The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

United Divide


3824The exhibition United Divide at CLUI Los Angeles featured more than 1,100 captioned images divided into five regional chapters and shown on five touchscreens, as well as printed and digital maps and graphics, and an official stainless steel border monument on loan from the International Boundary Commission. CLUI photo
AN EXAMINATION OF THE EDGE of an object reveals its shape, and the CLUI is often drawn to the periphery in order to understand spaces and places as a whole. Much attention is given to the USA/Mexico border. But what about the longer, and more complicated line separating us from our largest trading partner, Canada?  
Over the course of 2014, the CLUI developed an exhibition about the USA/Canada border, from coast to coast. Titled United Divide: A Linear Portrait of the USA/Canada Border, the exhibit presents the nation’s northern boundary as a kind of continental cross-section, and describes the relationship between these two countries by considering the incidental and intentional cultural objects that the boundary line creates.

The USA/Canada border is an international interpretive corridor, passing through rivers, lakes, islands, bridges, airports, parks, towns, farms, pipelines, backyards, and the occasional living room.

Discussed in the CLUI exhibit are structures that are bisected by the line, and the interesting inter-border spaces they create. Also examined are the exclaves and other anomalies of the line, including Indian reservations on the border that make complicated, three-nation zones. The exhibit doggedly follows the line across the continent, from Maine to Washington state, the longest shared international boundary in the world (we left out the Alaska portion, as it is wilderness, mostly, pretty much).

The USA and Canada are the biggest trading partners in the world, with around $300 billion in commerce going over the border each way every yearnearly half of it over a single bridge, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit/Windsor. 100 million people and 50 million vehicles cross the border every year through 115 ports of entry on the continental border.
On the Canadian side the facilities are manned by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), with surveillance and field enforcement by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). On the USA side, the Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security, operates the ports of entry, and its Border Patrol division conducts surveillance and enforcement beyond the port. CBP has more than 60,000 employees, making it one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world. While the majority work on the USA/Mexico border, at least 5,000 CBP officers, including 2,100 Border Patrol agents, work the USA/Canada border.

While law enforcement agencies prominently and aggressively manage movement north and south over the line, the boundary itself is an east/west structure, running perpendicular to the flow across it. When it is not following a waterway, like the St. Lawrence River or the Great Lakes, it is a 20 foot-wide, monument-studded corridor, marked, cleared, and maintained by the International Boundary Commission (IBC). The IBC, composed equally of Canadian and American representatives, exists to make sure the boundary is fixed, visible, and uncontested. Their job has little to do with enforcing the immigration and customs laws of either country, but rather with bringing attention to the line itself, and to making sure people know where it is, exactly.

Early surveys marking the boundary, of course, were inaccurate, without the benefit of more advanced technologies, but it was agreed that the boundary would be accepted as surveyed. The result is that even the apparently big straight lines on the boundary, like the 49th Parallel, are not completely straight at all. The border zigs and zags.
The border is made up of more than 11,000 straight lines, ranging from a few feet to many miles in length. 5,700 of these lines are over water, including many meandering streams, and are recorded as turning points, marked by reference monuments on shore. Over land there are more than 5,300 fixed points, between which are the straight lines that make up the terrestrial border. Most of these points are marked with a monument, which range from a small brass medallion to a tall stone obelisk.

With a staff of less than 30 people and an annual budget between $3 million to $30 million, the IBC maintains more than 8,000 monuments along the boundary. It also preserves the cut line, clearing away all bushes and trees for ten feet on either side of the boundary. This, more than any other feature, makes the boundary visible, and creates a swath, 20 feet wide, through more than 1,300 miles of forested land.
Since the 1960s, the IBC has been authorized to regulate all construction that occurs within the 20-foot boundary zone. In the interest of maintaining a clear unobstructed view of the boundary, this generally means saying no to all new construction except for roads and pipelines, and even, in most cases, denying permission to substantially repair existing buildings.
If an old barn that happens to be on the line needs to be rebuilt, the IBC will encourage the owner to tear it down, or rebuild it away from the line. This, along with the complications of dealing with two sets of building codes, two sets of contractors, and two insurance companies, means that most buildings straddling the line are now abandoned and falling down. There once were hundreds of buildings on the line (many of which were used to serve liquor during Prohibition). Now there are less than 40.

On one side the boundary is the cold, northern edge of the USA, where the population peters out and the landscape becomes frontier-like. But then, on the other side, it starts all over, as the warm, southern edge of Canada, with some of the best farmland in that country.
The CLUI mandate is to examine American culture by looking at the ground, and though the exhibit covers international space, it is about the USA’s northern boundary, not Canada’s southern one. Perhaps it will be combined someday with a similar project, told from the Canadian point of view, creating a North American portrait united by the dividing line.  ♦

3754The U.S. Commissioner of the International Boundary Commission, Kyle Hipsley, discussed the border at the CLUI in December 2014. CLUI photo

3755The international boundary passes through towns, like Derby Line, Vermont, where it grazes structures including this garage, and goes through several buildings directly. CLUI photo

3756The international boundary passes through a few commercial buildings, like the Halfway House, in Fort Covington, New York, which has seperate entrances on either side of the border. CLUI photo

3757Dozens of bridges span the international boundary, such as this one in Baudette, Minnesota. Often the change in paint or maintenance schedules is reflected on the bridge’s structure. CLUI photo

3758The international boundary is marked as it crosses the midpoint of the Detroit Windsor Tunnel, 75-feet under the surface of the Detroit River. This is the only subaqueous international vehicular tunnel in the nation, if not the world. CLUI photo
 3759At the International Peace Garden in North Dakota, the international boundary is celebrated and manifested physically in a multiplicity of forms, from pools to towers, and even runs through the middle of an organ keyboard. CLUI photo

3760Several ports of entry were built on the border itself, such as this one in Danville, Washington, with Canadian customs and immigration on one side, and American customs and immigration on the other. CLUI photo