Thursday, September 18, 2008

Low Bridge, Everybody Down

It happened over 30 years ago. And it happened again, just the other week.

30 years ago, my second grade class was huddled in the school’s music room. We sat in a many rowed semi-circle. I clutched a flimsy and well-thumbed illustrated song book where two-tone line drawings of happy kids danced about. The dancing kids were just like us except that their clothes had been out of fashion for at least a generation. My best friend since first grade, Perry Nelson, sat beside me and squinted at the open page. In front of me and to the right sat Amy Knoedel. Amy was far and away the cutest girl in class. (Many years later she would ascend the Prom Queen’s throne. I knew her when.) The entire class sang with atonal gusto, a battered upright piano jangling out the tune. I don’t recall the song’s title nor do I remember any of the stanzas. But I have never forgotten the chorus, and it goes exactly like this:

Low bridge, everybody down,
Low bridge, ‘cause we're coming to a town!
You can always tell your neighbor,
And you’ll always know your pal,
If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal

Just the other week in Lockport , NY , Diane and I boarded a boat called Lockport V. While Captain Mike took the helm, we passengers went topside to soak in the sun and take in the view of the Erie Canal.

Captain Mike’s voice boomed over the P.A. and his patter was as entertaining as it was practiced and informative. I balanced my notebook on the rail, tried to follow along, and snapped a few pictures.

The Erie Canal an actual living legacy of a bygone era. Proposed in 1808 and completed in 1825, the Erie Canal links the waters of Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east.

An engineering marvel when it was built (using only muscle power and surplus powder left over from The War of 1812), the Erie Canal runs 363 miles, dropping one foot per mile, from Buffalo, NY to Albany, NY. It was built to open the country west of the Appalachian Mountains to settlers, and to offer a cheap and safe way to carry produce to a market. More people traveled to the west on the Erie Canal than later went through Ellis Island .

Originally, 83 locks were used to raise and lower the boats. Lockport , NY is the location of the famous “Flight of Five” double locks that allow Buffalo-bound boats to travel up one set of locks while Albany-bound boats travel down the other.

In order to keep pace with the growing demands of traffic, the Erie Canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862; and again in the early 1900s. The "Enlarged Erie" is 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and can handle boats carrying 240 tons.

Today, Locks 34 and 35 in Lockport, NY still allow boats to be raised and lowered 49 feet to overcome the elevation of the Niagara Escarpment, the same rock formation that forms Niagara Falls.

The Erie Canal has long since ceased to carry commercial traffic. The slow moving traffic on the canal (single barges pulled by beasts of burden), was overtaken by the economic realities of the faster-moving trains of the steam age, trucks of the motorized era, and the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in the Great Lakes. During winter, water is drained from parts of the Erie Canal for maintenance. The day we visited a lone canoe and our tourist boat were the only visitors.

As we puttered up the Erie Canal a mile or so, then back down through Locks 35 and 35, I felt a sort of pity for this once magnificent canal and the crumbling towns along its route.

I feel no wistful longing for the glory days of cities like Lockport, Buffalo, and Albany—these are places I do not really know and eras I can never experience. But I do feel a touch of sadness for these once great engines of American prosperity.

After all, the world’s greatest artists, leaders, and thinkers once called this region home. While these people are long gone, the artifacts that testify to their greatness are everywhere.

Teddy Roosevelt not only slept in this now-peeling estate house in the now-weary heart of Buffalo, NY, he was inaugurated here following President McKinley’s assassination in September, 1901.

Shuffle down the road in Buffalo and this humble home tumbles into view. This photo, taken in the early 1900s, is of the Martin House Complex—considered to be one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important projects from his Prairie School era.

It has been argued that this house is “…the most important house design of the first half of Wright’s career, matched only by Fallingwater over 30 years later.”

This house is currently undergoing a restoration that promises a return to its original state of glory. The facade of greatness, it would seem, does not change.

I’m speaking, of course, about the wings from the Anchor Bar—though not with my mouth full.

Which is to say, Buffalo Wings were invented in Buffalo (October, 1964 to be exact), by the owners of the Anchor Bar. This is history you can sink your teeth into and savor with fiery conviction. There are none better.

A bold statement, I know. Likewise, some vestiges of our past are salvaged and even worshiped to the extent that even the smallest detail is preserved, while others are ignored even as they fall into decrepitude. These choices seem to be arbitrary to the point of decadent (speaking of, try the “Suicidal Wing Sauce” at the Anchor Bar). Which is to say, the same city that plays host to the great Erie Canal, one of the greatest works by one of America’s greatest architects, and without doubt the world’s greatest party food, is also the home to this:

Let’s be honest. We Americans, as a society, allowed our captains of industry to ship our means of production beyond our borders to reduce costs while we, citizen shoppers and consumers all, took the bait in the form of lower prices, every day. This, in turn, has masked the fact that our real wage earning has dropped. (… another gripe for another time, perhaps.)

So we’re stuck with these rusting temples to a defunct industry, museum-like relics that once stood proudly as a family’s residence, and entire cities that are no longer gateways through which American prosperity flourishes. I’m not overstating this. This leaves us with an interesting set of choices. We can choose to embrace our rust bucket cities and do our best to make them livable (I’m not saying that these places are going to come back to their former glory, but we can make them ready for future generations to reconfigure). Or we can turn our backs and enter into a utopia of plausible denial.

Just down the road from Buffalo, NY is the lovely lakeside town of Chautauqua, NY, home to the world-famous Chautauqua Institution. Founded in 1874 as a Methodist educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning (i.e., summer school), it now plays host to a wide variety of summer events that draw in some 150,000 people over the course of its nine week summer season. Thomas Edison summered here, as did Henry Ford, President U.S. Grant, and other luminaries of their respective eras. The trend continues to this day, and it shows.

Today, the Chautauqua Institution lays claim to being “a community renowned as a center for the performing arts and a resource for the discussion of the important issues of our time.” In truth, this place is little more than an upscale lakeside retirement community with a jam-packed summer arts and lecture calendar (this summer one such lecturer was former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor). High minded and noble intentions aside, the Chautauqua Institution lies far off the beaten path and, behind its lily-white gates, offers the best enlightenment money can buy.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

These notions of rhetorical enlightenment, like an oxbow river, bring me back to Captain Mike’s voice booming over the P.A. system of the Lockport V. His patter finished, Captain Mike serenaded us with grainy recordings of folk songs from a bygone era. As you might imagine, one tune in particular had an all-too familiar ring. I put aside my notebook as we approached a creaking drawbridge that spanned the Erie Canal. Over the music, Captain Mike said, “low bridge, everybody down.” I thought he was joking. But he really meant it.

As we crouched, I couldn’t help but feel a touch of nostalgia for an otherwise-forgotten elementary class in a small Midwestern town I will not likely visit again, and a song I learned some 30 years ago about an era long since past.

And it occurred to me (there in the cool shade under that low bridge, music playing, everybody down), that perhaps when the great roaring engines of American enterprise fall quiet and are replaced again with the neighborly force of muscle power, then maybe, just maybe, working artifacts like the Erie Canal will again breathe with life and the once-great cities along its route will regain their place at the hub of the American experience. The Erie Canal still exists. The locks still hold fast. The bridges still draw up. And the water still flows unimpeded for 363 miles, from Albany to Buffalo.

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