanes, put it bluntly: “A number of people are either going to have to move their houses back from the shoreline, lift them up on support structures, or otherwise change the placement of their homes.” Instead of returning people to normal—what their lives were like before Irene and Sandy—Esty urges them to look toward a new normal.
Some have come to that decision themselves. At first, Weinstein thought he was going to rebuild his house. He applied for permission to rebuild along with the Auerbachs, and both families got zoning approval and commissioned construction plans. A few months after the storm, Weinstein testified at an insurance hearing. His homeowners insurance was denying him money to pay for damages they claimed were caused by water, which was not covered, as opposed to wind, which would be.
At the hearing, Weinstein met Albis. Impressed by Weinstein’s insight and passion, Albis invited Weinstein to join the Shoreline Preservation Task Force, a committee chaired by Albis about how to protect coastal communities. Composed of legislators and other citizens, the committee produced a report last year with recommendations to local, state, and federal agencies on how to reduce damage in future storms.
The more Weinstein learned about erosion and rising sea levels, the more he realized that rebuilding his house on the beach was a bad idea. He didn’t want to be saddled with beachfront property that would keep disappearing before his eyes. “I’ve probably got another twenty years,” Weinstein said. “That’s twenty more years of beach erosion.” That means twenty more years of worrying about the security of his house and twenty more years of paying to raise it, move it back, or replenish the beach.
The tipping point was when he looked at maps created by the Nature Conservancy, which show what the coastline looks like after hurricanes of varying magnitudes. A category 2 hurricane that would arrive in 2020 will likely put Cosey Beach Avenue, and some roads behind it, underwater.
Others hope it is possible for humans to overcome these threats. Sara-Ann, with her thirteen-foot-high concrete pillars, says she hopes her grandchildren will have a beach to play on. Hines is even less worried, and finds the power of the beach compelling still: “Whatever is bothering you has gone out on the waves and you are at peace.”
Tait identified something encouraging about the attention to the situation: residents are being forced to realize that they’re in a fight with nature. What Tait doesn’t say is what comes next: many residents remain in denial about the cold truth that they’re on the losing side. Some can’t leave Cosey Beach Avenue because they can’t sell their property, others are financially secure enough to weather any storm, and some stay adrift with nostalgia, with a sense of home even as the sand under them is swept away.
Four thin blue flames lick the underbelly of a glass flask as Daryl Smith steadies his blowtorch. With sweat dripping from his forehead, he directs the heat at one of three stumpy tubes attached to the spherical flask. The glass glows white-hot and starts to melt. Just as the tube begins to droop, Smith snatches it away with a pair of tweezers. The tube stretches until all that connects it to the flask is a long, thin thread. When the thread breaks, a spark of light appears as the chemical bonds in the glass split apart. The glass closes around the quarter-sized hole where the tube once was. During this minute-long part of the process, Smith has been holding a hose between his teeth that connects his mouth to the sphere. He breathes a puff of air into the sphere, and the hole reappears, leaving space for Smith to push the tube in again. He works without talking; the only noise in the studio comes from the jazz playing on a radio in the background.
A soft-spoken man with short brown hair, Smith is Yale’s scientific glassblower. He spends his days building and repairing glass laboratory equipment in a cramped room filled with a mechanical lathe, gas canisters, torches of different shapes and sizes, and boxes of glass pipes, stoppers, and joints. Today’s job comes at the request of Timothy Newhouse, a chemistry professor who inherited the flask, along with other old glassware, from another faculty member. He uses the flask to conduct chemical reactions isolated from the atmosphere. But he needed the protruding pipes replaced so that they were the same shape as and could plug into his other glass equipment.
Smith uses the lathe to rotate the sphere, bathing it uniformly in a blue flame from another torch, to prevent it from cracking as it cools. The final step is to place the piece in a special oven that gradually heats and then cools the glass to strengthen it. After four hours, it will be ready for use in Newhouse’s lab.
Smith has been a glassblower for nearly twenty years. He grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a few hours away from southern New Jersey, the heart of the glassblowing industry. But he had never considered a career in glassblowing until after college. He was a year out of Texas A&M University when he came across an article in his local newspaper titled, “Glass Blowing: A Job With a Future.” It was 1985, and his job at the time in fisheries science had encouraged him to skew the data in favor of his employer, and Smith recalls thinking, “This is not science.” The article presented a lucrative alternative—and the chance to work with fire. When Smith moved to New York for his wife’s work two weeks later, he brought the clip with him.
Neither Smith nor his wife found success in New York. She didn’t get the job she had wanted; Smith started working for a furniture manufacturing company, where he was passed over for a promotion. His thoughts kept straying back to the article. It had promised a starting salary of around thirty thousand dollars, the equivalent of over sixty thousand dollars today. And North America’s only scientific glassblowing academic program, at New Jersey’s Salem Community College (SCC), happened to be within commuting distance of his in-laws in Pennsylvania.
But before applying to the program, Smith wanted to learn more about what scientific glassblowers actually did. So he talked with his father, a plant manager at Radio Corporation of America, and his brother, a graduate student at Rutgers, who both worked with scientific glassblowers. They told him that glass tradesmen are crucial to the maintenance of industry and research. “It sounded like something interesting to do because it does involve some scientific training, and it does involve working with your hands,” Smith said. “I’ve always enjoyed that. So I gave it a shot.” He enrolled in SCC’s program in January of 1986.
The school still boasts the only academic program for scientific glassblowing in the United States. South Jersey was the birthplace of the glassblowing industry in colonial times. Located at the confluence of major shipping lanes, it’s where glassblowing grew up, says Dennis Briening, current chair of scientific glass technology at the community college. The program currently accepts forty-four students each year, who go on to work at institutions such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology and GE Global Research.
During his first few weeks at the college, Smith practiced making round bottoms on glass tubes and attaching tubes to each other at right angles. The work was, in Smith’s words, “immensely boring,” but he didn’t give up. To learn more, he found a job at Atmar Glass, a small, family-owned glass shop halfway between Salem Community College and Lancaster, and worked part time for the rest of the semester. During the summer of 1986, he began working full time.
As the summer drew to a close, Smith found out that his wife was pregnant. In order to keep their health insurance, he needed to work full time, Smith said, “That was like, bust-ass time!” He spent sixty hours a week—twenty at school and forty at his job—blowing glass to support his growing family. He left the program after completing his second semester so that he could focus more on his job, so he graduated with a certificate as opposed to a degree. By that time, he was already building pieces for Atmar’s regular catalogue, such as boiling flasks, addition funnels, and drying apparatuses. His daughter Mallory was born in 1987, and her brother Preston followed two years later.
Smith often moved for work at the beginning of his career, but he set up a miniature glass studio wherever he lived. One of his houses had an adjoining gray, two-story barn about the size of a one-car garage. He set up a torch on the second floor and worked on repairs during nights and weekends. “It’s shaking in the wind,” Mallory said, recalling one day from her childhood. “But Dad’s up there with the radio on, blowing glass.”
Mallory was six or seven years old when she first learned how to use a glassblowing torch herself. Her father guided her hands for the first hour or so, and then stepped back, watching at a safe distance. She made marbles, pendants, and Christmas ornaments. “It was a cool experience to have him say, ‘You are smart enough and trustworthy enough that you can handle this,’” Mallory said. Still, working with a flame frightened her. Making larger pieces of glass required big flames. “When you’re knee-high with a grasshopper, you’re scared of it,” she said. Her younger brother was often there, right beside her. He learned to blow glass from his father as well.
Smith spent the next few years working for small glass companies on the east coast before he landed a job with Kontes Glass, the largest glass manufacturer in the United States at the time. At Kontes, Smith pushed his craft beyond standard scientific glassware and began making more challenging or extravagant creations. He made yard-long test tubes with diameters as wide as your wrists. He was told that they were horse bloodletting tubes. “Oh my God, those things are huge!” Smith says in recollection. “Poor horse!” To this day, he doesn’t know who placed the order or why. “I kind of didn’t want to find out.” Smith made about two dozen. Each took twenty minutes.
After five years at Kontes, Smith heard about an opportunity too good to pass up. Word was spreading that Joe Luisi, the glassblowing instructor at Salem Community College, was retiring. “It was the job,” Smith said. His application was accepted, and he started teaching in the fall of 2000.
While Smith was an instructor, the college got rid of the one-year certificate program, keeping only the two-year degree. They determined that anyone who had completed the one-year certificate program and attained significant experience could receive the degree. “So I eventually got my associate of applied science while I was an instructor,” Smith said.
Smith enjoyed his job, but started to regret that he spent most of his time teaching as opposed to glassblowing: “I kind of missed building things—the gratification you get from making the apparatus,” he said. After five years of teaching, he took a position at Yale that would allow him to both teach and blow glass. Smith fixes broken equipment and helps researchers with specialty pieces, in addition to teaching a workshop on the basics of scientific glassblowing.
His class is always oversubscribed. It is listed as a graduate-level chemistry laboratory class but is open to all Yale students. This year, all of the participants happen to be graduate students in the chemistry department, but in past years workshop has been entirely undergraduates. The semester follows the course of his daughter Mallory’s lessons: first they make marbles, then Christmas ornaments, before moving on to more advanced concepts.
Students also learn techniques that they can apply in their research. Louise Guard, a fourth-year chemistry graduate student who took Smith’s class last fall, learned how to seal samples of chemicals in glass chambers under vacuum to send out from the lab for outside analysis. “It’s especially helpful if he’s on holiday and you want to send some compounds out.”
Other skills take more time to master. During class on a Tuesday in early October, fifth-year graduate student Sahr Kahn struggled to create a straight seal, which involves smoothly fusing two glass tubes together, end-to-end. Khan bemoaned her work—the glass had wrinkled near the attachment, where it should have been even. “You’re not going to master it in this class,” Smith reassured her, “It takes years.” He had taken four or five years to become proficient at the technique. “What?” Khan whipped around, a mangled piece of glass tubing grasped in hand. “Okay, good!”
While Smith enjoys teaching, he came to Yale so that he would be able to get back behind the torch. Often, his work simplifies otherwise arduous processes. Guard walks around her laboratory, pointing at large apparatuses of connected glass tubes and pipes sitting behind fume hoods. “Without those, we couldn’t do any of our chemistry,” she says. These are Schlenk lines, which Smith builds for the lab. They have eight of these set-ups, which allow chemists to conduct reactions without air getting in the way. Otherwise, they would have to conduct their experiments in a glovebox, which would require them to use unwieldy rubber gloves to manipulate their samples.
Some of Smith’s work is less routine. The strangest request he ever received came from Patricia Brennan, then a postdoc in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale. Brennan, a graduate student, and renowned ornithology professor Richard Prum, were studying the mechanics of the duck penis. In order to observe it in action, they needed a transparent alternative to a female duck’s genitalia.
Silicone models were life-like, but too weak. “When we tested them with the males, the males actually broke through every single one,” Brennan said. “The conclusion is: they have an explosive eversion.”
While a noteworthy observation, it also meant that Brennan and her team needed a different model. Brennan and her team approached Smith to request a glass duck vagina, which would be stronger but still transparent. Smith wasn’t as surprised as Brennan and her team thought he would be. He had made strange equipment before while working for Kontes Glass, including glass condom molds. And the glass vagina didn’t require any specialty techniques. “It was just bending,” Smith said. Brennan asked for a few different models: one was a straight tube; two more were spirals with three twists each; a fourth was short and squat, bent like an elbow. They didn’t exactly look like vaginas, Brennan concedes, but the geometry and shape were life-like enough for her purposes.
He is happy with his work, but Smith hopes to push the boundaries of glassblowing—maybe even beyond Earth’s atmosphere: he tells me he wants to be the first glassblower in space. With space technology advancing, he anticipates a need for an on-site glassblower, perhaps at a space station. “I hope they hurry up,” Smith said. “Because I’m getting older.”
Glassblowing in space could be a whole different art form. So much of the skill associated with glassblowing is knowing how to turn pieces of hot glass, which would normally flow downward due to gravity, in order to offset gravity’s effects. “It’s so ingrained and so a necessary part of glassblowing,” Smith said. “To actually be in a non-gravity situation, and to see what it would be like and what you could do with it? Just wild. Mind-blowing.”
Until then, Smith will have to content himself with blowing glass on Earth, a life he enjoys. “It’s like his natural habitat,” Mallory said. “Seeing my dad there, watching football on Sundays, cooking in the kitchen, or blowing glass—he just owns the situation and looks completely in his element.” It’s the same at Yale, whether he’s making a round bottom on a glass tube using a hand torch or fusing a piece of tubing onto a spherical flask. His hands move by instinct, the radio always playing in the background, his concentration never wavering from the glass.
“This is half a lung.” Mark Michalski held up a twisting piece of plastic, one inch thick, to his chest. To me, it looked like roots on the underside of a tree, with small white tendrils poking through brown mesh. This was one of Michalski’s first attempts to create customized plastic models of human organs.
Michalski is a fourth-year resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Over the past year, he has been making plastic replicas of body parts using the machines at Yale’s Center for Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID), an engineering workshop space located on the bottom floor of Becton Center on Prospect Street. The CEID provides materials, tools, and advising for any Yale student who signs up to be a member. One such tool is a 3D printer. It works like a regular inkjet printer, but rather than depositing one layer of ink on paper, it deposits many layers of material, usually plastic, to create a three-dimensional object. Michalski converts patients’ medical data into instructions for the printers at CEID, which then produce plastic models unique to each patient.
What started as a pet project is morphing into a technology that could revolutionize surgery and, more importantly to Michalski, help doctors communicate with patients about their diseases. Aside from the lung, his recent projects include a fractured pelvis, a diseased kidney, and a cancerous prostate.
As a radiologist, Michalski spends his days looking at MRI and CT scans of the insides of people’s bodies, analyzing these scans to diagnose diseases and plan treatments. In his office, Michalski used his laptop to show me a 3D skeleton with a fractured pelvis. He rotated the skeleton with a computer mouse, highlighted various bones, and opened 2D slices of the 3D model. Staring at the screen, I felt nowhere near the real thing, an operating room where a surgeon would manipulate a patient’s pelvis.
“3D reconstructions give you some great data,” Michalski said. “But…for a lot of populations who are not radiologists”—he lowered his voice—“even within the radiologist community, frankly, there’s value that comes from being able to hold [the organ].” So he looked into 3D printing at the CEID. He created his first model on a low-end 3D printer, which is about the same size and twice the price of a new MacBook Pro.
“It all started on that MakerBot right there,” Michalski told me, pointing to the printer. Within a wooden frame, a small black box moved back and forth along metal rods, squeezing out plastic like glue from a hot glue gun. This machine had printed the root-like lung Michalski had shown me earlier. While Michalski and I spoke, two other students watched the MakerBot spit out a custom iPhone case.
About a year ago, Michalski was printing a version of the lung when his project caught the attention of Joseph Zinter, associate director of the CEID. Zinter and Michalski started talking about the concept and they were soon partnering to advance the work of 3D printing. Zinter has since put hundreds of hours into the project and established a special fund for organ printing at the CEID. The two have discussed potential applications for this technology, including educating medical students, informing patients about their conditions, and helping surgeons prepare for complicated procedures.
This last idea has already been put into practice. Joseph Turek, chief of pediatric surgery at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, has been using 3D-printed models of hearts for almost a year. They help him finalize his strategy and gain confidence for performing surgery when the stakes are much higher. “When I go into the operating room, it’s the exact same thing that I’m seeing,” Turek said.
This summer, Michalski printed a cancerous knee for an orthopedic surgeon at Yale. While preparing for surgery, the surgeon put the model on his desk, took out his surgical tools, and determined the best way to excise the tumor without damaging the surrounding area. The model allowed him to practice technique without consequence.
These 3D printing projects now take up most of Michalski’s time. But in addition to his residency, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in investigative medicine at Yale. “I have no idea if you can write a thesis on this sort of thing,” Michalski said. “But I think it’s interesting enough”—he corrected himself —“important enough, that I’ve got to do it.”
The models’ educational and surgical applications are significant. But Michalski is primarily drawn to this work because it could better inform patients about how a disease affects their own organs. Holding a model of your liver when you have been diagnosed with a tumor gives you a concrete sense of what that means.
“The story, for me, won’t end until I’ve used this technology to make patients understand better what’s going on inside their body,” Michalski said. “If we can print new bracelets and trinkets with these [printers], then we can print meaningful objects for people who are really undergoing the battle of their life.”
Squeezed between Ivy Noodle and Tomatillo on Elm Street, Kathryn Redford’s apartment features less conventional cuisine than either restaurant. Redford, 27, is the founder of Ofbug, a six-month-old start-up dedicated to the production and promotion of insects as animal feed. The bugs live in a few plastic IKEA boxes in the corner of her living room and die a few weeks later in her freezer, after which Redford dries and processes them into food.
“I really wanted to make a product that didn’t look like an insect and introduce it to the Western world,” Redford said. “We wouldn’t eat an insect if it looked like an insect. Nor would we eat a cow if it looked like a cow.”
Redford ate her first bug–a spider–in kindergarten. Another child who took pleasure in slaughtering spiders refused to stop killing them unless Redford ate one, so she did. Now she is working to develop insect-based animal feed, and eventually human food, and in the process has become part of an expanding network of individuals around the world who are working to incorporate bugs into the Western diet.
According to a website titled “Entomophagy”—the scientific name for human consumption of bugs—twenty-four restaurants in the United States list insects on their menus. Though none are listed in Connecticut, five such eateries are listed in New York, including two frozen yogurt shops.
The idea of edible insects for the Western world has also caught the attention of the United Nations. A March 2012 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report developed an action plan to move the issue higher on the international agenda. The report estimates that eighty percent of humans around the world already include insects in their diets.
Afton Halloran, who works with the FAO Edible Insect Program, explained that producing breeding insects for animal feed is less energy-intensive than producing food crops. Bugs can be bred and mass-produced in short periods of time, and they emit fewer greenhouse gases.
Redford and her husband, Paul Froese SOM ‘13, who studies at the Yale School of Management, share the apartment with the bugs, a pet hedgehog named Fangu, and various remnants of other animals: snakeskin and a coyote bone sit in glass vials on a side table next to a dried deer leg. When I visited the apartment in late January, only one of the bugs was alive. It moved lethargically across a bit of carrot that Redford had added to a glass of oatmeal. The bug was the sole survivor of a cannibalistic melee in which recently metamorphosed pupae had gone after one another.
Currently, Redford raises mealworms and crickets (an initial attempt to breed silkworms ended when a whiff of Paul’s cologne led to their untimely death). The mealworm beetles grow in three plastic boxes, each corresponding to one of three life stages: larvae, pupae, and beetle. The larvae, which we would recognize as mealworms, are what Redford uses for feed, letting some grow to beetles for breeding. An entire generation grows and dies over the course of three weeks. Next to the larvae sit two plastic boxes for the crickets, one specifically for breeding.
When they’re ready, the mealworms and crickets go in the freezer. This allows them something like a natural death before Redford dries the bugs in a standard kitchen dehydrator and then, sometimes, pulverizes them in a coffee grounder. Freezing minimizes pain, she said. Even so, she paused before she put in her first batch.
“Oh my gosh, I’m going to kill thousands of lives right now,” she remembers thinking. “I don’t take pleasure in killing them or anything like that. I definitely have a conscience about it. My focus is on the greater goal here.”
Gregory Sewitz, a senior at Brown, has a similar goal but different approach. He is also concerned about food security and nutrition, and is developing an insect-based snack for human customers.
“You have to create the market for eating crickets,” Sewitz said. “Protein bars are the best way in.” Sewitz plans to market a protein bar that hides the insect’s taste and texture, one that would look and taste like other major brands such as Cliff Bar and ProBar.
While chickens may have no objection to eating bugs, humans, specifically those in Western culture, are a different story.
“A lot of the stigma has to do with the look of insects,” Halloran said. “We’re naturally inclined to either squish the insect or say, yuck, that’s gross.” But we’ve gotten used to eating strange animals before, she added. Shrimp and lobsters, which resemble insects, used to be low-expense foods for working people. Now both are luxury items.
“We’ve been eating our way around the true insect,” she said.
Even Redford experiences a visceral discomfort to eating certain kinds of bugs.
“I definitely–this is super hypocritical–I definitely don’t like legs and stuff like that on insects,” Redford said. “They’re twine-y, almost.”
She prefers mealworms, she said. “You can just pop them in your mouth when they’re dehydrated.” Scorpions and tarantulas are a no-go, but not because of the armored exoskeletons or hairy legs.
“I love them too much,” Redford said.
Illustration by Katharine Konietzko
Chunks of metal lie like carcasses on the grimy floor, and rust grows like mold on pipes in English Station, a non-operational coal and oil power plant sitting on a man-made dredge island in the middle of the Mill River. On October 2, New Haven resident Chris Randall ventured into its depths and returned with photographic evidence of a surreal landscape.
“It’s kind of like a ghost,” Randall said. While exploring the site, he imagined what it would have been like for people to work at the plant. It must have been noisy—not like the dusty silence he experienced. “I can’t go into a place like that and not try to envision what it was like when it was at its capacity,” he said.
Few have seen English Station’s interior for the past ten months; the property is contaminated with dangerous amounts of asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and no work is being done to remediate the site due to a cease and desist order issued by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
Randall has lived on Lyon Street, about a mile away from the site, since 2000. He is the executive director of New Haven Land Trust, and he runs a photography blog, “I Love New Haven,” with 2011 New Haven mayoral candidate Jeffrey Kerekes. He posted a set of photos under the title “English Station Invasion (Part II)” in early October, and the New Haven Independent published sixof thosethe next day. The newspaper had run photographs from his first expedition into English Station in March.
The trip into the station was motivated in part by a desire to expose its innards to the general public and in part by his curiosity. “I wanted to see what it looks like,” Randall said. “This place is a big part of our historical narrative and we deserve the right to see what it looks like.”
A few days after he posted the pictures, he received an email from Lori Saliby, a supervising environmental analyst at DEEP. Saliby works with the DEEP’s storage tank and PCB enforcement unit.
“Well, shit, I must be in trouble now,” Randall remembered thinking.
Luckily for Randall, he wasn’t in trouble, at least not with the government. His health, however, might be in danger. When they spoke over the phone about his visit, Saliby said she told Randall that he had potentially contaminated himself and his companions, and that he may have transferred contamination off the site. Randall said she seemed concerned about his safety.
Randall was not as concerned. “I guess that’s a risk I took,” he said. “Hopefully nothing happens.” The owners, however, don’t share his nonchalance.
“What he did was foolish, what he did was dangerous,” Uri Kaufman, real estate developer and consultant to the owners, said. “It was dangerous to him, [and] it was dangerous to others.”
Kaufman told me that the owners filed a criminal complaint against Randall for trespassing on the property. Randall said that he was unaware of any such action.
English Station’s complicated history of ownership and contamination includes battles between owners and local environmental organizations, cleanup attempts that have spiraled into stagnation, and an overall lack of access to basic knowledge of the situation.
Local residents are unable to navigate the bureaucratic mess, leaving them unaware of risks presented to public health and local environment, especially as scavengers distribute contaminated materials from the site. The site’s potential hazards loom, but little is being done.
Currently, English Station is off limits to its owners and their contractors because of the DEEP’s cease and desist order, issued in February. The DEEP is currently waiting for John Insall, who works with Stantec, a professional consulting service, to draw up a remedial action plan, Kaufman said. Kaufman said that the owners eventually want to redevelop the building, but declined to give specific information.
Most recently, English Station has been in the news because 24-year-old New Haven resident Sammy Gonzalez was arrested after being electrocuted when he cut through a power line at a United Illuminating substation at English Station. Even though English Station is no longer producing electricity, there is still an operational substation on the property. Roughly three thousand residents of East Rock were without power for three hours on November 29, and Gonzalez faces many criminal charges.
Dave Hartman, public information officer of the New Haven police department (NHPD), said that there is an ongoing investigation and that a motive has not been identified. According to an NHPD press release, Gonzalez “faces several criminal charges including burglary, criminal attempt to commit larceny and breach of peace in the first degree for the service interruption.”
Hartman said that Gonzalez is in critical condition, and is being treated for burns from electrocution. He said that, given the difficulty of accessing burn victims, it would be a while before they can establish a motive. The interview process has not yet begun.
However, Hartman speculated about what Gonzalez’s intentions might have been. He said that it might have been one of three things: “stupidity at the grandest level, an attempt at sabotage…[or] the theft of copper.”
In the ‘90s, while working as a freelance photographer for UI, Harold Shapiro photographed English Station when one of the turbines was being dismantled for cleaning. Shapiro is the head of the photo department at Creative Arts Workshop on Audubon Street, a community art school in New Haven. An associate fellow in Jonathan Edwards College, Shapiro has worked as a full-time photographer since 1981, and started doing freelance work for UI in 1989. Shapiro photographed for internal publications and captured some images of the interior of the power plant. At the time, UI owned English Station, which it built in the late 1920s.
Ever since he was a child, Shapiro loved lighting and electricity. He was naturally attracted to power plants, which produced both.
“While I was taking pictures of that I was able to explore the cavernous beauty of the space,” Shapiro said. He was fascinated by the “accidental beauty” of the pipes and metal structures. “I also play woodwind instruments,” Shapiro said, “and the beautiful shape of the saxophone and flute…are reminiscent a little bit to me in the power plant.”
Shapiro’s photographs, in contrast to Randall’s, are mostly sharp and clean. They depict an English Station that is an object of industrial strength and power, not of decay. The plant was about to go offline.
In 1992, UI stopped power production at English Station and mothballed the plant, shutting it down in a manner that would make it easy to restart in the future. It is unclear why UI shut down the power plant—local activists said that it was because the plant was inefficient, and UI declined to comment for this story.
UI transferred English Station in 2000, with about $4 million for remediation, to Quinnipiac Energy, LLC (QE). QE acquired English Station with the intention of opening it as a peaking plant, which meant that it would only generate power during times of peak demand like the summer months when air conditioning use was especially high.
The New Haven Environmental Justice Network (EJN) was formed in response to QE’s application, said Mark Mitchell, founder of the EJN. The EJN took issue with QE’s plan, since it would provide power to Fairfield County, which is in the 94th percentile of median household income according to recent census data, at the expense of polluting the low-income neighborhood of Fair Haven.
It would have been especially harmful for residents living in nearby public housing facilities, such as Farnam Courts, which is less than half a mile west of English Station. “They’re not allowed to have air conditioning in their units,” Mitchell said. “So they have to open the windows and get more of the pollution so that people in those suburbs can have air conditioning and not have to breathe the pollution.”
The DEP, an earlier form of DEEP, nearly granted the request. Perhaps it was a final review of the case, and perhaps it was fear of a lawsuit from then Attorney General of Connecticut and current US Senator for Connecticut Richard Blumenthal, who opposed the reopening of English Station. At the end of the day, in 2003, then DEP Commissioner Arthur Rocque overturned his staff’s recommendation to grant QE the permit.
Three years later, QE sold the property to Evergreen Power, LLC and Asnat Realty, LLC. Kaufman is a consultant to both of them. Both are managed by Mehboob Shah, who lives in Hamden, according to the commercial recording division of the Secretary of State of Connecticut. Shah did not return phone calls requesting comment. According to the lawyer who represented the company, QE is now defunct.
The current owners have held the property since 2006, and, in the past six years, have made various attempts to remediate it. Most recently, they have been working with the contractor Grant Mackay Company, Inc. (GMC) to remediate the asbestos at the site. GMC started work in the summer of 2011, and worked up until the cease and desist order in February 2012.
Piecing together what happened between the summer of 2011 and February 2012 was difficult. Everyone I talked to gave me a slightly different story, and I felt like the arbiter of an ongoing dispute, one in which it was impossible to differentiate fact from fiction or appearance from reality.
Domingo Medina, a 12-year resident of East Rock and immigrant from Venezuela, has frequently photographed English Station. He writes grants for and works with indigenous group in Venezuela, and also photographs non-professionally. He took a particular photograph I saw, taken in February 2011 on a foggy morning. In the foreground, wooden docks float in focus on the gently rippling water. Power lines run from the upper-left corner of the photograph into the center, where they fade into a mass of fog, through which English Station’s stacks are barely visible.
When Joe McAllister got the news that the DEEP had issued a cease and desist order for Grant Mackay Company’s project at English Station, he traveled to Connecticut immediately. McAllister has been working for GMC for four years, and took his current position as general counsel in the summer of 2012. He describes himself as “the emergency guy.”
The cease and desist order “was a complete shock,” McAllister said. To this day, he continued, nobody from the DEEP has explained why the order was issued.
When I relayed this to Saliby, she responded, “Well, that’s a complete shock to me.” She said that she met with McAllister and engaged in many phone calls after the issuance of the order.
McAllister and Kaufman agree that GMC was hired and began its work in the summer of 2011. The original contract was for GMC to perform a demolition and to abate the asbestos. They would “make it a level, flat island, like there hadn’t been a building sitting there,” McAllister said.
Kaufman later requested a change to the contract. Both hold the change came before the cease and desist order was issued by DEEP on February 8, 2012.
Kaufman sought to modify the contract and add an option for Asnat and Evergreen to decide, if they wanted to, to change the work plan from a full demolition to an interior demolition. An interior demolition would entail removing non-structural metal, but would keep the building standing. In order for the owners to act on this option, they would need to pay GMC an extra $850,000 in cash. Barring the exercise of this option, GMC would proceed with the original plan and demolish the building.
Kaufman said that the application for the demolition permit was filed so that the owners would have the option to knock down the building if they wanted to. He said that, at the time the owners filed the application, they had not made up their mind about the fate of the building. It would be months before GMC finished the asbestos abatement and would be ready to commence demolition, if the owners desired it. But they were nowhere close to carrying out the action.
“It would be a shame if the cease and desist order were issued based upon a mistaken assumption that the building was slated for demolition,” Kaufman continued.
Kaufman said that the decision to demolish either the interior or exterior of the building could have gone either way, but that it was dependent on the city approving the demolition permit. President of the New Haven Urban Design League, Anstress Farwell, said that since English Station is listed in the local historic resource inventory, the submission of the demolition permit triggered a ninety-day delay of demolition ordinance process. If a demolition permit is filed for any building listed in the local historic resource inventory, the state register of historic places, or the national register of historic places, ninety days must pass before the demolition permit may be granted.
“The whole purpose is not simply to delay someone for ninety days, but to create a period of time when you can hopefully and reasonably seek out alternatives to demolition,” Farwell said.
The filing of the demolition order set off a chain reaction. Over the next three months, Farwell gathered her forces, contacting partner organizations like the EJN and the New Haven Preservation Trust. They contacted city officials and helped coordinate the appointment of Robert Smuts ‘01, chief administrative officer in New Haven, as the point person for the English Station at the city level so that someone could coordinate the response across the relevant departments.
The goal? “Get the site cleaned up and preserve the building,” Farwell said.
The City of New Haven never approved any demolition permits for English Station, said Andrew Rizzo, a building official with the City of New Haven.
It is likely that this chain reaction made it all the way up to the DEEP. Saliby said that GMC’s demolition application triggered the order, and that DEEP received documents submitted by representatives of the property to the City of New Haven that described the methods of demolition. Saliby didn’t know how these documents came to the DEEP, but she did know one thing – they specified that the demolition would be an implosion.
“If this site was not cleaned up and you implode the building, then all the contaminated debris, just like in the films at 9/11 with the dust cloud coming down the street…is going to fly all over the neighborhood and the river,” Saliby explained.
McAllister argued that GMC had not decided on an implosion, calling Saliby’s fear a “red herring.” Furthermore, the application for the permit to demolish, filed in Rizzo’s office, did not make any mention of methods for demolition.
“The cease and desist order is a solution looking for a problem,” McAllister said.
A hearing pertaining to the cease and desist order was held by DEEP on October 1 at which Attorney Alan Kosloff, counsel for the owners, did not contest the order. Because the owners were unable to provide GMC with access to the property, the contract is terminated, as far as GMC is concerned, said McAllister. However, GMC is continuing to be involved in the situation only to the extent necessary to retrieve its equipment from the property. The company continues to pay $20,000 a month in rental fees for equipment that is sitting on the site. McAllister estimated that the company has lost over $3 million since July 2011.
Kaufman said that the owners have filed a lawsuit this November against GMC, believing the company to be in default of the contract.
“They have a responsibility,” Kaufman said. “They don’t have the right to walk away from this.”
Insall is working on a remediation plan to submit to the DEEP. Kaufman said that the goal of the plan that Insall is working on is to clean up the PCBs in the soil, and also to get permission for the owners to return to the site to finish the asbestos abatement.
McAllister made it clear that GMC would not be returning to the site, regardless of the owners’ plan.
“Grant Mackay will never do work on that site again,” McAllister said. “Or for that owner. Or in the state of Connecticut. All three.”
On a Monday afternoon last month, I was walking with the area with Randall, the photographer. At around 2:30 p.m., I turned and saw two men close the trunk of a car that was parked at the gate in front of English Station. Lines of barbed wire ran above metal sheets a few feet taller than myself, and signs on the sheets warded off trespassers. In a small public gravel lot between the site’s gate and Grand Avenue, two men jumped into a Lexus SUV, and the driver started pulling into the road.
I ran and tried to flag the car down. The passenger opened the window, but when I began to introduce myself, rolled the window up as the car sped away.
Randall said that he recognized one of the men. When Randall had been inside English Station, Randall had seen one of the men scavenging five pounds of copper. At the time, he told Randall it was “so he could eat.”
With the cease and desist order, there is limited security at the site, leading to increased scavenging of raw materials. Some of the scavenging has been legitimate, conducted under the approval of the owners, while some of it is not.
Brendan Regan has been the owner of Regan Metals, a scrap metal company less than a mile away from English Station, for the past thirty years. The 125-year old company was hired by QE to take scrap out of the site between 2003 and 2005. Regan described the situation at English Station at the time as “weird” and “bizarre.”
Many people claimed that they owned the property, Regan said. QE would grant his company permission to scrap at the site, and then other people would arrive, claim they were the owners, and tell Regan Metals that they were not allowed to collect scrap metal. One time, some people who claimed they were the owners attempted to take some of the generators out of the plant. “[They were] going to take the big giant generators in there and ship them off to Africa,” Regan said. His reaction to the situation: “Ok, let’s just get the hell out of here.”
While Regan’s company was working to collect scrap metal at the site, they would often see or hear evidence of scavengers. Kicked down doors lay flat on the floor and windows and locks were broken. Other times, they would hear foreign noises while doing their work; noises came from other sections of the building and gave away the presence of people who were not supposed to be there.
“People would break into that building every single week,” Regan said. “They’re still breaking in there today.”
On the afternoon I visited, the men I saw might have been scavenging, but neither Randall nor I could see. A trespasser was arrested in October. While these two incidences might not have involved stealing scrap theft, those who do scavenge play an important role at the English Station. Not only are they trespassing on the site, stealing scrap metal and financially damaging the owners, but they also may be harming themselves through exposure to asbestos and PCBs, and spreading PCB contamination in the community.
Saliby said exposure to PCBs is associated with reproductive disorders, infertility, small head circumference in newborns, neurological problems such as ADHD, and cancer, specifically tumors of the thyroid, liver, and kidneys. It is unclear how much exposure the surrounding neighborhoods experience. The PCBs at the English Station won’t go anywhere unless they are moved by a disturbance. Trespassing, she explained, therefore creates a problem for local residents.
She added, “It is possible for contamination from the site to migrate to nearby surface water as well as groundwater.”
McAllister told me thatasbestos-related dangers to those who enter the plant have been compounded by the scavenging activity. When people remove metal from English Station, they might also rip into the insulation, which releases asbestos, he said, freeing it into the air where it can be breathed.
Even before GMC came on the scene, scavengers caused asbestos problems. Regan said that, although the boiler house, which was filled with asbestos, was locked, people would often break into it, and his company would have go in to secure the room. “It looked like a winter wonderland. It was freaky, man. The stuff was just hanging from the ceiling.”
Kosloff said that his clients are working with DEEP to develop a site security plan, which is in progress.
Saliby detailed some of the security measures currently in place. They include a locked gate, barbed wire, razor wire, large warning sings about PCBs, and a surveillance camera. These are not associated with the plan that Kosloff mentioned.
In addition to harming themselves and possibly their community, scavengers are taking income from whoever cleans up this site. Remediation of sites like English Station is paid for in part by selling some of the material on the site for scrap. Scavengers stealing metal make it less financially viable for a contractor to clean up the site, since they reduce the amount of metal available to sell for scrap and cover the cost of remediation. McAllister is also worried that GMC’s tools and equipment, which it has not been able to access since the cease and desist order was served in February, may be—or have already been—vandalized or stolen. The contamination poses a danger for many parties involved, but it seems only a major act of intervention can completely solve it.
English Station is one of more than 284 brownfield sites in Connecticut, according to DEEP as of October 2011. A brownfield, according to the website of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, is “an abandoned, idled, or underused property where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by the presence or potential presence of contamination.” The Government Accountability Office estimates that as many as 425,000 brownfields exist in the US.
Redeveloping brownfields can provide economic benefits. According to the website of the EPA, brownfield redevelopment has created over 5,500 jobs in the 2012 fiscal year alone. To that extent, New Haven sees English Station as an economic opportunity.
New Haven has partnered with a local economic development organization to facilitate economic growth along the Mill River. The city may be interested in including English Station in specific plans in the future, said Tony Bialecki, deputy economic development director for the City of New Haven. However, because of the current environmental issues, the city has not been able to develop a strategy for addressing it.
Preserving the building as a historic site might also be economically beneficial. John Herzan, preservation services officer for the New Haven Preservation Trust, said that he hopes English Station can be placed on the national register of historic places. “We hope that this designation would provide economic incentives for reusing the building rather than demolishing it,” he said.
Residents would also like to see English Station brought back to life. Aaron Goode, who is on the steering committee of the EJN, said that English Station “fell on hard times, like the rest of New Haven. I sincerely hope that it can also be part of New Haven’s renaissance.”
But he qualified that statement, adding that this is possible “if we do the right kind of intervention.”
The first time Randall entered English Station, he wanted to get onto the roof. He went up with a friend, and took some sunset pictures.
As it got dark, Randall decided that it was time to come down. But he couldn’t find the way out.
“There’s really no logical sequence to get from one floor to another,” Randall said, speaking about one particular section of the building. “I was using my flash as a strobe to see. It took us forty-five minutes but we found our way out.”
Randall is lucky that it only took him minutes to get out; it’s taken me on the order of a hundred hours (and nearly as many phone calls), and I still haven’t found my way out. Some of the other actors haven’t been able to get out for years and years. The current owners have held the property the six years and counting, and residents have been saddled with the toxic site for much longer.
The toxicity of the site comes not only from its physical contaminants. The property is also contaminated with rumors that have been accepted as truth, a history of miscommunication, and a general lack of accurate information. Confusion amongst the official actors – the local, city, state, and private entities – trickles down, leaving the public puzzled and therefore frustrated. The complicated interplay between actors leaves nobody with a complete and accurate picture of the situation.
With his DSLR camera, Randall captured several different exposures of the same scene using slightly different settings. He then layered the photos on top of each other using a digital image editing program, with a process called high dynamic range imaging.
“You’re basically able to emphasize or deemphasize certain components or features of those exposures in the final image,” Randall said.
“I guess it’s a philosophical thing whether or not that’s an actual representation of reality or not,” Randall said. “To me, it is. To me, the process adds something that wasn’t there. To me, it almost makes it look more real.”
Randall’s photographs depict English Station as a dilapidated industrial graveyard and Shapiro’s photographs show a once clean building. Just as it is hard to believe that they were photographing the same building, different people tell me stories that, while not necessarily opposing, appear to contradict each other.
Randall’s photographs present an eerie, unsettling view of reality. But, as McAllister and Regan described, English Station was not what it first appeared to them to be.