A Landfill is an Ecosystem unto Itself: a Treatise on the Organisms that call Landfills Home

dsc_2110

Looming over Colerain Township is Mount Rumpke, the highest point in Hamilton County, Ohio. Visitors are taken by bus to the top, and from the summit, you can see the valley below, stretching to the reaches of the mountain’s domain. The skyline of nearby Cincinnati sits hazily in the distance. Far below, bulldozers and dump trucks, the size of ants, can be seen developing more mountains just like it. Mount Rumpke, with its sweeping valley and majestic panoramas, is a mountain made of garbage.

Mount Rumpke represents approximately fifteen years’ worth of trash, a mix of municipal solid waste and construction debris collected from most jurisdictions within 60 miles of Cincinnati. The Rumpke Company operates the premier garbage collection network in southwestern Ohio. Mount Rumpke sits on the company’s 1000-acre property, the accumulated garbage rising 1,064 feet above sea level, ten feet shy of its legal limit. Much of the verdant valley is actually garbage, piled hundreds of feet deep but covered over with dirt, grass, and shrubs. The landfill, like most in the USA, is licensed by the EPA, who says it can take in up to 10,000 tons of garbage per day. The Rumpke landfill is the sixth largest in the country.

That much garbage in one place makes for a landscape unique in its composition. The concentration of man-made goods, harsh chemicals, and organic waste all rotting together makes for an environment that doesn’t — and can’t — exist anywhere in the natural world. It is alien in its harshness, and yet the landfill is teeming with life. A landfill provides abundant food and shelter that gives rise to its own ecology. Landfills, while ostensibly inhospitable, have become a biological niche, a biome based around humanity’s waste.

The guts of the average landfill are actively decomposing thanks to tens of thousands of kinds of bacteria and fungi. The spread of bacteria is facilitated in part by insects like cockroaches and ants. Mice, voles, and other small mammals pick from the trash and nest in the landfill’s periphery, while raccoons, coyotes, and dogs — even baboons and bears in areas with such creatures — scavenge the top. Crows, starlings, and gulls flock to landfill en masse, and are in turn sometimes scavenged by fiercer birds of prey. For many creatures, the landfill is the beginning, middle, and end of life, the stage on which they act out the primordial directive to eat and reproduce.

An organism’s ability to survive and even flourish in such conditions demonstrates the remarkable dexterity of the natural world. But how do animals survive in a landfill? Are there benefits to making a home there? How does the nutritional value of items in the landfill compare with more traditional food sources? Have organisms developed a tolerance for the poisonous effluent that flows through the trash? This article takes a look at these questions, throwing the author (willingly) into the depths of a landfill to roam around the filth with its fascinating, industrious layers of life. The kingdom of garbage is an impressive one, an interdependent biologically functioning unit. In other words, a landfill is an ecosystem unto itself.

The putrescible groundwork for life — how a landfill works

Molly Broadwater, senior corporate communications coordinator at the Rumpke landfill, said the term ‘dump’ is pejorative. A dump implies a pit or a field where residents simply throw their waste, like those old-time trash piles way out in the country. Dumps typically don’t include any of the regulations or forethought that goes into the creation of the modern landfill, which is an engineering marvel. Landfills, also called tips and middens, don’t just hold trash but all the facilities needed to manage it. The Rumpke facility, for example, has a gas refinery to harvest the methane that builds up as garbage decomposes, a drainage system that funnels leachate — aka garbage juice — to a wastewater treatment plant, and space dedicated to the company’s trucks, including a garage, a workshop, and an area to wash off their tires so they don’t track waste from the landfill to the rest of the world.

Owing to the sheer amount of garbage delivered every day, a landfill has to think years in advance about where to store the unimaginable accumulation. When I visited the Rumpke landfill in April, the earthmovers seen from atop the mountain were preparing the next area on the property scheduled accept garbage. The site starts as a 13-acre, 200-foot deep pit, which isn’t expected to be full for eleven years. At the bottom is three feet of impermeable clay that acts as a natural barrier against leaks. The clay is followed by a plastic liner and then a geotextile cushion liner, which prevents the plastic liner from being torn or punctured by the layer of rock that comes next.

Trash dumping can start once these layers are in place. Garbage is trucked in and dumped in the assigned spot. Rumpke has a fleet of 400 of its own vehicles, some of whose routes include 400 stops. The trucks can hold 14 tons of garbage, or that of around 800 homes. Dozens of other trucks, private and commercial, visit the site daily. Waste haulers, construction crews, and homeowners pay by the pound to dump at the site. Big machines and bulldozers roam the piles, crushing down the trash with spiked metal tires. One of these machines can weigh up to 50 tons, and has the power to compact 1400 pounds of garbage into one cubic yard of space.

Trucks don’t dump wherever they feel like it. Trucks are directed to the “working face,” or the area where garbage is currently being dumped. Governmental regulations require that the working face be compacted and covered with a layer of dirt, partly to reduce odor and blowing trash, and partly to limit the amount of animals drawn to it. The layer or soil is around six inches deep, and is typically applied within 24 to 48 hours after the garbage is dumped. (Immediate soil coverage is often prescribed for food and plant waste.) As a result, there is more dirt but less visible garbage than one might expect in the landfill. A lot of the Rumpke facility looks simply an immense field of dirt, with patches of garbage here and there hinting at what’s below. But there are also the classic rolling hills of refuse: those surreal, grotesque piles that are repellent and fascinating in equal measure. Animals inhabit the calmer areas of the landfill while scavenging the garbage open to the world, taking advantage of the area’s bounty and the social opportunities afforded by the strange environment.

When a dumping area reaches capacity, layers of impermeable plastic are laid on top to seal it, sometimes including an odor control blanket, which uses odor-eating technology found in tennis shoes and trash bags. Broadwater, pointing out a five-acre expanse covered with such a blanket, said that a landfill is ideally a self-contained, leak-proof facility that should stay that way for decades. The leak-proof facility is then covered with a layer of rocks to prevent animals from burrowing, especially in the gas reclamation sites, which could introduce air and disrupt the process. Next comes a few feet of soil seeded with grass and other vegetation. (No trees are present, however, as mandated by state law. A toppled tree could rupture the top liner.) A finished, capped landfill looks at first glance like a park. The whole idea is that a landfill be “invisible at the property line,” disguising the garbage and minimizing its odor by burying it, and by employing a property-wide network of misters that vape out a vegetable-based perfume. And voila! The makings of the average landfill.

(The article that follows uses these kinds of tightly-regulated landfills as the basis for the landfills discussed herein. Many areas do not have infrastructure in place to construct landfills of this magnitude and relative self-containment. The unregulated landfills that exist elsewhere in the world (and which would certainly meet Broadwater’s definition of a dump) are vastly more open and dangerous, to organisms both inside and out. There you have a true sea of garbage. More animals would likely be drawn to these sites due to their openness, and so the populations and distribution would be a little different than what is described below. However, the basic processes of bacterial decomposition and foraging behaviors, for example, are similar enough to paint a general picture of the relationships between organisms that inhabit a landfill.)

The Rumpke family has called the Colerain Township landfill home since 1946, as has the extended family of countless organisms that likewise reside there. Just as old William F. Rumpke seized an opportunity to collect garbage where nobody yet had a monopoly[1], the creatures in a landfill are able to exploit its resources for their own livelihood. A society has been established in the landfill in deference to the natural order, and to the natural course of life.

Into the microbial depths (of garbage)

DSC_2134.JPG

The odor of a landfill is a distinct indicator of the presence of the bacteria and fungi within it, as my aunt and uncle came to understand very well. A few years ago, they bought a house less than two miles from a major landfill. Either they were not aware of its location or were not told, but when the weather got warm, the gnarly odor of the dump came rolling down the surrounding hills and permeated their neighborhood. While the smell smelled partly like garbage, a very distinct component of the stench was sulfur, a compound present in the gas produced as garbage decomposes. The smallest layer of life in a landfill — a “robust set” of microscopic bacteria, fungus, yeast, and protozoa — consumes and digests organic materials in garbage, breaking it down like an enormous compost pile and producing huge amounts of methane gas as a byproduct of their activities.

An estimated 10,000 species of bacteria and fungi live in a gram of soil. Approximately 25,000 aerobic bacteria laid end to end would measure an inch. Bacteria, like pretty much any organism that wants to operate at optimum efficiency and comfort, are pretty picky about the conditions in which they live. Bacteria and fungi cannot grow if the temperature is too low, and they need waste with sufficient nitrogen content to make the proteins that allow them to grow. Fortunately, landfills are often porous enough to allow for the dispersion of rainwater and leachate. Leachate, shown to have a “unique geochemical composition” of highly toxic compounds[2], also contains high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which are crucial to bacterial growth.

A host of other microscopic organisms like nematodes, protozoa, and archea feed on bacteria and fungi, and process the organic components of garbage into a product more nutritious and easily digestible by other creatures. Nematodes contribute greatly to the decomposition of organic material because of high food consumption and nutrient recycling rates. The microscopic nematodes — numbering at 106 individuals per square meter — are also known as roundworms and make up an estimated 80 percent of all of the animals on Earth, and live in almost every possible climate and location. Scientists estimate that there may be up to one million species of nematodes, while a full half of the known species are parasitic. Protozoa are single-celled organisms that are capable of propelling themselves around and feeding, while archea are microscopic organisms that exists as single-celled beings or clusters. The landfill is not an unusual environment for archea, as they are “extremophiles,” the creatures one often hears about living in deep sea vents, gorging on volcanic sulfur, or in areas with extreme salinity or extreme heat.

But it is the bacteria and fungi that are the most crucial decomposers. Imagine a pile of garbage cross-sectioned from top to bottom. The cross-section would show layers of garbage in different stages of decomposition, with different kinds of bacteria responsible for each phase. The first stage of decomposition involves aerobic bacteria, or bacteria that need oxygen to survive. They consume oxygen as they consume organic waste, effectively melting it on a cellular level. When the oxygen is depleted, anaerobic bacteria pick up the decomposition process, as they do not need oxygen to function. They get to work digesting the compounds created by the first bacterial phalanx. These are digested into acids and alcohols, making the landfill highly acidic. Nutrients dissolve as the acids mix with any moisture present, and are dispersed throughout the landfill.

The landfill becomes a more neutral environment as other anaerobic bacteria eat the acids they’ve created, allowing methane-producing bacteria to prosper. These bacteria produce methane as a waste product of the items they are digesting. Once methanogenic bacteria establish themselves, they steadily produce gas for at least 20 years, and sometimes even as long as 50. Generally, the composition of the gas produced by these organisms is 45-60 percent methane and 40–60 percent carbon dioxide. Other gasses, such as ammonia and oxygen, are present in small amounts. Weird little capped pipes come out of the ground near active garbage sites and in the otherwise nondescript grass hills and fields. These are vents that help outgas the methane. Most of the gas, however, is harvested and processed by the on-site refinery, or burned off via flares. (Towers with what appear to be everlasting flames are a common site at landfills.) The gas is sold to energy companies, and garbage gas is even used to power some of the Rumpke’s trucks. Methane is only about half as efficient as natural gas, but according to Rumpke, who has over 200 gas wells on the Colerain property, the landfill produces enough methane to power 25,000 area homes.

Aside from the pungent aroma of decomposing garbage, landfills are stinky because of sulfides present in the gas, which are produced by anaerobic bacteria. Comprising only around one percent of its volume, sulfides are nonetheless responsible for the garbage gas’s rotten-egg odor, which is why driving by a landfill often smells like weird gas instead of trash. All of the other gasses present are odorless and tasteless; the tiny percentage of sulfides is responsible for the smell that induced my aunt and uncle to move, and for the slap they likely delivered to their real estate agent for not telling them their house was near the county tip. Though in reality, they kind of lucked out it wasn’t worse — anaerobic bacteria also produce cadaverine and putrescine, which smell exactly as their names suggest.

The establishment of bacteria in the first place depends on the contents of the landfill. Organic waste is crucial to the process, introducing bacteria into the dump as well as nutrients like magnesium, calcium, and potassium, which help bacteria flourish[3]. Organic waste is abundant in the average landfill. According to industry figures, approximately half of the landfill’s contents are some kind of organic waste — restaurant food scraps, wood and paper, textiles, etc. According to one author, “fungi and bacteria are not restricted to decomposing leaves and other plant materials. They will decompose any dead organic matter, whether it is a cardboard box, paint, glue, pair of jeans, a leather jacket or jet fuel…made from petroleum, which is made of decomposed microscopic creatures from the oceans of the Mesozoic Era.” Bacteria and fungi are also introduced into the landfill via the soil dumped on the garbage at the end of every day.

Revoltingly, industry figures show that soiled diapers make up four percent of any landfill’s intake, providing their own pungent breeding ground for bacteria. (Remember, Rumpke takes in 6000 tons of garbage per day — four percent of 6000 tons is 240 tons of dirty diapers — every fuckin’ day!) Moreover, landfills are generally able to accept carcasses and other animal waste from slaughter plants. Thus, while not common, it wouldn’t be impossible for animal remains to be mixed in with municipal solid waste, which would certainly introduce bacteria of its own. The Franklin County Sanitary Landfill, serving Columbus, Ohio and its surroundings, “will accept animal carcasses for disposal,” provided the attendant is notified and the carcasses are “disease free and in heavy bags, if possible.”[4] These remains would be dumped in the current working face of the landfill.[5] Medical waste, with its attendant bacteria, is often present as well.

The microscopic organisms create heat as they do their dirty work. Bacteria are the organisms most responsible for the entire decomposition process. They energize themselves with carbon and grow by consuming nitrogen. Their activities are powered by oxidizing organic material, and this oxidization is what causes the heat. Signs of biological activity are temperatures between 90 and 150 degrees — high temperatures facilitate the breakdown of proteins and complex carbohydrates like cellulose, the most abundant compound in modern refuse. Bacteria can withstand the surprisingly high temperatures reached by composting garbage. In fact, thermus bacteria has been found in decomposing waste: thermus has also been found in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park and deep sea thermal vents.

Coupled with the flammable methane gas coursing through the landfill, Broadwater said that one area of the Rumpke landfill was decomposing at such high temperatures that a massive fire broke out and burned for at least a week. This is roughly equivalent to your compost pile churning with such vigor that it spontaneously bursts into flames. Rumpke was unable to figure out why this area was decomposing at an elevated temperature, and the section continues to be mysteriously hot to this day. Coupled with the presence of the methane, the combustible garbage is a strange hazard to all denizens of the dump.

Worms, Roaches, “Filth Flies” and other insects

Screen shot 2016-10-23 at 1.20.02 PM.png

Insects are important to the decomposition of garbage because they eat a lot of trash and tunnel their way through it, which mixes and aerates it. They tear up material into smaller pieces, which is readily eaten by microorganisms. Bacteria often digest their feces. Insects are of course also food for other insects and larger creatures. Rove beetles feed on the maggots of flies, for example, while centipedes often eat worms. Further afield, the garbage grasslands contain the insects one might expect in grassland — grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies.

Some insects find their way to the trash, while some are inadvertently brought to it. Infrequent collection, loose lids, and holey containers are the prime culprits when it comes to infestation from the outside. An estimated 60 percent of city garbage containers are infested with fly larvae; fruit flies can fit through openings a millimeter wide. In another interesting case of filth in reverse, cockroaches are often found in landfills, as they hitch a ride in the belongings humans have discarded. And to make matters more unpleasant, there are mosquitoes. Standing water often found in containers or used rubber tires is an ideal breeding ground.

Insects that eat wood can also carve out a niche in the landfill, given the high percentage of organic material in the dump. Microscopic organisms and termites process the wood into a product more nutritious to other wood-eating insects, such as tree borers and beetles. The presence of termites depends on the relative moisture and nutritional content of wood, which, contrary to cartoons that show termites devouring everything in their path, they are quite selective about. (Good wood is high in both.) Like cockroaches, the presence of wood-eating insects in waste sites likely stems from the introduction of wood already infested more so than independently relocating to it.

In one Calvin and Hobbes strip, Calvin relishes being a fly at a picnic table, much to the chagrin of his parents. “Filth! Pestilence! Contamination!” he says with glee (and accuracy). Flies are a ubiquitous presence in areas with any kind of decay. The whine of thousands of flies generally augurs something gross, which acres of wet, stinky trash certainly is. The common housefly is the most abundant insect in landfills around the world. Flies eat decomposing garbage, sucking up liquid waste and spitting saliva on solid items so they can be digested. Flies lay their eggs in garbage too, and are capable of reproducing up to five times over the course of their life, laying over 100 eggs each time. The emerging maggots burrow into garbage and eat it, and a few days later pupate into adult flies, where they live for a matter of weeks. Flies can also breed in cesspools and sewage sludge, environments that can probably be likened to cousins of a landfill.

As mentioned, the soil placed on top of the garbage at the end of every day is in part a pest control measure; only a serious application of soil can help reduce the amount of flies, as they need sufficient oxygen to live. However, emergent houseflies are capable of making their way to the surface through over nine inches of soil, while flesh flies and blowflies can emerge through double that. Dr. John Wenzel, an entomologist and Director of Powder Mill Nature Reserve, said that flies have a “punching bag” on their faces when they emerge from their cocoon. They use this to punch out into the world, and then head-butt their way through layers of soil and debris. Upon busting their way out of their confines, the punching bag hardens into a proper head, allowing the flies to go about their normal fly business. Flies can travel almost two miles from the trash site, and like birds and other organisms that exist in abundance at landfills, are considered pests to neighboring areas.

Also existing in abundance, to the tune of 10,000 to 100,000 individuals per square meter, are springtails, insect-seeming creatures that aren’t really insects but exist as a class of their own. Their class Entognatha includes a few other groups of creatures, though it seems almost like a catch-all for otherwise unclassifiable creatures. Some scientists maintain that the members of this group are as genetically far removed from each other as they from are insects. Their name comes from the coiled and wound apparatus that allows the insect to launch itself away when in danger. They are omnivores and microbivores that tunnel through organic material, furthering its decomposition by breaking it up and transporting nutrients and other microorganisms through the waste. Springtails are often food for other insects, like millipedes.

The hardiness of insects is in part what makes them such obnoxious pests. Insects would be more bothered by the constant disturbances of a landfill — the trucks, dumped trash, etc. — than by the potentially toxic environment of a leachate-drenched food supply, Wenzel said. Studies of gun ranges and other environments pregnant with similarly harmful heavy metals have shown that the metal-loding of lead-infused soils didn’t seem to have any effect on the insects’ day-to-day life. However, flies can pick up PCBs in the landfill and transmit them to other parts of the environment. While the environment wouldn’t necessarily be toxic to the entomofauna themselves, they could be to other animals that eat insects romping around in what is essentially toxic waste.

Living in garbage has been shown to have some odd behavioral effects. I’m not one to question anyone (or anything’s) sexual proclivities, but thanks to the ubiquity of garbage, a strange romance developed between a species of beetles and beer bottles. The Australian jewel beetle finds mates by feeling for small bumps on their paramour’s rear-end. The bumps on a certain beer bottle were so similar to what the beetles were looking for that they began trying to mate with bottles. Fortunately, however, once this phenomenon was discovered and its implications for species survival were realized, the beer company changed the design of the bottles, and the jewel beetle went back to feeling the bumps of other beetles, not something man-made.

Loafing, foraging, socially interacting: Birds

Birds-over-landfill_I-467-0168-912x516.jpg

Kestrels, sandpipers, killdeer, and doves flutter and glide majestically overtop the acres of landfill — those are some of the bird species that call the Rumpke grasslands home. Birdsong mixes with the rattle and hum of machinery to create a cyborg symphony that represents the in/organic mix that is the landfill itself. The small rodents and reptiles that live in the garbage grasslands make for a good meal, and the landfill itself provides abundant resources for creatures to consume. Kestrels, the continent’s smallest falcon, can see ultraviolent light, which means it can see things like the urine trails left by small mammals, which live in abundance on a landfill’s grounds. Kestrels hide their prey in small cavities like grass clumps, bushes, or crevices in man-made structures, which likewise exist in abundance on landfill properties.

Birds flock to the landfill to eat and socialize with their brethren. Their acute senses and fearlessness allow them to eat as the humans and machines work, excavating waste not buried deep enough. A landfill in Virginia reported that it attracted 25,000 birds per day, and its daily take was only 900 tons of garbage (vs. Rumpke’s 6,000). “Loafing or social interacting” among herring gulls nesting near landfills near the Great Lakes was found to be the most prevalent activity in areas other than exposed refuse, though “aggression” was common too. Foraging was (understandably) the most frequent activity in areas with open garbage.

Landfills can provide a stable and food source for birds. As we’ve seen, organic waste makes up approximately half of the midden’s contents. One study found that a landfill in Vancouver might have contributed to the survival of bald eagle populations over winter (or at least sustaining more eagles than could normally be expected) due to the food available in the landfill. The study noted that the overall number of eagles peaked during rough weather because the landfill is protected from the wind, is slightly warmer thanks to decomposing garbage, and has fairly minimal human activity.

But the victuals in a landfill are significantly less nutritious than the food that a bird might naturally consume. Food from a landfill is literally junk food. The trade-off is its convenience, but this also means any other creature feasting on a landfill has to consume more to get the nutrition they require. This is especially true for birds, whose energy expenditures require a relatively high food consumption per unit weight. Needing to eat more means more time in the landfill, which means more exposure to predators and dangers like machinery. And more activity overall means a greater expenditure of energy, which necessitates more nutritious food. Foraging at landfills can also significantly affect birds’ health and reproduction, considering the likelihood that birds will consume non-food items or items and contamination by toxins. Sadly, young birds have often been found starved to death in landfills, with stomachs full of plastic and other inedible/indigestible items. Eagles have died after eating euthanized animals that were improperly wrapped at landfills on Vancouver Island. Dozens of Glaucous-winged gulls died after ingesting chocolate at another landfill in Vancouver.

To get a more detailed understanding of the role the landfill played in the dietary habits of the birds that flocked there, researchers collected food remains and food pellets from colonies of herring gulls. They also took samples of the stomach contents (boli) of the gull chicks. “If a chick did not regurgitate upon capture,” the study says, “we inserted a finger into its proventriculus and removed the contents.”[6] The authors found that fish was the most common food during incubation and chick-rearing, likely because it is significantly more nutritious. Adult herring gulls that specialized on garbage fledged fewer chicks than did adults that specialized on other foods. After fledging, the gulls were shown to eat more garbage, when their bodies are better able to maximize nutrients.

Eagles are primarily avivores, and the researchers who conducted another study expected that eagles would feed primarily on the gulls at the landfill. Ultimately, almost all of what the eagles ate was household food waste, and in particular red meat waste and bones. “Although some meat was identifiable, most was identifiable and clearly putrid or decomposing,” researchers wrote. Garbage made up 6.6 percent of the eagles diet, including paper towels and plastic bags. Overall, landfill refuse accounted for only around ten percent of the energy intake of the eagles that frequented the landfill. Younger eagles were apparently the refuse specialists, likely because younger eagles are less efficient hunters than adults. Eagles were also able to snatch food from other unwitting birds feeding at the site.

Despite their questionable offerings, landfills are so convenient to feeding that they’ve disrupted migratory patterns. Researchers observed white storks staying in landfills year-round in Portugal and Spain instead of their annual winter migration to Africa. The storks began staying in dumps the 1980s, in an area where they had never been seen before. The number of storks wintering in the landfills increased from around 1,200 to 14,000 between 1995 and 2015. Over several years, Birds were fitted with GPS devices, which revealed that the storks were eating, breeding, and permanently living in the landfill, as well as guarding “desirable locations” in the landfills. “We think these landfill sites facilitated the storks staying in their breeding sites all year because they now have a fantastic, reliable food source all year round,” said one researcher, though the impact of dwindling amounts of birds on the ecosystems they abandoned is yet to be seen.

Overall, bird populations are more closely controlled than those of other creatures living on the landfill. Birds at landfills are considered especially irritating to landfill managers and the surrounding homes and businesses, as well as a cause of concern to nearby airports. “The county abandoned recreational ballfields at the landfill to avoid the excessive bird droppings, and paint on nearby vehicles and buildings were damaged by the steady rain of fecal material,” reported one study. As such, one of a landfill’s pest-control directives is to reduce the amount of birds on site. Rumpke contracts with a US Department of Agriculture wildlife specialist that focuses on monitoring the bird population.

Mammalian abundance

bear

Confession time: when I visited the Rumpke landfill and stared out at its considerable acreage, I envisioned animals living within the garbage itself — a civilization burrowing through alien waste, living in a maze of tunnels running through the picturesque mountains of trash. I pictured a community not unlike something from The Borrowers, in which insect and animals take what they need and return home to a burrow tastefully decorated with scavenged ephemera. Unfortunately (for the purposes of my own imagination at least), the reality of creatures in a landfill is not quite like this. Aside from the thriving microbial community, not much can live in the bowels of a trash mountain because its insides largely devoid of oxygen. The garbage is so compacted that it lacks significant “void space” where oxygen could collect, while most oxygen that does remain is converted to methane gas by the microbial process described above. “There’s no air there,” said Dr. Jean Bogren, a emeritus research professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “There’s no advantage to living in garbage.” My trash burrow fantasy realm was cruelly compacted by reality.

But this isn’t to say that animals aren’t attracted to garbage, they may just not live directly in the piles. Many mammals inhabiting the Rumpke’s property prefer to reside in the grassy areas surrounding landfills. Studies have shown that the areas around landfills are typically populated by various species of mice, voles, shrews[7], rats, chipmunks, and possums. Skunks and foxes are also present, as are feral cats and dogs. Raccoons are sometimes brought to the landfill when dumpsters are dumped in the back of garbage trucks. Omnivorous species generally fare better in dumps, as opposed to strictly carnivorous or herbivorous species, whose specific diets don’t allow them to take full advantage of the smorgasbord.[8] The most populous mammal tends to be the white-footed mouse.

Some mammals travel to and from the landfill for food and supplies. White-footed mice, for example, have a range of over 1000 feet, while woodland voles have a 600 foot range. One study observed that mice made nests made of shredded paper and leaves in bottles, cans, and other containers from the dump.[9] Burrows on the peripheries of a landfill tended to be deep enough — from 10 to 36 cm deep — to provide cover from owls and hawks, which are their main predators. Predation by raptors and other animals discourages daytime feeding or foraging. The greenspace created on covered landfills features the predator-prey relationships one can assume. It is a grassland-like environment that often draws animals such as coyotes, foxes, and snakes that prey on other mammals. One landfill worker even reported that sometimes they’ll shoot and eat a deer or turkey that wanders onto the grassland.

Landfills have been shown to attract grizzlies, baboons, and other upper echelon predators in areas where these creatures have become habituated to landfill use. Bears have been reported in landfills in Alaska and New York, and have even fed while trucks dump their haul. Grizzlies are capable of digging seven feet deep, and have excavated buried livestock. In one strange case, the fallout from eating garbage inadvertently helped temper the temper of a baboon troop. Baboons were dining on the scraps thrown in the bushes outside of a tourist lodge in Kenya and contracted tuberculosis from spoiled meat. These baboons were the alpha-male type who previously wouldn’t let anyone else get close to the meat. Incredibly, and this speaks for the innate benefits of the “can’t we all just get along” sentiment, when these baboons died from contracting tuberculosis, they weren’t replaced by the next-most aggressive males. The rest of the troop realized they didn’t have to fight for food, and were able to live communally and happily, replacing gestures of aggression with ones of affection, and having no problem welcoming new members into the fold.

Mammals, like birds, have to weigh the options of eating at a dump. Rats, for example, a frequent resident of landfills, need to eat around 35% of their body weight per day. Do they go for overall less nutritionally sound meals from the midden, or do they expend more energy travelling further for healthier meals? Does the convenience of ready food outweigh the presence of animals that would happily eat them? What about the danger posed by the garbage itself?

While the threat of a hungry coyote or possessive baboon is serious, the toxic composition of a landfill poses a grave threat to any creature that trudges through it. Leachate, that noxious juice that flows like lifeblood throughout the entirety of the landfill, is no less harmful to animals than it is to humans. Studies show exactly what happens when animals are exposed to it: an increase in cancerous legions and organ failure.[10]

In a typically cruel study, rats were injected for thirty days with different concentrations of a leachate concoction, comprised of leachate from twenty leachate wells in Nigeria. Within 24 hours of exposure, the rats showed discolored skin, un-groomed hair, and had difficulty breathing. During the second and third weeks, the rats were sluggish and ate less. Frequent sneezing, hair loss, and diarrhea occurred throughout the fourth week of the study. One rat had its eyeball bulge out of the socket, while others developed abscesses. Three rats died from the exposure during the tests, and another died a day after the tests were stopped. The pollution likely causes “direct chemical disruption of the organs.”

The study concluded that livers and kidneys are the organs most prominently affected by landfill pollution. Increased organ weight as body weight decreases, which the mice demonstrated, is a sign of toxicity, reflecting attempts to “sequester” these contaminants. Mice taken from landfills in Spain were shown to have heavier kidneys than mice from non-landfill sites, indicating their bodies’ attempts to flush out the accumulated toxins. Overall, kidneys fare a little better than most organs, reaching a “degree of tolerance or adaptation” to harsh substances, thanks to the kidneys’ deft detoxification process. Juvenile mice had elements such as lead in greater abundance, owing to higher energy requirements and the greater consumption of food this necessitates. Interestingly, shrews from the same landfills did not show an increase in some elements, highlighting differences in reaction to these elements in different species. Overall, carnivores are usually more exposed to metals and therefore accumulate more of these elements than omnivores and herbivores.

But perhaps the most pathos-inducing danger to mammals in a landfill is being accidently injured or trapped in the garbage. One Florida veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator described “skunks with yogurt containers stuck on their heads…Plastic items become intestinal blockages; baited fishing lines entangle limbs, hindering movement and causing dismemberment; and aluminum cans with leftover soda or beer turn into razor-sharp traps.” The most heartbreaking injury was a raccoon whose paws were stuck in beer cans. “The cans had been on his limbs for so long that he had tried to learn to walk with them, and both front limbs were completely damaged,” she said. She sedated the raccoon and took the cans off of his hands, which had no fur and no skin on them.

Humans, too, have been thrust into the ecosystem of a landfill. Economic and political conditions have pushed an estimated 15 million people into this strange new world. Many landfills in developing countries offer a form of refuge and employment, allowing people support themselves and their families by scavenging useful items. In some cases, selling plastics and metals to recycling companies, for example, can provide some semblance of income. Tens of thousands of people live inside individual landfills. Communities in landfills in countries such as Indonesia, Guatemala, Russia, and Senegal have their own schools, neighborhoods, and societies.

Living in landfills, humans have taken their customary place at the top of the ecological hierarchy, but this is obviously a pyrrhic victory. Humans are subject to the same diseases, toxins, and dangers that afflict any creature that searches its way through a dump. Birth defects, tuberculosis, tapeworm, malnutrition, and fatal garbage landslides are a few of the many ubiquitous concerns. One man, who lives and works in a landfill in India, said that, due to the stench, he didn’t eat for over a week when he arrived, and vomited every day. But for better or worse, he has slowly become acclimated to life there, just as one might take to living in an unfamiliar area out of necessity. There are dangers inherent in any ecosystem, and hazards that creatures of every variety take into consideration. It’s all part of the game of life, and as we’ve seen above, millions of organisms are making it work for them.

What does this all mean?

345102c99e80f5dd0716ced2a35216204c508f98827f00e39535755ddf5d9de8_large.jpg

Humanity’s current landfill practices are likely rooted in the path of our evolution. Humans were semi-arboreal as they evolved further from primates, and then finally walked away from trees. In the process, they were able to leave garbage behind and not have to think about it. Since then, garbage has, of course, been a chronic problem throughout civilization. The Middle Ages were famously mired in the excreta running through the streets, barrels of toxic waste currently impregnate mountains, and studies have shown that certain serious diseases often afflict people who live and work near a landfill. (Even the question of what to do with our own remains is also problematic. At one point, Paris had to relocate a million buried skeletons because they were leaching arsenic into the water.) Natural areas and habitats near landfills have been disrupted by the facilities’ expansion, or are at least nominally relocated. “For example, at our Brown County, Ohio, landfill,” Broadwater wrote in an email, “We built a 4-acre highly engineered wetlands to offset the destruction of smaller wetlands when we expanded the site. This wetland now houses many of the native species of plants and animals that call Brown County home.”

An appreciation for the dangers of the trash problem has become a more present part of the common consciousness. There were almost 8000 dumps in existence 30 years ago, but governments began consolidating dumps into much more regulated super-dumps in an effort to more tightly control the collection of trash and curtail its attendant hazards. There are currently around 2000 landfills in the United States. We still operate with the same sort of “out of sight, out of mind” sense of comfort that at least the trash is going somewhere, but officially, at least, we are legally bound to care about that somewhere for 30 years. Federal law requires that landfill owners have to set aside money to close the landfill and to care for the grounds for the succeeding three decades, during which they also are required to “pump the leachate, test the groundwater, inspect the cap, repair any erosion, fill low areas due to settlement, maintain vegetation and prevent trees from growing.” And in the US, opening a new landfill is a tightly controlled process involving a panoply of federal, state, and local agencies, and the undertaking of numerous impact studies. Rumpke staff said that in some cases it has taken over seven years to even get the permits that would allow them to even begin thinking about opening a new landfill. But despite the increasingly regulated process and the greater understanding of the dangers of excess garbage, our trash and what to do with it is a problematic phenomenon that is only growing. Rumpke, will its 300 acres of landfill, is eleven years away from capacity. The company is currently suing the surrounding township to expand its operations, but that will only facilitate more collection, not address the creation of so much garbage in the first place.

The average person in a developed country is responsible for generating about 2.6 pounds of garbage a day. Every three months, the average American man produces his weight in garbage. Researchers found that people threw away 289 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2012, a figure more than twice the 135 million tons that the EPA estimated for the same year, and a figure that is close to one ton per person per year in the US. By the year 2025, 4.3 billion urban residents are projected to generate approximately 6.1 million metric tons per day. Scientists estimate that 11 million tons of garbage will be produced daily by 2100. And the industriousness of the microbial process in a landfill is no laughing matter. Thanks to the methane produced by decomposition, garbage is an even faster growing pollutant than greenhouse gases. The EPA showed that greenhouse gas emitted by landfills that traps heat in the atmosphere 25 times more effectively than does carbon dioxide.

Well into the last century, New York City simply dumped all of its garbage straight into the ocean .One study found that plastics currently pollute no less than 88 percent of the world’s ocean surface. There are five major concentrations of plastic in the world’s oceans, with the largest, the infamous Great Garbage Patch of the Pacific Ocean, estimated to be twice the size of Texas. Trash is apparently even colonizing terrestrial space – there are currently almost 18,000 manmade objects orbiting Earth, with no doubt more on the way as the human races breaks free of its terran confines.

The animals at landfills currently have a tentative relationship to landfills, in that they are able to choose landfills when it is advantageous or convenient. They are still affected by the toxicity of its contents, and can’t quite establish a home in which they are as comfortable as they would be in their natural habitats. But as the amount of garbage grows and we develop new places to stash it, making a home in landfilled areas will become less of an option and more a species survival imperative. The growing patches of trash in the ocean and garbage biomes on land and the trash belt orbiting the planet will become the new frontiers of life, maybe even altering the course of evolution. Maybe ever-growing landfills will force rat’s kidneys to better accommodate heavy metal loding, or will help birds derive maximum nutritional value from the pickings they scavenge. Perhaps beetles will be able to consume Styrofoam, or maybe skunks will develop a coat of such incredible density that chemicals can’t penetrate it, or creatures will be able to nest in a mound of diapers. Claws will become refined to dig through piles of old appliances, proboscises will puncture through old batteries, and eyesight will evolve to see around the corners of old couches. Maybe new creatures entirely will develop, boasting an agglomeration of appendages especially suited for living in a landfill. Maybe new forms of bacteria will spring up that can metabolize circuit boards, bridging the gap between carbon-based life forms and virtual intelligence.

These changes will happen at evolution’s grindingly slow pace, but by the time these creatures have adapted to life in vast ecosystems of garbage, future researchers will marvel at how readily and how ingeniously these creatures have adapted, and continue to adapt, to their befouled environs. Studying the creatures from generations ago, marveling at its ability to survive in the mire before their specialized adaptations, the researchers will perhaps look out their window and gaze out at the world in awe at the workings of nature, their musings accompanied by birds mimicking the chime of enormous trash-crushing machines. High up in a building built among reclaimed trash piles, looking over the trash mountain range and the lovers paddling canoes down leachate rivers, a scientist smiles, pushing his triclops glasses up a nose evolved to selectively filter smells.

“Our world is a landfill,” he says. “A fascinating ecosystem unto itself!”

Notes:

[1] The Rumpke landfill started as junkyard and coal delivery business sometime in the 1930s. A customer traded founder William F. Rumpke six pigs for his services, and he refurbished an old truck to bring garbage back to feed the pigs. Rumpke established a facility to take in metal during World War II. People would bring their trash to his property, where it would be dropped on a conveyor belt and sorted by hand. Metal and rags were set aside for the war effort, while the rest remained trash. In the 1950s, the government passed a law mandating that food waste be cooked before it was fed to animals. Finding this too inefficient, Rumpke, who by this time was joined in business by his brother, sold his animals and concentrated on trash. The business grew and grew, and in the 1980s, the company consolidated area trash services by buying over 200 businesses and established outposts of their trash empire all across Ohio and surrounding states. In 1986, Rumpke started harvesting methane gas from its landfills (one of the first such operations in the country), and in 1987, Rumpke purchased a portable toilet business. Rumpke also runs a massive recycling facility (which truly has to be seen – and heard – to be believed) and other related businesses. Rumpke currently employs almost 2500 people, 75 of which are Rumpke family members.

[2] Such as toluene, phenols, benzene, ammonia, dioxins, PCBs, and pesticides.

[3] Dry conditions and high salt concentrations, however, can curtail bacterial growth, as can low nitrogen content and high carbon dioxide content in soil pores.

[4] These remains would be dumped in the current working face of the landfill, as opposed to the elephant that’s buried on the Rumpke site. An elephant that died when a circus passed through town is buried on site, but not near the garbage. Also buried at the Rumpke landfill are the world’s largest chocolate bar and “Touchdown Jesus,” an enormous fiberglass Jesus that faced the highway from the lawn of a church. The figure’s arms were raised in the air, affecting a gesture very similar to that which referees use to declare a touchdown. The statue was struck by lightning, caught on fire, and melted. Rumpke accepted the remains. The church has since rebuilt the statue, this time out of cement.

[5] I can attest to this: once, when I worked for a construction crew, I accompanied my boss to dump our trailer at the dump. We drove out to the working face and got to work preparing the trailer. It was windy, and we laughed that trash was blowing all over us. I saw that there was a lot of medical packaging blowing around. I looked down and saw that I was standing on a fairly large spread of medical waste, including syringes, catheters, and other indistinct but clearly biohazardous items.

[6] Contents were separated into categories – fish, garbage, insects, plant food – and counted. Garbage comprised roughly 11% of the boli’s contents, 17% of the food remains found near nests, and less than one percent of the content of the food pellets.

[7] Special consideration was necessary for counting the short-tailed shrew. “The method of tagging by toe clipping is less reliable than ear tagging because of the possibility of shrews losing their toes to natural causes,” noted the authors of one study.

[8] One landfill in Virginia even attempted to introduce a new mammal to its grounds: goats. But, after a year, “officials realized that using farm animals to cut grass was not the easy solution originally imagined.” The situation did not improve even when sheep were brought in to augment the finicky goats. The final solution: officials acquired two lawn mowers to cut most of the grass on the landfill. “The same city official who initiated the goat project later proposed creating a mulching operation at the landfill. Supervisors rejected the proposal, but he purchased $500,000 of equipment without approval. He resigned in 2015 just before he would have been fired.”

[9] The authors noted that their study was conducted before an outbreak of Hauntavirus, and that they were not conducting a mammal survey at the time the study was published, which was apparently during the outbreak.

[10] Similar dysfunctions of the kidney have been reported in human workers associated with the treatment of industrial waste. A study done by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggests a possible increase in cancers and birth defects in humans who live near landfills.

Advertisements

Part III: “A Quarter-Inch of Chaos” – at the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal Conference

This is part III of my upcoming nonfiction novella chronicling the goings-on of a small Ohio township. The book is structured around the agenda of a township trustee meeting I attended, whose many topics gave me some insight into the complex world of local government and the even more complex world of the personalities behind it.

The book, aptly titled “Township Trustee Meeting,” will be available soon.

Snow and Ice - Plows

Section 4 on the Sept. 9 agenda was a partial list of the correspondence and email the trustees had received since the last meeting. Most items – like the Ohio Township News magazine – were glossed over, but Chris Mucher paused to note the email confirming the township’s registration for the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal conference. The conference is a biannual affair designed to help local governments manage the inevitable hazards of winter.

“Put on your best snow boots,” Mucher said.

The 2015 conference, hosted by the American Public Works Association and held in Sharonville, Ohio, 50 miles away, was to feature speakers from road departments from all around the state. The showroom would feature over a dozen shiny new plow trucks and pieces of equipment, as well as a number of other vendors plying relevant trades, such as custom municipal sign-making and pipe repair, offered by a company which applies a proprietary sealant to the inside of busted pipes. (“We only do what the pipe tells us it needs,” says the company’s slogan.) The keynote speaker of the conference was Diana Clonch, a thirty-year public works veteran who is now a successful freelance winterization consultant.

“Any questions, Mark?” Mucher asked.
“Nope,” Crockett said.

The other trustees quietly avoided comment when registration was confirmed, lest they be roped into going as well.

It was Mucher who typically made the trip to the conference, and Dan Gochenouer, the cemetery sexton and a road crewman, usually went with him. Neither Gochenouer nor Mucher were particularly excited about attending. It wasn’t that the conference was totally boring, Gochenouer said, but that it wasn’t especially helpful. Attendees usually have to sit through a few hours of presentations to get a few minutes’ worth of usable information, he said. The presentations usually consisted of guys from around the state talking about how they solved a problem or adapted equipment to the needs of their jurisdiction. While Gochenouer could appreciate their ingenuity from a professional standpoint, the lessons didn’t always apply to the needs of Miami Township. A speaker from Franklin County (which includes Ohio’s capital Columbus) discussed strategies needed to deal with its 770 miles of roads: around two million gallons of anti-winter liquids annually and the use of semi-trucks to spray. Miami Township, on the other hand, has less than fourteen miles of roads and three trucks, a fleet occasionally augmented by citizens who attach plows to their personal vehicles.
The first official road in Miami Township was laid out on March 3, 1822, though there were several “so-called roads” before then. Michael A. Broadstone writes that the roads improved year by year, and most were “at least graveled” when he penned his History of Greene County, Ohio in 1918. By 2015, the township had exactly 13.43 miles of roads, almost all of them paved.

Road maintenance is within the purview of the trustees, a duty that includes everything from filling potholes to maintaining culverts to full-scale winterization. Each spring the township develops a road budget based on the work anticipated for the year, prioritizing repairs on the worst roads and any new equipment that needs to be purchased. The township fleet was three trucks (two of which have dumping capabilities), one 26 year-old panel van, and a handful of tractors and lawnmowers.

Road maintenance is an ongoing project, and one that occasionally requires help. Trustee Chris Mucher said that sometimes neighboring Bath Township, which has a paving machine, will do a little work in Miami Township in trade for help with their needs in the future. Once in a while the county will determine that part of a road now lies in Miami Township, which may add to their mileage-based clout but also means that the township is responsible for maintaining that much more road.

Road repair requiring equipment the township doesn’t possess is contracted out to the county. Miami Township works with neighboring municipalities work together to make what is called a “collective bid” for their collective asphalting or resurfacing needs. Participating jurisdictions add up what needs to be done – a half-mile stretch here, a few hundred square yards there – and submit a report to the county, who contracts the work to a company as one job. Doing it this way allows municipalities to save money, as everyone getting work done at the same time splits the cost of mixing asphalt and dispatching trucks and police.

Miami Township also has the dubious distinction of hosting the first vehicular accident in Greene County. Lodrick Austin, a stagecoach driver, was killed when his coach overturned on Clifton Gorge Road in 1836. Austin is buried in Clifton Cemetery, and his tombstone features a horse and a coach, which honestly seems a little insulting.

Though vehicular accidents are of course a fact of life in Miami Township, the fact that none of the township’s roads permit speeds over 35 mph means the severity of an accident is usually pretty low. However, low speed limits or high, cars are no match for the wiles of nature. Like everywhere else in Ohio and across the United States, accidents occur in Miami Township with greater frequency in the winter. Snow and ice are indiscriminate perils, and all it takes is a small amount of snow, “a quarter inch of chaos,” according to a presenter at the AWPA conference, to throw a city into bedlam.

As little as a quarter inch of snow means erratic drivers, slick roads, and asphalt breaking apart as water freezes and expands. The prospect of this quarter inch of chaos also means a significant amount of preparation by the township. Salt has to be stockpiled, and later mixed with beet juice or turned into slurry to be more easily spread on roads. The township’s trucks, with their spreaders, sprayers, and dump buckets, almost certainly require maintenance. Potholes need to be filled, and bridges need to be inspected.

Regardless of season, road maintenance is a complex obligation. Though Mucher and Gochenouer were seasoned township veterans, there was always something to learn, couched as it may be in a day’s worth of presentations. It is because of this potential for helpful information that the two attended the 2015 AWPA Snow and Ice Removal Conference.
Gochenouer and Mucher met at the Township’s fleet garage to leave for the conference at 7am on September 29. They were both early.

They didn’t get into one of the township’s work pickups but into Mucher’s golden Chrysler minivan. “The Muchmobile,” as Gochenouer called it. Mucher said his van was frequently the de facto work vehicle as most of the township’s vehicles only have two seats. The Muchmobile crunched on the gravel and wound its way through the township to the highway.

Mucher didn’t have much experience winterizing cities when he became a trustee in 1996. He ran a video rental and film development business in Yellow Springs for over twenty years, before digital film and video streaming proved the “ultimate fatality” for his career. However, when he was still in business, he struck up a friendship with the guy who ran the hardware store across the street. The two would have coffee every morning, and they developed a mentor-mentee friendship. Mucher was interested in becoming more involved in the community, and the hardware store owner encouraged him to apply for a recently vacated trustee seat. Mucher submitted an application, had a few interviews, and was offered the position. It proved to be just what he was looking for, a “low impact political job” that carried a lot of responsibility but still left him time to run his own business and spend time with his wife and three kids. Once in office he read “every page of meeting minutes since 1934,” attended conventions and seminars, and read the Ohio Revised Code front to back. Mucher has been reelected every four years since then. Now he is able to talk about winterization both fluently yet dispassionately, the hallmark of an experienced professional.

Gochenouer has a perpetually sunburned neck, a moustache, and a Leatherman on his belt that he could readily employ in many different ways. He exuded hands-on experience of the kind that only a lifetime of fixing things can foster. Gochenouer’s tenure working for the township preceded Mucher’s. He was working part time until a long-time employee retired, allowing him to become the number two road crewman.

On the way to Sharonville, the two discussed other trade shows conferences they’d been to and whether or not free lunch was included. It wasn’t always. Registration for the 2015 Snow and Ice conference cost $35 per person but at least included lunch. The topic settled, the two lapsed into a short silence. The day was grey, chilly, with a steady rain. The heater hummed and the windshield wipers squeaked.

Conversation picked back up again a few minutes later.

“You working on that dandelion quote?” Mucher asked.
The abundance of dandelions in the township had to be dealt with.
“Some people eat them,” Gochenouer said.
True, Mucher said. And some people make wine out of them too. Then both admitted they weren’t sure which part of the dandelion was used for the winemaking process.

A little while later, Mucher indicated a passing belonging to Jurgenson Asphalt Co.
“There are your friends,” he said.
Gochenouer nodded.
“They’re the best,” he said, nodding with sincerity.

He would know. Gochenouer said he came from an asphalt background. For one, he has spent a lot of time driving on it, he joked. But more seriously, he said, he started working on an asphalt crew right after high school, one of the many labor and construction jobs he’s had from an early age. His dad always made sure he was working on different projects and was comfortable around all kinds of machines. The idea was that his skills and experience would ensure he was always employable. “If you’re not working, it’s because you don’t want to,” Gochenouer said.

A truck driving erratically on the highway prompted the mention that he’d also been a truck driver. He’d driven for twelve years, five of which were long-haul and required him to spend up to seven weeks on the road at a time. He lived in his truck, thousands of miles away from his family and home.

“You’d sit in a waiting room and they’d call your number when a shower was ready,” he said, recalling old truck stops. “The shower was free but you’d have to rent the towel.”

But it wasn’t all bad, he said. Sometimes he’d be on a layover for a few days before linking up with a series of deliveries that would take him back towards home. On these furloughs he and his fellow truckers would go out and explore whatever city they were waiting in. Gochenouer recalled the beauty of California in particular, and the fun of sitting behind the Hollywood sign drinking beer. He’d been run out of Beverly Hills once, he said, for not looking the part. A cop came up to him and asked him what he was doing. “I said I was just looking,” Gochenouer recalled, “and the cop said, ‘Well, you looked yet?’”

Snow and Ice - trucks
Forty minutes later, the Muchmobile pulled into the conference center parking lot. It was the lone minivan among rows of work trucks with maintenance department insignias. Inside the conference center were the trucks’ drivers, approximately three hundred men with closely cropped hair and goatees. Cellphones were universally clipped to belts, and neon t-shirts were worn in numbers rivaled only by those at an actual construction site. Sixty-five municipalities were represented at the conference, making it “pretty sizable for a local AWPA conference,” according to one organizer.

The conference was only one day long. The morning was divided into four 45-minute sessions. One of the sessions was earmarked for attendees to check out the showroom, but the other three sessions were presentations. Attendees were divided into four groups and rotated through the sessions. Mucher and Gochenouer were in Group 2, meaning that they went to the showroom first.

The conference organizers set out donuts and coffee. Both men took a donut and looked at the trucks. They were shiny and gigantic, but ultimately outside the needs of Miami Township. The township’s road budget for 2015 was approximately $50,000, and one of the middle-grade trucks cost at least twice that.

One company offered their services quantifying idle time. A rep said she did a study of one muncipality and found the time its vehicles spent idling cost the city around $50,000 each year. Plow-route optimization would lead to less idle time, and she could figure out how to optimize plow routes.

Mucher and Gochenouer made their rounds. Despite the entreaties of the sales reps, they left empty-handed.

The next two hours and fifteen minutes were dedicated to presentations. Mucher and Gochenouer sat in these sessions, polite but expressionless, casually listening for those few minutes of valuable information. Though a cell phone would occasionally go off (one ringtone was a very loud duck-quack) and at least one sleeping attendee could be spotted during each discussion, attendees were privy to much information, as a county’s snow and ice removal concerns are many:

Plows tend to throw snow onto the front of trucks, obscuring visibility and blocking air intakes, which can lead to overheating. Excess salt can cause to ‘salt burn,’ which damages agriculture and kills trees and leads to a ‘brown out’ when spring comes. Plow routes are based on continuous right hand turns, which is why a representative from Centerville maligned the town’s many cul-de-sacs. Plow teams are often on call for grueling twelve-hour shifts, though this is better than working for sixteen hours at a stretch, a schedule that employees “can’t really plan their lives around.” Sometimes, the ground will be so cold that even after the air temperature rises, rain will freeze shortly after impact. What is the proper mix of chemicals, salt, and water for slurry? Is salt brine or beet juice more effective? When and where are belly plows most useful? Is chloride-treated sand the best deicer for gravel roads? Are the township’s trucks calibrated properly, and are they actually putting out what their gauges say? “One thing we’ve been wrestling with for years are standard truck plugs,” said a guy from the Ohio Department of Transportation. Everyone in the audience laughed and nodded. “How many of you have replaced mailboxes?” another speaker asked. Almost everyone raised their hands.

The application of liquid deicers vs. solid salt is an ongoing debate. Liquids are better at getting roads bare but solid salt is more effective in warmer temperatures. (Both methods are said to have problematic environmental impacts.) A guy attending from Michigan related how he came back from his first conference with all of these crazy ideas about liquid spray. “My coworkers thought I was stoned or high,” he said. “They wanted to send me to get a drug test!” Rob Crimm from Morgan Township said his department “was just now getting into liquids.” They realized that mixing liquids or sometimes even sand with salt will help stretch their resources.

As Gochenouer predicted, the discussions didn’t offer universal solutions for these problems but presented the clever ways in which winter emergencies were addressed. Auglaise County faced the problem of equipment not mixing rock salt – “grit,” as the presenter called it – well enough into brine. There would still be large patches of ice on the road after it was dispersed, so he and his team retrofitted an asphalt hopper to mix it. The upgrade cost Auglaise County about $31,000 but now they mix 40,000 tons of salt brine per year and even rent out their salt mixing services, charging neighboring counties and agencies $13 per ton. (A fairly standard amount, he said.) The speaker also showed pictures of the custom beet juice tanks his department built for $600 each.

Diana Clonch’s roundtable was one of the four sessions, and she’d spent the morning spitballing with employees. She applauded the imagination she’d seen at the conference. “The more we learn, the more we know how to step outside the box,” she said. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Clonch was tall and broad-shouldered, and her long black hair was draped over her shoulder in a thick plait, like a military sash. (She was the past president of the OPWA Board.) She spoke simply but animatedly, like someone used to public speaking. She seemed friendly and successful, the likely demeanor of someone with degrees in civil engineering and business.

“Do not be ashamed to steal your neighbor’s ideas,” Clonch advised. “We’re all working together in the snow and ice community.”

Sometimes friendly rivalry between neighboring counties was a good thing, she said. Plowing a road cleanly all the way to the county line awards bragging rights when you can see the neighboring county hadn’t gotten to it yet. But more seriously, she said, working with other jurisdictions can be very beneficial because collaboration increases efficiency and saves money. After all, at the heart of it, it’s all for the benefit of the people that live there.

Snow and Ice - lunch

Clonch’s session was the last of the four for Group 2. The attendees walked straight into the two long lines of the lunch buffet. Hamburgers, baked beans, chicken, and macaroni and cheese. Plates full, they filed back into the showroom and sat around large folding tables. The tables were in turn surrounded by the trucks on display. It was like eating in a garage on the job.

Mucher and Gochenouer sat with a half-dozen guys, exchanging small talk. Not much more could be said. Anything they could say to each other on the topic of snow removal had likely already been covered in one of the earlier sessions, or had been part of the pitch rattled off by a sales rep. At this point, the conference was about as exciting as eating lunch in a garage that looked like the garage they spent time in every day. The Miami Township contingent decided to cut out after lunch, skipping Clonch’s keynote speech (“Doing the right thing at the right time”) and the recognition of the 2015 Excellence in Snow and Ice Control Award winner. They’d seen enough throughout the years in Miami Township to have a handle on what they had to do in the coming months.

They walked back to the Muchmobile silently, Gochenouer carrying a can of soda. They knew that, should some surprise crisis pop up, each could be counted on to address it with the professionalism that is an evident part of their bearing. Gochenouer was scrappy and smart; Mucher was thorough and direct. They’d been through two meetings’ worth of irate neighbors – what was a quarter inch of snow?

Update, Spring 2016: the winter of 2015-16 proved not to be that bad. Mucher said the township used about 25% the amount of salt normally used, they didn’t have to pay for outside plow help, and there were no significant vehicle repairs.

Quaint Vituperations: the Glen House Inn Controversy

Miami Township map overlay bwBelow is the first section of a forthcoming nonfiction novella that chronicles the goings on of a small township in southwestern Ohio. I was sent to cover a township trustee meeting as a reporter for an area newspaper. Although nobody from the public normally attended those meetings, this was in particular was a hotbed of controversy and drew a dozen or so irate citizens. A rogue bed and breakfast was making waves in a neighborhood, and some neighbors wanted it shut down. The anti-B&B neighbors had a list of complaints against the inn that they said stretched back years.

However, a number of the B&B’s neighbors were friends of the owners and supported what the B&B was doing. The neighborhood was divided into cranky adherents on both sides, and the following trustee meeting was attended by pro-B&B neighbors refuting the points made by the first. To the neighbors, depending on what the trustees decided, the township was either tyrannical or ineffective.

While this may not sound like a riveting thing to write about, it was. The nature of the dispute and the personalities involved are fascinating, and the ways in which they clashed are hilarious, aggravating, serious, and quaint, all at the same time.

And this isn’t even taking into account the rest of the evening’s meeting, which involved everything from unknown remains found in an old cemetery to a visit to the Ohio Snow and Ice Removal Conference. My upcoming novella, logically titled “Township Trustee Meeting,” discusses life in the township, from its history of burial mounds and murders to the storied careers of the township trustees who have taken it upon themselves to steer such a multifaceted ship.

Quaint Vituperations: the Glen House Inn Controversy

Trustee Mark Crockett is a man who speaks deliberately, delivering each phrase with the ponderousness of a court justice who has all the time in the world. He sat in an equivalent posture on the evening of September 9, slightly reclined in his chair behind the table at the head of the room, fingers interlocked over his belly. He looked out on the room with equanimity, observing the proceedings and taking them in.

Crockett, like the other trustees, was in an interesting position. He had lived in the area with his wife for almost 40 years, owned a business, and was otherwise just a man around town. But he, like the other trustees, made decisions on behalf of his fellow residents.

Neither Crockett nor any of the other trustees had previous experience holding political office. Spracklen was a farmer, Mucher used to own the area’s video store, and Crockett is a jeweler and guitar player. (Though Mucher was an in-law to the DeWine family, an Ohio political dynasty.) But civic management skills were picked up on the job, and the public had trusted them enough to reelect each of them multiple times.

However, President of the Miami Township Boards of Trustees Chris Mucher looked around the meeting room warily on September 9. He could sense tempers were a little high, and so the outcome of the evening would likely make some proportionally serious waves. Any decision made is bound to offend someone, and in the case of the first portion of that evening’s meeting, any official position would offend at least half of an entire neighborhood.

The meeting began shortly after 7 p.m.

Mucher stood up and introduced himself and the rest of the people at the table: fellow trustee Mark Crockett, Margaret Silliman, the financial officer, “number one road employee” Dan Gochenouer, Miami Township Zoning Inspector Richard Zopf, and StepIMG_20160505_164722337hanie Hayden, the Greene County assistant prosecutor, who had been called in specifically to give her interpretation of the B&B dispute.

Mucher’s right hand stayed in the pocket of his khakis as he gave a referee-esque preamble to the proceedings.

“In our opinion, the board of trustees is the bedrock of local government,” he said. “It’s the place where the balance begins between the rights of the property owner and the rights of society. Sometimes it gets a little messy, but I assure tonight isn’t going to be messy. It’s going to be polite and dignified.”

The balance between the rights of the property owner and the rights of society were indeed going to be discussed. The meeting was the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle between a bed and breakfast and the neighbors it reportedly annoyed. The anti-Inn neighbors, the Concerned Circle Citizens (CCC), sat in the front row and nodded. Their de facto spokesperson brought with her a folder full of stapled documents to prove the soundness of their position. Nobody in favor of the B&B was there, as pains had been taken to avoid telling them the topic was going to be addressed at the meeting.

On the surface, the debate may seem a bit droll: how often does a quaint B&B drive neighbors mad? But such charming disputes are practically written into the township’s DNA.

An odd bit of Ohio Code allows the average residential homeowner to run a B&B out of her home with little official oversight.[1] In fact, a number of area residents were taking advantage of this allowance. Miami Township encompasses a number of picturesque hamlets, including the village of Yellow Springs, a progressive small town full of art galleries, a tourist destination most appropriately served by quaint B&Bs. A bumper sticker claims the area is “2.2 square miles surrounded by reality,” and the area’s pastoral vistas suggest this may be the case.

However, Crockett said most people who live in Miami Township just want to be left alone. The presence of a B&B in a quiet neighborhood a few miles outside of Yellow Springs was said to be aggressively challenging the desire to live unmolested. The Glen House Inn, located in a quiet neighborhood a few miles outside of Yellow Springs, was accused of hosting dozens of visitors and large-scale events like weddings, self-help workshops, and Solstice vigils, a far cry from the romantic (and manageable) couples who usually patronize B&Bs. The excess noise and people “undermined the quiet integrity of the neighborhood,” as one neighbor put it, and another said he never would have moved to the neighborhood in the first place had he known the Inn would so loud. Negotiations between the sides had deteriorated, if they were ever civil at all. Both sides accused the other of being obstinate and dishonest, and both accused the township of not acting with consistency in enforcing its laws.

As such, on September 9, the parties sought a definitive interpretation of code. Was the Inn operating legally or not? Should the Inn be found in compliance, the neighbors would just have to deal with it; should the Inn be found in violation, the B&B would have to scale back its operations, a change the owner said would ruin him financially.

Prosecutor Hayden was there to give an official interpretation of the law, and to offer suggestions about what steps could be taken to square everything with code. Throughout the meeting, her face held a look of intelligent skepticism, the fiercely judicious look of someone professionally capable of seeing through bullshit.

The crowd murmured, eager to get started. Richard Zopf, the wild-bearded township zoning inspector, tried to look relaxed while knowing that the whole room was eager to blame him for their troubles. Gochenouer, the road crewman and cemetery sexton whose official business didn’t have anything to do with the crowd, folded his hands and smiled faintly.

Genesis of the Dispute


IMG_20160501_185241489

Grinnell Circle, where the Glen House Inn is located, is a ten-minute drive from the MTFR building. Down Corry Street, past a nature preserve and a stable of therapeutic horses, is Grinnell Road. A left turn on Grinnell takes the visitor down a sizable hill and onto a road overlooked by the colorful buildings of a recently revamped wastewater treatment plant. A few miles further south and the visitor will come to a noticeably bucolic setting, a clearing with stone walls and an old mill with water wheel set among hedges and trees. The Glen Circle neighborhood is back in this splendiferous idyll.

Glen Circle is a collection of homesteads grouped around an acre of common area. Some neighbors have gates; some have none; most have a decent amount of money. Eric and Deirdre Owen, the owners of the Inn, spent $700,000 to build a large house on the Circle in 2005, largely because of its regal charm. Both grew up in Yellow Springs, and wanted to return. The house is based on a dream home they sketched on a cocktail napkin in Europe many years before.

Owen is in his late 40s, thickset, unkempt in a way that speaks for consistent productivity in his pursuits. He’s a kind of wheeler-dealer, active in the art world and owner of a few properties, including part of a hotel in small-town Michigan. He was thrust into bed and breakfast ownership when he had a falling out with the partners of a company he founded 25 years before. He took a year’s salary and retired, but quickly recognized the money was not enough to sustain him forever. He knew he had to do something to secure his retirement. A beautiful house was at his disposal, and he decided to turn it into a B&B. The Glen House Inn’s website was up and running within thirty days of his decision. He said it was the only way to save the house.

In the interest of being open about his plans and in order to get a permit to follow through with them, Owen met with the Board of Zoning Appeals in July 2011. The BZA overhears building plans, checks them against zoning code, and questions prospective builders about the effects the construction will have on the surroundings. All BZA meetings are open to the public, and citizens are encouraged to attend and weigh in with their concerns. Anti-Inn neighbors came to the BZA meeting, anticipating the B&B would be trouble, and wanting to register their reservations.

Both sides grant some kind of tenuous agreement was reached regarding the operations of the Inn, but none of the claims about what was said can be proven, as the official record for this meeting has disappeared. Video of any BZA meeting would ordinarily be available through the local cable access station or on a DVD at the library, but the master recording could no longer be found, and the person who took notes at the meeting no longer worked for the Township. Ultimately, Zopf recalled, “there was no reason not to grant Owen a permit,” as Owen’s plans seemed kosher.

With the impression everything was on the up-and-up, the Owens opened the Glen House Inn. Guests lined up to rent its five spacious rooms, lounge on its patio, appreciate the impressive art collection, and swim in its stream-fed pool. The whole Inn is bathed in that tranquil, sunlit green characteristic of 18th century paintings. It’s an objectively beautiful location, and business was steady.

However, perhaps because of the bacchanalia such locations induce, neighbors said their concerns about disturbed peace were immediately proven correct. Catering trucks parked on the berm of the already-narrow road. Fireworks – “nice ones, like you’d see in town” – were said to have almost hit two houses at 12:45 a.m. Guests playing in the pool were too noisy. One resident said he was unhappy with unknown people lurking in the neighborhood, and described a recent occurrence where a car circled around the neighborhood before parking at the Inn.

“Why would they do that?” he asked. “I think it’s a safety concern.”

(The Owens maintain that some of these events happened once and never again, and that the neighbors have been referencing them for years. And people drive on the road, Owen said, because it’s a public road.)

The neighbors maintain they complained to the township and the county, to no avail, for at least four years. But in 2015, action was taken after the Inn’s busted septic system began stinking up the area. The ghastly effluence was definitely coming from the Inn, one neighbor said. “A lot of sniff-testing confirmed it.” The Greene County Health Department investigated – they have jurisdiction over septic systems – and deemed the septic system completely inadequate for the amount of people the Inn hosted.

By this point the Owens had moved back to Michigan and the operations of the Inn were being managed by a live-in caretaker Jody Farrar and her husband Bill. The Owens and Farrars conceded the septic system was not working and fixed it. Other repairs were undertaken and the Inn continued hosting guests and renting out their facilities at a rate of $5,000 per weekend. The noise was alleged to have continued unabated.

The final straw was when neighbors got wind that Owen was talking about reworking the property into a winery. It was a clever power play, as viticulture is exempt from zoning. A winery is considered an agricultural practice, which Ohio Code explicitly states townships have no jurisdiction over, including the zoning of buildings as part of the agricultural operation.[2]

Owen had no qualms using this possibility as leverage. “I’ll convert it to a winery rather than face foreclosure,” he said. “Then there’ll be hundreds of cars per weekend versus just a few.” (When the viticulture possibility was brought up at the meeting on Sept. 9, Stephanie Hayden wasn’t impressed. “We have a lot of people threaten to open a winery to get zoning off their back,” she said.)

Credible threat or not, the neighbors ramped up their efforts to get the township to intervene, hence asking the trustees to invite Hayden and the neighbors’ collective appearance at the meeting.

At the Meeting of September 9, 2015

September 9 was it. Their big meeting, their big chance for an official showdown. The neighbors were sober and ready to go; partners held hands for encouragement. After his brief opening speech, Mucher introduced Hayden.

Hayden was Greene County’s prosecutor, and by statue, the township’s lawyer, she said. She clearly and concisely explained what roles the various boards and commissions played in the drama. She outlined the process of suing someone over zoning concerns, the difference between civil and municipal court, and the possible outcomes of such a suit. ($500 per day per violation, in one instance.) Her elucidations were illustrated with examples of other problematic zoning cases. “One guy was a junk property owner, an outdoor hoarder. We disagree what the definition of ‘junk’ is,” she said.

She then asked the neighbors to present their case.

“When did these problems start?” Hayden asked.
“First of June, 2011,” said the head of the CCC immediately.
Her ready answer prompted laughs.
“We’re on top of this,” the neighbor said.

The CCC enumerated the violations and complaints that plagued the Inn since it had opened. And not only was the Inn hosting many more guests than was legally allowed, the CCC spokesperson argued, but the Owens didn’t even live in Ohio, which meant that the Inn wasn’t owner-occupied, which meant that it wasn’t even technically abiding by the B&B guidelines set out in code.

Hayden listened to the neighbor’s complaints with total concentration, her body involuntarily twitching when she heard a particularly egregious violation. The neighbors were very thorough. “You’re the best witnesses I’ve ever had,” Hayden said. Her assessment was obvious: the parameters of what is officially acceptable, for bed and breakfast and everything else, are plainly spelled out in the Ohio Revised Code, the Ohio Administrative Code, Miami Township Code or any of the other official regulations used by a county or city agency. These laws are indisputable, and she was clearly baffled that the Inn was still in operation at all. Her expression also hinted at her feelings as a human being annoyed by other humans who think they’re special.

All things considered, Hayden said it made sense to convene representatives from all agencies involved in the dispute and file a formal complaint against the Inn. She suggested giving the Inn a “fill-in-the-blanks violation of notice,” a pre-drafted letter the agencies could just fill in with the violations they’d inevitably discover. Hayden and Zopf agreed they would pay the Inn a visit in a few days. The trustees sat back in their chairs with evident relief. A decision had to be made, and it was.

This decision reached, about 98% of the people at the meeting got up and gathered their belongings. “You’re welcome to stay for the rest of the…” Mucher began, but the attendees filed past him and went back outside. Snatches of their conversation could be heard as the door swung open and closed. The first part of the September 9 meeting had taken one hour and fourteen seconds.

A Visit to the Inn

IMG_20160501_185221238

Entering the Grinnel Circle neighborhood. The entrance to the Inn is to the left; straight ahead is the central common area.

The Inn was apparently subject to intimidation in the days following the September 9 meeting. Someone pounded on door in the middle of the night, and guests reported what sounded like guns being shot off right next to the house.

Things did not improve from there. Five days after the trustee meeting, on September 14, a contingent of county and township functionaries paid a visit to the Inn. The Owens travelled down from Michigan to lead the zoning and health code inspectors on what they thought was a “fact-finding mission” to determine what aspects of the Inn needed to be brought up to code. Instead, Owen said, they were surprised to find themselves served with a cease and desist letter, just as Hayden had suggested.

The letter said the Inn had two weeks from that day to scale back its operations or it would be shut down. The inn could have no more than five guests in its current incarnation, nor could it host any events. It also had to stop its activities as an art gallery (or venue of any kind), as it also violated statutes defining what constitutes a home-based business.

Eric Owen promptly called the Yellow Springs News, as he knew a reporter was at the Trustees meeting and wanted to provide the world with this most shocking update. He and Deirdre and the Farrars and his mother Luisa were sitting outside on deck chairs when the reporter arrived, gobsmacked by the morning’s events. Owen related what happened with the impassioned but disjointed cadence of someone thinking aloud. After a few minutes he paused and held out his lit cigarette.

“Look what they have me doing,” he said. “I don’t even smoke.”

The agencies’ letter effectively meant he would have to turn the B&B into a hotel, he said. In order for the Inn to host the number of guests it had been, Owen would have to install steel doors, fire dampeners, hood systems in the kitchen, and a 150,000-gallon cistern for a sprinkler system in his house, an expense he simply could not afford.

The CCC was basically a “lynch mob” that had their “tentacles” in county and township agencies. This was nothing like the community he used to know, he said. He said Greene County were toadies following the regulations created by and directly benefitting the worldwide hotel industry. Owen’s mother compared the Inn’s situation with the policies of the fascist regime she lived through as a young woman in a prison camp in Yugoslavia.

“Where I grew up, they would kill you for speaking up. If that were the case here, I would still speak up about the Inn,” she said.

But the caretakers got to work making two of the five rooms unavailable. They had to remove an illegal downstairs bathroom and take out some beds as a show of good faith that they wouldn’t secretly accommodate more guests than they were allowed. Jody Farrar said she had to call and tell people they couldn’t have their wedding at the Inn. The guests went from angry to devastated, she said, as some people had already ordered decorations specifically to go with the property.

All of this after the largesse the Inn has shown the area, Owen said, like the free use of the Inn for area cultural affairs and “at least 50 meals and $400 in wine purchased in town” by guests of a recent event.

They’d just have to wait and see if the Inn would still be sustainable.

The Second Meeting – September 21, 2015

IMG_20160501_185854460

Looking toward the Glen House Inn across the neighborhood common area.

 

Tempers ran high at the subsequent trustees meeting two weeks later. If the previous meeting was noteworthy for its attendance, this one was exceptional. Supporters of the Inn said it was their duty to show up and testify on the Inn’s behalf, as they were deliberately excluded from the previous meeting. The CCC was there to advocate again for their position.

The trustees filed in from the corridor. Trustee Lamar Spracklen wasn’t at the previous meeting, but he was this time. He sat down in his chair and stared out at the room. He looked like a grizzled boxing instructor commanding someone to punch a side of meat, and he had a bandage on his face that stretched from his lip to his cheekbone. His eyes scanned the crowd, like he was just waiting for someone to ask what happened. Gochenouer was at the table, and so were Crockett, Silliman, and Zopf.

Chris Mucher stood up, and with little official township preamble addressed the crowd. There was a slight tremble in his voice.

“If anyone thinks they’re in the wrong place, they’re not,” he said. “This is exactly where you want to be. This is a public meeting of the Board of Trustees.”

The Inn’s supporters were ready to go. A neighbor named Dan Rudolf spoke, lauding the operations of the Inn and saying he was not bothered by the occasional noise. His speech was delivered with an eloquence that bespoke serious conviction, or at least a lot of time rehearsing the delivery. Innkeeper Bil Farrar, tall, with a wispy red beard and long red ponytail, stood up and added his piece. He tried to make the difficult argument that the neighbors were being un-neighborly – a subjective characteristic that was hard to objectively prove, and a point that was difficult to understand because his speech was peppered with phrases like “maybe it’s not your job to promote community” and “losing the opportunity to eat potato salad with the Lithgows[3],” on top of referring to the proceedings as a “plot.” By the looks on the faces of the other attendees, the strength of his case was dampened by the profligate use of these rhetorical illustrations. Nevertheless, their abundance spoke for the seriousness of his convictions.

Owen’s eyes were sparkling with a barely-containable desire to speak. He leapt up. Did the Township know the position he and Deirdre were being put in? he asked.

“We’re basically vagabonds,” he said. “We have no house; we sleep when there are free rooms in the bed and breakfast.” He already worked eighteen hours a day, he said, and now he had to deal with this.

“If the neighbors wanted a gated community, why don’t they just create a gated community?” he asked.

He wasn’t inherently opposed to code, he said, and every time he was asked he tried to square his property with it. But the changes the Inn had to make were difficult to understand thanks the unclear information given by the Township and the fact that county and Ohio codes didn’t always line up. It was tough to tell which code took precedence, he said, but either way, he felt the Inn was being ganged up on.

“I don’t know what club you’re part of,” Owen said.

“I don’t have a club,” said Mucher. “This has absolutely nothing to do with any other department or political subdivision.”

“I mean the club we’re being beaten with,” Owen said.

More testimony was heard from Bob Bingenheimer, who had a letter to the editor entitled “Glen House Closing Shows Worst of People and Government” published in the paper earlier that week, though its incendiary title was changed to something less acerbic. Another innkeeper in town offered her take on the issue, arguing against the necessity of strictly following the owner-occupancy requirement for small-scale B&Bs.

Here trustee Spracklen weighed in. He sympathized with the Owens and told of his own troubles running his own B&B. He is the owner-operator of another picturesque area inn, and his B&B necessarily operates under the auspices of the same township code. Spracklen’s establishment had recently come under fire for serving a breakfast far too large for its permit, and he sarcastically explained how the Health Department demanded significant upgrades to the kitchen.[4]

“Don’t make me laugh or my tape’ll fall off,” he said, touching his bandage.

(A few weeks later he would basically be in Owen’s position, pleading his case to the Health Department and visibly trying to stifle his irritation at their inability to understand why he should just be allowed to do what he wants to do.)

The CCC was there and pleaded their case anew, going point-for-counterpoint with Owen’s. The argument got more convoluted as more people weighed in. There was a circuitous discussion of what defines traffic on the circle, and then a discussion on the nature of socializing itself. Mucher stepped in and gave a ten-minute warning, mentioning again that no real or enforceable resolution would be coming from this meeting, or the next one, or any future meetings. A change to the zoning code required advocating for the change before the Zoning Commission, who would render their expert opinion and eventually suggest a change for the trustees to vote on.

The public debate portion of the Sept. 21 meeting ran for the next ten minutes, and the trustees wrapped it up. There was not much more to say, and little that could be done at that moment. The attendees once again got up and left as soon as the debate session was over, the two sides avoiding further interaction and leaving the building to fume together or in private.

Ultimately, the case added up to this: because the Owens had more than five guests, because it was shown that the Owens are registered tax-payers in Michigan, because the property is zoned residential, and because they didn’t have the appropriate health, fire, and food licenses, the Glen House Inn would have to limit its bed and breakfasting operations to those allowed in residentially-zoned properties. The mandates of the letter signed jointly by the Greene County Combined Health District and the Miami Township offices were not up for debate – code was there for a reason, and that reason could not be selectively enforced, no matter how fascistic or unfair it may seem. There had to be some structure, and that structure was outlined in Miami Township Code.

“That’s the most dramatic thing about being a trustee – whether you like it or not, changes happen,” Crockett said. “Our job is to try to make the best decision for the majority of the people in the community.”

A decision had been reached on September 14, and it stood.

Update, Spring 2016: An article about this controversy was published in the Yellow Springs News not long after the second Board of Trustees meeting. The article presented an overview of the debate and reported on the cease and desist letter, suggesting the Inn was shut down as a result. Richard Zopf was quick to point out was not the case. He wrote a letter to the editor that said the article made the Zoning Inspector look bad and misinterpreted the township’s position. The Inn was not closed down, he pointed out, it just had to stop its violations. He maintained that this was his position all along – all of the suggestions he had ever given, all of the leniency he’s shown the Owens – were all in the interest of getting the Inn in compliance with Code. He, in his duty as Zoning Inspector, was simply trying to follow the letter of the law. He admitted he had been lenient in the time he allowed residents to comply, but no more. He had been taken advantage of by both sides, he said, and from that point on was going to be strict in his definitions of what was acceptable and not.

The Inn reduced its operations within the fourteen days demanded by the letter and has stayed at that level ever since. Its available rooms are booked fairly consistently. (It was determined that the Owens did have residency in Ohio, as the Inn was their registered address and Ohio law does not specify a length of time required for residency.)

Jody Farrar said it seemed like the authorities were trying to cover their tracks in going after the Inn. There are five B&Bs in the area, she said, but the Inn got “dissected” because the health department realized they were supposed to be monitoring B&Bs but weren’t, and went after one in order to save face. Bil Farrar, speaking with his customary grandiloquence, said “the shrapnel rained down and gave us all paper cuts; we didn’t die but we were severely injured.” Owen said members of the CCC have called them and pretended to be someone looking to book an event to see if the Inn would slip up.

In late March of 2016, a pro-Inn neighbor wrote a letter to the editor to be published in the Yellow Springs News. It was entitled “Unintended Consequences: An Essay About Community, a Cautionary Tale” and decried the Township’s decision, saying that all semblance of neighborly cooperation had been bulldozed by the CCC’s intractable opposition to the Owens. The letter ran almost 3,000 words, and the editor of the News said it had to be cut down by about 75 percent in order to be published. The author said she couldn’t do this, the argument had to be presented in its entirety, and she said was willing to pay the full $800 to run the essay as a full-page ad. The staff of the News was unsure about this proposition, as a mockup of the full-page version of the essay looked a lot like the screed of a maniac demanding its publication in order prevent further tragedy. The News was unsure if they wanted to open the paper up to that kind of thing.

Ultimately, Owen asked the well-intentioned neighbor not to go through with publishing her lengthy missive. He had a prospective buyer for the property and didn’t want to dredge up problems associated with the house. As of April 2016, the house is en route to be being sold and will revert back to its first incarnation as a private residence. According to Owen, it just wasn’t worth it to keep the Glen House Inn going.

“I’ve dealt with this same provincial shit before with my hotel in Michigan,” Owen said, “but this was something else.”

[1] 5.308 Bed and Breakfast Operations, under the following conditions:

5.3101 All operations hereunder must meet the definition of Bed and Breakfast.
5.3102 Are operated totally within the principal dwelling and not within a garage or accessory building.
5.3103 Does not have exterior evidence of operation other than one (1) square foot wall sign as permitted under Section 2.14
5.3104 Shall contain no additional, separate kitchen facilities for guests.
5.3105 Shall provide one (1) off-street parking space for every guest room in addition to the off-street parking otherwise required for the principal structure as provided in each district.
5.3106 Shall permit access to the guest room only through the principal structure.
5.3107 Shall obtain an occupancy permit from Greene County Building Inspection Department prior to the commencement of operations to ensure compliance with all applicable building and safety standards.

[2] 519.21 Powers not conferred on township zoning commission by chapter: Except as otherwise provided in division (B) of this section, sections 519.02 to 519.25 of the Revised Code confer no power on any township zoning commission, board of township trustees, or board of zoning appeals to prohibit the use of any land for agricultural purposes or the construction or use of buildings or structures incident to the use for agricultural purposes of the land on which such buildings or structures are located, including buildings or structures that are used primarily for vinting and selling wine and that are located on land any part of which is used for viticulture, and no zoning certificate shall be required for any such building or structure.

Section B of the above references includes exceptions such as a parcel of land of five acres or less or one located in a platted subdivision containing 15 or more lots. On a lot that is one acre or smaller, zoning may prohibit or regulate all agricultural activities.

[3] Sometimes the Inn was rented out by Antioch College as a home for its special guests, which once included actor John Lithgow and his family. Lithgow’s father was a theater professor at Antioch, and John Lithgow attended daycare in Yellow Springs.

[4] A few years before, a local woman named Nora Byrnes began serving free breakfasts to the community from her home on a residential street. She’d take custom orders and had an impressive buffet anyone could help themselves to. Everyone was welcome, and donations were tacitly accepted. Breakfasts at Norah’s grew to be so well liked that Norah would have between forty to sixty people eating at her house. Friends volunteered as waitstaff, and the breakfast operations began to look like a professional restaurant, though the community-minded approach (everyone sat family style) was said by her fans to engender a uniquely communal environment. Of course, regularly serving food to sixty people caught the eye of the Health Department, who said she was totally unlicensed and had to shut down. The community was in an uproar that her generosity was being circumscribed, and so Spracklen began letting Byrnes use his B&B to host her breakfasts once a week. These breakfasts likewise drew the attention of the Health Department. Byrnes was forced to stop serving breakfast at Spracklen’s inn, but in a case that may give hope to the Owens, Byrnes later appeared before the BZA to lay out her plans to resume serving breakfasts in her own home, and the reasons why she should be allowed to do it. She gave a persuasive interpretation of code, and a dozen or more citizens from the town testified on her behalf about how wonderful her breakfasts are. While the specifics of the BZA’s decision are too lengthy to address, suffice it to say code was creatively interpreted in such a way that she could resume breakfasts at her home in a limited capacity.

“You’re not going to have GFS semi-trucks delivering to your house this time, are you?” asked one BZA member.
“No,” she said.

Newspaper Hype Piece for Martin’s Show (see previous post)

Please check it out. It condenses the stuff in the previous article into a readable format as well as offering some other peoples’ insights. More non-OJ things to come soon.

“Don’t Squeeze the Juice!”: Translating the Untranslatable, Expressing the Inexpressible.

(Note: The weird piece below is for my friend Martin Hugo‘s art exhibit “Not Guilty?”. He is showing a collection of twenty different shirts that were once for sale outside of the courtroom where OJ Simpson was on trial for murder in 1994 and 1995. This is the introduction(?) to a book he will have for sale that features photos of the shirts and an interview with Hugo and fellow designer Shawn K. about their impressions of the shirts and the shirts’ deserved though unrecognized place in fashion. Below is the postcard for the show and a few pics of some of the shirts (which obviously don’t do them any justice). The show is Friday, August 31st at Skylab, 57 East Gay Street, 5th Floor, Columbus, OH.)

On August 31st at Skylab Gallery, Martin Hugo will be displaying his collection of O.J. Simpson-themed T-shirts that were made and sold before and during Simpson’s criminal trial for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.  Hugo has been searching these T-shirts out over the past few years, shirts that were originally sold on the street by unlicensed merchants, which have now become collectible commodities that often demand high prices on resale sites like eBay. The collection captures an array of aesthetically intriguing “naive” graphic design choices while serving as an inlet to the larger political and social narratives of 1990s America - an era that is currently mythologized as a time of peace and prosperity, which, in reality, was a time typified by bitter, fractious domestic politics. From Simpson’s trial to the Unabomber, Oklahoma City to Waco, the Michigan militia to the Rodney King riots, the Amadou Diallo shooting to David Duke, 1990s America was a cauldron of social paranoia and racial hatred. Hugo’s T-shirt collection perfectly articulates the role of the Simpson trial as an avatar for America’s deep racial divisions and prompts insoluble questions about the nature of commerce and justice in the United States of America.The exhibition will be accompanied by a print publication. C.J. Townsend will be DJing during the opening.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O._J._Simpson_murder_casehttp://martinthings.com/

The article that follows uses some pretty bombastic language and freely makes some fairly lofty claims. What may seem at first like facetious praise (or worse, ad copy) is in actuality written with the utmost sincerity and a total lack of pretense, for so rarely does something come along that truly deserves to be called ‘genius’ that anything less than the most profound magniloquence won’t do it justice.

The OJ Simpson shirts Martin Hugo has collected are truly examples of unbalanced genius. They are products without branding, capitalism without commercialism, true examples of art by way of what appears to be the mind of a deranged but entrepreneurial eight year-old. Today they go unrecognized by tastemakers and are too impolitic to be worn as any other vintage shirt would, even by the most impressively ironic dresser. Nose rings and tattoos are passé, shock rock is a lame relic, and shirts with witty, virility-trumpeting double entendres only succeed in classifying the wearer as a moron. Indeed, the OJ shirts are beyond such infantile concerns. Their genius lies in their appeal as outsider art and their simultaneous social commentary; all of the complexities of the Simpson trial are codified into stunningly simple, stunningly brilliant designs. Not many things are this complex while still remaining overtly grotesque (in the best way possible). The shirts bring joy to those who celebrate their baroque strangeness and play an important, almost metaphysical role in keeping society as we’ve established it sane.

As is evident by the abundance of designs, regardless of the fact that two people were brutally stabbed to death, the crime is not universally reviled. The trial was an extremely polarizing affair; like guilt or innocence, the Simpson trial was a black and white issue. The Rodney King beating and the LA riots were contemporaneous manifestations of racial tension, the signs of a turbulent time ushered in by the terrifying thrum and thump of the increasingly popular gangster rap. For OJ supporters, his guilt or innocence was almost irrelevant. On trial was another black man, presumed guilty by overtly racist cops, pilloried by “normal” society as a way to get back at the black community for the terror they inspired in the preceding years. And in the same way that someone supporting OJ was also rooting for the victim(s) of a system already biased against him, fervently professing his guilt was a way for people to root for the other side without directly coming out and saying so.

For this reason, the shirts are immediately shocking because of the way they turn the person wearing them into an intimidating political presence. The wearer is associating him/herself with all that the shirts represent – their statements transcend the cheap, single-minded thrill of the “offensive” slogan to make a statement that directly attacks the values of the status quo. You can never tell if someone is wearing one simply because it’s exuberantly outrageous or to start a serious debate.

As everyone knows, there was enough doubt about his guilt to make the successful case for his innocence. From the beginning, he was innocent until proven guilty, which, in the most official capacity possible, he ultimately wasn’t. Two people were murdered, a tragedy that needs to be treated with the utmost respect, but so do the workings of our hallowed legal system. In a roundabout way, whether intended or not, the shirts celebrate the beauty of the justice system: OJ was found not guilty and therefore he legally has no blood on his hands. The shirts are a raucous and warranted ‘fuck you, assholes!!!!’ to a society whose prejudices usually influence how it operates.

(Or, if some doubt about his innocence still remained, then the not guilty verdict was at least a sort of vindication of a less ethical kind, an example of a minority finally getting to buy his way through the legal system in the same way that rich, white businessmen have for years.)

It is not easy to write a bombastic, inspiring phrase that nonetheless carries the philosophical and socio-political weight of the issue it represents, as you run the risk cheapening the ideology for the sake of brevity. You need a phrase that turns oniony layers of social commentary into something you can yell at opponents without sounding like you are just repeating catchphrases. ‘Genius’ can be applied to those that do it correctly, and needless to say, these shirts do it correctly.

But the shirts are complex for more than just their clever sloganeering. In a certain light, they aren’t even that outrageous. The politics they represent are certainly divisive but are at the same time fairly mainstream. Not to trivialize poverty, crooked cops, racism, and murder, but you aren’t necessarily going to be considered an extremist for debating these issues. They are a common theme in politics. OJ Simpson’s status as a full-fledged criminal is dubious, anyway: because he was found not guilty, he doesn’t carry the same infamy as a mass murderer or pedophile[1]. For example, it would be highly, probably incontrovertibly “inappropriate” to wear FREE TIMOTHY MCVEIGH or JARED LOUGHNER FOR PRESIDENT shirts because the motivations for their respective crimes are hardly sympathetic; the secessionist politics of the former are far too abstruse and weird to be given any mind, and the senseless violence of the latter is just that, not to mention that his psychotic visage brings to mind Jason Voorhees without a mask. Wearing a shirt like this would be extreme but would inspire universal condemnation without the benefit of having made a coherent statement, and it would be hard to make a case for the corrupt politics behind their respective prosecutions.

Conversely, the wearer of the OJ shirts could yet be considered extreme because the pledge to support a controversial cause takes conscious effort to maintain, a position much more serious than offering an uninformed opinion on something in the news. Everyone is expected to weigh in on moral controversies. Reacting to the crime of the week is an essentially harmless pastime, as our opinions on these affairs are only matters of social obligation. We are supposed to pick one side or the other. Our opinions don’t really matter to the people we discuss them with, as they are merely something to talk about. What do Casey Anthony or Mary Kay Letourneau ultimately mean? Nothing, because they had no bearing on society other than to inspire its moralistic indignation for a few weeks. But wearing one of these shirts says that the wearer actively believes that OJ Simpson is innocent, is proud of it, and identifies with the righteous anger associated with it. Wearing a shirt moves the issue from the realm of office cooler small talk and into the face of society at large.

Granted, wearing a shirt may make the wearer feel like he or she is doing a greater duty than he or she actually is, but there is an admirable sincerity on display. The wearer is not driven by notions of being trendy but by the street corner zeitgeist, by a sense of affinity with those directly affected by the outcome of the trial. Thus the shirts offer a more legitimate appraisal of the situation than any example of reportorial gravitas ever could. Why should you trust news anchors, people who are in essence hired to present themselves as trustworthy? Punditry is inauthentic precisely because it presents itself as authentic – the acting is done consciously. We believe them because they know we believe we are supposed to believe them, and both sides act accordingly. These shirts are a loud blast of truth disrupting such broadcasts. No distillation and totally unapologetic. These shirts are authentically, unpretentiously, and directly communicating what so many feel without pandering to commercial sponsors.

From a purely design standpoint, the shirts almost satirize their own brutality. The shirts are arresting in their amateurishness but much more powerful because of it. They are made with an uncalculated approach to design, avoiding the rules (and thus the sterility) of mainstream design because the creator is aloof to the fact that these rules exist. The same aesthetic that makes a cut and paste kidnapper’s ransom note eerily appealing is shared by these shirts. The maker just wants to express something, and he or she does it in a way that he or she thinks looks cool. And it totally does. For whatever reason, these shirts possess an intrinsic brilliance that some things simply don’t. The shirts are a rare example of the kind of utterly groundbreaking success that comes from an inexperienced person saying, “I can do that!”, who then does it in his or her own way and succeeds for reasons that can’t be taught, planned, or even envisioned.

That’s why these shirts are so weird. They are direct representations of what is going on in someone’s brain – unadulterated and replete with charming imperfections borne from urgency. (The urgency coming being the need to get them designed, printed, and sold as quickly as possible at stalls outside of the courthouse.)

The design world doesn’t seem especially impressed by these artifacts, despite their evident genius. There isn’t a huge market for these shirts; Martin paid at most forty dollars for a shirt, and this had more to do with their vintage status than their status as oddball works of art. Despite the lack of official recognition of the shirts’ achievements, the fact that they have an underground following (which may, in fact, only be Martin) heightens their grubby mystique, like illicit goods you have to know someone who knows someone to access, or, in an even more unsettling sense, like the collection of someone who obsessively collects something relatively mundane yet the very act of collecting it (and the numbers in their collection) makes it seem like a perverse hobby. Seeing all of these shirts in one place is an amazing, disconcerting experience.

Taking all of the above into account, the shirts still function as more than just wacky old clothes or vehicles for political expression. They are so perfectly strange that they actually improve our lives. The casual existence of small yet utterly deranged things is a kind of necessary iconoclasm; it’s not large scale miracles that we need but weird little blips here and there on our radar to remind us things aren’t as predictable as we imagine. We don’t expect to see Bigfoot, but we couldn’t handle it if we did. These shirts fill the void between a glimpse of the incomprehensible and something equivalent to the strangeness of déjà vu. Seeing one of these shirts is weird because you don’t know if you saw what you think you saw. They get your brain working and you find yourself thinking deeply about things that don’t have anything to do with the shirts, to use the example at hand, all because you experienced something a little off. These mildly incongruous things upset the complacency and groupthink that society instills in us by reminding us that there is more to life than the examples of it we see in commercials. Life isn’t as squeaky clean as corporations, the church, and the Man wants, and neither is the human experience. Try as it might, capital-S Society can never claim dominion over peoples’ surprising, interesting, and hilarious minds. These reminders don’t have to be strange t-shirts, but in this case they are. These anomalous things keep things from getting too ordinary, even if we barely notice them.

OJ is not around to appreciate the by proxy support offered by Martin’s show. He is in prison for thirty years for the armed re-robbery of what he claimed was sports memorabilia stolen from him, an insane thing for a man so closely scrutinized by society to do. It was a dumb, unsympathetic crime, and it seems that most people feel the same way. His recent incarceration was only a minor scandal, eliciting not protest from the public but rolled eyes and annoyed sighs. There is nothing especially political or controversial about his new charges, just the logical result of some rich prick blowing his third chance at life. Indeed: a search for current OJ-related shirts yields designs where he is only the butt of jokes. (“I Told You OJ Did It – Again;” What Happens in Las Vegas Stays in Las Vegas” (where the recent robbery occurred).) The impact of the original trial and its verdict may have lessened over time, but that moment in time when OJ stood for much more than even he could imagine is carried on through these shirts, as are the raucous spirits of DIY designers, trials by media, and artless art. Thank you Martin Hugo for maintaining this collection and preserving for us an outrageous chapter of human history.


[1] This isn’t taking into account the documented evidence that he abused Nicole Brown for years. Horrible photos abound showing the wounds he inflicted, and at one point she called the police afraid that he was going to kill her. Nobody seems to take this into consideration when weighing in on the outcome of his trial, and it unfortunately doesn’t seem to matter. When discussing this here, his history of domestic violence isn’t being overlooked intentionally but it isn’t being raised because it doesn’t factor, for better or for worse, in affecting the opinions of those that support him and how they are expressed.

Zanesville is a City of Things Unknown

(note: As can be deduced from the title, this is an homage to the pieces that comprise Gay Talese’s New York: a Serendipitor’s Journey (collected in Fame and Obscurity). I was instantly smitten with the series of essays when I read them and was inspired to turn a Talesian eye on my own city. Though significantly more wordy and with some of my personal delights and biases evident, I did try to maintain a more or less neutral outlook and present the city as it is, detailing some of its splendor and some of its more lamentable aspects; Talese was a little more buoyant where I get a little bit whiny, but as a whole, I think that Zanesville, a random town in Ohio that could be any town in the Southern Midwest (save for its somewhat memorable name), deserves to be recognized as the unique entity that it is. This piece was started in 2006(?) and finished in 2009, with the bulk of the work being done in 2009, and I later used it in issue #3 of the Wormhole Collective.)

Zanesville is a City of Things Unknown

Zanesville, Ohio is a city of things unnoticed, of strange occupations, of things unseen, and is a city with a life of its own. It is a city that mixes the quirky with the mundane, the mainstream with the local, and the urban with the country. It boasts of having once been the capital of Ohio (1810-1812) and of having been a city whose minor league team, the Zanesville Infants, played in baseball’s first night game in 1909, thanks to recently invented portable electric lighting. Not only is Zanesville the hometown of to two athletes currently playing professional sports (Jay Payton and Kevin Martin), but it is also the birthplace and home to a physicist, Thomas Townsend Brown (1905-1985), who studied anti-gravity and electro-gravitational propulsion, mechanisms by which he suggested UFOs might fly. Zanesville, located at latitude 39.940N, longitude 82.013W, is also a distinguished city of letters: it is home to the famous Y-Bridge, and an S-Bridge also exists nearby; its library system has at least 289,353 books and Zanesville is the birthplace of the extremely prolific western author Zane Grey, who wrote well over ninety books himself.

Zanesville is a city that boasts intense historical importance and purportedly high levels of crime. Within these positive and negative characteristics is the reality that Zanesville is a complex place. Downtown is full of beautiful, oversized brick buildings, but also the dog-food plant, a building in the middle of downtown plant emits a sour, brownish-orange odor inescapable to that half of the city. A smell of its magnitude can never be a thing unnoticed, but perhaps the lengths people go to in an attempt to shut it out of their mind would qualify it as a purposefully forgotten entity. But the smell is just a fact of life, just one of the threads that make up the tapestry of an average day in a town in the foothills of Appalachia. Every weird smell has its day, as does a UFO scientist, professional athletes, and a local restaurant said by USA Today in 1998 to have the nation’s best homemade ice cream. That restaurant is called Tom’s – the employees wear bowties and little paper hats, and the old lunch counter is right around the corner from a skating rink obviously from the same era.

Everyone knows there is always a traffic jam outside of Wal-Mart, but did you know that Zanesville is home to the oldest Shakespeare reading group in the country? Indeed, the “provincial town on the road to Wheeling” was home to one Joseph Crosby, a native Englishman who had one of the three best private Shakespeare libraries of his time. Crosby was an amateur Shakespeare scholar and the author of articles known to Shakespeare scholars worldwide. Thanks to his initiative, the reading group has been meeting since 1878.

Zanesville is the home of a 1995 State Basketball Championship, the first in almost four decades, which was celebrated with numerous parades, but the city was also the site of a nauseating “satanic” murder in which a teenage babysitter murdered a small child; there existed a secret ‘fight club’ that raged for a number of bouts and then wore itself out with a volley of sickening punches, and there are businesses offering Tarot card readings that seem to be perpetually open. Zanesville is not a city that lent its name to a haircut of questionable taste as one of its neighbors unwittingly did (saying someone has a “Philo haircut” – a shaved head with a rectangle of longer bangs – was not a compliment), but this isn’t to say it is a city without a very discernible style of its own – blonde highlights are a perennial favorite. And depending on one’s mood, Zanesville can be referred to as “Zanesburg,” “Zanestucky,” “Zanes-vegas,” or “Insanesville,” all somewhat pejorative though usually spoken with affection. There is a distinct Zanesvillian drawl that becomes more pronounced as more Zanesvillians join the conversation. A crucial part of the lexicon is the phrase “Nok Nerk,” meaning “Knock Newark,” a cry against a much maligned town to the west that could have been a sister city were it not for a vicious high school football rivalry.

At one point, Zanesville unexpectedly boasted an Indian restaurant, and then an Eastern-European eatery a few years later. Even more surprising is that they both existed in half-Zanesville sized Cambridge before moving to Zanesville in an attempt to gain more business. The two restaurants lasted only a matter of months before closing their doors. The fun was there while it lasted, though: the Bombay Garden was located in the basement of a downtown motel and Elisabeta’s was in the same room as the Elk’s club bar, which meant that in order to buy a beer, one had to pay the waitress upfront so she could in turn buy a beer from the bartender.

Despite the restaurants that come and go, lost to the annals of the Chamber of Commerce’s records, there is a well-known pizza restaurant whose food claims to warrant trips home. That place is Adornetto’s, and it’s tagline is “The pizza people come home for!”. The restaurant has long been a teenage paradise where jubilant groups of high schoolers gather after football games. That the majority of the staff are their peers makes the already humid and hot kitchen simmer with flirtation and romance. Most people in Zanesville are aware of Adornetto’s signature salad – iceberg lettuce covered with what seems like a pound of shredded mozzarella and a few tomato quarters. Salad dressing is measured by the ladleful.

Various other locales serve the same purpose: the movie theater’s dimness permits first-kisses and the roller skating rink creates eternal associations between certain slow songs and the command to couple-skate, after which the couple can share a hotdog and an enormous seventy-five cent pickle. A secluded water-tower serves as a far more clandestine lovers’ lane and is thus a common setting for perhaps more advanced teenage fumblings. It’s out of the way location makes it prime real estate for any number of unknown activities – more than one couple has had to jettison their hard-earned rendezvous when a caravan of cars careens down the road in a most intimidating manner, they too making use of the lawless isolation for their own secret reasons.

Sometimes Zanesville is a city of unreasonable hopes. There is a bar on Maysville Pike that has been consistently advertising ‘Girls Gone Wild’ nights and wet t-shirt contests for over a decade. It is the stuff of lore whether or not the tragically misspelled spray-painted signs have ever induced any actual wildness, but the construction of stripper poles inside the bar speaks for the proprietor’s earnest hopes.

Zanesville is a city whose functioning strip club is in a renovated church and whose attendees often see high school classmates working. Similarly, gatherings amounting to near high school reunions take place every weekend at the Barn on Linden Avenue, where one faded high school star was heard proclaiming that his kid was “a week or a month old; I don’t fuckin’ know.” Zanesvillians can party with the same people they have been for decades, and juicy tidbits about how wild so-and-so was in high school aren’t hard to come by. But it’s also a place to start over, as similar scholastic and geographic backgrounds bring people together who years before wouldn’t have had any reason to cross paths. The Barn is always a packed house. Every night, friendships are rekindled or lost, resolutions made, deals closed, minds opened, with unselfconsciously genius lines of comedy or tragedy spoken at every moment. Its walls have seen and heard so much that it’s a shame some anthropologist (from the Zanesville branch of Ohio University or one of the nearby colleges, perhaps) didn’t think to install recording devices when it was built.

Many people care deeply about their community, which is why Zanesville is an extremely civic-minded city that boasts chapters of the Rotary Club, Kiwanis, the Masons, the Jaycees, the American Legion, the Knights of Columbus, the Eagles, the Elks, and the Lions, and both the Boy and Girl Scouts. The home of one civic group, the grand Masonic Temple building on Fourth Street, also hosts an instrument shop, a number of offices, and artists’ workspaces, as well as creaking floors, ghost-like silence, decidedly un-modern architecture, and the distinct smells of decades previous. The effect is such that you’ll feel suddenly imbued with feelings of gumshoery and heightened street-smarts when you walk inside, the hallways the perfect set of a film noir, lacking only cigarette smoke and vulpine molls. Imagine the surprise when you discover that there are in fact private investigation offices on numerous floors of the building, all of which possess doors with frosted windows and the name of the investigator in block letters.

Interestingly, the entire building also has the appearance of being abandoned, though only very recently so. It is as if there was a need for all tenants to exit but extreme care was taken to sweep and dust the hallways, dust, and remove any unnecessary clutter, no matter how small – there are no gum wrappers, pencil shavings, or any other remnants of anything lying on the floors or anywhere else. On the other hand, speaking of things abandoned, one shouldn’t forget the old optometrists’ office on Sixth Street, full of intact files, office supplies, decades-old optometry equipment, and mailboxes stuffed with letters.

The Temple itself, powerfully ensconced on the top floors, lulls the explorer into a false sense of security because it gives the disarming appearance of plainness, as if to discourage any exploration of its secrets by maintaining that it doesn’t have any. There are a few token Masonic symbols and swords, a few paintings, really only enough to unobtrusively indicate it is supposed to be a temple. Are the portly, twangy members of the Zanesville Masonic Temple really the agents of a sinister “new world order”? Can a seemingly innocuous small town be a hub of conspiratorial oppression? Indeed, Zanesville is really a city of things unknown!

This isn’t to say Zanesville isn’t without its private networks, connections, and spheres of influence. There are quite a few well-known residents whose names are recognizable to any citizen, for mostly beneficent reasons – successful business owners who have sponsored schools, charity work, fundraisers. Their success had earned them a place in the top tiers of Zanesville society. With power and celebrity comes corruption, but then again, with power and celebrity comes power and celebrity. Consider the cocaine-dealing fiasco whose players included various business leaders and medical luminaries: a few waves were made, a few cries of derision were uttered, but those implicated were ultimately considered the subjects of rumors and nothing more. There is a good-old-boy network that inducts people early on in their careers, like the known drug-dealing children of the elite evading any sort of censure when cops with drug-sniffing dogs find their drugs during a surprise sweep of the high school. The children of the less influential are reviled for their corrupting influence while the wealthy gallivant with impunity.

There is a primordial instinct of self-preservation amongst this self-styled elite but it is by no means unique to the wealthy. “Hardly ever have I found in my travels such pure morals as in my native village…a life that is subject to no contemporary law, and attends only to the exhortations and warnings that come to us from olden times,” the narrator of Franz Kafka’s ‘the Great Wall of China’ reflects. There is an intractable code of conduct that developed right alongside the physical city. It’s hard to define precisely what the bounds of this conduct is, for a lot of the explanation is a variation of something being “not right” or “just how it is.” You know it when you cross a line, even though you’re not sure when exactly it was that you crossed it. It’s a type of groupthink to maintain not only order but some measure of sanity. It is protective when you are part of it and maddeningly intractable when common sense dictates it should be flexible.

But, fortunately for the downtrodden of any persuasion, Zanesville was at one point rumored to be blessed with a downtown “street defender.” The Street Defender patrolled downtown and protected anyone who needed protection from the streets of downtown, at least according to schoolyard lore.

The graffiti in the parks, that adorns its benches, verandas, light posts, signs, walls, and buildings is a jumbled and impenetrable mass with only the occasional name or phrase catching the observer’s eye. Proclamations of anger, new-found or undying love, allegiance to a particular band/team/group of friends – all indicative, like most scribblings, of a sudden surge in emotion or simple ennui. The benches and the tables that hold these testaments speak of the warm, if fleeting, affection and excitement that inspired these dedications, evoking memories of the same in the passersby who see the graffiti. Sometimes, though, one is shocked back into reality when wandering eyes catch “Jill fucked Jim here 5/12/02”, or some other similarly blunt statement.

There is a sense of astonishment and discovery even in these crass statements. People existed at this place and time, like people have and will for ages. Like the eight-year-old who told Arts in the Parks volunteers that his favorite author was Tom Clancy, whose bemusement turned to shock when the kid listed a number of titles and detailed their complex plots. Looking downhill at Putnam Hill Park, there still lingers the sweat from the surprise lesson one kid learned as he fell and dislocated his shoulder trying to skateboard down the forty-foot metal slide. Though the city no doubt knew that someone would eventually get hurt on the slide, that a person would attempt to skate down it is an act of outright insanity that probably went unforeseen even in the most imaginative planner’s mind.

However, in Zanesville, no behavior is entirely free from criticism. Take for example the essay “The Five Sins of Zanesville” and its quaint admonitions of Zanesville’s moral corruption. Lust is the first sin it addresses, evidently “the norm for Zanesville’s culture” considering it’s “not unusual to see teens making out in a car in the mall parking lot, adulterers drinking booze at the Foxhole bar, [or] young men buying porn at the gas station.” Zanesville’s second sin, which one can read about after an exceptionally long harangue against the first, is “Drugs n’ Booze,” another hallmark of a city in which “…its teens [are] sniffing glue for kicks – college students getting drunk at football games – patients [are] lying to their doctors to get Xanax or Percocet – [and its] high school seniors [are] smoking marijuana at the prom.” Whether or not the city has a problem with substances is up for debate – 17.1 percent of the population binge drinks – but thanks to the guidance of people like “The Five Sins” author Dr. Patrick Johnston, Zanesville is a city that takes its religion seriously: it is a city of ninety-nine churches, two private Christian schools, a private Catholic school, one synagogue, countless basement Bible-study groups, and one soup kitchen that can barely stay afloat.

Zanesville, initially called ‘Westbourne,’ was established in the 1790s by the Revolutionary War veteran Ebenezer Zane and his son-in-law John McIntire. They were hired by the US Congress to forge their way west into the Ohio Valley. McIntire and Zane’s brother John managed the ferry on the Muskingum River and a settlement sprang up from the crossing. Abundant resources of sand, clay, and iron awarded Zanesville centuries of industry and nicknames like “the Pottery Capital of the World” and “Clay City” and the less known sobriquet “the City of Natural Advantages.” The latter nickname appeared in an 1889 Boston Globe directory of city nicknames, and this titular honor was also shared by Olean, NY, apparently at the same time, according to that city’s own 1889 book describing its share of natural advantages.

Zanesville, Ohio is not to be confused with Zanesville, Indiana or Zanesfield, Ohio, the former being in a different state and the latter bearing a different suffix, though it was founded by and named for Isaac Zane, the younger brother of Ebenezer. The other two cities are interesting in their own right, of course: Zanesfield’s founder was kidnapped at age nine by the Wyandot tribe and grew up bilingual, and the city boasts amongst its residents an award-winning volleyball player.

Only Zanesville, Ohio, however, was said to hold the title for Most Restaurants per Mile (entirely thanks to Maple Avenue’s string of dining establishments), though exactly what body officiated this record was never mentioned. It’s not hard to imagine this being true, though: Zanesville’s restaurant industry employs upwards of 2100 people. One in three adults are overweight, one in five are obese, one in three have high cholesterol, and that 578 people died between 2005-2007 from heart disease. Be that as it may, Zanesvillians, like everyone else, are free to do what they want, as evidenced by the one in three who chooses to smoke and the one in five who consumes the recommended daily amount of fruit and vegetables. Some can also choose to not to heed the warnings of an especially low-clearance train bridge on Linden Avenue, where they wouldn’t be the first or last to leave a twisted scrap of truck roof behind.

Zanesville is a city twenty percent more likely to suffer tornado damage than the rest of the country but is a city whose earthquake activity is one hundred percent smaller than the national average. Zanesville is a city that had twelve murders, 107 rapes, 89 arsons, and 323 assaults between 2001-2007, and Zanesville is also the title of a 2005 novel, a work of “surreal black comedy” by Kris Saknussemm that bears no apparent relation to the Ohio city and whose author threatened to sue Michael Jackson for stealing his idea of creating a giant robotic statue in Michael Jackson’s likeness. In 2006, Zanesville’s city schools held the contentious and divisive possibility of a teachers’ strike, averted only by a single ballot marked both in favor and against it. 2008 figures say it is a city of 25,129, whose average household size is 2.4; 60.9 percent of these households are families, 7.9 percent of households are of unmarried partners, and 0.4 percent are homosexual. Males account for 46 percent of the population; females 54. There are 11,662 housing units in 11.24 square miles, creating a population density of 2276.83 per square mile, according to the 2000 census. The average yearly pay for a city government employee is $38,895, of which there are 318.

From 1990 to 2007 in Muskingum County, of which Zanesville is the county seat and the site of the county fair, there were 20,411 births, of which an average of 60.42 percent were to married couples; there were 15,512 deaths (or 991.9 per 100,000) and from 1999-2007 there were 95 suicides and 33 homicides; 78.4 percent of women eighteen and over have had a pap-smear and 72.7 percent of women 40 and over have had a mammogram within the last three years.

One can use these facts and figures to feel counted and part of it all, or one can read these figures and feel reduced to a statistic within a statistic. But if one really wants to disappear – literally – there is a tunnel at the bottom of a hill off of Blue Avenue. Urban spelunkers can descend a hill to find a drainage tunnel that crosses underneath Blue Avenue perpendicularly as part of a gorge that runs parallel to Taylor Street. Crawling the length of the tunnel east to west rewards travelers with a hidden glen that is shrouded by trees that let the perfect amount of sunlight filter through. Travelers feel the enormity of their descent as they watch the houses on the hill disappear from view; they feel themselves camouflaged by branches and bushes and can safely continue their journey knowing that if they can’t see anyone then they can’t be seen either. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be plagued with a tense series of ‘what ifs?’ What if the hill collapses? What if grates on both ends suddenly swing shut and it fills with garbage or rabid animals? Perhaps they are prodded on by a sense of daring to see if they can stand to squeeze themselves into the tunnel or perhaps they are moved by sincere admiration for the beauty of the place on the other side. The fact that one can find an alternate path into the dale is beside the point. There is a feeling of seclusion that, because of the traffic overhead, resembles the fate of the protagonist in JG Ballard’s Concrete Island. One seems to have fallen into his or her own little urban wormhole, but in this case the secluded area welcomes such feelings. On sunny spring or summer days, the little bit of water burbles, the insects chirp like insects, the wind rustles. One is awed at the same time by the notion of a spiritual connection to the earth and the strangeness of the concrete tunnel that opens into the glen; a juxtaposition celebrating that something exists outside the realms of our understanding, an OOP (Out of Place) relic as mysterious and misunderstood as the metal of the Iron Pillar of Delhi or the Coso Artifact.

In Zanesville there have been waves of music groups and concerts replete with their own rivalries, rock stars, and gossip, all of which will be fondly remembered by the participants as the time to be in a band in Zanesville, a time much more meaningful than the scenes the preceded or followed it, a perception similar to that of Mad magazine, whose fans always consider its heyday the years that they started reading. The stories from the music scene are cherished by those who lived them but shrugged off by those who didn’t experience them first hand and don’t want to be bothered by tales of how good things used to be.

Something else specific to each generation are infamous schoolyard “personalities.” Zanesville youth has its share of criminal lore, from mischievous kids who were apparently allowed to ride their bikes unrestricted from one end of town to the other to the set of brothers who commanded their own motley gang and went from being pint-sized street toughs to armed robbers. Their last name inspired genuine fear; it was a hassle to learn they were after you because they would actually come after you until they kicked your ass. The brothers were so tough and so infamous that even his second or third-tier hangers on were untouchable simply because they knew him. That the younger brother reportedly started smoking at age nine(!) further amplified their larger than life status. Their last hurrah was the armed robbery of a gas station near their house. They got caught, but the spoils of the robbery were said to have been buried in a local wood. The money was never found and possibly never looked for, out of fear they would get wind of what you were up to and come after you when they were released.

The narrator in Italo Calvino’s Smog is not particularly enthralled about his arrival in a new city: “To a young man who had just got off the train, the city – as everyone must know – seems like one big station: no matter how much he walks about, the streets are still squalid, garages, warehouses, cafes…trucks discharging stinking gas in his face…his nerves grow taut, and everything he sees is nerve-racking, piecemeal…had I been younger or had I expected more of life, [this] would have pleased and stimulated me; but not now, now I could see only the grayness…and I could only plunge into it as if I actually liked it, because it confirmed my belief that life could be nothing else…Now I felt lost in a different way, because I could no longer find, as I had done before, things in which I recognized myself, in which I could read the future. (Not that I believe in signs, but when you’re nervous, in a new place, everything you see is a sign.)” It is a grim pronouncement like this that portends loneliness, and you can choose to focus on the gas discharging in your face or the meaning of life that awaits discovery in your new home. Trite sentiments perhaps, but applicable anywhere, and Zanesville is this anywhere.

On one street in Zanesville exists both the Art Center and families with teenage children that have their own children, and some may argue that these parallel existences are on opposite sides of some sort of arbitrary social spectrum. This is not true, for life directs people whether they want it or not, superseding any boundaries man can proscribe. Facts and figures can be referenced to say whatever the researcher wants, as if numbers can accurately characterize an entire city and every one of its inhabitants. But try as you might, Zanesville is unclassifiable because people are unclassifiable. No one can predict the course the city will take just like none of its citizens’ secret fears, loves, experiences, dreams, and thoughts can ever be truly known by anyone other than themselves. Nobody, person or city, can be reduced to a geographic or sociological generality. But social spectrum and dreams and unknowability aside, it’s also easy to notice the affinity and genuine sense of community Zanesvillians have for their hometown. No matter the political persuasion, there is always a city-wide pride that translates into attempts to make it better, as well as to ardently oppose football rivals Newark on crisp fall nights. It is comfort and hometown pride writ large, a fondness perhaps stated best by a group of homegrown rappers when they stress that “Zanesville be the City.”