The Most Depressing Dog Park

September 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

I find dog parks relatively depressing. I felt this way even before I got a dog. I know that dogs enjoy space to romp free especially those confined by small backyards, apartments, or dangerous suburban roads. I also like seeing people enjoying time with their dogs. Domesticated dogs have been humans’ companions for millennia and so it is hardly surprising that we set aside space for them in our daily routines.

At the same time, something about dog parks rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s the idea that dogs have come to deserve specific space within our urban fabric. This is a kind of respect that not all humans enjoy.

Maybe it’s the opposite. I find depressing the idea that dogs need to be enclosed in a particular space as an 21st century urban reminder of the tragedy of the commons. Because people can’t be trusted to manage their dogs, they have to be set aside in their own space to protect the whole community from irresponsible dog owners. Being terrified of dogs – even those on a leash and frequently mine – I realize that this is reasonable policy to have (and I wish it were extended to squirrels), but it still is depressing.

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Despite these things, I dutifully take my very excited pooch to the dog park every day. He rampages about blissfully ignorant of the potential ethical pitfalls surrounding (literally) his exuberance.

Our dog park in Grand Forks takes depressing to the next level. It is built on the flood plain of the Red River in an area called Lincoln Park. This park was built on the site of a neighborhood called Lincoln Drive which was inundated by the 1997 Red River Flood. Now the park and site of the neighborhood are on the river side of the flood walls that protect the town.  They put up a historical marker at the center of the park telling the history of the community there. It’s very nice.

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It does little, however, to assuage my guilt over letting my dog run wild over the subtle undulations that are the streets and alleys of a neighborhood. Lines of mature trees remember shaded sidewalks and roads. Isolated trees stand in forgotten yards and the clearly visible depressions settle under the memory of lost homes. It feels like letting my dog run around a battle field and makes me remember the opening of the first book of the Iliad. Serious bummer: 

ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι



The expansion of Grand Forks to the south and the construction of pre-plighted cookie-cutter houses in a ramshackle halo around the traditional urban core (forming upper middle class favela) only makes me feel worse. I recognize, of course, that it would be problematic to rebuild on a floodplain, and it is responsible and even noble to use this space as a community park. It really is beautiful in the early fall. 

At the same time, it all feels so very sad. 


More Pallets, More Pallets!!

September 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

I finally got around to reading Jacob Hodes’ “Whitewood Under Siege” in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of Cabinet (primarily because my distracting reading purveyor Kostis Kourelis sent it to me). The article explores the contentious and combative world of the global pallet market. In around 4000 words, it clarified some of my lingering questions about pallets and added another component to my growing interest in pallets in the landscape.

First, the article clarified some of the early history of pallets in the U.S. According to Hodes pallets found their current form by 1925, but did not see widespread use until WWII when the US military ordered millions of pallets to move supplies overseas. That makes a photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Walker Evans Collection particularly interesting. I posted it last winter. The photo dates to 1941 and shows a small “toaster type” RV parked in a Sarasota, Florida. Clearly visible is a line of pallets serving as a deck and another pallet leaning against the trailer’s side. The use of pallets in this way continues into the 21st century, but this 1941 photograph shows that as early as pallets were in use to move bulk goods around the world, they began to be used for secondary purposes.

NewImageAPI Pallets in Grand Forks, ND

The next important thing that I learned from this article is how the pallet ecosystem works. As my regular readers know, I’ve been thinking about how the Late Roman economy functions in light of the massive assemblage of Late Roman amphoras at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria. I have tended to assume that large concentrations of similar containers represents the administrative and economic power of the state, largely because small scale exchange practices and producers have tended to be dynamic and contingent and to leave a less less visible signature in the landscape. The repair, manufacture, recycling, and redistribution of traditional wooden pallets is an open ecosystem with numerous small-scale participants facilitating the circulation of pallets around the world (with some notable exceptions like the Australian company CHEP who has demonstrated a willingness to go to war to protect its “closed pool” practices of pallet circulation).  So, if I owned a company in Grand Forks, ND, I’d go to my local pallet company – API Pallets of Grand Forks – to procure pallets to ship my goods. API also, I assume, purchases pallets from companies at a fixed price (typically less than $10 per pallet) or individual recyclers. They then repair or recondition the pallets and sell them back to the market. Pallets that cannot be repaired are recycled almost entirely (at least by API); the wood becomes mulch and the nails are recycled. What is fascinating to me is that this entire system functions in a decentralized way (unlike the CHEP closed pool) with each community having a depot for pallets that ensure their repair and recirculation. 

Of course such a decentralized system can only function if there are significant pressures present to ensure the maintenance of standards. Pallets have to fit inside trucks, on airplanes, into rail cars.  They have to be close to the same strength so that they can be stacked with goods and treated in a similar way. Even allowing for some significant variation, wood pallets are standardized, despite being produced on a small scale around the world, through the combined pressures of regularized shipping practices and a trade association (note for example how many pallet companies have the similar “Pallets 101” page on their websites). This standardization, of course, came about in part because of the needs of the US military to supply troops deployed globally.

This got me thinking about the manufacturing of standardized amphora shapes, like Late Roman 1 amphoras. By all accounts, the production of these amphoras occurred at various sites on Cyprus and Cilicia. Their standard shape and sized functioned to facilitate the movement of supplies through a particular region. The organization of these producers and suppliers was decentralized and the only pressure to standardize came through the practices associated with moving goods. This is not a novel observation, but I suspect that Andrew Bevan would have found this parallel useful in his recent article on containerization.

One last observation, I did some quick web searching and noticed that Williston does not seem to have a center for the recycling, repair, and redistribution of pallets. There may be one in Minot and Dickinson, and there certainly is one in Bismarck. As with so many things in North Dakota, these core services and infrastructure tend to be clustered in the Red River Valley (for now) and particularly in places like West Fargo which serves as a region redistribution hub for much of the area. 

I think a field trip over to API Pallets is in order soon in support of the Pallet Project. Until then, more pallets, more pallets!

Writing about Industrial Tourism in the Bakken Oil Patch

September 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

Last night my colleague Richard Rothaus sent me a link to a story about how Tourism North Dakota is hoping to attract international tourists to the state. Apparently these tours will give international visitors an opportunity to have a real American experience channeling equal parts red state rhetoric and Sherwood Anderson. This all sets up nicely my ongoing effort to write a guide to “industrial tourism” in North Dakota with a focus on the Bakken.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve used spare moments to work on my tourist guide and I’m making progress in describing various places in the Bakken. As with most of my spontaneous writing projects, my plan was half-baked. So now I’m stuck with 5000 words that provides no clear indication of what I’m trying to do. At the same time, the process of writing these words has at least given me a few ideas for what I should start to try to do…

So here are those ideas.

1. Themes and Organization. From the start I had this foggy idea that I should write this tourism guide as a series of routes like the classic Blue Guides. Each route begins with a town and ends at another town. Detours from the route are designated with a lower case “a” or “b”. The advantage of routes is that they lead a traveler through the landscape rather than just identifying landmarks.

The upside to this approach is that it provides me with the opportunity to link together similar types of sites or juxtapose contrasts. For example, leading a traveler through the workforce housing to the east of Tioga and the Hess Gas Plant on the horizon provides a nice contrast to the quaint downtown surrounded by residential neighborhoods and watched over by the grain elevator and church steeples.    

This bit of cleverness aside, I’ve struggled to organize my routes according to themes. Part of the goal of the tourist guide is to create a more thoughtful visitor to the Bakken and to challenge the seemingly obvious conclusions about work and life in the oil patch. In some way, I want to encourage a traveler to understand the Bakken “taskscape” through their own movement. Presenting every aspect of the Bakken taskcape on every route will be overwhelming (at first) and then redundant. I’m struggling to organize travel thematically.  

2. Characters. One of the great thing that I’ve encountered by working in the Bakken is the fantastic characters that oil work has drawn to our state. With few exceptions, newcomers to the Bakken have been willing to share their stories, and even when they aren’t, they remain colorful characters. The stern-faced banker-type with reflective sunglasses who threatened to “smash my camera if I tried to take a photo” while his buddies assured me that “he has reasons” was as interesting as the Louisiana transplant who chatted with us in front of his decrepit trailer home and gushed about how kind North Dakotans were.

The issue is, do I include these characters on the routes or do I add them as little side blocks, set apart from the main text? Or do I leave the characters out completely and let the landscape itself do most of the talking?  

3. Food and Lodging. I’m a creature of habit, particular when it comes to my research. My colleagues and I tended to stay at the same places in the Bakken every time through and frequent, as much as possible, the same eateries. So, on the one hand, it will be difficult for me to speak about every lodging opportunity and cafe in the region. On the other hand, part of the charm of “dining in the Bakken” is the fluidity of the restaurant market. Food trucks and short-lived businesses represent one of the most interesting things about the Bakken foodscape, but it makes a tourist guide difficult. The number of hotels and price of lodging makes describing all the options an expensive and time consuming prospect. My feeling is that there are better ways to learn about where to stay online.  

4. Style. One the things that I’ve been working on this fall is my “creative non-fiction voice.” I worked on it a bit with the piece I co-wrote for The Atlantic’s website. I’m trying to develop it through my little “Slow Archaeology” essay (and I need to work more on that today), and my hope is that the tourist guide will be my first “longer than a blog post or article” foray to the edges of academic writing.)

I’ll be honest, I am not sure what I’m doing. I’m reading some creative non-fiction (for example, a prepublication draft of Marilyn Johnson’s new book on archaeology and Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price as well as some compelling essays by Amy Leach in her Things That Are) and I’ve been trying to figure out how to make my own language and style more accessible without watering down the ideas. I hope that the dear readers of this blog, as well as some colleagues in my Bakken endeavors. 

5. Irony. One thing that I’ve been battling against is my own outsized love of the ironic. The very idea of industrial tourism captures the kind of counterintuitive thought play that I enjoy, but I also recognize that not everyone finds this stuff amusing. I understand, for example, that many people in the Bakken are working hard (harder and with greater risk than I’ve ever worked). I also understand that longtime residents of the Bakken counties are genuinely traumatized and mourn the changes taking place to their once familiar communities. I also know that environmentalists have a real stake in what’s going on out west, as do worker safety advocates, Native American communities, small town administrators, and scholars, journalists, and entrepreneurs.

More than that, as the article on North Dakota Tourism has indicated, many folks in my adopted home state are deeply committed to a post-ironic position. To give a flippant example,they wear trucker hats with farm logos on them not to be hipsters, but to take a hipster meme and infuse it with genuine sentiment that nevertheless remains open to a kind of productive ambiguous. I don’t want to trivialize their intellectual, political, economic, or environment commitments for the sake of a wry smile or some smug ironic posturing.

I do, however, think that our current spate of “triumph of the human spirit” voyeurism, cookie-cutter outrage and, above all else, FEAR of the Bakken has shaped how the world sees this landscape. My goal is to inject a playful, but critical dose of skepticism into this conversation by translating our fascination with the Bakken to a genre intrinsically dependent upon the wondrous gaze.

I hope I figure out how to do this before this guide is too long to fix!

Garage Archaeology

September 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

This weekend, Susie and I cleaned out our little one-bay garage so it can store her sports car during the winter months. It produced two fun things. One is that it provided a little study collection of locally available bricks for my excavation of my backyard next fall. It also was a good little architectural study of a very simple building. 


The bricks in the garage were not particularly remarkable. The previous owner of the house was an avid gardener and landscaper who installed some lovely sunken paths around the house. She used spoliated bricks from around town to give the paths a rusticated look. She, also, had access to the local historical society’s storeroom so we’re pretty sure that she grabbed at least some bricks that originated from important buildings around town.


The harder fired and more modern bricks are on the right side. The brick with the alternating 08080 pattern is clearly marked as made in Canada. They are almost certainly made over the last 40 years and are very hard fired.


The softer brick with the clear stamp reading M.J. Moran is probably late 19th or first decade of the 20th century when Michael Moran was involved in a range of large construction projects in town. He eventually joined with the Dinnie Brothers and some other investors in the Red River Brick Corporation of Grand Forks. 


The three bricks on the far left side of the photograph are very soft and range in color from buff to pink. They probably date to the 1890s or the very early 20th century, and  suspect they were made somewhere on the Red River. 

The garage dates, probably to the first half of the 20th century and is currently being compromised by a large elm tree. A superficial cleaning of the garage revealed two phases. The first phase consisted of a 16 ft x 12 ft garage with an 8 foot door on its west side. The garage sat on a slightly elevated concrete soccle. The concrete floor does not join the soccle. At some point the garage was extended 4 ft to west. The added 4 ft is visible in both the original soccles in the current garage and in the construction of the roof and walls.     




We got thinking about why someone would extend their garage 4ft. We concluded that the addition predated the current siding on the garage which looks to date from the 1950s or 1960s. So the garage extension must date to before then. We wondered whether the extension could date to the 1950s when the average length of a car began to grow. It is worth noting that a 16 ft garage would have not been long enough for many full-sized cars in the early 1960s which often were over 190 inches (almost 16 ft) long. Fords, for example, throughout much of the 1930s and 1940s had a wheelbase of a mere 112 inches an overall length of not much more, by the late 1940s and 1950s, the overall length had grown to close to 200 inches.

Finally, I was taking a few photographs of the area that we hope to excavate with a little scale. This overwhelmed our new housemate who couldn’t resist taking the scale for a little romp around the backyard and a spirited game of keep away. 


A Guide to Industrial Tourism in the Bakken

September 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

During my free moments, I continue to work on my tour guide of the Bakken. I have an idea that I’ll publish in Tom Isern’s Center for Heritage Renewal Circular Series at North Dakota State or failing that at the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

Williston Type2

I posted a rough version of the introduction here. Today, I’ll include the first part of the first which runs from Minot, ND to Tioga, ND and introduces the intrepid traveler to the Bakken oil patch. I apologize in advance for the roughness of this draft!

The main point of entry into the Bakken is the city of Minot (pop. approx. 41,000). Minot is the county seat of Ward county and sometimes referred to as the “Gateway to the Bakken” Minot is served by Delta airlines, has an Amtrak station, and sits astride Route 2. Route 2 serves as one of the major arteries for the oil patch. It is the northernmost east-west highway in the U.S. and follows the route of the Great Northern Railroad and it sometimes shares with railroad the term “The Highline.” The route runs from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Everett Washington and the stretch from Minot to Williston, North Dakota is among the most scenic drives in North Dakota.

Proceeding west along this route takes you through heart of both workforce housing and the productive activities of the oil boom. The transformation of this corridor is historically striking. The traffic along Route 2 picks up noticeable west of Minot, and the number of fleet pick-up trucks with corporate names stenciled on their flanks will become more common as will tractor trailers carrying equipment west into the oil patch. The border between Ward and Mountrail Counties is pocked with “prairie potholes” or small lakes amidst rolling hills.

Upon entering Mountrail County, the evidence for both the economic opportunities and social and environmental challenges of natural resource extraction becomes more and more visible among the communities in this region. These communities had only limited experience with the potential and pitfalls of dramatic growth in population as well as day-to-day industrial activity and had generally settled into quiet obscurity. They had generally experienced steady decline in population from their heights in the 1950s brought about by a combination of agricultural prosperity and an earlier oil boom which was felt especially further west in Williams County. A slightly interruption in the region’s population decrease occurred during a short oil boom in the the 1980s, but this did little to interrupt the overall pattern for the region. The first places on this itinerary to show evidence for recent transformation are the small towns of Blaisdell (unincorporated) Palermo (ca. 82 in 2013), Stanley (pop. 1,458 in 2010), and Ross (ca. 109) in Mountrail County (ca. 9,376 in 2013) in Mountrail County and Tioga (ca. 1565 in 2013) in Williams County have received the brunt of the most dramatic changes. The strange contrast between the historical lack of development, investment, or visible change and the recent boom has drawn travelers, journalists, tourists, and scholars, to the area. The bustle of the road east from Minot offers just a preview of the activity of the oil patch, and the traveler might succumb to feeling like they’re heading up the river into a Heart of Darkness.

The first distinct evidence for the economic challenges of the area comes in the area of housing which appears before any oil activity. Within 3 miles of county line modular workforce housing appears. On a low rise to the north of the Route 2 approximately 2.5 miles west of the county line, in a township called Egan (pop. 64), is a group of approximately 15 “stackable” mobile housing units. The units stand 150 m to the north of the main road and are called Egan Crest reminiscent of some affluent suburb. Each unit is based on the dimension of standard “high-cube” shipping containers (40 ft or 12.19 m long and 8 ft or 2.44 m wide) with 9.6 ft (2.86 m) tall roofs. These mobile, modular apartments have been stacked two high and feature housing for 2 workers un each 20 ft crate. In the region, they’re know as “stackables” and are seen as a welcome upgrade from life in RVs or or larger more formal workforce housing deeper in the patch. The “stackables” do not have security around them are and apparently are well-insulated and comfortable. Their isolated and scenic position surrounded by rugged farmland gives them a both serenity and vulnerability.

Some 2 mile further west and immediately to the south of Route 2 is Blaisdell RV Park. This park is the first of the informal and scrappy RV parks that make up so much workforce housing in the Bakken. The leveled area of tan gravel is situated some 100 m south of Route 2 and entered at its northeastern corner. Passing a somewhat forlorn play area, there is parking in front of a administrative building with some common area. The park itself is comprised of nearly 100 small units about half of which are small mobile homes and the other half are RVs. In 2014, two large residences carved out of semi-trailers stood at the south end of the rows introducing some of the innovative architectural approaches to life in the Bakken. The units along the west side of the park are rented like hotel rooms whereas the eastern side of the park offer lots available for rent. To the south of the park is Blaisdell Rodeo which convenes each year in early August. The town of Blaisdell is north of Route 2 and is worth a short visit to see the school house and a wood-framed prairie church.

Continuing west along Route 2, past the turn off to Palermo …

Images from the Bakken

August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

I don’t usually just post pictures (oh, wait, I guess I do), but I thought I would today as I recover from a few days of Bakken adventures.

An abandoned man camp near Tioga:


Another near Wheelock, ND:


An abandoned “dry” camp:




I know we shouldn’t call them “man camps”:


Communal space:


Work and flares:


Another reminder that we’re not the first newcomers on the northern plains:


Dynamic Settlement in the Bakken Oil Patch

August 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve spent the last couple of days revisiting some of the North Dakota Man Camp Project study sites in the Bakken Oil Patch, and like every trip into the wild west, I’ve learned more about how North Dakota communities are adapting to the Bakken Boom, and how the men and women who work in the industries related to and impacted by the oil boom are carving out a life for themselves in North Dakota.

So, as we wait for Bret Weber to finish his summer semester grades, I’ll offer a few quick observations on the changing nature of the settlement in the Bakken.

1. Settlement is changing. We’ve noticed that the number of Type 2 camps (which are RV parks with electricity and water/sewage) have disappeared. One of the most interesting sites in our research was the town of Wheelock in which a Type 2 man camp had developed in and among the few remaining houses. Over the past 18 months, the number of units in the town center declined and a small settlement of largely Hispanic workers from Utah had grown up on the outskirts of town. This summer, both the camp in the center of town and on the outskirts had been abandoned. A similar trend seems to have taken place in the town of White Earth where two of the RV parks remain full, but another, situated around the old school in town, seems to have lost about two-thirds of its residents. When I asked an avuncular tweaker in one of the remaining camps why so few units were around the school, he looks hazily at the sky and said: “winter is coming…” As new, better housing becomes available, members of the workforce formerly satisfied with living in an RV can now do better.


2. Settlements are changing. One of our favorite camps is a Type 2 camp just outside of Williston called Fox Run. This came had over 300 units in it last summer and showed a tremendous amount of architectural innovation with elaborate mudrooms, well-kept spaces around the units, built decks and platforms, and residents describing a genuine sense of community. In our visit this summer, the material conditions in the camp had clearly changed. There were fewer elaborate mudrooms (and more mudrooms in reuse), the areas around units were less well-kept, and the sense of community had palpably changed. There were far more open lots than we had seen before. It seems like the character of the facility had changed and, while I use this word guardedly, the camp seems to be in decline. We’re contemplating writing a history of Williston Fox Run and have begun to look into county and state records for the parcel. The Type 2 camps are attracting a different kind of resident as more permanent (or semi-permanent) housing is made available for workers looking to reside in the Bakken for more than a single season.


3. Settlements and Capital. In our “almost ready for publication” article we noted that man camps represented a way that industry managed the need for a contingent workforce who could move at the close to the same speed as global capital. A meeting with the development office in Watford City complicated our picture a bit by pointing out that man camps themselves are also a product of the global (or at least national) flow of capital. Camps like Williston Fox Run were built by developers and maintained by companies with investors who live far outside the region. In other words, the development extractive industries in the Bakken and the housing requirements for workforce all derive from the same pool of non-local capital and predictably respond to the needs and expectation of investors, managers, and pressures that have only practical concerns for local communities. This is unsurprising, but we had not explored this aspect of the Bakken boom in past field and research seasons.

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