9.10.18 / blue river zone

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Blue River Road is a scenic, tree-lined roadway that stretches through east Kansas City for about 10 miles — or at least it was until 2010, when heavy rains and flooding partially washed it out. Rather than repair the road, the city erected concrete barricades on either side of a .7-mile-long section and simply left them there. While the rest of Blue River Road remains open, the closed-off area (known as the “annex”) has been slowly overtaken by nature, debris and a variety of legal and not-so-legal human activities.

Blue River Road Annex is also the subject of exploration for artist-researchers Matthew Brent Jackson and Trey Hock, two professors who formed the Blue River Investigators. The duo has been exploring and leading tours of the Annex every Saturday as part of the Open Spaces art exhibit and will be doing so from now through October. I joined in the tour this weekend with a dozen or so other people, and while it didn’t feel particularly dramatic at the time, the walk provided a great opportunity for observation, reflection and discussion about the complex relationships between society and nature, legality and illegality, progress and decay.

Probably the most exciting part of the walk is the anticipation of pulling up to the gravel parking lot beside some mostly neglected soccer fields and following Jackson and Hock (both carrying walkie-talkies and wearing neon vests with “ARTIST” on the back) to the start of the route. Looking past the barricades into the overgrown roadway reminded me of the haunting early scenes of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” when you first glimpse the edge of the forbidden/radioactive/supernatural area known as “the Zone.”

The Blue River Annex is less foreboding — at least during the daytime — and the walk itself reminded me more of one of my favorite parks in Berlin, the Naturpark Südgelände, a former freight depot abandoned during the war and overtaken by nature in the following decades, eventually designated as a nature preserve with many of the original train tracks and industrial features still intact. Both the Südgelände park in Berlin and the Blue River Road Annex in Kansas City can be seen as examples of a “new wilderness” that springs from abandoned or unused urban-industrial areas — spaces that might not yet have any official designation, but which people will inevitably find uses for.

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Jackson and Hock point out the natural species growing along the way (semi-comically referring to a humble plant as “old glory” and a patch of shade as “Little Valhalla”), but they are more interested in exploring the human activities that take place in the annex. During our tour, we saw dirt bike trails, firework debris, an abandoned tent with an open bible left beside a makeshift fire pit, road signs covered in bullet holes and graffiti — all kinds of evidence that closing the road to cars has opened it up to other uses. While the Investigators’ official attire and use of artspeak/academic language can feel a bit tongue-in-cheek (the annex is “a kind of national park” and the 1-435 underpass “a sort of cathedral”), their central question is a serious one: What happens to a road when it no longer serves as a road?

To explore this question yourself, join the BRR Investigators any Saturday at 4 p.m. through October starting at the lot by the soccer fields (I had some trouble finding the spot, but created a map link here). And for my friends and readers who aren’t in the area, I’d be curious what “new wilderness” areas have sprung up in your own home cities. Exploring spaces like this requires curiosity and caution, but is ultimately much more engaging than scholarly articles, podcasts or post-apocalyptic films. What you see on your walk will be different than what I saw on mine, but you’re guaranteed to see something. As Jackson and Hock are fond of saying, “the road always delivers.”

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(image courtesy of @brrinvestigators)

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