I have speculated here repeatedly about taking a single existing urban block off the grids. I have come to believe that the scale of a single city block may be the most affordable, and rational, way to retool existing urban neighborhood infrastructures: power, heat, water, gardens, all in the alley. And now it turns out that I am way, way behind the curve. Here’s what I mean.
Today my sister, in Salem, Oregon (her blog is on our blogroll, at the right – On the Way), sent me this image, and I instantly fell out of my chair. Take a look.
This is the day, in 1937, when the cornerstone was laid for the new Oregon State Capitol. Seems innocuous enough, right? Big crowd, speechifying – a memorable day.
Ah, but let’s zoom in to the neighborhood at the lower right of this image for a closer inspection.
A nice neighborhood of homes, across from the Capitol, right? But look more closely. See that building in the alley, the one with the chimney? That’s the steam heating plant for the whole block. All of the garages, and the heat source for all the homes, are pooled in the alley, in the center of the block. My sister’s 80+ year old neighbor remembers this well – his grandfather lived in one of those houses.
Could be that electricity for the block came from here as well, using a mini dynamo version of the one Westinghouse and Tesla used to electrify the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, in Chicago. It looks like a power pole at the left of the steam plant, but I can’t tell for sure.
Now let’s take an even closer look. I think the image will hold up for one more pass at an even lower altitude.
In the middle of the block, opposite the steam plant, is a huge garden.
So that makes all heat, some food, and maybe power managed for one city block. Not bad at all, for 1937. What’s old is new again, I guess. The block was torn down in the 40s to make way for what was at first a sunken garden (an area that was used as a gubernatorial helicopter landing zone for awhile) and finally as the site of Oregon’s cherry tree lined mall. And so this amazing and independent little community disappeared with only this photograph, and some memories, left behind.
For us here on Capitol Hill, perhaps the most telling fact that we will not succeed in reconstructing our infrastructure at the regional or metropolitan scale is a statement from Pepco, our power provider, that the utility plans to source a whopping 20% of our electricity from renewable sources by the year 2020. Hmm. Where did I leave my time machine?
Thanks, dear sister.