I flew out East last week to present a paper in New York and then spend some personal time with family in Massachusetts. As I always am when I go back, I was struck again by how different the fabric of community is in New England (and New York) versus that of my home here in the Midwest.
In most things, the Northeast precedes the Midwest. What happens here today already happened a couple of decades ago some thousand miles to our east. That's been true since our nation came into being. Traveling east is like stepping into a time-machine to the future. Sorta. By doing so, one can inform oneself of what the future holds.
Into the looking glass
From the 1950s through the 1980s, industry collapsed in the Northeast. Capital fled a high-paid and militant workforce and moved first to our Midwest and then, when we became as the Northeast had been, further on south to Mexico and Asia. Capital left behind in the Northeast was a legacy of company towns and the physical infrastructure of buildings, roads and communities that used to serve that capital.
Most of those towns, having tied themselves to an economic monoculture (an industry, or even one large employer), suddenly found themselves bereft of purpose and in precipitous decline. Those who could, left. Those who couldn't became, in some form or another, wards of the state.
A characteristic of the Northeast's collapse was its rapidity. Things went from boon to bust in a short and stark enough time that there wasn't either the money or the time for "redevelopment."
There wasn't the time or the money to tear down the old factory buildings (which positively litter the area), to tear apart the old transportation networks and to replace them — as we have done here — with the modern utilitarian dreck that characterizes Midwestern locales — locales distinguished by what urbanologist James Kunstler calls "muffler shop" architecture.
As a result, Northeastern industrial cities, and especially towns, became entombed museums. Decrepit, depressed and empty. But otherwise intact totems of the past.
Now, some two decades or so after their closings, those buildings are being renovated and reborn in a muted renaissance. In Beacon, N.Y., I visited what had been a saw-toothed concrete behemoth, the old Nabisco carton-printing plant, just renovated into the massive Dia:Beacon museum of modern art. The building is so stout, so overbuilt, that it makes our own downtown Showers facility look like a Cub Scout tent in comparison.
In North Adams, Mass., I visited the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, situated where the sprawling Sprague capacitor plant (closed, 1986) had been. And I saw the ancillary businesses that had sprung up around it, in what had been an economic dead zone just a decade before.
Don't get me wrong. There's something more than a little cruel about the replacement of tens of thousands of industrial jobs (Sprague employed over 4,000, as did Nabisco) with a handful of service-level and "artistic" employment in the same facilities.
But the point remains that, though decrepit, the old buildings and civic networks remained — having not been displaced by modern crap. And it was those old buildings themselves that made possible their reuse. Can you imagine anyone proposing, in a few years when the oil is gone, an adaptive reuse of Whitehall Crossing? Shit, no.
Unlike the factories of New England, there's nothing of permanent value there.
A place without a past is a place without a future
Monroe County has a few such sites of its own, although they're constantly threatened by the small-minded for whom "new" is inherently virtuous over "old."
You know, those that, in the 1980s, championed tearing down the courthouse and replacing it with a modernist concrete altar to anomie. The guys who green lighted Whitehall. The smurfs who tore down St. Semicon for Smallwood, a building so wretched it would embarrass the central Leningrad housing department.
I caught a showing of An Uncomfortable Truth (the "Al Gore" movie) while in western Mass. First, there's nothing as off-putting as having to watch a movie with which you agree, surrounded by noisy people who feel the same way — it was like being in a caricature of liberalville. Rush Limbaugh couldn't do a better burlesque of what they were doing, earnestly.
But, second, it was also sobering. So much so that instead of flying, I took the train home. A teardrop in a salty sea, I know, but a conscience salve nonetheless.
The future is the history you didn't bother to learn
A train that took me home to the sad spectacle of yet another INDOT show trial over the I-69 highway where, this time, the state ministry of trucking is determined to throw their own words down the memory hole and posit, aggressively, that a) they never said tolling wouldn't work and b) tolling is the way to go to get the highway over the same route as always.
Because as North Adams and Beacon don't know, we Midwesterners know the future will be just like today, only more so. Don't believe it?Check back with me in a couple of decades.
Gregory Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.