Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Potemkin landscape at Magazine Beach

“Potemkin village. NOUN: Something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance . . . ETYMOLOGY: After Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who had elaborate fake villages constructed for Catherine the Great’s tours of the Ukraine and the Crimea.” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, copyright 2000, Houghton Mifflin Company:

It will be interesting to hear the DCR’s story about Cambridge's own Potemkin landscape, the joint DCR-Cambridge “restoration” of Magazine Beach. Will the story be impressive enough at the Cambridge Conservation Commission's hearing September 11 to win the DCR a three-year renewal of the ConCom's permit, and allow the project to keep going?

The DCR's burden of proof is not very great. We know that regulatory agencies tend to go along with proposals from the regulated. And as it is, the ConCom is an agency of the same City Manager whose other agencies are the DCR's partners in this project. The ConCom has already given the DCR two extra months to get its act together at Magazine Beach.

The Cambridge ConCom's vice-chair, Kaki Martin, is, I believe, the project's designer. She has previously recused herself from meetings on this topic. Even so, it would probably be difficult for her Commission colleagues to face the obvious: as the workers at Magazine Beach told me after four change orders and two site visits by the responsible officials, including Ms. Martin, in a week, "they don't know what they're doing."

The ongoing mess of the last two years tends to confirm this view. Uncollected rubbish decorates the shore. Jersey barriers, plastic fences, and orange pontoons have blocked humans' access to the river and wildlife's access to onshore habitat. Construction of the "lagoon bridge" was shoddy, non-compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Construction of the riverside road was not to original specifications and is eroding. A stable border of tough, erosion-fighting plants, "native" by anyone's definition, was ripped out and replaced with "coir fascine logs" and expensive plants to realize a fashionable fantasy. Some of these coconut logs sway with the waves or have disappeared downstream. Growing out of and holding others in place are fine stands of purple loosestrife, high on the DCR's list of "non-native invasives" and never before seen at Magazine Beach. Purple loosestrife favors disturbed sites.

Although purple loosestrife did't grow at Magazine Beach before 2004, it's the kind of plant the project was to eliminate, and its appearance--you can't miss that rosy purple--is an embarrassment. The DCR-Cambridge team's remedy has been to disturb the soil further, to rip it (and everything else, including those expensive new plants) out, till the soil, and sow grass seed. Unfortunately the loosestrife was already seeding, and its zillions of seeds, as well as each tiny tilled bit of loosestrife root, will grow.

So what you see at Magazine Beach now is a relatively narrow border of plants at the shore and a 20'-wide, tilled and newly seeded strip of dirt between it and the eroding walkway. Within this strip are a few of the trees and shrubs planted in 2004 (the others went last week with the purple loosestrife) in varying states of health. The view is, the team hopes, one of order and control despite some apparently dead plants.

This is Cambridge's Potemkin landscape, constructed for the authorities for 7 pm on September 11, 2006. After that--even now the most recently ripped-out plants are regenerating--it will yield a bumper crop of loosestrife and other opportunistic plants nature uses to heal raw wounds.

If the DCR-Cambridge remedy serves its purpose, though, it will win the team another three years, in which they can apply to the ConCom for permission both to apply herbicides to the waterfront "invaders" and to loose the Charles River Conservancy "volunteers" on the place. (Please see other blog entries on the DCR and CRC "vegetation management.")

Finally, renewing the DCR's permit will also allow the team to proceed with plans to remove the 7 acres of soil and grass with ball fields now at Magazine Beach and replace them with 7 acres of gravel, topsoil, sod, and an irrigation system and new ball fields and fences.

The prototype for the fields at Magazine Beach is the DCR's "Teddy Ebersol's Red Sox Fields at Lederman Park," 6 acres of riverfront installed this spring. Unfortunately the acres of sod that replaced the grass naturally growing there was not, in a turf-grower's words, "organically grown." Like golf courses, regulation ball fields are heavily treated with chemicals. I believe it was runoff from these 6 acres of chemically treated sod, retreated with "Tartan," a fungicide, shortly after August 2, that caused the toxic algae bloom first noticed on August 9, 2006. (See blog entry on algae bloom.)

It would be interesting to know whether ball players' health, like golfers', is consequently at greater risk. Since children are to play on these fields I worry about the long-term consequences of "Tartan," for example They may or may not be like DDT, whose effects appeared decades after use.

The DCR's Master Plan for the Charles River gives lip service to privileging "water-dependent activities" over "non-water-dependent activities." The former includes watching waterfowl or being one, the latter, playing Little League ball. The DCR and its partners nevertheless seek to eliminate waterfowl everywhere on the river but especially at Lederman Park and now Magazine Beach, yet are bent on installing expensive state-of-the-art playing fields on the same river, where they do not belong. They do not belong because the chemicals necessary to maintain the turf should not, according to the label on "Tartan," for example, be applied near bodies of water. The DCR and Cambridge seem not to care.

At Magazine Beach their plan is to destroy what is there and replace it with another, more expensive, in this case inferior, even dangerous version of border and ball fields. It wastes our resources and destroys our public assets, including our public health, but keeps the creators of our Potemkin landscape in business.

Marilyn Wellons