Tuesday, January 22, 2013


“We used to have an old machine shop right downtown. Meekers. One of the town’s first real buildings, made of locally produced bricks. I think the only thing that held the building together was the attached axles, pulleys, wheels and leather belts designed to run all the various blacksmithing and machining equipment in the place with a single small motor.

“The city fathers always hated that building, but couldn't do anything with it since it was such a beloved and useful downtown institution. They finally succeeded in turning the place into a parking lot by condemnation.”

This scrap of testimony is from my friend, Paul, who sometimes contributes to this blog.  I recognize what he’s saying from my childhood neighborhood in Portland, OR, which is quite a different place these days -- at least in terms of image.  I grew up in “Albina” or “Vernon” which is NE, later stigmatized as “ghetto” because after the Vanport Flood so many blacks were displaced into it.  Originally they had been transported from the rural south to Portland by Henry Kaiser for wartime industry and lived however they could around the shipyards.  (Now the same streets, deteriorated enough to be cheap, have become an art district.)

In the Forties the area along Alberta, Union and Killingsworth was European: craftsmen, mechanics, fabricators, and the support shops of bakery, dimestore, grocery, shoe-repair, furniture, hardware, and tavern.  The “banana man” came from the docks on the Willamette River with his horsedrawn wagon (the horse was stabled behind the Alberta theatre where we went for cowboy matinees) and less regularly the scissors-sharpener walked through with his cart, which included a foot-driven grindstone.  The major forces of world industrialization (ocean ships, cross-continent railroads, airliner construction) were part of Portland, but these small mechanical shops, family living above, were supported by men with 19th century skills who understood the basic physics of wood and metal.  They knew how to maintain drive belts and cogwheels, punch presses and shearing machines.  There was not much concern for safety, but on the other hand each man worked at his own pace.  My Scots grandfather was one of them, creating the “Kozy Kamp,” a folding tent travel trailer.

These days my Netflix “favorites” look like a list of the series created “Tyne-side” -- along the river Tyne in NE England.  The history of that place looks like a guide to the time-arc of industrialization, beginning with the mining of coal as early as 800 AD, which was floated down to London, and developing into the deep mazes of coal mines that became a legendary culture of “Geordies”.  Then came iron and, because of the availability of coal, the smelting of iron into steel which is the key to skyscrapers and ocean liners.  Today the headquarters for steel have moved out of England to the Far East, but somehow a powerful nostalgia and a failure to do so much “urban renewing” as Americans are fond of, has left many traces of the 19th and earlier material culture on Tyne-side “camera ready” as it were.  A folding over of the most contemporary of computer culture has become an overlay onto the 19th century towns.  Thatched roofs and cell phones.  Great murder mysteries.

This is the physical side of things.  On the social side industrialization was one of the factors in creating the “middle class”, the famous and now-embattled foundation of democracy, particularly the small industries of shop-keepers and mechanics.   In some ways the idea of “class” -- particularly the three level English class system -- has persisted more than the economic aspect.  (The three level Christian doctrine of heaven, earth, and hell invites comparison.  Constant striving to get into Heaven, the upper class.)  Tyne-side dramas don’t linger overly on the “villains” of the lowest class.  Most of the action is about middle-class people struggling to achieve the heights of the upper classes, possibly by education (particularly watercolor painting and piano playing, once the skills of upper class women) or possibly through land ownership, developing entrepreneurial schemes, or pursuing the same strategies as the second and third sons of the gentry:  church, military, or empire development.  

This “pentimento” -- shadow imprint from another time and continent -- now affects small town America.  These days in Valier we’re seeing the end of small town industrialism: shops, mechanics, fabricators.  It used to be that this town and many others included men -- the descendants of blacksmiths, maybe -- who could machine a part for your car or farm equipment, and who often invented small improvements.  They might be marked by smoky fires, grease, smells, loud noises, and a certain level of danger.  Those have become markers for "low class" and "failed to go to college".  That Texaco station of Roy's once belonged to Bob Scriver's son-in-law, Butch DeSmet, who has now retired but spent his last working decade doing computer hookups.  That's where the action is now.

But I think we're far too quick to discard those grinders and welders and punch presses.  We hand over all our manufacturing to faraway places where we have no control.  We lose the ingenuity and “frame of mind” that these occupations teach: not how to take advantage in marketing, but how to respond to a need with a practical solution guided by what works.  True enough, we have skilled workers coming in to assemble oil derricks, wind farms and pipelines, but they are not committed to the community.  They are separated from their families, driven to make money, too tired after work to do much more than down a couple of beers in front of a television set, surrendering the camaraderie and political formation of taverns that have been part of industrial working life since the early coal mines.  They are governed by engineers, the new estate managers, replicating the Victorian split between those working with muscle and those working with paper, though the engineers drive through with pickups now instead of a horse trap.

Perhaps there never was a true “middle” class.  Maybe there was always an “under” class of people outside any control, then a “working” class that risked their bodies for the sake of their families, then a supervising class that had education, and on top of that the inevitable money-accumulators who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to fill their bank accounts -- esp. if they had few scruples and good connections.  People are beginning to say it’s harder to move among the levels that it used to be -- or maybe it was always fantasy.  We’re all feeling the downward pressures.

Paul Fussell, author of “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System” thirty years ago, identified a new class, Class X, that didn’t care much about money, who were sometimes idealistic enough to create a “counter-culture,” and who combined the best of education with the best of practical skills.    These are the people who plunged into the Internet.  The networks they form and use are changing the planet, quite outside the bounds of nations or even corporations.  Children are part of it, but not in the Victorian way because they learn computers alongside English.  Much is secret.  Many are still pondering the impact of industrialization.  It’s not over yet.  Something is just beginning.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's only half of the story. A visit to that parking lot that used to be Meekers, you can now sit and admire the view of vacant downtown which used to bustle with industry. Meekers wide, heavy wooden sliding doors seldom closed because half their projects projected outside, on to the street. Besides, those doors were a real job to open or close. Folks would drop in, bring Bob Meeker out to assess their needs, inquire the price, then leave their project to do other shopping around town while it was repaired or built. Some would head across the street to the Purina feed dealer, which was also a hardware store and Huskvarna dealer, as well as small engine and chainsaw repair. They lasted maybe 10 years after Meekers turned into a parking lot. Some folks would head next door to either the Mint or the Sportsman's Club for a beer or a shot, or sometimes both. The Mints demise predated Meekers, much to Bob's disappointment, as that's generally where he had his lunch. Sportsmans outlasted Meekers by a few years. Right across the alley was Round Heels Gun and Pawn, which hung in there as best they could when Meekers was gone. Empty building now. Across the street from Round Heels was Corner Drug. Old time drug and variety store, didn't last long after folks quit coming downtown.

The city fathers got their wish after condemning the Meeker eyesore. They levied the remaining businesses and rebuilt some of the sidewalks, planted tiny trees in concrete wells, put up some fancy gas lights to hang baskets of flowers on. It's a real nice place to visit as long as you don't need anything. Lots of parking and empty windows to shop.

from Paul