Saturday, June 23, 2012

Preservation & Deterioration, American-style

Our cross-country adventure was meant to be more of a slow meander through America's heartland, but at midnight in the middle of North Dakota with no hotel in sight--and a time change like a slap in the face--we had to abandon our idyllic American road trip dreams. America is just too big to "take your time," which sounds like the opposite of what it should be.

We did stop twice (three times, if you count a fast visit to the Pictured Rocks in the Upper Peninsula) during the trip for more than a bathroom break and a replenishment of the water supply: once in Detroit, MI, to visit friends from the MFA program at UNH, and once in Niagara Falls to look at some water falling over a cliff.

Both places were, in their own ways, incredible, to be brief. Contrary to all prior associations I had concerning Detroit, I loved it. I loved the art deco buildings, the Greektown food (though it left both me and Rachel, one of our hosts, slightly queasy), the people (especially the woman who complimented my boots from an upper level walkway as I walked by), the silly train to nowhere that circles the city, the zoo that spans 125 acres and was the first zoo to house their animals in habitats rather than in cages. But I think what I loved most was the odd in-between stage that the city was in. After a slow abandonment that began in the sixties following what has since been portrayed as racially motivated riots, and continued on through the decades until the recently collapsing auto industry left very few people and even fewer jobs in the city, Detroit stands today almost empty. It was eerie to see a city, on a Saturday afternoon, boarded up &  lifeless, with only pockets of activity here & there--an open restaurant famous for BBQ, the GM headquarters, the Gay Pride Festival downtown, community gardens tended for by students and young artists who have moved to the city to take advantage of the low cost of living. Most of the skyscrapers in the downtown area are abandoned, burned out, and graffitied--but the vibrant visual arts culture that is burgeoning in Detroit has built art installations in the empty windows, and the graffiti in the city does not paint Detroit in dirty words and gang's tags, but rather vocalizes its utter abandonment by the rest of the nation: an entire skyscraper painted with bold letters reads OUTSOURCE TO DETROIT. 

 A day later we found ourselves in Niagara Falls, New York, which--as a friend from upstate New York told us before we left Seattle--is a prime example of how humans can screw up something beautiful and natural. To be fair, it was easy to ignore the tourist-y side of things (though the flashing lights on the Canadian side were more than a bit garish), and to stand in awe of the falls. We have all seen pictures, but they are more massive than you could ever imagine, and more powerful, and they are not deafening but they are close to that, and the mist really will get you wet even from the closed off areas you are allowed to stand in. Patrick and I read on some sign that the Native Americans who lived in the area believed that the god of thunder lived behind the curtains of water.

What was less easy to ignore was the human interference that has been almost a constant in and around the falls since the 19th century--and I do not mean tourism, or litter, or pollution. Both the United States and Canada are in fact quite vigorous about maintaining the falls' natural beauty, and preserving the area for the future, which includes preventing tourists from screwing it up. Unfortunately, what it also includes is an active campaign to prevent erosion, to reconstruct and rebuild and reinforce Niagara Falls in ways that are decidedly unnatural. Patrick and I read several signs that lauded attempts to preserve the shape of the falls--including one that required draining the falls of all water in order to insert reinforcement cables and rods, to make sure Niagara retains its trademark horseshoe shape. And just to be clear, this is to preserve that shape against the course of erosion that happens quite naturally when any water falls with any force over any rocks.

I doubt, in all honesty, whether the preservation efforts would have struck me so profoundly had I not spent the previous two days in Detroit, a city full of people and lives and culture, a city that has been left to itself, a city that is being actively ignored & abandoned by the rest of country. Because while an entire city deteriorates & its people are struggling to survive, America is trying its damnedest to stop a waterfall from wearing away rocks in a small town on the Canadian border.

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