September 03, 2007

Can't mill around; prison coming soon

Labor Day again -- official end of summer and beginning of the fall season, whether it be vocational, academic, religious, or otherwise. Time to see what's become of my corner of the world while I once again wasn't paying attention.

There's a lot of labor to spare, it appears. This is not a newsflash: textile mills have been closing in the Northeast since between the end of World War I and the 1940s, with jobs moving first to the South, and then overseas; heavy manufacturing has been lost to what is now known as the Rust Belt; Detroit can't build a car anyone with ready cash wants to buy, and every "service" job possible seems to have been outsourced to India, where the workers come cheap, but their English is an abomination.

I suppose our carbon footprint is a little smaller, but I'm not sure who can afford the shoes, much less dress in an entire outfit. Jobs declined in August, and economists are starting to admit it may be time to fasten your seatbelt; it's going to be a bumpy flight.

My best friend from grad school wrote her dissertation on the dislocations resulting from the shuttering of mills in her home town of Lowell, MA: Spindle City Blues. Lowell has since come back to life as a National Park Service historic site. When my friend was in grad school, she worked as a Park Ranger, explaining the history of the town, the labor of the "mill girls," the decline as the mills faded away, and the city's resurgence, however brief, as a tech magnet in the 1970s.

In late August, The New York Times reported on mill days come and gone in a town I remembered from childhood: Berlin, New Hampshire. I remember it because it stank: between the paper mills and the shoe leather factories, I held a bottle of 1006 astringent to my nose every time we passed through the town.

Berlin has come up with what is not a novel twist on turning their town around. As the Times would have it: "Plagued by high unemployment, vacant buildings and a recent string of fires, Berlin trying to reinvent itself, betting that a new 1,280-bed federal prison and New England's first all-terrain vehicle park will be the economic shot in the arm it desperately needs.

I don't know what an ATV park is, but I'm guessing it's not shrinking the carbon footprint. Building prisons, on the other hand, has a familiar ring to it.

Prior to the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, an event considered an honor by some and a curse by those of us who didn't want any more tourists and tacky T-shirt shops in town, the Olympic folks decided to build the village that housed the athletes about 10 minutes outside of town, on the Sara-Placid Road, halfway to Saranac Lake.

It was a dual purpose facility: when the athletes vacated, New York State took up hospitality rights and turned the village into a minimum security prison. This was considered a bonus to employment in the county surrounding it, the county with the highest unemployment (and probably domestic violence, alcoholism, and whatnot per capita) rate in the state.

What a welcome that must have been for the international athletes: housing for the world's most fit, housing for lawbreakers, same difference.

I don't know where most prisons are located, but I would imagine they aren't considered tourist destinations, and these days, it seems all we have left to sell on our shores is what can be theme-parked into sanitary packages, one indistinguishable from the next. Most of the merchandise sold there is made in China, a place whose quality standards have recently fallen into question.

This Labor Day, there's no parade in Wonderland, just a rally. The parade, I gather turned into a lead balloon.


Blogger scout said...

If economic rejuvenation isn't promised by way of a prison, it takes the form of another kind of warehouse for desperate folk: casino gaming. Ever been to Tunica, Miss.? That town's drawing a hell of a lot more personal debt than tourist traffic.

I think the next civic leaders who start brainstorming ways to up their city's profile and bottom line should be taken on a mandatory tour of Jean, Nev., home both to a prison and a couple of casinos. If that scene doesn't burst their economic bubble, they shouldn't be in charge of any town's future.

3:42 PM  

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