So we’re on this family trip around NY state to celebrate the end of August and the last gasp of summer. We drove out to Syracuse, Rochester, on to Niagara Falls, into Canada and I’m writing from East Aurora, NY, at the Roycroft Inn which has got to be one of the nicest places I have ever been. More on that later.
What this is about is my observations on how the creative economy works, and what happens to communities where it doesn’t.
Upper/Western NY State is a rough place. Rough weather, long distances, sketchy economy, wasted industrial landscapes. But it is also lovely, beautiful, and fantastic. I went to school at Cornell, in Ithaca, NY, about midway across the state, so I’ve been here before.
We stopped in Rochester and visited the Eastman house museum, home of Kodak founder George Eastman and a mecca for photographers. A great estate, a wonderful exhibit, and a truly living museum (the organ player on the full-size pipe organ in the house was a breath of fresh air). Eastman BUILT photography as we know it and it is amazing to see the impact, scale and scope of his works. All along I was thinking that he was really the first true information age entrepreneur, for what is a photograph but simply a record of a moment in time? A stunning achievement. Creativity in action. The city and the company have both faltered in recent decades as Kodak tries to grasp its role in the digital age. Will they come out the other side? Hard to say.
On to Niagara Falls. What a disaster. Never in my life did I imagine that you could visit a place so dysfunctional, so corrupted by its own potential as this one (at least in the USA). The falls themselves are magnificent, and your state of mind improves logarithmically as you come closer and closer to them. We went in, under and around them on the Maid of the Mist (great!) and the Cave of the Winds tour (also super great!). But the city. Oh my. Nothing but rape and pillage. No imagination, no creativity, no intention, no design has been applied to this poverty-stricken mistake in generations. The carcasses of discarded tchotke super-malls litters the main road. Actual barkers, on megaphones, yell at you through your car windows trying to sucker confused tourists into paid parking lots and souvenir joints. The state of NY is almost the most to blame, with amateurish attempts at crowd control aimed at delivering the maximum tourist load to the scheming concessionaires within the borders of the state park itself. My favorite was the crowd control barriers erected in such a way as to force you to NOT use the perfectly good public walkways but instead jam you through a cheesy “welcome center” of cacophony. Horrible. The saddest part is that probably 90% of the crowd are true foreigners, Chinese and Indian families with little grasp of English in many cases and even less ability to navigate this intentionally confusing situation. Why? Why is this? The falls are a metaphor for renewal, and purity, and all good things, and yet every effort is made to marginalize and hide them. Could a “creative economy” help this community? Probably not, because it is clearly in the hands of some powerful crooks. Don’t even get started on the Uber-horribleness of the Casinos. Deval Patrick should maybe make a trip out to Niagara Falls to see what we have in store for Massachusetts if we go that road.
Anyway, on to the good parts. We went up into Canada to Niagara on the Lake, a town so picturesque it makes Stockbridge and Lenox look dowdy and down-at-heels. This is the home of the Shaw Festival, a top-notch theater company that is threaded into the fabric of the town like you cannot believe. Three theaters, one in the town hall, encompass the place, and the brand is throughout. You GO to theatre in this town. Clearly. In addition, the town is landscaped beyond perfection, a side effect of the close proximity to the School of Horticulture down the road, which, with the participation of the Canadian Parks Service, keeps things coiffed beyond belief. Oh, and did I mention the 100+ vineyards that line the Niagara Gorge nearby? What is wine but value-added agriculture anyway? Creativity in action, this place is. I took a lot of notes.
On to East Aurora, home of the Roycrofters, a prime mover in the turn of the last century (1900) era Arts and Crafts movement. You can read their site, which lays it all out, but two things sprang to mind. The first was the extraordinary way that these people created a new economy for themselves based around a new aesthetic. It encompasses everything from printing, type design, graphic design, publishing, furniture design, lifestyle, and on and on. Could it be reproduced today? It may already be in some communities, but this broad-based approach seems unique at first glance. The second part is the revitalization of the community around the Roycroft assets late in the 20th century. This town woke up and smelled the coffee, and has poured every cent into bringing back the movement and what it created. It’s an interesting case of investing in that thing which makes a community unique, and special and I think it is working. The Arts and Crafts movement has established itself strongly in the American design space, and for this town to work to own the movement I think is a great idea. Again, creativity in action. Is there a way to design a chair? Sure, 4 legs and a back. Is there a way to design an Arts and Crafts chair? Absolutely, and for the right market, that chair is worth ten times as much.
I think that coming back from this trip that I can say that North Adams and Pittsfield and the Berkshires are certainly on the right track. Driving through these many blighted post-industrial communities in NY, you can see that the seeds of revitilization have to come from within. A community that doesn’t care for itself, its landscape, its people, and its assets, will not be cared for in turn by others. If you can bring some spark to your world, some color and vitality, and in turn you can create a will in the people around you to clean up, fix up and begin to think creatively about their own futures, everything starts to look brighter.