I could only assume that something had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps there was some national emergency that I was unaware of, or an meteor the size of Texas was expected to crash into the Earth any moment. We knew something was wrong because there weren’t any tourists at National Historic Landmark number 01001050.
We had come to Fresno solely to see this landmark: the Fresno Sanitary Landfill. They didn’t even have any fences to keep the crowds from overwhelming the site. Margaret and I walked around on the top of the landfill, and if you can believe it, we were the only people around. There weren’t any hotdog stands and not a single balloon vendor, not even one of those clowns who makes wiener dogs and miniature assault rifles out of long tube balloons. We didn’t wait to ask questions, instead taking advantage of the solitude for some great photos to show our friends. It’s not everyday you get a national landmark to yourself.
Margaret and I visited this historic place and were a little surprised to find nary a placard to commemorate this moment in garbage history. The landfill itself still stands some sixty feet above grade, as a monument to itself, but you will be hard pressed to find any kind of notice that what you are looking at is Jean Vincenz’s pretty little baby.
Burying our garbage in the ground has been the great idea in waste disposal for a long time, probably longer than burning it. Burying garbage in the ground used to be called dumping, but as we became more sensible (sensitive?), it didn’t seem right to simple dump things. Dumping had to get a new name.
Along comes Jean Vincenz. Born in 1894, Vincenz served as the commissioner of public works, city engineer, and manager of utilities in Fresno during the 1930s. Vincenz’s big idea was the sanitary landfill.
Several things set a sanitary landfill apart from a dump. Originally, sanitary landfills were known for their use of compaction and the use of soil to cover the garbage. Vincenz set up the Fresno Landfill by systematically filling different trenches with garbage and compacting the garbage as well as the cover layer of dirt, building a polyhedron. Nobody had utilized this mix of compaction, cover, and planning before.
Vincenz’s landfill in Fresno is now a National Historic Landmark, as the first ‘true’ sanitary landfill in the United States, although the average garbage tourist wouldn’t know it because there is nary a sign to mark the great significance of the pile of garbage you are looking at.
Till now I have been biting my hand so as not to say: why do we have such a hard time looking at our garbage? Even when it’s made a national historic landmark we ignore it. Makes me think, if you wanted to do something you didn’t want people to see, just bring in a little garbage and you’ll be as invisible as the emperor’s new clothes.
Note: read that last analogy with care.