Last Days of a Way of Life

Gordon Price's picture

This summer I cycled through beautiful countryside, saw impressive ruins, visited old churches, travelled through small towns and met friendly people.  I also saw communities, deprived of their purpose, coping with decline. I may have even seen the last days of a way of life.  (See for youself, in this issue of Price Tags.)

This was Upstate New York State, along the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany – an experience that rivaled any bike tour I could have taken in Europe. For it was there that I saw one of the wonders of the world.

The Erie Canal was certainly that.

Not many years after the revolutionary war, the people of New York state hand-dug themselves this 363-mile artificial river without any previous experience. No one had ever dug a canal this long through unpopulated wilderness. Their Yankee ingenuity became legendary. So powerful were the forces that the canal unleashed that they rebuilt it twice over. For without this trade corridor, there may never have been the great city of New York or necessarily an American nation from sea to sea.

When the grain started flowing from the Midwest to the Atlantic after the cost of transportation was cut tenfold, it fed the people of Europe and America. Labour could now move from fields to factories when fed at an affordable price. You could say that the Erie Canal itself fed the Industrial Revolution.

And that, in turn, made the canal obsolete, as new technologies used more abundant energy to move things faster – the railway, the truck and car, the interstate freeways, the wires carrying electricity and communications, each in turn undermining the economics of the previous investment.

At every transformation, more energy was needed. In the Mohawk Valley today, it's still possible to see a barge pulled by two horses carrying 20 tons at four miles an hour, burning calories from hay, while hearing the oil-guzzling truck traffic speeding by on the interstate. But the move from water to road also meant that port towns with compact main streets and walkable neighbourhoods were succeeded by strip malls and car-dependent sprawl.

This was the price of creative destruction – "the transformation that accompanies radical innovation." When an omelette gets made, eggs get broken. Whole communities get written off, and their assets, once built for the ages, are surpassed by the next wave of invention. What was once a world centre of invention and intellectual ferment was beaten down and often abandoned. Business and opportunity moved literally down the road to the sunny states of the south, where the young and ambitious have migrated.

So after a few days of cycling through two centuries of change, the question becomes pretty obvious: what's next? Will the interstates, pardon the expression, be the end of the road? Will anything else be built that requires another jump in energy consumption?

My guess is that the way of life that is coming to end isn't that created by the Erie Canal. Rather, it's the life dependent on the high consumption of cheap energy and cheap money. The life along the interstates. While it's inconceivable that these concrete and asphalt corridors will ever decay in ways that the canal and its communities have, I'm sure that's what those who built the canal thought.

Even as the economy declined and out-migration accelerated, the people of Upstate New York did one of the worst things possible: they left behind Main Street - the walkable urban environments - and went to the unincorporated countryside where they built, in Chris Leinberger's dichotomy, nothing but drivable suburban deveopment, undermining the economic health and quality of life in their cities while adopting a more energy-intensive and less-healthy lifestyle in the suburbs.  (Brookings documents it here.)

More optimistically, there are signs of regeneration.  Freight traffic is modestly increasing on the Erie Canal. People are returning to the small towns - the wired, the restless, the retired - and those who appreciate small-town values and lifestyles.  Agriculture is strong. The built heritage is being recognized and renewed.

Is it possible that a more modest way of life along the Erie Canal, with abundant water, renewable energy and fertile land, may have a more sustainable future than those places which are next in line for a little creative destruction of their own?

Gordon Price is the director of the city program at Simon Fraser University.

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