Plastic land, part 3

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Dow Chemical’s plastic plant in Freeport has a visitor center. The sign out front, on Chlorine Road, doesn’t provide too much welcome, though. On a Saturday morning, the visitor center was locked up tight anyway, the parking lot deserted. I wandered around, stopping to look at a steaming pipe, and some graffiti.

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The writer Susan Freinkel toured this plant for her 2011 book Plastic: a toxic love story. She told me she lucked into it because she interviewed someone who had once worked there. When I called the Dow Freeport public affairs office, Cindy Watson returned my call with a response that was friendly, but unequivocal: no site tours.

This is a common refrain from plastic and chemical plants post-9/11. It could be a convenient cover for a place like nearby Gulf Chemical, which a whistleblower revealed kept two sets of books on polluted waste water it was dumping into the Brazos River.

By comparison, people consider Dow Chemical a good corporate citizen. The company has won awards for its efforts to protect the environment. It launched a project with The Nature Conservancy in 2011 to explore the potential for planting trees, which absorb pollution.

The company says that it employees 7,000 people in the county, with more jobs on the way as it expands production thanks to cheap natural gas. Melanie Oldham told me the Motel Six and area trailer parks are filled with construction workers. The local paper reported employment in the county just reached an all-time high.

Dow says it distributed $1.5 billion in the county in 2012, in salaries, pensions and purchases. Much of that largesse seems to concentrate in Lake Jackson to the north, where 41% of Dow’s employees live. According to City Data, the median household income in Lake Jackson in 2011 was $68,000; in Freeport, surrounded by the plants themselves, it was half that, $34,000.

Chemical plants in red. (Map by Jen Coleman.)

Chemical plants in red. (Map by Jen Coleman.)

The sign for the Dream Center stood out on a stretch of road mostly occupied by industrial plants. I pulled into the parking lot, but the door was locked.

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I looked online later and found a website for the  Brazoria County Dream Center. Its mission: “provide avenues of healing to the souls of hurting humanity in Brazoria County.” It has a food pantry, fills children’s backpacks with meals to last them for the weekend, gives away free clothing, and houses a five dollar medical clinic.

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You have not seen anything like this

If you are anywhere near Houston between now and 10 May, you must go to the (free) Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston to experience the installation by Antena cofounders Jen Hofer and John Pluecker.

Antena cofounder John Pluecker and daughter Elena, with kite by Sueyeun Juliette Lee, and behind him in silver envelopes, jacob's ladder books by Stalina Villarreal and Jorge Galván Flores.

Antena cofounder John Pluecker and daughter Elena, with kite by Sueyeun Juliette Lee, and behind him in silver envelopes, jacob’s ladder books by Stalina Villarreal and Jorge Galván Flores.

Antena @ Blaffer brings together hundreds of small press and DIY books from across the U.S. and Latin America. I can guarantee you have never seen such a wide and vibrant scope of community-based literary endeavor, from U.S. stalwarts like Green Integer and Kelsey Street to cartonera books from Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay, handmade from recycled cardboard.

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The scope of literary work represented here is thrilling. It represents Jen and J.P.’s deep dedication and committed labor in support of cross-cultural artistic production.

But that’s not all. Antena @ Blaffer also gathers text-based visual work from U.S. and Latin American artists, including Garrick Imatani and Kaia Sand (Portland, OR), Cecilia Vicuña (New York/Santiago) and many others. The visual works will grow and evolve throughout the exhibition, which is more like a happening, and includes a free weekly workshop, a weekend encuentro with all the artists, and readings.

Antena cofounder Jen Hofer with the Watcher Files, a work by Garrick Imatani and Kaia Sand.

Antena cofounder Jen Hofer with the Watcher Files, a work by Garrick Imatani and Kaia Sand.

This flickr set gives you a small idea of what Jen and J.P. have gathered, in a space beautifully curated by Blaffer fellow Amy Powell. I’m totally in awe of them. You will be too.