Obscura Day: Preservation By Expedition
Last Saturday you may have passed a group analyzing the remains of an urban "plant-ocalypse" in Dallas, seen a tour entering the mysterious House of Balls in Minneapolis, or discovered New Yorkers foraging for root beer ingredients in a Queens park. It was all the doing of Atlas Obscura, who organized a day of concurrent global expeditions to weird and wonderful destinations from Norway to New Mexico as part of Obscura Day.
Atlas Obscura, a self-described "compendium of the world's wonders, curiosities and esoterica," has been around for about a year-Cliff Kuang interviewed the founders, Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras, for GOOD in 2009. The site has logged hundreds of curious destinations around the world, from a building in Hiroshima that's still standing even though it's at ground zero for the 1945 nuclear bomb attack, to a test tube that supposedly holds Thomas Edison's last breath in Michigan. The Web site itself is also gaining attention as a destination in itself: Atlas Obscura won the Amusement award at the SXSW Web Awards this year.
On Saturday, March 20, the first annual Obscura Day resulted in more than 80 events in 20 countries, with approximately 4,000 participants, according to RSVPs via Eventbrite.com. I ventured to California City, a vast unbuilt suburb in the Mojave Desert, for a day of exploring the "geoglyphs of nowhere" hosted by Geoff Manaugh, author of BLDG BLOG. Manaugh also wrote a piece about California City that will appear in the next issue of GOOD.
In 1958, developer Nat Mendelsohn purchased 80,000 acres of land 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. He had a dream of turning the parched parcel into the third-largest city in California, which, in a way, it is-in land area only. About 10,000 people do live there, but it was planned for probably ten times as many residents, who never purchased the hundreds of lots organized around a large central park and artificial lake. For as far as the eye can see, in any direction, the desert is carved into a suburban grid with grand boulevards and funny little cul-de-sacs now being used as ramps by ATV enthusiasts.
What blew my mind the most, however, was that every single one of these streets were named-some quite unimaginatively, like Oldsmobile Drive over there on the left-thanks to the 50-year-old plan, even though many of the streets were never paved. There were a few remaining streetsigns but, of course, we used Google Maps on our phones to find each other, and it was pretty funny to be able to say, "We're at the corner of Lincoln and Arden" and know exactly where to find someone, without a landmark in sight. We were navigating a ghost of a city.
Walking through the disproportionately inhabited city, staring at paved roads that ribboned out from the center, quite literally to nowhere, it was shocking to imagine Mendelson's poor foresight-where, for one, was the water supposed to come from? But as we were driving home, I realized Mendelson's dream wasn't all that outrageous as we sped by endless, empty sand-colored housing tracts that spidered far out of the Lancaster-Palmdale double-exurb, just 30 miles back towards Los Angeles. That land probably once looked exactly like this did. It probably didn't have much more water. In fact, I wondered, is this what the San Fernando Valley used to look like?
As Manaugh noted on his blog, Atlas Obscura was the equivalent of both a geographic expedition and a photographic flash mob: "Together we'll produce the largest archive of contemporary California City photographs that exist anywhere in the world." There were certainly a lot of really nice photos taken out in the desert on Saturday. But as I thought about it, these hyper-local concentrations of images could help bring Atlas Obscura out of the business of exploring of weird-and-wonderful places and into a global preservation movement aided by a tech-savvy generation of adventurers.
I thought about places listed in UNESCO's World Heritage Sites or the World Monuments Fund, many of which are sorely in need of funding, renovation or simply attention. If outings like this can aid in the appreciation of at least 80 new sites in the first year, just think of how many places could eventually be recognized, cataloged and preserved by these armies of Twittering, Flickr-tagging enthusiasts. What we choose to do with that information could help anyone from architects to archaeologists. And maybe, like in the case of California City, our short journeys to these forgotten places could help us learn some important lessons about where we live the rest of the time.