Shattered and Shuttered

SUBHEAD: A day trip to Canada from upstate New York and the lessons learned in Watertown.
By James Kunstler on 1 June 2009 in -
Image above: A view riding through east Watertown NY. From

The dollar was up to its armpits in quicksand, and oil prices had crept stealthily into the death-to-airlines range, and if, in the old slogan, "what's good for General Motors really is good for the USA", then destiny was dealing a harsh lesson to The Land of the Free -- while I made a drive on Thursday (in a Japanese rent-a-car) through the remotest ends of upstate New York State into the province of Ontario, Canada, to see what I could see. What I saw was pretty scary.

You get into these far reaches of upstate New York and your senses report that you have entered something like an H.P. Lovecraft story, where the sun comes up twenty minutes late, and the magnetic poles are not where they're supposed to be, and the few remaining denizens of the towns all have eleven fingers.... Even though I've seen plenty of desolation like it in other parts of the country -- the back roads of Ohio, the Mississippi River towns of the upper Midwest, the morbid stretch of blue highway between Memphis and Little Rock -- I've never encountered a landscape so shattered by the mere ravages of economic fate.

The most striking feature is how all the things once so "modern," all the roadside business enterprises designed along "space age" motifs -- the car dealerships with boomerang-shaped signs, the rocket-ship-style food huts, the schools that look like atomic power installations -- all teeter now in sublime decrepitude. The reversal of spirit from childlike exuberance of the 1960s to the senile sclerosis of today said everything about where America is at.

Much of what existed before the space age is not even there anymore, bulldozed decades ago in our haste to erase pre-drive-in living, as if it branded us a lower life-form than, say, our arch-enemy, the Soviets. I've wondered for many years what Modernism would be like when time finally passed it by, when it was no longer the sole thing it declared itself to be, up-to-date -- and there it was smeared all over the landscape like so much road kill.The most horrifying part of the trip was the old city of Watertown, a short hop shy of the Canadian border.

Named after the many falls located on the Black River, the city developed early in the 19th century as a manufacturing center. From years of generating industrial wealth, in the early 20th century the city was said to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation. Residents of Watertown built a rich public and private architectural legacy. It is the smallest city to have a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the celebrated landscape architect who created Central Park in New York City. -- WIKIPEDIA

All that industry is gone now, apparently, and all that's left of the town's economy is whatever it gets from nearby Fort Drum, the giant US Army installation. Nineteen year old soldiers-in-training are not so impressed by Olmsted parks and the civic embellishments dreamed up by timber magnates, bankers, and the owners of piano factories. The humanity visible on the downtown streets of Watertown looked like extras who wandered away from the latest Road Warrior location shoot -- semi-hominid creatures with strange loping gaits, arresting hair-dos, and enough tattoos to qualify them for harpoon duty on Herman Melville's Pequod. You passed by groups of them on the streets and wanted to make sure the car's doors were locked.

Image above: Scene in downtown Watertown NY. From

At the heart of the old town, everything possible had been done to erase the vestiges of pre-automobile living. I suppose this is because the first thing many young army recruits did until fairly recently was buy a car. If having to join the army (because there are so few other jobs) buys you a ticket to The American Dream, then getting a car is the consolation prize -- even if you have to make four years of "easy monthly payments" on it.

Very little of the town's physical history was left standing, and most of it stood in isolation, devoid of context, awaiting the next parade of the front-end-loaders.

What was left of "the action" had shifted to a ghastly franchise strip along the Route 3 connector to I-81. This stretch of highway was clearly where all the money had gone since, say 1976, though mostly to the pavement itself and its heroic furnishings of signage, light poles, multiple turning lanes, and curb cuts. The buildings were little more than packing crates with a few plastic doo-dads stuck on. You had to wonder if all this stuff would ever see another iteration of repair and restoration. I doubt it.

Burger King was doing some kind of promotion in its Watertown huts and the marquee in their several parking lots proclaimed -- I swear to God -- "Ask us about our Angry Burger." WTF? Is the rage of lumpen America so repressed now that it can only be expressed in menu items that turn people into hulking four-hundred-pound monsters?

It was, I'm sad to say, a relief to cross the border out of my own country. Once you got off the main highway of Canada, 401, along the north side of Lake Ontario, the landscape presented a disturbing contrast to what you saw on the American side. Unlike the slovenly, failing farms of New York State, the farms of Ontario looked successful and prosperous. The barns did not tilt at weird angles and the roofs were intact.

The farm houses were freshly painted and the grounds generally not strewn with the sort of dingy plastic effluvia Americans like to deploy around their dwellings to give the impression of plentitude. You wondered: how did all the IQ points below the Great Lakes somehow migrate over to the Canadian side? Had they invented some kind of quantum spirit vacuum, run perhaps on dark matter, that sucked all the vitality out of their neighbor-to-the-south? (If so, maybe Canada should take over our dreary duties in Central Asia.)

All this was occurring against the background of General Motors looming bankruptcy, an epochal moment in US history, like losing a limb or a loved one. The US Government has decided to drive a Chevrolet off the cliff Thelma and Louise style. We were heading there anyway, so why not make the trip in air-conditioned comfort, with plenty of room for all the family members, and on-board video entertainment for the little ones. In fact, it may not be the bankruptcy of GM itself that will amaze and appall the other nations of the world, so much as the US government's pretense that the company can return to health in just a little while and pay back all the money that the citizenry has allowed to be sucked into its black hole of losses.

My daddy bought Chevrolets in the 1950s, marvelously crazy-looking machines with winged tail-lights that handled like pontoon boats, broke down after 30,000 miles, and were tossed out every couple of years not on account of their mechanical failures so much as their obvious lack of up-to-the-minute styling. The post-war prosperity dazzled his generation with its democratic cornucopian bonanzas. The innocence of all that is truly lost now. There is a dark sense of things shifting out there now in a major way. The tectonics of history are taking us to a strange place. Maybe Mr. Lovecraft had it right.


Lindsay said...

what about the finger lakes? How about the parks? how about the ski resort? Sounds like someone doesn't appreciate natural beauty just takes pictures of crappy parts of watertown.

Juan Wilson said...


I'm sure there is much that is beautiful about Watertown. But there is also tragedy.

James Kunstler lives in upstate NY and is attached to its beauty (check out his landscape paintings). I chose the photographs in the article to illustrate the point of his article.

My family has always had land in Western NY, near Jamestown in Chautauqua County. I love the land there. In my six decades of familiarity with the area I've seen the black bear and turkey return as the forests filled in old fields that once were dairyfarms. The Amish have done well there. The land is sweet and productive.

However, the city of Jamestown is a sad and sorry place. It may have some future in a Post Peak Oil future as a regional hub... but now it is as downtrodden as Watertown and other cities that were left behind in the go-go years of the last half century.

For a lift check out these articles by John Michael Greer

Juan Wilson
Island Breath Publisher.

Ken Spink said...

I was born in Watertown, and when I graduated from high school there in 1962 it was a prosperous county seat with thriving manufacturing and dairy industries and a population of 38,000. After I left the state for college and the military I noticed the city's progressive decay on every return visit. Boxy malls with cookie-cutter chain stores just outside the city limits drew business and taxes away from the once-prosperous downtown, and "urban renewal" left Public Square full of vacant lots. Every return to Watertown was more depressing than the last - vacant stores, abandoned farms, decaying properties and deteriorating infrastructure predominated. The stationing of the Army's Tenth Mountain Division at Fort Drum in 1985 made the rich richer, as professional services were more in demand, but left the poor much poorer as "Ya want fries with that?" jobs replaced manufacturing. Even with the increase brought about by Fort Drum, today's population in Watertown is only 27,000. It is a sad and scary place to visit, and a good place to be "from".

Summerville, SC

Juan Wilson said...


Thanks for your comment. I spent a lot of time in a place like Watertown (see comment above). My son has been living in New Paltz NY for ten years. It has the advantage of being a university town and close to NYC.

I've finally come to spend some time. Even if the university closed and the metro north shutdown I think New Paltz NY has learned to have a working downtown near local sources of food.

Isn't that all any place needs to provide for people to have decent lives?


Anonymous said...

A sobering piece on the state of urban America. The coming storm of debt is going to turn suburban America into an irretrievable version of its urban counterpart. The infrastructure built to service suburban America cannot pay for itself (without HUGE tax increases) and doesn't generate the marginal increases in value necessary to justify the expense paid. Watertown, NY and all of these pre-auto towns may yet see a revival. I'm reminded of a small Czech town I visited back in the late 90's. Czesky Krumlov on the German, Austrian border - abandoned during the communist regime has now seen a remarkable return of inhabitants. Those who knew it back in the day remember a dingy town in a valley where the acrid smoke of burning coal hung like a widow's veil. Today, its a UNESCO World Heritage Site, colorful and lively with tourism. Look beyond the disinvestment of these towns and notice the bones. The bones of these towns are still strong and still beautiful. -- Mitch Brown (just stumbled on to this site - thanks. I'll be coming back)

Post a Comment