Yesterday I took a long look at the downtown area of Watertown, because my son believes there is a need for a cultural nexus on the square. What I saw was a shadow of the past. A crumbling reminder of the economy my father declared a failure in 1968. Those days, where downtown was being demolished to allow for 'modernization', seems like the golden age compared to the desolation on the square today.
I've lived in and around Watertown most of my adult life. I've worked for many of the major employers over the last thirty odd years. And I've watched the effects of the economic principles that we have used to run our economy over the past four decades destroy a remarkable community.
Watertown was built along the Black River, a rolling torrent fed from the Adirondacks and flowing into Lake Ontario, one of the five great inland seas that bound Canada and the Norther portion of the United States. The river was never navigable for any great stretch but its forceful flow provided power for hydro powered factories in the nineteenth century followed by hydro electric dams and local power in the twentieth century. Industry and business flourished in the North Country. Watertown grew around Factory street and the town Square. Farms fed the factory workers and new immigrants moved in from Ireland and Italy to build the railroads and work in the mills.
Watertown flourished as a city of middle class families with lots of children and many families grew wealthy from the industry.
When I was a young man in the early 1980's many of the factories were gone or downsizing. Many of the businesses in town were owned by corporations with no ties to the North Country. And with no interest in the welfare of the people. We still had several high end manufacturing plants including the New York Air Brake/ Dynapower with over 1200 union workers, and Fisher Gauge with its skilled tool makers. There were three electric motor plants making consumer appliance motors. Most of their production work force were women, but they made more than decent money for the time.
Around the area were flourishing restaurants, houses were well kept, most middle aged people owned camps on the lake, and kids went to college with very little debt. Stuck in all sorts of odd corners were entrepreneurial businesses making ski lifts and fire trucks and machining armatures for large induction motors.
These places are gone now.
Many of the family restaurants are gone now.
Downtown Watertown when I was a kid had a grocery store (the A&P which is a parking lot today) and JC Penney's (also gone) and clothing stores, and people. There was a bookstore on lower court street I used to go to when my parents were in town. I would walk the aisles and discover wonderful new places. There was a music store where you could get classical music.
The barrenness of downtown hurts. I can't see what my son sees. The wealth and the hope of new wealth has been ripped from this area by the needs of the corporate economy. We have been discarded. People have pointed to Fort Drum as the salvation for the North Country, but I have to disagree. Fort Drum is life support. If the Army closed the Installation there would be nothing left to sustain the city as anything more than a holding place for people with no place else to go.
The point of this drive down memory lane was to say that the economic model of the twentieth century was a failure. It is incapable of sustained growth and does serve the needs of society.
People aren't the food of an economy. We are the purpose. If the basic goals of the economy aren't to support the people and a healthy productive and happy society then the goals need to change. Economics aren't natural laws, but rather a structure used to satisfy our wants and needs.
And when the structure doesn't satisfy us, we need to change it.