Archive for the ‘Trains project’ Category

More Booms In A Railroad Boomtown: The Fastest Growing Hamlet In New Mexico

August 1st, 2014 No Comments


Union Pacific's huge new train yard in Santa Teresa, New Mexico

Union Pacific’s huge new train yard in Santa Teresa, New Mexico

I visited Santa Teresa, NM earlier this year for this story for Al Jazeera America on the massive new train yard Union Pacific has constructed in a barren expanse of desert a few miles north of the New Mexico border with Mexico and 13 miles west of El Paso.

In a place where there was little more than mesquite and scrub brush a few months ago, the railroad hastily constructed a yard 11.5 miles long and a mile wide, greased along with substantial tax breaks, re-written regulations and special economic incentives paid for the state government. In fact, so cozy and congratulatory was everyone at the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the end of May, New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez asked the audience to stand and applaud the railroad, which they did happily.

The pro-business atmosphere in the new railroad boomtown of Santa Teresa was upbeat too. As local entrepreneur Jerry Pacheco said when he was driving me around the train yard a few weeks before it opened, Santa Teresa and San Jeronimo, its sister city directly across the border, were “a blank slate where business can do practically anything it wants.”

More than that, this project appeared to me to be a huge channel through which global capital could flow.  Double stacked trains taller than a two-story building now could travel at speeds up to 70 miles an hour directly from the Port of Long Beach without stopping to pass customs.  Up to two miles long and traveling over tracks Union Pacific has spent hundreds of millions to upgrade, the cargo would travel swiftly to  Santa Teresa, a short drive from the maquiladores in Juarez. At the FoxConn plant just across the Mexican border from Santa Teresa, where all of the Dell computers used in the U.S. are manufactured, company vice president Pancho Uranga told me that he was negotiating with U.S. Customs to establish a pilot project where U.S. customs agents would set up operations inside the FoxConn plant, able to clear cargo there  before it left the factory. It wouldn’t have to stop at the border either.

My reporter’s hunch then was that there was much more of this border busting for global capital soon to come to this desolate place. This proved true yesterday when, at a ceremony in Beijing, the Chinese development company China Hyway Ltd. announced that it had signed an agreement with the state of Chihuahua to build a rail line from a port on the Pacific coast of Mexico directly to the border crossing south of Santa Teresa.

If this deal is real, goods from Asia could bypass the Port of Long Beach and enter the United States through Mexico. The U.S. railroad companies would still get their piece of the action. The two major Mexican railroads– Ferromex and Kansas City Southern de México — have been owned in whole or in part by U.S. rail companies since the Mexican government privatized the railroads in 1998. Ferromex is a joint subsidiary of  Grupo Mexico and Union Pacific, which owns 26 percent of the company. Kansas City Southern de México is a wholly owned subsidiary of Kansas City Southern.

Union Pacific trains at Santa Teresa

Union Pacific trains at Santa Teresa

The governor of Chihuahua César Duarte and Roberto Sandoval, the governor of Nayarit, the Pacific Coast state where the new port is supposed to be built, were on hand to announce the deal in Beijing. Although there are many obstacles ahead for this project (such as getting the cooperation of the Mexican railway companies) China Hyway said construction was slated to start on the new port and the rail line by the end of this year.


“World On Fire” Finalist for The PEN Literary Non-Fiction Award

August 27th, 2013 No Comments



The morning after the fire

As the sun rose, there was little left of the warehouse


My story “A World On Fire” was a finalist the PEN literary non-fiction award for 2013, but alas it didn’t win.

The story is about eight young travelers who died in a squat fire in New Orleans 9th Ward just before New Years 2012.  I went to New Orleans two weeks after the fire and two more times after that.  I interviewed at length six of the families of those who died  as well as many of their friends in New Orleans and wherever I could snag them on the road. The story expanded from the night of the fire to the reasons young people choose this dangerous life and what keeps them there, as well as the agony of the parents who worry that they may never see their children again.

When the story was published in Boston Review’s January/February issue, it got a lot of attention.  I’m attaching here a link to my appearance on “Talk of the Nation” the NPR weekday morning show that was cancelled recently.  Neal Conan asked if any of the parents of the dead would consent to be interviewed and I immediately thought of Marty Goslee Jaramillo, the mother of Katie Simianer, one of the young women who died in the fire.  The piece starts with her beautiful sentiment of peace and acceptance told in her  angelic voice.  The comments on the piece are pretty good too.

I am honored to be a finalist.  PenUSA only nominated three stories in the literary non-fiction category, which makes my story one  of a very select few.

I spent a year working on this story which, as you will see if you read it, is very close to my heart. I am so pleased that the traveling community let me in and gave me a chance to honor their friends and the families who have suffered greatly for this tragedy. I am also grateful to PEN for seeing this as a story of value.

A Piece Of The Fire – – Notebooks Rescued From The Warehouse Fire Arrive In My House

March 5th, 2012 1 Comment

For more than a week the box sat propped up against my dresser. I didn’t want to open it because I didn’t think I was strong enough to face what I expected was inside.The box contained some items rescued from the New Orleans squat fire that took place 12/28/10, which I wrote about for The Boston Review.


Today I spread a towel out on my bed and opened the box carefully, with reverence for the dead. As the scissors cut through the thick tape, I thought about how whatever I found inside, I knew these items were the most important things in the world to the person who died, the things he or she clung to even when they clung to little else in the world.


The first layer of the box was the notebooks, some of which had fallen to pieces, their pages curled by the water that extinguished the fire and their edges singed. There also was a bunch of pages that had been ripped from a spiral bound notebook. The ink on those was blurred by the water, making much of the writing illegible.

The first small notebook opened to this poem

I’ll tell you all my secrets
Just like I told you then
They say it will get better
But never where or when

I’ve got a brick in my hand
And an eye on your new man
Now tell me what I shouldn’t do
Now tell why I should listen to you.

In another battered notebook that had no cover I found:

“Dear Mom,

“Please be gentle with me. I’m half stoned on whiskey and pain pills (the poor man’s health insurance). I hurt my neck helping Elise move her gear. Anyway I’m sorry . . .”

Elise, I thought. Did I interview anyone named Elise?

I looked through my notes and couldn’t find anyone by that name, but then I found the definitive clue: the cover of a notebook that had the slogan of the Omaha, Nebraska bar Bones, where Justin Lutz hung out. “BONES: The Drinks Are Stiffer Than Rigor Mortis.”

I called his former wife, Kat Wise, to describe some of the things in the box. I’m going to send her the box and she can disperse to the people who would cherish these poems and the things he reveals about his life in his journal.

I opened the journal and read a few pages, then suddenly felt as if I had no business intruding on these private writings. There was a unique melancholy to Justin’s writing, resignation and sadness eloquently expressed. There were so many poems in these pages, some by Edgar Allen Poe and verses from Shakespeare, as well as by Justin.

Justin had a way of pulling you into his world, his cousin Jamie Hogshooter said, and of making it a world built for two. I can feel this in my struggle with myself not to read any more of his private writing. Sitting here, with the smell of smoke from the warehouse fire on my hands makes me tear up for all that was lost in the fire that night as well as the battered bits of beauty that remain.