I consider this work to be a close cousin to my urban wildfire photography. I had not expected to be exploring destroyed neighborhoods, but there I was, taking a turn into an urban solitude of empty lots left to grow wild.
In Love Canal the ruins of sidewalks and driveways were being consumed by the open forest and thick grass understory. With the exception of a sheriff's vehicle, there was no traffic. On one lot there was an idling semi-truck parked next to three trailers, one torn open. The engine ran for hours with no one to pay mind. Adjacent blocks had been given over to mountains of cement and other construction debris. Gardens crawled into the streets. In the secluded corners, discarded household garbage accumulated. The trees luxuriated in the morning light.
In 1890, entrepreneur William Love began work on a planned community just north of the city of Niagara Falls. The plan included residential homes, commercial and industrial areas, hydroelectric generation from Niagara Falls to power his "Model City," and a shipping lane to bypass the falls. He found interested investors in both America and England.
The project was abandoned after the "panics" of 1893 and 1906 frightened investors and Westinghouse built a hydroelectric plant that made proximity to the falls less important. In subsequent years, the mile of incomplete shipping lane (the canal) came to be used as a municipal landfill.
In the 1940's Hooker Chemical used the property as a chemical dump and, later, acquired it. In 1951, the Niagara Falls City School District sought the property for the construction of two schools. For $1, Hooker deeded the land to the school board with a limited liability clause and the understanding that chemical waste was buried to grade level. Construction, of two schools in 1954 and neighborhoods in 1957, breached the landfill. In the subsequent years, notable rain events saturated the dump, leaching chemicals and foul odors into schools, yards, and basements.
The extent of the problem didn't become fully understood until 1976 —after a generation of families had raised and schooled their children, and suffered serious health issues, including cancer. Two years later, Love Canal became the country's first Superfund site. The cleanup took over 20 years.
Today, the dump site has been capped and fenced off. Most of the surrounding homes have been demolished, their debris deposited under the new landfill cap. In other areas, homes were rehabilitated, new construction was allowed, or the area was rezoned for commercial and industrial debris storage. A handful of residents refused to participate in buyouts, and their homes remain. Both schools were demolished, one consumed by the landfill, the other replaced by several baseball diamonds, courtesy community fund raising.
Occidental Chemical, which acquired Hooker, continues to monitor the landfill; the sheriff, the rest. Illegal dumping is an ongoing problem.