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On Deadline: A last trip to the city dump -- layoffs, some nostalgia, seagulls

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Jul 29, 2011

Thursday at 5 p.m. the Palo Alto city dump closed forever to residents for garbage and trash loads. City dump isn't its real name. It's officially the Palo Alto Sanitary Landfill, although I've never noticed it being particularly sanitary.
There was a tendency a half century or more ago to give such places fancier names, euphemisms that replace a perfectly functional short word with a long and less-clear term.
Commercial dumping will continue, and the recycling center will remain open awhile.
But July 28 was the final day for a dump operation that has been going on for nearly a century. Dirt and greenwaste will still be accepted to help with capping the dump under state dump-closure procedures.
So in the last hour of the last day I pulled into the dump with a small trailer load of stuff that had been building up and awaiting the opportunity to close out my relationship with the operation, which dates back to the 1960s.
Since then a small mountain has been created out of former marshlands. The future of the site will be an addition to the Byxbee Baylands Reserve, named for a city official who began buying up bayfront lands in the 1920s and 1930s.
Baylands watchdog Emily Renzel has a wonderful map showing dates and names involved in all the purchases. In the lower right of the map is a partially obscured designation stating that it is a history of purchases "for refuse disposal." So John Fletcher Byxbee, for whom a large part of the baylands is now named, had a different vision for the area: one of refuse disposal and active recreational facilities. A touch of irony here, perhaps.
The current baylands policies were enacted via a Baylands Master Plan about four decades back.
As I was unloading my collection of trash a fellow pulled in with a white van and started unloading some paneling. He chatted with someone on his cell phone, saying he was at the dump in its last hour.
I later asked him if I sensed a touch of nostalgia.
Oh yeah, he said. "I thought of bringing my son with me. I should have." His now-grown son as a boy loved going to the dump, as did my three sons when they were young.
Scavenging was allowed in the 1960s, and they'd scatter to explore what was available: toys in good shape, even an almost functional bicycle, easily repaired.
Later the city tightened up, most likely for liability reasons, and kids became crafty in their scavenging forays. Sometimes I wasn't aware of their finds until we got home.
Some city workers assigned to the dump had already been laid off: Two were laid off on the last day and two the day before.
Over the years, what I have called "Mount Garbage" grew in height. I once proposed in a column that in the winter the city could buy a snow-blowing machine and charge for sledding and skiing. The Recreation Department could hold how-to-ski classes. Still a possibility, folks.
But the park's future is of a more passive nature. Walking, hiking, bicycling and appreciating the view from the top will be the primary uses -- although the future of a recycling/composting/methane-based power-generating operation there is still at issue.
The baylands play a starring role in the Weekly's annual Moonlight Run & Walk fundraising event, which draws several thousands participants and observers.
There's magic there when one strolls out away from the roadways and vehicle sounds. A quietness descends, punctuated by landing small planes, bird cries and when there's a breeze the sound of lapping water and rustling reeds. Quiet pickleweed and cordgrass mark the bayside fringes of the more than 1,400 acres of open space dedicated to natural processes.
Early mornings or early dusk for me are the best times. People are supposed to clear out by sunset, although there is some fudging by walkers and bicyclists.
As folks unloaded their trailers, small trucks, vans and pickups they were watched by the omnipresent audience of seagulls, seemingly thousands although I don't know if anyone ever did a seagull census. Dump-dwellers.
The cocky band of "south Palo Alto crows," with an attitude, strutted around near the entrance.
"Where will the seagulls go?" I wondered as I pulled out.
Will they cause a gull-overpopulation problem at some other sanitary landfill?
Maybe someone in Palo Alto will propose a "seagull sanctuary" to reintroduce them to the natural world of fishing and pre-dump food sources. There's a documentary film topic in this drama of the homeless seagulls.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.




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