Thursday, July 26, 2012

Boom City

I wrote this to get published, but nobody's really interested in Fourth of July stories once you get past the Fifth of July. So nothing ever really came of it. Still, it was fun writing it, so maybe you'll find it fun reading it. Who knows?

Boom City is aptly named. There are few open-air markets left in the United States
whose smoke can be seen from the interstate and whose explosions go off with palpituous
irregularity, but a Reservation just north of Seattle holds the biggest one. The pop-up market for
fireworks revolves around Fourth of July celebrations – independence and explosions go hand in
hand – but there is perhaps nothing more American than this parking lot that gets a free-market
makeover in time for summer every year.

Fireworks are one of the more joyous celebrations of state rights. Every part of the
United States gets to choose how and why to regulate what explosives can be sold to the local
pyromaniacs and teenagers (as if those are separate groups). Indian Reservations are the rump
states of empires across the land and, as befitting rump states, are allowed a degree of autonomy.
How large a degree is the source of mountains of litigation and oceans of ink, but in today’s
world Indian Nations have made money on fireworks and gambling. This is largely due to
historical circumstances where prime farmland, harbors, and mineral deposits have been taken
out of Indian hands. Indian Tribes’ greatest competitive advantage, for acknowledged better or
worse, is in the sorts of things state governments don’t like:. fireworks and gambling. The ones
here are a bit livelier than most.

And “lively” or one of its sister words - vivacious, teeming, buzzing - seems apt. The
smell of gunpowder is in the air and even on a rainy day people are hollering. The “city” is a
gravel lot full of plywood shacks containing fearsome amounts of light explosives. The first
impression is that of a Renn Fest, that this is the domain of a small subgroup finally welcome
among their own. But the demographics and fashion really don’t bear that out. One gets the
sense after a few minutes that they’re in a mall, just one temporarily situated on a gravel lot.
Tweens in Beiber haircuts or clip-on earrings chase each other around or watch languorously
from tables. It’s hardly a lawless event, and the orange vested security keeps a lid on any illicit
sales or trades. But there certainly is a mischievous air as kids snap caps at each others’ feet
while their parents try to drive a hard bargain fifty feet away.

The bargaining, of course, is another reminder that this isn’t a megaplex but a real city.
The salesfolk fully embrace their hucksterishness and will latch on to anyone who happens to
make eye contact. Any pun or pop culture reference is fair game; a sign promising The Matrix:
Reloadable Explosives sells well even if the movie it claims a (tenuous) relation to did not.
Superheroes are always a big draw, as are explosives that embrace their militant roots. One
shop, “Captain Kirk’s Enterprise,” is run by a real-live veteran who has successfully placed
himself at the crux of these markets and has the line outside his stand to show for it. Though one
suspects the innumerable hand-painted signs for him - and, to be fair, his competitors - certainly
don’t hurt.

Like any good bazaar, the most interesting action goes on outside. Food stalls are set up
for both festival fare (hot dogs, burgers, lemonade) and Native favorites (fry bread, fish stew, hot
dogs, burgers, lemonade). Past this is the testing range full of showmen with fake grins and
children with real ones. Even further are the train cars full of cardboard boxes from China.
Unlike inside the city, these men are not the loud, puckish, shills but their calm, collected,
counterparts. In between runs of boxes they will make it very clear that they don’t sell out of the
train cars and (but?) are happy to talk if you want to meet elsewhere. These human calculators
are as sinister as the show may get, but even that is in a coldly capitalistic sense. Those who run
the show at Boom City are interested in big enough explosions to rake in the cash, but no further.

A day at Boom City is equal parts carnival and arms bazaar. The older folks complain
about how things were better in the good ol’ days when you could buy tennis balls filled with
gunpowder and when the kids weren’t preoccupied by the First Nations Snowboarding Team
kiosk that came all the way from British Columbia. They’ll also complain that too many Tribal
Members rely on Boom City for their year’s income, and that a cloudy July 4, like the one this
year, means the same thing that a bad salmon run used to. Of course, now the salmon runs are all
bad and the Independence Days are only getting sunnier (and warmer). The Earth may change its
ways and the Nation may change its means, but in the end the men and women of Boom City
will survive and thrive through both the bangs and fizzles.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Indian Reservations (the Weirdness Thereof)

For those that don't know, I am doing land titling/land use/development/one of those oddly titled and proportioned jobs on an American Indian Reservation this summer. It's interesting stuff and I am enjoying most every minute of it. But sometimes, weird things happen.

On this reservation, much of the waterfront property is owned by non-Indians. Most of them are friendly folk, here in their second homes or in a family home while they work in Everett or enjoy the retired life. It's a bit odd (read: very odd) to see proudly flown Union Jacks on an Indian Reservation, but hey, you don't choose your ancestry.

They are, however, the most tenacious defenders of their private property I've ever seen. High walls, prickly bushes, and every other machination to separate their land from the rest of the Reservation and even each other. It's charming to see all of these little compounds-by-the-shore, they are quite beautiful. But I wish that their guard dogs didn't bark and chase me down the street for a quarter mile every time I jog past their house on my lunch-break run.

It's a strange dichotomy. Most of the Tribal property on the Reservation is communal; the admin building, the school, the homeless shelter, the retirement home, and yes, the casino, the gas station, and the smoke shop. Most of the non-Indian property is gated off within an inch of its borders. Even outside of these borders are the guard dogs, patrolling the street for interlopers. The waterwards boundaries of these properties are even more interesting; armored with bulkheads and revetments to prevent the loss of property to the sea. Bulkheads may stop your property from erosion, but they force waves to chew through beaches and destroy habitats, spitting out the sand (and the energy) next door. The neighbor then buys a bulkhead to push the problem on his neighbor.

It's not a Tragedy of the Commons, it's a simple fear of public space. Public space - the road and the beach - are where danger happens. Instead of turning them into communal areas, the houses turn their backs to them. It isn't because of crime, it's because of the specter of crime.

These ownership policies aren't destroying Reservations. A century and a half of misuse, drug abuse, lack of access to education, and a whole laundry list of "what else" have far more to do with that. But dang, it's not really helping, now, is it? If a kid can't jog down a street without the fear of getting bitten, why should we listen when your lawyers tell us you want to work with the Tribe to help "community members"? And why aren't we included in the list of "community members"?