Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Our modern urban environment is a jumble of a jillion different elements. Many of them are transitory: cars parked on our street come and go, signs in store windows change regularly, garbage cans and dumpsters and bike racks and parking meters are moved or removed or replaced, contruction cones and crews appear, taking over traffic lanes or sidewalks for a day or for months before disappearing again.

Even the supposedly permanent features of our daily world change. Sometimes this happens in small ways: a floor covering store becomes a bank, a boutique becomes a hamburger joint, a Craftsman bungalow is remodeled unrecognizably. Sometimes the big changes happen in big ways: a supermarket is torn down for a train station, or a block of single-family houses is replaced by an apartment building.

What all these changes have in common is that they are often unnoticed, or at least so assimilated into our daily routine that the original state of affairs is only a dim recollection.

Didn't there used to be a bike shop on this block? Oh, that moved to where the Tibetan gift store was. That's gone? Really? Yeah, about six months ago, I think. Man, I liked that store.

The image of our landscape in our minds and the physical reality is often vastly different: either we think something that has been gone for a while is still there, or we have mostly forgotten that it was ever here on the first place, substituting the details of the present reality whenever we try to recollect the past.

Didn't we used to walk to a QFC near here?

It's nice to once in a while encounter evidence of this transience beyond those "Then & Now" photo essays that once graced the magazine sections of newspapers. I was brought face-to-face with this lifescape evolution recently.

When Coco and I drive, we often use an app to send the other a GPS display of our location; it's useful for letting the person at home plan dinner or otherwise get their act together when someone is on the way home, for example. On a trip not too long ago, I was at home, and observed the following image on Coco's tracking display:

What the what? She hadn't called or texted to tell me that she had been off-roading through an empty field. Then I realized what it was: for over a year, we had been driving through construction in this area as they redesigned the road pattern. This tracking program had the roads in the right (new) places, but was using an outdated photograph for the satellite view: this image shows the site at the very beginning of construction, with the old road still in place. The changes to the road placement had been so incremental, and so obfuscated by traffic cones and lane closures and flaggers, that we had never realized how drastic a change it actually was.

I scouted around a bit and found a more recent aerial shot that showed how the main road had been straightened and moved closer to the river. This makes it clear that the route the app showed Coco taking through an empty parcel is actually the new roadway:

This whole process reminded me that the empty parcel used to be a commercial center: there had been a McDonald's, an Indian restaurant, a ski shop, and some other stuff I can't remember in a big parking lot. Poking around a little more, I could find an even older photo that not only showed the old road layout, but showed the buildings that had been removed to create the empty space for the new road to run through.

I'm glad I found this stuff. I know that someday I'll be driving through that area and someone will say Didn't there used be an Indian restaurant around here? and I'll have something more than wispy memory to base a reply on.

One detail down, a jillion to go.

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