We spent several days around the Erie Canal, mostly in the town of Brockport, meeting the locals, boaters, bicycling the canal tow path, and finding some lovely boondocks, the best being at the town tie-up for canal boats. One couple on a catamaran, mast lashed down for the canal, had been out since 2000, and we enjoyed a bit of cruising talk with some real pros; others were mostly renting small rebuilt canal boats you can rent, bicycles included. I think the canal might get a bit boring after a week or so, but then you’d be almost through to the lakes. It was hot, and humid, and remains so… We are in the East.
Niagara Falls, Ontario is the most amazing collection of kitsch I’ve seen outside of Las Vegas. People don’t seem to have come for the falls, but for the amazing ideas entrepreneurs have come up with to separate them from their money. That so many of them hand over loonies and dollars to look at pale representations of already out of date pop culture speaks to the general level of intelligent thought in the general populous.
The Ontario side might be shallow and ostentatious, the American city of Niagara Falls is just plain sad. One huge casino and a collection of sad hotels and tour busses take up the first few blocks from immigration, and then the bottom falls out: broken down houses crawling with vines and surrounded by frost hove sidewalks. This fans out from the river in all directions for at least a mile, only to be broken by a golf course, of all things.
Rebecca Solnit writes, in the July issue of Harpers, of the decline of Detroit, (“Detroit Arcadia; Exploring the post-American landscape”) and other rust belt cities, and of the natural progression of things involving poverty and hopelessness. Detroit is the poster child for big cities crumbling from within, and becoming smaller cities. Niagara Falls, N.Y. is nobody’s poster child, falling beneath the radar of compassion, but it is undergoing the same throes of decline as Detroit.
It is a strange city layout that is produced by endemic poverty. It also seems to be about race, in most rust belt cities, big and small. Black people live in the few structures still standing, and in Niagara Falls, many of them seem to be holding their ground reasonably well, keeping up appearances, if not the structures they live in; they live in some small hope the somebody will notice their small city, see it’s decay and do something.
There are whole blocks where nothing grows but broken concrete, rotting wood and weeds. Other blocks sprout and grow reasonable sized trees’ perhaps a small forest someday.
The outer ring, out by the golf course, and the Wal*Mart, accessible to the poor of the inner ring and the well heeled farther, also houses the empty shells of industry gone, somewhere, somewhere, and piles of gray waste covered by a thin veneer of well watered grass, fake hills of what? doing what to the water table?
Wal*Mart is North America (Canada too) and we spend a lot of nights in Wal*Mart parking lots, snug in our little house on wheels, keys at the ready always, so far never needed for a fast get away, but ready. Wal*Marts represent the neighborhood where they are found more than any Arkansas Utopian plan, standard.
One, in London, Ontario, was filthier than any we have ever seen in our years of staying in Wal*Marts and the one in Niagara Falls was in the top 10 in filth. The rust belt doesn’t respect national borders apparently. I remember thinking how much cleaner Canada was than the U.S.; not so the Great Lakes region between Erie and Ontario; it’s still the rust belt, most of the cities anyway.
In the most of the West, and along the interstate systems, in small but growing cities, they are clean and the employees busy keeping them that way. The one in London was perhaps an old one, but the soil build-up under the check out counters was truly amazing; cigarettes, packaging and dust drifted against the outside wall. Perhaps the Wal*Marts of the world let their older, inner city properties go on purpose, depending on the poor to not care, or not complain.
Most large box stores are real estate holding companies really; they run a store until it is out of date, or run into the ground, sell the real estate and move further into the suburbs. They no longer build stores in the inner circle of cities, but more in small towns that can draw from surrounding suburbs, grow and appreciate real estate values. It’s a win win, except for the inner city folks who won’t even have a Wal*Mart to shop in.
But I diverge:
That donut between the “downtown” towers and the suburbs, is increasingly becoming depopulated, first by Whites fleeing the riots of the 70’s and 80’s and increasingly by Blacks who, through better educational opportunities and lessening of racism, are joining corporate America and themselves moving to the suburbs. Often ill advised government low income housing from the past has been abandoned and increasingly torn down, or as in Detroit, often burned by residents.
Now here’s the hopeful part of all this: The hardy survivors of this depopulation are discovering that urban soil is amazingly fertile and they are beginning to grow their own food, no doubt superior to the canned and frozen stuff they survived on from inner city groceries. I like that. And if they hold out long enough, they will own some very valuable property. Hmmmm. Justice can be slow, but perhaps will come.
A short drive from Grand Rapids is the town of Ionia. Claire had read of a Free Fair. Claire likes free as much as I do; we stopped for a look and stayed the rest of the day, looking at sheep and pigs and tractors and eating home made ice cream and people watching.
Perhaps the best part of the day was the Air Dogs. People, regular people, train their dogs to long jump into a pool of water. Some dogs get to the edge and say, “No way!” others fly as far as 23 feet. We decided the border collie (top) had the best form, but she was way short of the Chesapeake Bay retriever.
Sometimes the unplanned day can be among the best of days. Good thing there was a Wal*Mart nearby for overnight parking; the fairgrounds campground was full anyway and the overflow all followed us to Wal*Mart.
We visited Tucson friends Dick and Helen Kelly at their Grand Rapids, Michigan home for three, not surprisingly, busy busy days. Dick and Helen enlisted their granddaughters, Annie and Erika in the endeavor to exhaust us. The girls began with a tour of the flora and fauna of the nearby woods, including some particularly satisfying rock chucking into a suitably mysterious pond. It was all downhill from there. They similarly enlivened a wild dune buggy ride, a trip to the beach, complete with a downhill sand dune race, and a visit to beautiful Meijer Gardens, where Erica convinced me to roll down a steep grassy hill (or was that my idea?).