Monday, May 12, 2008

Beau Fleuve

It was Mother's Day this past Sunday, and consequently I called my mother. In among the updates on weather, the stray cat that lives on the porch and the shocking lack of yard space in front of townhouses by the river, she mentioned something that turned our conversation in a direction I rarely go with the parents.

Apparently there is some large amount of effort going in constructing manageable small homes for the elderly. Now, the region we're talking about is Western New York, the area around Buffalo and Niagara Falls, where I grew up, and where most of the clan still resides. This region boomed in the era of the Erie Canal, when all of Canada's cut lumber came down through on it's way to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Later, it boomed again when the steel industry thrived. I understand why the canal sparked a boom, I'm not as clear on why the region was advantageous for steel. But what happened after steel is that everything more or less crashed, and has been sliding into senescence ever since.

Erie Canal

The largest single employer there now is the State University. Graduates don't stay, though, the area does not welcome or support innovation, the arts, ingenuity or entrepreneurial experiment. The kids who can, leave. They don't come back. Many of the kids who can't, stay, have kids too young, and deepen the cycle of decline. Some good, creative young people stay and labor mightily to keep the machinery of community there alive. But very few stay. The average age keeps ascending, it's becoming a sort of lost land of the elderly. Empty, abandoned houses are a problem.

So now they're building to house the old folks more easily. When that generation passes, there won't be many left. I'll have to do a little work and check for numbers on these trends - but my experience, and that of others I know in the region still, is this - the population is graying and there is nothing to attract youth or energy to the region.


Erie Canal

Because here's the thing - Western New York could be the Saudi Arabia of alternative energy. This is a region that endures gales out of Canada over the Great Lakes, which are shallow enough to construct massive offshore wind farms in. It has giant freshwater lakes and the massive Niagara River the falls of which already have a hydroelectric power plant which I imagine could be improved or expanded so as to generate a lot more energy than it already does. It endures an overwhelming excess of water in the form of snow through the winter and rain for the rest of the year. Residents would be happy to have a bit less of that water coming out of the sky all the time.

I currently live in Southern California, and I'll tell you what the southwest doesn't have. Water! People keep moving here, las Vegas spreads out as far as the eye can see in its corner of Nevada, and every time I see it I just can't understand where everyone thinks the water is going to keep coming from! I'm sure some massive redistributive water pipeline from the northeast to the southwest is not really feasible, and would have undesirable consequences, but I'm sure there are other ways to reallocate some of Western new York's massive water wealth to the area's financial benefit.

Maybe when the aging population is reduced enough by time and the dwindling economy to no longer be an effective force in NIMBYing any transformative ideas into unfeasability, and if oil remains prohibitive, some real vision will take root there and the wind, rain and river will bring another boom.

If I knew how to do it myself, I would. It's like gold just laying on the ground, waiting to be picked up!

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