Monday, March 28, 2011

Why rail trails are depressing

I walked part of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail yesterday. While it was a nice walk (I made it from CrossPoint to Chelmsford Center), there was an unpleasant feeling upon me the whole way. This pathway, now an asphalt multi-purpose exercise trail, used to form an industrial link between Lowell and Framingham. There are still some old cinder block factories that back onto the old line, some abandoned. Decayed railroad signal equipment hangs from the concrete walls that raise 495 over the right-of-way, and occasionally you'll see an old spike driven into a tree. What was bothering me was that in a day and age of $3.50 gas and staggering unemployment, there is something perverse about converting a railway into a jogging trail. Why can't we manufacture along the line? Why can't passengers commute efficiently along it? Clearly, this is just another attempt at "adaptive re-use" in the age of post-industrialism: an additional expense for area communities already facing budget struggles along something that used to generate business.

The list of manufacturers that left Lowell during my lifetime has a few notable entries in it: Wang and Prince Spaghetti come to mind.  In my parent's lifetime, the list gets fairly depressing. In my grandparent's lifetime, it's mind-boggling. The list of major employers in Lowell today is heavily focused on the services, education, and retail segment, and the number employed by these companies are tiny.  By the time we get to all employers over 100 employees, we've employed a whopping 11,000 people (the City of Lowell itself doesn't show up on the list, but it's one of the largest employers).

For comparison, a great link was posted on RichardHowe.com last week: The Courier-Citizen Centennial newspaper from 1936. Here, in the midst of the Great Depression, the list of long-time, well-established, large, local companies, who were willing to advertise in the paper and be part of the community, was far more impressive than anything we could muster today. We've fallen to the point we get excited about this (richardhowe.com this morning linking to the New York Times):  Food manufacturing and boutique, enviro-feelgood bags. Similarly, Lowell touts Moms and Jobs, while, a great idea, is not going to ever provide a large number of jobs for the local workforce - not unless we are willing to admit there is a social cost to buying Chinese-made mittens for $10 at Wal-Mart instead of $40 locally-made mittens.

Eventually, something will have to give. Healthcare is breaking down as it has become far too expensive. The education bubble is going to burst as people are getting crushed under student loans and poor job prospects. How long can we cheer the bargain shopping and "job creation" provided by big-box retail moving into town? Outside tax revenue and paying the small, largely unskilled workforce, do these superstores do anything other than suck money out of our communities? When the government is forced to scale down the DOD, what happens to all those politically valuable Military Industrial Complex companies that employ so many regionally today?  How much free income for fancy restaurants and art does the average Lowellian actually have? How about five years from now, as gas prices continue to rise, bringing everything else up along with it? Once the cornerstones of our so-called "modern economy" give away, maybe we will revert to smaller scale, locally-made, more expensive "boutique" manufacturing. Necessity -also known as reality- will force it to lose its stigma as feel-good products for the overpaid and overeducated.

Maybe we'll start converting jogging trails into railways.

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