Behind the chain link fence stretches a grassy field, benign, almost featureless. It could be a park, but no friendly gate invites visitors. Streets, or what once were streets, penetrate the perimeter, halting abruptly, the asphalt crumbling. Shrubs appear here and there—not the kind of shrubs that one might find in a country meadow, but the kind that are missing their houses. Because they are.
I have long wanted to come here, to see for myself. Driving down 100th Street in Niagara Falls, I am struck by how desolate the area looks. It could be an abandoned industrial area. In fact is is, but before and after that, it was a thriving neighbourhood. Houses were once here, with kids running up and down the street and across the big field to their elementary school. Sometimes they would run across something strange—a puddle with an oily slick, or an abandoned barrel, or an odd smell. Everyone seemed to be sick, particularly the young ones.
The grassy field was the remains of a failed attempt to build a canal to bypass Niagara Falls. Forty years ago, the world learned that this site—the infamous Love Canal–was a toxic wasteland. Residents were evacuated, their homes abandoned, condemned and eventually, torn down. The school that had been built right on top of the site was closed and eventually demolished. Millions of dollars were poured into sealing the site and in resolving the lawsuits the residents brought against the chemical company responsible for the dump.
Make no mistake, Love Canal is not gone. It’s right there, still toxic, though putatively contained now. There are no signs to identify it. No museum or historical marker exists to tell its story. So the land itself must provide the words—the roads to nowhere, the driveways to invisible homes, the echoes in time of the children once running along 100thStreet as I drive south. On my right, that vast, empty, toxic field, its secrets buried for good now, so they say. Nature is reclaiming this place. As in the lands surrounding Chernobyl, nature pays no mind to toxic chemicals. It breaks down those all those artifacts of humanity.
The haunting of this place is that the knowledge that when all trace of humans are long gone, the enemy will still lurk within. Love Canal is buried, but does not rest in peace.
I first learned about Love Canal after picking up Lois Gibbs’ account, Love Canal: The Story Continues many years ago. Correction: I first heard about Love Canal when the story broke in 1978. I was eleven, and old enough to understand. The late 70s were a strange, toxic time dominated by a kind of malaise, a brokenness that seemed to infect the world after the last vestiges of the Vietnam War were cleared away. Nixon’s resignation in 1974 followed by the fall of Saigon in 1975 marked the closing of an era, but the new era was just tired and hurt and hopeless in so many ways. Wounds were licked. Nostalgia was invoked. Escapism reigned, and Star Wars was a New Hope before it knew it was.
In many ways, the Love Canal story is a positive one, of how those committed to the truth can eventually overcome the odds and effect change, but there was a cost–in human lives, in relationships destroyed, dreams deferred, divisions sown.
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