The new boulevard of broken dreams


The world is going to hell in a hand-basket, but then it always is, so why waste time thinking about the antics of Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke or Paul Volker? One hopes they’re clever enough to solve the problems they helped create.

Down here on planet Earth we ordinary mortals are left to deal with the artifacts left by past generations of empire builders. As a kid I was always fascinated by the forgotten old buildings down by the waterfront or along the main street—the warehouses, old office buildings and railway stations now abandoned or semi-occupied.

One of these buildings was the Grain Exchange building in downtown Fort William. Built in the early 1900s, it was a solid, five-story red brick structure with ornate white overhangs, but never did become a home for the grain trade. Instead it was filled with insurance brokers’ and lawyers’ offices and a big local department store on the main floor.

By the time I was a teenager the family-owned department store was on its last legs, overtaken by the international department store chains like Sears. In fact the entire downtown was overtaken—by new shopping malls located in the suburbs. Today, the shells of the old downtown and old department store are still there. But little past glory or activity remains. The entire downtown area has been given over to social services offices, homeless shelters and discount stores.

Being a young idealist, I wanted somehow to renew that grand old building, and the dying downtown area, too. Sadly, even then I realized that chain store and franchise owners wanted gleaming new facilities and so did their customers. There was no business case in renovating old retail space. It was cheaper and better for marketing to simply build new.

We saw a newer version of this trend on our last trip to the States. There, right beside the Target store in Bangor, is the empty hulk of the old Home Depot. It’s a perfectly acceptable building, and relatively new, but I guess the ashtrays must have been full, because the new Home Depot store, which looks nearly identical to the old one, is now doing a thriving business about a half-mile away.

Further down the Eastern Seaboard we stopped in Lawrence, Massachusetts to pick up a stove part. It wasn’t hard to figure the place out, even though we’d never been there before. A wide canal ran through the middle of the town, and flanking the canal were dozens of red brick factories—all five or six storeys high and running a block long. Cotton factories, I’d guess. Today they’re all but deserted. Here and there amid the red brick facades, we could make out a Miller beer sign or a Spaghetti Factory-type restaurant sign, an anemic effort to recover some value from the buildings.

The real factories, of course, have all migrated overseas to southeast Asia, China, Mexico and Brazil, and along with them the manufacturing jobs. That’s where Paulson, Bernanke and Volker do come in to the picture, because they know what’s happened to the American economy. It’s gone south. And every other direction.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are building at an astounding rate. They’ve cornered the world’s construction cranes. They’re building 2000 coal-fired electric generating stations a year. Their GDP has been growing at near double-digit rates—while their government has kept their currency value artificially low to keep their export sales soaring upward. The net effect has been the growing indebtedness and impoverishment of the average American consumer. With the bursting of real estate values, that beleaguered US consumer now has a mountain of debt and zero equity—but lots of great Chinese gadgets and clothing in the closets.

It’s not the fault of the Chinese. The average Chinese worker wants to get ahead as much or more than her US counterpart—and so does the Chinese government. That’s just the way of the world. And the world runs on money.

Here at home the lack of money is painfully obvious. Undeveloped lots and storefronts on main street sit empty for years. Every so often a new project will come along to help solve the problem. A new arena or civic centre will replace a city block of decaying old stores. A government building will inject some new life on main street.

I visited the far end of this thought this week. I took a pre-season tour of Ministers Island, Canadian railway builder Sir William Van Horne’s summer estate. Built in the late 1800s it was design tour de force, a modern marvel of technology with wind generators, high tech farming operations livestock breeding programs and solidly built, world-class architecture.

Today, none of its technology is operational. The buildings are in a poor state of repair and the island is completely underutilized. It’s a sad thing. And daunting too—if one were to consider restoring it. The effort would take years and tens of millions of dollars. After rebuilding it, what would prevent it from falling into ruin again? What activities would generate the money needed to maintain it?

A few miles away is the town’s arena. Back in the 1960s it was state-of-the-art, too. It had an 8-lane bowling alley, a movie theatre, curling rink, hockey rink, dining hall, residential rooms and more. Most of it is still there, though the bowling alley has been dismantled to make room for a call centre, which generates more income for the arena. The trouble is, the arena is expensive to operate and maintain. For example, a new roof takes several hundred thousands of dollars. And income is scarce. It will become even more scarce when it is forced to compete with the town next door when it opens its brand new civic centre.

All of these past glories were built on financial windfalls. The railway baron’s dream cottage. The arena built by wealthy philanthropists. A new civic centre funded in large part by the government. Each dream was great in the beginning. The difficulty comes with maintaining the dream—keep up that Ferrari on a Kia budget.

We’ve managed to overbuild the entire planet in the same way, and if the environmental degradation continues at the same pace, we’ll be lucky if the whole place only looks as bad as Hopper’s broken dreams painting. The reality could be a lot worse.


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