This is Chapter Three – “New England” – of “The Nine Nations of North America” by Joel Garreau, as published by Houghton Mifflin in May, 1981.
“New Stuff” regarding Nine Nations can be found at http://garreau.com/main.cfm?action=book&id=3
EAST OF THE GREEN MOUNTAINS, under a bridge that carries the main street of the town of Randolph, Vermont, over the Third Branch of the White River, lies a small mill.
With the words SARGENT ROUNDY CORPORATION fading on its smokestack, the place might seem to be abandoned. There are many deserted factories in this beautiful land, much of whose industry has seen hard times for a century. But even from a distance, walking down the steep, hairpin turn that leads from the bridge to the river's edge, one can see hints that the place, though ramshackle, is not empty.
In the yard are great stacks of twelve- and fifteen-foot-long logs, piles of three-foot-wide tree-trunk rounds, heaps of irregularly shaped slabs, and cords of tarp-covered firewood. They suggest that the place has been made into a sawmill, and, indeed, the distant whine of ripsaws can be heard. But those sounds turn out to have nothing to do directly with the felled trees. The tools are actually being used to expand the old mill - to increase the size of a showroom.
Inside the decaying, shingle-covered building, the windows are covered with plastic; pink fiber-glass insulation pokes through an occasional hole in the wall; the mood is of bustle barely under control.
It's the kind of purposeful chaos that can be invigorating if one is young enough not to find it maddening. And the crowd swirling through the cramped quarters is definitely young. A girl with a jeweled pin in her nostril, wearing a floor-length skirt, sweeps around one corner just as two dogs explode out of an office and, at a dead run, bang through the side door toward the river. The sounds of thump, clang, and grind fill the air with a resonance that seems to belong to the past.
Baskets of gray metal parts are heaped on shelves, where workers quickly select what they need, and have at them with grinding wheels throwing off orange streams of sparkles. Down the line, a young man with a pony tail sprays black paint at a finished assembly, after which nickel-plated controls are attached. In a side room, artists are making wooden models of proposed new products, which will be converted to aluminum master molds that will then be translated into iron.
Away from the noise of metal on metal, in a space no larger than a good-sized living room, a bank of perhaps a dozen telephone cubicles has been set up, the partitions between them fashioned of two-by-fours that are still exposed, no attempt having been made to cosmeticize them. A box of apples and a large bag of doughnuts sit near a beat-up wood-burning stove at the center of the room. It is throwing out strong heat. The conversations of the folk on the long-distance lines are of chimneys, drafts, thermostats, combustion efficiency, and dampers.
But the conversation always comes back to wood. For this is the headquarters of one of the biggest employers in central Vermont, and certainly the fastest-growing. It's Vermont Castings, makers of arguably the finest air-tight cast-iron wood stoves in North America. In less than five years, Vermont Castings has gone from nothing but one impoverished yet curious tinkerer freezing his butt off, trying to figure out how to stay warm, to an operation employing hundreds, selling more than fifty thousand stoves a year at prices that can approach $600 apiece. The White House, in order to demonstrate its commitment to energy independence, bought six.
In its display of such Yankee virtues as ingenuity and shrewd trading, and in its ability to take the liability of Vermont's cold winters and dependence on imported heating oil and turn it into a sparkling asset, Vermont Castings is a fascinating display of the contradictions that make New England so distinctly one of North America's Nine Nations.
At first glance, New England's future is bleak. That becomes clear in a study done by the National Center for Economic Alternatives. The results, based on per capita income figures, adjusted state by state for differences in cost of living, are startling. The poorest of the United States is not Mississippi; it's Maine. Vermont is third poorest. Rhode Island, eighth. Except for Connecticut, with its New York bedroom communities that are not part of this land, no state in New England comes anywhere near being in the top two-thirds in wealth.
Yet this, the poorest of the nations, prides itself on being the only really civilized place in North America, a kind of Athens of the continent. It is hardly a contradiction that thousands of highly educated New Englanders each year abandon their central heating in order to go into the woods to hack at the oaks with ax or chain saw. They are feeding this expensive, hot lump of cast iron they've just ordered from Vermont Castings. They're not only happy about this development; they have acquired a sense of smug superiority about it, matched only by the pride they take in coaxing peas out of the frozen ground in April. The various models of Vermont Castings' wood stoves have names like Defiant, Vigilant, and Resolute. It may sound as if this shop is trying to refloat the Royal Navy, but that's not so. What it's doing is redefining what New Englanders like to think of as their independent national character.
Geographically, New England is unusual on this continent in having political boundaries that are meaningful. Practically since the American Revolution, New England has been described in terms of states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut - and that's still basically true.
But there are exceptions. The southwestern third of Connecticut, for example, is not part of New England. That area, like western Long Island, is firmly in the orbit of New York City and belongs to the nation of the Foundry. These familiar scenes of John Updike-studied commuter affluence, like Darien, Stamford, and New Canaan, are identical with Shaker Heights outside Cleveland or Grosse Pointe outside Detroit. These big-city suburbs have matured to the point that even the expensive tract homes on the curving streets that were such a novelty thirty years ago are beginning to look a little tacky. They're being bought up by people who realize that they may have to drop as much as another hundred thousand dollars or so on renovations and extensions to return them to their proper status position. This is consistent with the now decades-old theme of places like Great Neck, Oyster Bay, and Larchmont, which is to try to prove that money doesn't have to go hand in hand with vulgarity, despite nagging local evidence to the contrary. That is hardly New England.
Perhaps the most telling perimeter clue: most of those people in southwestern Connecticut or on Long Island are Yankee fans. The New England line is firmly drawn at the point where fanatic Boston Red Sox rooters become the minority.
New Englanders consider it a triumph if the Sox wind up the season forty-one games out of first - as long as the Yankees are forty-two out. Their faith, however, is seldom rewarded because of the Sox's crazed habit of staying in contention until September, when they suddenly get tired of the game and blow a twelve-game road trip. Year after year, the Boston club teaches New Englanders a lesson they have thoroughly internalized: you just can't win.
Farther up the map, northern Maine - like those Connecticut counties - is only marginally New England. If Quebec were not so politically defined, it could be part of that nation. The international boundary in Aroostook County has always been a bit vague and arbitrary. It didn't settle into its present position until 1842, decades after southern Maine had been admitted to the Union. The boundary clues up here include a dominant French culture and - an accompanying social phenomenon - the way English-speakers have of being nasty to their French-speaking cousins.
This is also true in northern New Brunswick, which, with its lively French-speaking Acadian movement, could easily be called part of Quebec. The only reason not to include it is that Quebec, as one of the most distinct of the Nine Nations, deserves to be considered within the confines of its current political borders. Most of New Brunswick, however, is akin to the other Maritime Provinces of Canada (Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) and the other Atlantic province, Newfoundland. And, in turn, all of them are really an extension of "the Boston states," as the Atlantic provinces call their United States comrades.
The major difference between the Maritimes and New England is what the schoolchildren are taught about George III. If you grow up in Boston, you are told that the American Revolution was a good idea. If you grow up in St. John, you're told it was a controversial and messy one.
Apart from that, the differences between the two regions are quantitative, not qualitative. The Maritimes are more cold, more poor, and, remarkably, even more beautiful. In the hills off the North Atlantic coast around Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia, winter comes through your clothes in late September.
From Chatham to Moncton in New Brunswick, you can see people digging for potatoes with their hands. Potatoes are so cheap, and this work so hard, that nobody has even thought to sing the blues about it, as they did about chopping cotton.
Yet the farms and pink beaches of Queens County on Prince Edward Island are such an Eden in the summer that one is tempted not to tell friends about it lest it be "spoiled." Already the lobster catch has been reduced to the point that the shellfish are too valuable to be plowed into the fields as fertilizer. That's how plentiful they once were.
The Maritimes are so much a part of New England that businessmen wishing to travel from Edmundston, New Brunswick, to, say, Montreal, Quebec, 390 miles away, find the best way is to fly 800 miles via Boston.
The case of Cecille Bechard, of New Brunswick and Maine, was celebrated recently in the New York Times:
Cecille Bechard is a Canadian who visits the United States several dozen times a day when she goes to the refrigerator or the back door or to make tea, for instance. To read and sleep she stays in Canada, and she eats there too if she sits at the north end of the kitchen table. Mrs. Bechard's home sits on the United States-Canada border. The frontier cuts through the kitchen wall and across the sink, splits the salt and pepper shakers, just misses the stove and passes through the other wall to sever the Nadeau family's clothesline and cut off the candy counter in Alfred Sirois's general store. Almost anywhere else in the world, Mrs. Bechard might need a passport to take a bath.
Maritimers work and vacation in New England. Maine teenagers drink in the Maritimes because the age limit is lower there. The border checkpoints are jammed at quitting time and when the bars close.
And if any more proof were needed that Maritimers and New Englanders belong to one nation, it is provided by the ubiquitous cable TV connections, which allow Nova Scotians to be driven just as crazy by the Red Sox as the Worcester tenement-dweller. When the boys boot another one to the Yankees, you can hear the curses all over Halifax.
The argument has been made that if North America had been settled from west to east, instead of the other way around, New England would still be uninhabited, and there's something to be said for this theory. It's only inertia, for example, that preserves any commercial agriculture in New England. The standard story about the Vermont dairy industry is that it is trying to breed a cow whose left legs are two feet shorter than her right so that she can negotiate the slope of her pasture. You can recall that during the Vietnam War, then-Senator George Aiken, that quintessential Vermont Yankee Republican, suggested that the way to disengage from the conflict was merely to announce that the war was over, declare a glorious victory for the United States, and leave. In Washington, that has long been regarded as a typical New England solution. It's no more eccentric than making a declaration that all those Yankee acres of rock and clay, with their four month growing season, are actually farmland fit for plowing.
Not only is New England unblessed agriculturally, but it has precious little raw material and, with approximately thirteen million people, a diminished population. Long ago the textile manufacturers moved to Dixie, with its plentiful cotton and cheap labor. The iron-makers moved to the Foundry, where the ore and coal were. And, in general, industry continues to march west - partly because it's easier to distribute goods from a central point on the continent than it is from, say, Manchester, New Hampshire.
The most critical point, though, is that New England lacks the oil of MexAmerica, the thundering cascades of hydro power found in Quebec and Ecotopia, and the uranium and synthetic fuel stocks of the Empty Quarter. Except for its proximity to the fishing riches of the Georges Bank, New England has sparse resource assets - apart from the remnants of an industrialism that derived from the historical accident of first settlement.
Paradoxically, the scenery and the surroundings have become New England's primary asset. New England is rapidly transforming itself into North America's first truly twenty-first-century, postindustrial society, and, as such, it is again a land of pioneers.
Says one Boston banker, who thinks that New England's economically stable state is a euphemism for stagnation, "We don't have any theories about what you do when you reach this state of economic maturity. The finest brains have been telling us how to grow. Nobody seems to know what to do when you get grown."
But New England, intuitively and inexorably, is about to show the world how to find out, for it is producing an amazing consensus, considering its circumstances, about the futures that it will and will not accept. Take its energy future, for example.
People in other parts of North America might think that a nation this short on cash, this cold, and up to 80 percent dependent on imported fuel oil for home heating, would be racing headlong toward any promise of relief. But that is not the case.
The Pittstown Company, of New York, has been trying for almost a decade to put an oil refinery in Eastport, Maine, the easternmost point of land in the United States. In 1979, Eastport had an unemployment rate of 20 percent. Four hundred families in this town of two thousand were getting food stamps. The sardine canneries that used to be the major industry had closed down long ago. At 250,000 barrels a day, this proposed refinery could meet 19 percent of New England's gasoline and home heating oil needs.
But will it ever be built? Don't bet on it. Half of the waters in which the tankers would have to travel belong to Canada, which says that an oil spill would endanger its fisheries. (The more cynical think that the Canadians really see it as a threat to their own underutilized refineries.) The summer home of Franklin D. Roosevelt, an international park, is a mile downwind of the refinery site, and that outrages a select constituency. But more important, beyond the blueberry-covered hills, in Cobscook Bay, dance humpback whales. And of crowning significance, through the local spruce glide more bald eagles, making more baby bald eagles, than any other place in the Northeast. Both the whales and the United States national symbol are endangered species, and it has been made abundantly clear that as long as oil refineries issue mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants, there is no way that one is going to be built anywhere near those eagles.
Does the local population buy these priorities? In a recent Fourth of July parade, the Little League's vastly popular Red Sox float was defeated for first place honors by the Youth Conservation Corps' entry, with the theme "Don't Let Eastport Become a Pits Town."
This, in fact, represents a general New England belief in the equation that energy development in its backyard equals an inevitable decline in the quality of its civilization.
The subliminal part of this is an a priori assumption that New England sets a standard of civilized behavior that is far more rare than kilowatts, and is thus more valuable. That is the reason New Englanders see no contradiction in asking the rest of the continent to subsidize the price of their home heating oil at the same time that they frantically resist efforts to drill for it off their coast.
It's a defensible position. It might, in fact, make sense for Houston to subsidize Boston now so that, when they finally come to their senses, Houstonians will be able to go to Boston for a sight of what a truly civilized city looks like.
The problem is that New Englanders have yet to display the guts necessary to put this argument in a forthright way. When they agitate against drilling for oil in the fertile fishing grounds of Georges Bank, they state the argument in terms of one natural resource versus another. They contend that an oil spill could kill a lot of fish, ruining one of God's great gifts to man. That's certainly true, but if the Georges Bank were to disappear tomorrow, a less than 1 percent increase in beef production in the Breadbasket could make up for any loss in protein, according to the Department of the Interior.
What really bugs New Englanders about energy development is not the threat to fish, as such, but the prospect of having their tidy and carefully ordered portion of the planet screwed up. Take the example of the big idea that the Army Corps of Engineers has for the northern tip of Maine.
That's where, as mentioned in the first chapter, the Corps wants to build the twenty-seven-story-high, two-mile-long Dickey-Lincoln dam across the St. John River. The proposal, grander than Egypt's Aswan Dam, would flood 267 miles of river and streams and eighty-eight thousand acres of timber in order to create a reservoir 57 miles long. The power it could produce would replace 2.3 million barrels of oil a year.
For a time, this project was blocked by a three-foot-high plant with unimpressive little yellow flowers, the furbish lousewort. That, too, is an endangered species, and the dam would jeopardize the existence of the skinny weeds. The louseworts' habitat, propagation, and microclimatic requirements are under detailed study to determine if they can be grown elsewhere, and the corps is now looking into buying lousewort sanctuaries. But meanwhile, the dam's cost estimates have quadrupled since it was originally authorized in 1965. A projected cost of $218 million is now pushing a billion, and at that price, some of its drawbacks are becoming glaring - such as the fact that there is so little water in the St. John River during the summer that the dam would operate, on the average, only two and a half hours out of every twenty-four.
But the torrent of economic arguments thrown up by Dickey-Lincoln's increasingly sophisticated opponents is not the real reason this dam probably will never be built. The real reason is that northern Maine has some of the prettiest wilderness in the Northeast. You can dip into a river and safely drink its waters. And in a land as crowded as this continent's Northeast, that's a rare, and thus valuable, commodity. If politics allocate resources, then it would seem that in this case, New England politics are again based on the premise that recreational wilderness is more scarce than Middle Eastern oil, and that, of course, is in fact a defensible position.
Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, is by no means wilderness. The North Atlantic surf curls in the same gray-green, foam-flecked fashion there as it has for millennia, but behind the white sandy beach, the Hampton Beach Casino ("Jewelry, Ice Cream, Food, Snack Bar, Rides, Golf, Gifts, Doughnuts, Fashions, Leather, Boutiques, Jewelry") is jammed. So are the taco parlors, fried dough stands, sweet shops, T-shirt emporiums, discos, and motels that make up the resort.
The competition for a few linear feet of New Hampshire coastline is fierce because there is so little of it - only seventeen miles between Massachusetts and Maine. Hampton Beach State Park marks the spot where the Atlantic breaks through the dunes to form a pleasant harbor, where meandering creeks with grand names such as Browns River, Blackwater River, and Hampton River create salt marshes. The salt marshes, in whose sensitive and fecund ecology the marine food chain begins, boast reeds and cattails that, rippling like wheat in a breeze, are hypnotic. The small harbor guards from the riptides both the wide, high-prowed, low-gunwaled commercial fishing and lobster boats, and the sleek cabin cruisers with names like Shenanigans and Anstrice. Bright-colored lobster buoys line a wall by a small store where you can buy bait, tackle, and cold drinks.
If you're careful not to let your eyes wander a few hundred yards inland, it's possible to forget that the town just across the inlet from Hampton Beach is Seabrook. The motel operators of Hampton make a point, for example, of quickly correcting guests who think they've come to Seabrook.
But although the map of Seabrook put out by Preston Real Estate does not choose to take note of the town's most famous landmark, it's impossible to ignore forever the concrete forms of the largest construction project ever attempted in New England. They're easily visible over the roofs of the shore cottages. For that matter, looming over the forms are dozens of red and white striped canes, so much more massive than the ones on the lobster boats that aircraft warning beacons flash from their sides. Every residential road, as it comes to a dead end in the marsh, offers a spectacular view. You can sit at the Dairy King, eating your dip-topped ice cream cone, and marvel at it. Or you can stop at Captain Berk's Lobster Pond ("Live Lobster, Live Crabs, Spawns, Oysters, Smelts, Haddock, Shrimp, Salmon. Swordfish, Scallops, Halibut, Bass, Eel, Bait, Eel Worms") and catch the act from there. Of an evening, it's much more brightly and starkly lit even than the row of honky-tonks on the beach. It is Seabrook Station. Twin 2300-megawatt nuclear reactors. Strategically located practically on top of the East Coast's main tourist roads - old U.S. Route 1 and Interstate 95. Seabrook Station. The birthplace of the American antinuclear movement.
One thousand, four hundred, and fourteen people were arrested at Seabrook on the afternoon of May 2, 1977, and charged with criminal trespass.
The chief public relations person at Seabrook is enamored enough of the right-wing Heritage Foundation account of the proceedings to press it on visiting reporters. Abridged, it goes like this:
With the issuance of the original Seabrook construction permits in July of 1976, a new and unexpected turn of events took place. Most of the planners engaged in the construction at Seabrook assumed that winning the battle in court and before the regulatory agencies meant an end to opposition to the facility. In this they were mistaken. A group of individuals unhappy with the results of the legal process felt that the time had come to go outside the law. Towards this end they formed the Clamshell Alliance, a group which is by its own declaration "unalterably opposed to the construction of this (Seabrook) and all other nuclear plants". . .
Certainly, in 1976 no one would have been prepared to believe that over May Day Weekend, 1977, the Clamshell Alliance would return with a thoroughly trained, coordinated group of some 2000 persons . . .
The company allowed the demonstrators to enter the site and occupy an area used for parking, and to set up their tents and camping equipment . . . as long as they were peaceful and agreed to leave [before construction workers arrived Monday morning]. Early Sunday afternoon, it was decided that the time had come . . .
The [Clamshell] leadership, after conferring with the demonstrators, indicated that they would not be willing to leave, and that they would also insist on being arrested . . . and 1414 were.
As they refused to post bail, they were temporarily incarcerated in a number of National Guard Armories around the state. Their stand against posting bail was maintained for two full weeks during which time they continued to be housed in the armories.
One result of this incarceration [and these are the Heritage Foundation's words] was that it gave them time to organize. In a real sense, those two weeks amounted to the period of incubation for the birth of the national anti-nuclear movement . . .
The cost of renting the National Guard Armories, along with certain services required from the Guard during the period of incarceration, such as feeding the prisoners and caring for the sanitation facilities, came to $310,863.90. Public health services came to $13,082.26. State police (including those borrowed from other states) cost $51,169.75. Local police, $5,090.84. Finally, the initial cost estimate for the services of the Attorney General's staff as a result of the arraignments associated with the arrests of the demonstrators came to $ 10,000. This cost, of course, as has been mentioned, will escalate severely with time, as a consequence of the appeals process. Thus, the total for the demonstration which took place over May Day Weekend, 1977, comes to $389,206.85.
Further, those figures do not reflect any increased costs which might have been incurred by Public Service Company of New Hampshire [the utility whose idea Seabrook is] in preparing for the demonstration, and which would be reflected eventually in the customer's electric bill.
Of course, since all this, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident has occurred. Antinuclear demonstrations have brought out hundreds of thousands of people. Meldrim Thomson, then governor of New Hampshire, who backed a surcharge on the electric bills of the state's residents to help pay for Seabrook's construction, has been ignominiously defeated at the polls twice. A plan to build reactors of the Seabrook design on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island has been rejected. (The 604-acre site considered for that power plant will, in classic New England fashion, instead be made into a wildlife refuge.) Public Service of New Hampshire is in deep trouble with its financiers. By 1979, delays had increased Seabrook's total price tag by an estimated $1,997,492,200. It's perfectly possible that if arguments in Congress over nuclear technology's safety don't get Seabrook, arguments on Wall Street over its affordability will.
So I asked Norman Cullerot, the public relations man at Seabrook, about the problems. I had just taken the tour of this mind-numbing, you've-never-seen-so-much-steel-and-cement, makes-the-Pyramids-look-like-sandcastles construction project. I was sitting among the natural wood surroundings of the $1 .7 million "education center," and I said, Look, I know you've already spent nine hundred and ninety million dollars on this project, and you're still counting. And I know this must be like questioning Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam. But, just between you and me, all questions aside about radioactive waste lasting for a hundred thousand years. Did nobody in this whole, big company ever walk the beaches around here, look out over the salt marshes and the lobster boats and the tourists and say, hey, if we build this thing here, there's going to be trouble? Did it ever occur to anybody that a nuclear reactor here is emotionally impossible for New Englanders?
I guess he responded to my question. He launched into praise for the plant's cooling system. Remember those tall, curved water-cooling towers that became the symbol for Three Mile Island? Seabrook Station doesn't have any of those, he explained. Instead, a little east of the reactors there are two holes, 375 feet deep and wide enough to swallow a small house. On a platform 275 feet down have been pieced together a couple of 340-ton machines called moles. These moles bore through rock with fifty-two cutter blades, pressed up against the stuff by hydraulic rams that produce a thrust of 995 tons. The moles' average speed is about four feet an hour. The granite here is referred to as "stubborn." These moles are drilling two tunnels straight out to sea, one 16,483 feet long, the other 17,410 feet long. These tunnels pass directly under Hampton Beach State Park and the harbor on their way a mile or so out into the ocean. When completed, they'll be more than big enough to drive a trailer truck through, although that's not what they'll carry. One of the tunnels will carry 850,000 gallons of the North Atlantic every minute into the power plant, where it will cool and condense the steam generated. The other pipe will take this water, instantly made 39 degrees hotter, and dump it back into the ocean. Much to the surprise of the fish.
And that, he explained, is why Seabrook was built here. It's as close to this big beautiful body of cooling fluid as possible while being as far away from the city of Portsmouth as it can be without leaving New Hampshire.
And he waited for my next question.
I think that means that the answer to my original question is no.
It never occurred to the planners at Public Service of New Hampshire that their ideas would be viewed as controversial, much less that in the eyes of some New Englanders, observing what was being done to their ocean, Seabrook Station would become the classic and enduring example of technology gone berserk.
This is not, however, to say that management is unaware that it has a public relations problem. And that's why, outside the nature trail with the carefully labeled plants, just down the way from the redwood picnic tables, across from the entrance to the education center with its diagonal wood siding, has been built Seabrook Unit Three.
One and Two, of course, are the 2300-megawatt reactors. Three is a windmill. Very futuristic-looking, it's shaped something like the head of an eggbeater, with three bowed, fifteen-foot blades revolving around a vertical axis, allowing it to accept wind from every direction. It will supply 12 kilowatts of electricity.
On Block Island, twelve miles off the coast of Rhode Island, looming 160 feet tall, is another windmill. It's rated at 200 kilowatts, but has a completely different story.
The U.S. government in 1979 spent over $60 million on windmill development, and this island, on which 459 people were recorded at a recent Ground Hog's Day census (an annual event that takes place at a local bar) has, quixotically, managed to snare $2.3 million of that in the form of its new monster.
Block Island was thought to be a dandy place for this wind machine, which has a 125-foot wing span and sits on a 100-foot-tall tower. The islanders claim they pay the highest electricity rates in the country - twice as high as the mainland - because their power is generated by inefficient diesels, the fuel for which must come from the mainland on barges.
Fortunately, the wind gales up to a hundred miles an hour over the island in the winter. The average breeze is a stiff seventeen miles per hour, which is just a hair under small-craft-warning strength.
Equally important, the island gets hundreds of thousands of tourists in the summer, so the sleek orange and white National Aeronautic and Space Administration-built turbine is good p.r. for the government's energy program.
There are a few hitches, but they're being worked on. One is that the wind turbine is calculated to save only $30,000 worth of diesel oil a year, and so, in order to become independent of OPEC, the island will need a platoon of these things to be self-sufficient. At several million dollars apiece, of course, this is no small thing.
There is the question of what the Department of Energy calls "airborne fauna." Block Island is in the migration path of everything with wings that calls the coast home, and the tips of the windmill's blades travel at 178 miles per hour. But an expensive federal study has come to the tentative decision that birds can see and hear a windmill, and most normally fly higher than the windmill, anyway.
And, of course, there's the TV reception. It's been discovered that big whirring aluminum blades cause television signals to bounce. Henry Hutchinson, the septuagenarian Yankee who heads up the Block Island Power Company, was quoted as saying, "Television means an awful lot particularly to the people who are out here in the wintertime. The movie theater is closed, and it's the only steady source of entertainment." So the federal government has obliged by spending another $700,000 to push an undersea cable from the mainland to Block Island and to wire the entire island for cable television.
In such a fashion is the twenty-first century built in New England.
One of the more instructive parts of the Block Island saga is that the project was financed by federal money. The way one receives federal money in this world is to be political, and from the first days that the locals started shooting at Redcoats from behind the trees of Bunker Hill, political is something New England has always been. In fact, politics is one of New England's leading industries. Perhaps the most celebrated political novel of this century, The Last Hurrah, is very solidly based on the career of James Michael Curley, the Boston mayor who ran for re-election from jail and won. The Kennedy legacy alone marks New England as being over-endowed with politicians. There is so much government that New England Telephone has a separate section for its telephone numbers - the Blue Pages.
But this has not been an unmixed blessing for New England, because the flip side of government is taxes, and with those New England also abounds. The property taxes in New England are among the highest in the nation. Until recently, houses evaluated at no more than $40,000 in Boston could be taxed so heavily that the assessed value of the structure was handed over to the government in cash once every four years. In 1980, a statewide tax revolt changed this, but probably at the cost of other taxes. Meanwhile, every single New England state is in the top 30 percent, nationwide, in per capita property taxes. And the burden is more onerous when you remember how low the adjusted per capita income here is. When a stiff sales tax, like Maine's, and a non-graduated income tax, like Massachusetts', are figured in, clearly the bite of local government is one of New England's causes of poverty. And since the money often as not goes to ameliorate the effects of being poor, what you have here is, if not the government causing poverty in order to cure more poverty, at least the government enforcing a great leveling of wealth.
Taxation has other effects. Ironically, an argument can be made that if the state of which Boston is the capital were not in a position to be known locally as Taxachusetts, Seabrook would not have been thought necessary.
New Hampshire is a renegade in New England in that it is the only state with no sales or income tax. The philosophy is to provide as much state income as possible through dog tracks, state lotteries, and bargain-basement state-run liquor stores. As a result, businesses from all over the rest of New England are flocking to southern New Hampshire in order to be as close to Boston - aptly nicknamed "the Hub" - as possible while escaping heavy taxation. This creates jobs, which create housing starts, which demand power, which results in projected growth, which leads utility companies to build nukes.
When Governor Thomson of New Hampshire was gloating about all the growth, Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, sniffed that, though his colleague might be right about New Hampshire being a nice place for talented young workers to live, its services were so shabby that it wasn't a nice place in which to be old or sick or handicapped or uneducated or down and out. It is selfless concern for the less fortunate, he implied, that is the core of old-fashioned Massachusetts liberalism. (Massachusetts was the only state to go for George McGovern for president in 1972. Hence the Watergate-era bumper sticker: DON'T BLAME ME, I'M FROM MASSACHUSETTS.)
Well, that may be true, but there's more than a chance that all this humane liberalism has its roots in old-fashioned intellectual snobbery.
There is no getting around the point that one Boston investor makes: "This is a pretty elitist group of people who live in New England." What's tough is to describe how it is that an entire population - even the lower classes of it - can aspire to a little moral arrogance, and by the same token, to describe precisely on whom they are looking down.
When it comes to discussing New England elitism, there is one obvious place to start. It makes no difference that a Boston banker asserts that "you couldn't find anything any dumber than a sixth-generation A.B. from Harvard in general studies. I think twenty-five or thirty years ago they had to create that special program for general studies to take care of these people who have been suffering from inbreeding." Nonetheless, Harvard retains a mystique. It is nurtured by the fact that for every Harvard graduate, there are eight or ten very smart, and sometimes ultimately very powerful, people walking around North America who tried to get into that university but were turned down.
But Harvard is no more New England than Cambridge is like the gritty town of Woonsocket. You have to go beyond that, to the fact that New England, in another example of its faded industrial legacy, has an absolute glut of educational institutions originally endowed by pre-income tax entrepreneurs. In the Boston area alone, there are sixty-five colleges and universities. And, as one observer put it, sixty-four of those are trying to be just like Harvard - some to the point of caricature. Then you begin to grasp how some cultural values are diffused among the educated.
But that still doesn't explain how elsewhere uncommon ideas, such as respect for the furbish lousewort or reading or public television broadcasting, are so widely accepted in New England. It certainly doesn't explain the north star of New England moral certitudes: Houston-based oil companies are always lying.
It's true that polls have shown that the non-college-educated are increasingly taking on a lot of the attitudinal and sociological characteristics of the college-educated. It's also true that New England is overburdened with people who do sport degrees. ("Over-qualified is the name of New England's game," said one teacher who has been out of work ever since he fell off a roof in the course of trying to make it as a carpenter.)
But try this idea:
"The roots of the [average] people's disbelief in anything that comes from the private sector goes back to that old heritage of the sweatshop and the textile mill. It really shouldn't be rooted in that area, but it goes back to their worries about being exploited."
The man who said this (he asked to remain anonymous) has invested a lot of money in New England's booming computer business. He went on:
"There's a great antipathy between the owner and the worker that goes back to the Industrial Revolution. The people generally perceive people in business as being those old-line Yankee bastards. Don't believe a goddamn thing they say. Don't believe the facts that they come up with, because they're their facts, and they're not the truth!”
This is a singular phenomenon. A post-industrial phenomenon. What you have here is the privileged members of an educated elite - the "best and the brightest" - coughing out warnings about our dire future should we continue to depend on nonrenewable resources and massive corporate solutions to our problems.
At the same time, descendants of Italians, Irish, Quebecois, Portuguese, and Jewish mill laborers are listening to these alarums and buying them - or at least giving them careful consideration. So what you have is the progeny of the oppressed identifying with the progeny of the oppressors.
In Detroit, it wouldn't work like this. In Detroit, the ideology of the United Auto Workers is so ingrained - jobs, more jobs, more jobs with more money, more money - that the UAW has literally come around to the old capitalist slogan that what's good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A. Only there's a minor twist. The twist is that it's Chrysler in whose interest the UAW labors in Washington. Bail out Chrysler, whose products have always been associated with fat-cat consumption, the union pleads.
By contrast, in New England a different kind of philosophical union, cutting across traditional class lines, is being formed. And this new sense of everybody being in it together is reinforced by the aforementioned tax structure, which affects the trappings of the class structure. This is to say that a New Englander making $25,000 a year doesn't live in terribly different circumstances from a New Englander making $12,000. Neither is starving; neither frequently dines on steak. Both inhabit modest houses or apartments. In the summer, they swim off the same public beaches.
In Houston, the contrast would be much more marked. The difference is that in New England poverty has become rather chic. I have a theory that the entire history of twentieth-century New England has something to do with the sad surplus of Harvard architects. Here are these fellows, superbly trained and motivated to modify man's habitat. They find New England so stimulating intellectually that they don't want to leave. Yet New England is so poor that nobody can afford to put up new buildings. So they're broke. But clever. And so they get into mischief.
Take Duncan Syme. He's not a Harvard architect; he's a Yale architect - but close enough. Syme is the man who designed the Vermont Castings wood stoves mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, thus creating from scratch an important manufacturing operation in central Vermont.
I asked him, so, one morning you woke up and said, hey, what this country needs is a good airtight wood stove? He turned to one of his colleagues and asked him whether a captain of industry of his stature should still be telling the truth about this, or whether maybe it wasn't time for somebody to cook up a new story. But then, in the absence of a tasty lie, he said:
In the winter of 'seventy-four-'seventy-five, I was living in Warren, Vermont, about twenty miles from [Randolph]. Warren at one point had the highest per capita ratio of residents to architects of any community in the world. Warren had something like thirty-two licensed, practicing architects in a population of five hundred.
It was a big ski area - Sugarbush - so there was some building going on. But, while some guys were doing reasonably well, a lot of guys were starving. If a guy is born in a particular country, he hates to leave and go someplace else. I spent most of my life in Essex, Connecticut, which is a little sailing, bedroom town on Long Island Sound a little west of New London.
Anyway, at the time, Dindy [his wife] and I were living in a building I'd designed for a guy as a woodworking shop. The deal was that if I built it, I got to live in it for a year for nothing. So we were living in this wood shop, freezing. Freezing to death. Our only source of heat . . . we had this old wood stove, which was horrendous. The thing went out. It was kind of an old stove, and it was real leaky and stuff, and it wouldn't hold a fire overnight. I had to get up at two o'clock every morning to fill this damn thing up, to keep it going so it would make it through the night. One morning in March, I said screw it, I'm not going to get up. And so I reached over and turned on the electric blanket and I went back to sleep. The next morning we woke up, and our inside air temperature was eleven.
So I ended up doodling around on a piece of paper about it - what would a good wood stove be like. My eleven degree experience became a catalyst for becoming interested in stoves per se. Not totally as a marketable entity, but just because I've always been a curious kind of guy in terms of mechanical gizmos and stuff. A couple of us went and talked to a whole bunch of people, did some research, began to get some papers on studies that had been done during the war, state-of-the-art papers from Europe, and stuff like that.
I came up with the stove I wanted. I didn't know whether you would want one, or anybody else, but it seemed like a pretty nice stove. It had all these features that combustion-technology research said was important, and it had all the features I wanted from a kind of user number.
I hadn't even heard of half of the major activities which are required in order to build a wood-burning stove five years ago. I didn't even know what the names meant, or what the jobs were. or anything.
I had this stove all designed. Murray [Syme's partner] and I built one out of steel, welded it all up. And it took two days. And we said this is hopeless. The thing is so labor-intensive that there's no way we're going to make any money out of this. And to put all those goddamn air channels and stuff in them . . . much too much time is involved. So at that point I said to myself, well, lookit. We got twenty-seven parts to this stove, but the old wood cookstoves - beautiful, magnificent things - must have had eighty billion parts, and I'll bet that a guy assembled one of those things in three or four hours, bolting them together. So I said, it must be that, because you have the ability to kind of cast all these little things in place . . . cast iron must be the solution.
So we started calling up foundries. The first foundry we called up, we said, "Listen, do you guys cast iron?" And the guy said, "Yeah, we're a class thirty gray shop, what do you need done?"
And there'd be a long pause from Murray, and he'd say, “I'll get back to you.” And he literally went and got a book out of the library to find out what a class thirty gray shop was. That's why we have our own foundry today, because it turns out that making stove plate is such a specialized thing.
And it turns out that the stove I drew up . . . It just turns out that quite a few other guys on the continent have my kind of leanings.”
Yeah, I said, but how many of those guys are sitting in New England farmhouses where they've got a couple of two-by-fours propping up the chimney and a pie pan over the flue hole, just waiting for your stove to be installed? Wood burning in New England is now becoming attractive to the middle class. If that's not what it amounted to, you wouldn't have designed your latest model so that it slips comfortably into the opening of a suburban fireplace.
And this is how he got launched on a discussion of poverty chic: "I would not give up wood heat now, even if I could afford to have a nuclear power plant of my own. I would not do that because I like the type of heat you get out of wood."
What do you mean? I asked. Heat's heat. Either you're warm or you're not. I was greeted by a chorus of dissent from the stove-makers. Syme went on:
A single source of radiant energy that ultimately heats the entire habitable envelope is incredibly different from having this whole envelope amazingly uniform in temperature.
You're busting your butt, trying to get the car out of the ditch, or help the kids go sledding, and they're whining because the snow's inside their mittens, and you're frozen and you come inside.
In nineteen fifty-one, you came into a house that had hot-water radiant heat under the slab and your toes would kind of slowly get warmed up, but it took forever before you were thawed out. If you come into a house with electric baseboard heat, it's the same way. I mean, where the hell do you dry your mittens? Now, maybe that's putting regional emphasis on all of life that exists only here in Vermont, but the point is that when you come into a house that has a single source of radiant heat, the first thing you do is you kind of walk up to it ass first with your hands back there behind you like people used to do to fireplaces. You can take the chill off within seconds because there's this intense radiant energy. The idea of having all of your house within a quarter of a degree diminishes your life. There's an esthetic coefficient to the quality of heat.
It's a survival statement. The guy takes a look at the future and doesn't like it, and is looking around for some alternative.
This is something a guy can relate to one on one. He either bought a little wood, or he went out and he chopped it himself and he made that fire. It isn't a fire that came from galaxy L Twelve-Fifteen like at Seabrook. What I'm talking about is a guy getting a hell of a lot closer to the source than the dial on the wall.
I think we must become replugged in to the subtleties of the planet if it's going to sustain us. Wood burning is a relaxing thing, and it allows a guy to get plugged back in, and that's why I see the woodstove boom as a real hope. It is a basis for people becoming intimately involved with a basic energy source. And energy is everything.
Almost two hundred miles southeast of Randolph, in Lowell, Massachusetts, amid the narrow, twisted streets that were laid out along patterns literally established by the meanderings of long-dead cows, there's a small monument to a single, basic source of radiant energy that has nothing to do with poverty chic. It's a less-than-romantic reminder of what is behind New England's present predicament. This is a faithful re-creation of an old kitchen of a textile-mill worker, and its centerpiece is a big, black coal stove.
The stove was called a Glenwood C, and in this model room, it is carefully dated "circa 1900." Note is taken that "thousands of tenement buildings were erected to accommodate" the immigrants who flocked to the mills of Lowell in the nineteenth century:
Although the neighborhoods were separated by nationalities, the houses were, for the most part, similar in style. The kitchen played an important role in the lives 0f the tenants, in that it was generally the only room in the apartment with heat. All of the rooms were built off the kitchen as a result. The kitchen thus became a vital part of tenement life, the center of all the family's activities.
Everything in the re-creation of "a typical tenement apartment" during the Depression of the 1930s is brightly labeled and noted:
The furnishings include pressed tin ceilings, and printed linoleum floors. The ice box is roughly dated at 1915. Although electric refrigerators were in use by 1930, we can assume that a tenant of this apartment wouldn't have been able to afford one. Of particular interest is the coal [clothes] iron, circa 1895, which weighs seven pounds without the coal. The soap-stone sink has a clothes wringer attached to it. Clothes were normally washed on a washboard and hung on clothes lines across the kitchen in winter . . . The lunch pail on top of the ice box is dated at 1910. It had three compartments. The bottom of the pail held a drink. The second layer was used for either soup or stew. The top for meat, vegetables, bread or fruit. The pail was generally carried down to the mill by one of the younger children at lunchtime . . .
The cheerful singsong of the plaque ends:
Try asking your parents or grandparents about the kitchens in their homes. It should prove quite interesting.
Yes, indeed, I thought to myself, ask your parents and grand-parents about the years of the Depression, when the textile industry was in full flight from New England to places like Calhoun, Georgia. Ask them about the stained oilcloth covering the rickety kitchen table. Ask them about the neighborhoods "separated by nationality." And about how much they loved carrying the lunch pail down to the mills. Ask them if they remember the Sunday Advertiser, the paper that once boasted the largest Sunday circulation in New England. A yellowed promo recalls its glories:
EXPOSED! Starvation wages, unhealthy surroundings, grinding toil, crooked shop owners, revealed in actual stories of work in Massachusetts. SWEAT SHOPS! Stories of shocking abuses, cruel treatment, and deplorable conditions. The truth about sweat shops, that cancerous evil eating out the lives of underpaid workers in Massachusetts. Exclusively in tomorrow's Sunday Advertiser!
And while you're at it, ask them what they think of the federal government spending tax dollars not to bury these memories, but instead to make the whole city of Lowell into a national park to preserve them. For that's what's being done. Nearly $50 million is being spent to celebrate "America's first planned industrial city."
The museum in which the tenement kitchen is so lovingly restored is in one of the old mills. Its walls are two feet thick, and its tall windows are made up of small panes, over which are diamond-shaped iron security grilles.
The wooden floor is a rich, varied, honey-brown, made uneven by a century of heavy carts trundling over it, but the looms that stand on it are not pretty. Run by unguarded belts and oversized bicycle chains, they prickle with sharp objects, around which one had best be very careful.
A tour guide explains that this museum is attached to the only functioning and, everyone hopes, profit-making textile mill left in Lowell. "We just rent this space," she explains. "The rest of this whole complex is in operation and they're using these old looms for part of their operation. The man who owns it wears overalls and a rolled-up plaid flannel shirt and he looks like a Teddy bear. How does he compete? He brings in, first it was Puerto Ricans, and then it was Jamaicans. Then it was Colombians. It's tough for the mill to keep afloat, but everybody's reluctant to let it close down because it's the only one left. You should go over there, it's like the Tower of Babel."
As it has always been in the mills of Lowell.
"It's like the whole town is one big museum," she continues. "There's an antique on every corner. Some are not in the best of condition, but they're all there. They may not have been restored to their former splendor yet, but that's what the federal money is going to do, and that's what the tourists, we hope, will come to see.
"What they're hoping for in the long run is a Sturbridge Village kind of thing, or Williamsburg."
Lee Cott, a young restoration architect whose office is halfway between Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, is one of the people who came up with the idea, utterly mad on the face of it, of making one of New England's grittiest cities into a theme park to misery, after the fashion of Colonial re-creations the tour guide mentioned.
One of the reasons the Lowell project was so relevant to us [Cott explained] was that it really brought together a whole lot of things for us in this office. General Motors grew out of the tradition of Lowell.
As an architect or a designer - or a visionary, in your best moments - you have images of what you want the world to be like. Lowell conforms to the image. It has the kind of thing you push for. The idea of doing a large building, then a couple of buildings together until you end up doing a whole city. This was the ideal situation for a group of young, creative architects and planners who wanted to get it all out of their system. Here's a city. What do you want to do to it? Redo a city.
Eight years ago, when we first started - we were among the first to do this kind of large-scale adaptive reuse of older buildings - people had real trepidations.
“I'm going to live in a factory?” they'd say. “S***, I grew up there. I worked in that building. I don't want to live . . . who wants to live there?” They don't see it as part of their life that is worthy of recall. We did have a lot of that attitude about Lowell, among the local people. The people's attitudes about themselves had deteriorated. The city had gone to hell. In fact, the city was so far behind the times, they never even got their act together to apply for federal urban renewal money in the fifties and sixties. Which is exactly what saved the city. None of the old buildings was torn down. The old buildings, too big, too monstrous to tear down, are now the city's great hope for the future.”
Cott says that he's lost interest in the project on a day-to-day basis, now that it's off the ground, "mainly because I never saw the Lowellians having confidence in the project. I think, like most things, the people who are closest to it have the least confidence in it."
But that doesn't mean he's lost confidence in restoring old New England structures, making do with the fact that New England is too poor to generate extensive new building.
“Ten years ago, when I first got going in this business, we could do a new apartment unit for the elderly - a typical HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] unit, six hundred and twenty-five square feet - for well under twenty-five thousand dollars. Now you can't touch it for under thirty-five thousand.
Now, in Central Falls [Rhode Island], we're doing an old mill building right on Main Street - housing for the elderly. And it's a beautiful project because what we're going to do is have hydroelectric power there. When we got going on the Lowell job, we got really interested in alternative sources of energy. Everybody talks about solar, but they're way off base, at least for this part of the century. The solar power industry is totally embryonic at this point. However, there are two hundred and seventy sites in New England that are appropriate for water power. We went out looking for one. We found our own developers. And we're just about complete with the housing, and we're going to be doing a hydro power project. Low-head dam. The water drops thirteen feet. It will be the first federally assisted housing project development which has a good portion of its energy met by hydro power. We have two hundred and some odd thousand dollars in grants. It's a very exciting project. We're talking about doing a new building for ourselves, for an office. We'd much prefer to renovate a building if we could find one. But Boston's running out of buildings to renovate. For sure! The best ones in terms of physical condition, layout, neighborhoods, are done first.
It's a limited resource like anything else. Lots of New England was built before the invention of the electric light. The mill buildings are therefore narrow - fifty, fifty-five feet wide, because everybody had to work in natural light. That's a tremendous amenity for housing, big windows. The mill buildings built before the light bulb are the best ones for renovation.
As New England faces its future, Cott is not the only one who is finding that a nation built in a simpler century has some advantages. Boston, for example, has put a lid on the number of parking spaces built in the city, thus forcing people onto rapid transit or into the use of their feet. As a result, people are finding that Boston was built on a human scale, with everything close to everything else, back when that was the only kind of scale there was. If the automobile were to disappear tomorrow, Boston would hardly find it as crushing as would Houston or L.A.
In fact, the argument has been made that New England's future lies in its being fully depreciated. Unlike newer regions, New England's mortgage is paid off. In Denver, for example, the future is going to pay for the present. Growth there is demanding new roads, new water, new sewers, new pollution controls, new firemen, policemen - services of all sorts. If Denver were paying for all this as it went along, the taxes on each newcomer would be staggering. What would happen, in the classic checks-and-balances fashion, would be that the boom would slow, because the cost of doing business in Denver would suddenly soar. The last thing Denver, or anyplace else in the South and West, wants to do is slow the boom. So Los Angeles, for example, went into debt to build freeways. In Houston, the plan was to avoid financial obligations by not building any new freeway for years. But in both cases, citizens of the future will pay the price. In Los Angeles, taxes at last have caught up with financial realities, as these debts became due. In newer Houston, the evening rush hour, now over four hours long, will continue to lengthen until new transportation facilities are built, or the population becomes so outraged at the inconvenience of getting around the place that people begin to leave.
By contrast, New England sports almost four centuries of capital expenditures, built to last, as the restoration architects are discovering. Blessed with great geographic diversity in a very compact area - Massachusetts is three and a half hours wide and forty-five minutes deep - New England's transportation needs are less formidable than, say, those of Texas. And many of the solutions are in place; public transportation has been a tradition since well before the automobile was developed. Unlike most of the West, New England has a wealth of water, and though municipal sewer systems may be falling into disrepair, at least they already exist, which is more than you can say for the new, high-growth areas. Housing, education, recreation, and cultural facilities are all there right now.
And almost everything that it was possible for New England to lose - jobs, industry, money, power - is already gone. This area went through the agonies of decline decades ago. Survival was hardly a picnic, but what's left is a paid-for asset.
Thus, even Jim Howell, senior vice-president of the First National Bank of Boston, who readily concedes he prefers the go-go business methods of Kansas City to some of the tight economic circumspection he sees among Yankees, discerns some advantages to New England's position.
The difference between us, now, and the Great Lakes is that the Great Lakes region has got a wage structure that is probably thirty, forty, or fifty percent above ours. Wage structure levels get set by the dominant industry, and the dominant industry in the Great Lakes has been automobiles. The dominant industry here has been low-wage industries - textiles, apparel, leather. So our wage structure right now is highly competitive even with the South, because in the South, wages have risen.
The difference that may help us is that the decade of the eighties is going to be one of critical labor shortages. Skilled labor. Blue collar. Because everybody wanted to be a white-collar worker in the fifties and sixties. All you have to do is look in the working-class bars, and the people are all old.
Howell points to the considerable tradition in the ethnic communities of New England of working with your hands as precision instruments, either in the jewelry business, or the textile business.
That's why we're building on a strength. It's unusual to have a policy option that actually addresses a major problem . . . that builds on something you're pretty good at.
And I think that's why the high-technology industry is here to stay. [Building computers] involves literally thousands upon thousands of people that turn widgets. You go visit these plants, and the only difference in the textile and the electronics area is that you're working with something metal, not cloth. It involves the same sort of skill and dexterity. There are twelve thousand people working under one roof in Western Electric's North Andover plant. All are doing something with their hands.
High technology. That seems to be New England's future. It started as early as the 1940s, with the education centers of Cambridge leading the way into the new frontiers of digital electronics and solid state physics, which produced the computers that changed our lives. A lot of the speculative work that mushroomed in the post-Sputnik era came from right here. Commercial spin-offs of the advances in high technology began to litter Route 128 - the beltway that circles Boston. Now, New England is a center of one of the hottest areas in electronics - the assembly of minicomputers. The biggest employer in the Lowell area now, for example, is Wang Laboratories. Makers of small computers and small word-processing systems, it employs three thousand, is building a high-rise in the heart of Lowell, and is buying up ancient, unused textile mills for manufacturing and warehousing. Dr. A. E. Wang, who got his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1946 in applied physics, has been in business since 1952, and really saw his affairs take off when he made a major breakthrough in the electronic calculator field in 1964. In part of the valley of the Merrimack - the river that originally powered the mills of Lowell - the other big employer is Raytheon.
In fact, at one point, if somebody came to the First National Bank of Boston to ask for money, and he had a government contract associated with a high-technology scheme, the loan officers had standing orders: No matter how crazy either this person or his idea seemed to be, neither could be turned down without authorization from a senior vice-president. The man credited with convincing the appalled banking community that such aggressive support of high technology was bound to pay off big was Peter Brooke. Now an independent venture capitalist, he sees New England's future this way:
New England is still an area that smart people like to go to. I think it's the climate of intellectual ferment. To me, Boston is the best of the American cities. We've got a first-class symphony, first-class art museums, and the places of interest are small, attainable, well run. For a certain kind of person, it is a nice place to be. You're easily mobile, and you've got all these interesting things . . . the mountains, the seashore. I think it may be mature economically, but I think it may be even more mature philosophically. It doesn't have the hazard of meaningless pace. You don't find people rushing toward some goal without thinking about what it is they're trying to achieve. We live on less. We're like the British in that regard.
And smart people have a way of lasting. They always generate new ideas.
If that is true, Peterborough, New Hampshire, in turn, has discovered that new ideas have a way of making money, and that some of New England's underdevelopment can be its greatest strength.
Peterborough, near the ski areas of Mount Monadnock, is achingly quaint. Just up the road from the requisite, perfectly proportioned Congregational church, with the delicate, graceful white spire, is a quite large, stately, red-brick building, complete with four white pillars at the entrance, labeled. the American Guernsey Club Headquarters.
Guernsey cows, like all aspects of New England agriculture, not being the hot item they once were in southern New Hampshire, the club rents out much of its building. And it is here that, to the scream of circular saws, workers are building partitions out of natural wood, cut at the obligatory diagonal, in order to expand the offices of Byte.
Byte, or, to be more precise, a byte (pronounced like what you do to a hamburger), is a unit of information in computer babble. It is also the name of the first, largest, and fastest-growing magazine directed to the home-computer owner in America. Every month, it contains 250 or more glossy pages, in perfect binding, with a full-color, graphically intriguing, heavy-stock cover. Many, many of those 250 pages are high-rent advertising from the giants and would-be giants of this booming field. Circulation is pushing two hundred thousand as of this writing and is regularly outstripping the audit reports. A second magazine, called onComputing, aimed at less technical-minded computer dilettantes, has been started up so as to bracket the market fully. It is expected that onComputing will soon dwarf Byte in circulation.
Publishing giant McGraw-Hill has just bought into the whole shebang.
All of this out of the American Guernsey Club Headquarters in Peterborough.
I'd come to talk to Byte's founding editor, Carl Helmers, but he didn't want to keep the appointment in his office, having just jetted back from the West Coast, so I found myself driving behind a young lady who'd said that when she'd been hired a year before, she was the twenty-fifth employee, and now there were sixty. I was following her because she seemed to be one of the few people senior enough to know the way to Helmers' home.
(Digression: New Englanders are incapable of giving directions. They do not know the names of streets, nor do they remember the numbers on major highways, nor do they have the foggiest idea how far one place is from another, nor can they tell you which way is north. Their street systems are so Old World and convoluted that they can find their way around only by feel. If their surroundings begin to look familiar to them, they attempt to find their way by an intuitive process as mysterious as that which leads the swallows back to Capistrano. Under no circumstance can they describe this process in a simple declarative sentence. When a Massachusetts taxi driver was asked for directions to a nearby museum, his response was "Gee, that's hard."
(Their spatial confusion is matched only by their reluctance to travel at all. One man from Dixie who was working for a major Boston corporation marveled at how his colleagues considered Worcester, forty miles to the west, "the frontier." It was the edge of civilization, beyond which was nothing but barely explored unpleasantness. Conversely, for children traveling such a distance from the hinterlands to the great metropolis, mothers pack lunches and ask if they think they can make it all the way back the same day. The only place with a sense of space similar to this is West Virginia, and West Virginia at least has the excuse of having mountain roads with sheer drop-offs that make automobile travel a genuinely scary experience. The one thing equally frightening about New England is its insane drivers. The only way a stranger ever finds anything in New England is through a process in which the native tries for several strangled minutes to give directions on the phone and then says: "Oh hell. Get as far as the Howard Johnson's and call, and I'll come and get you." It was exactly this process which led me to be following the young employee from Byte.)
Helmers, it turned out, lives off a dirt road, in a comfortable, practically new, if rather conventional home set among evergreens and tall birches. In it, he had just installed a Vermont Castings wood stove. He considers both the house and the stove temporary measures.
"I'm going to build my own house sooner or later," said the bearded, mildly rotund bachelor, who, in his early thirties, looks like the semi-grown-up version of the kid in your high school who always went around with a slide rule dangling from his belt - the one who called it a "slip stick."
This is a temporary measure. I have fifty acres on the other side of Hancock. It's a very nice fifty acres, covered with pine. If I were to log it flat, I probably could pay for it out of the wood value. But I'm not going to do that. It's where I'm going to get firewood for the next year. I know enough people who want free firewood who'll cut it down for me. The main reason for the Vigilant [the wood stove] is not to be noble and save energy. It's a fine stop-gap in case the power fails. But then I'm going to get rid of that. I'm hoping to get installed, before the winter comes, a propane-fired five-kilowatt generator for my standby electricity, in which case I don't really need the Vigilant.
My land has a nice stream flowing across it that, in the driest part of this year - like two months without significant rain - was still flowing at fifteen kilograms per second, and it flows down fifteen meters across my property. That works out to about fifteen hundred watts, which would charge a lot of batteries. And that's just at leanest flow, and that's if I intercept the whole stream. A week ago, when we'd had five inches of rain in fifteen days, it was flowing as much as when the snow run-off was happening.
That I can roughly estimate at three hundred or four hundred kilograms a second, which works out to be about fifty kilowatts. That's a lot of power. The technology involved is getting an impulse wheel and putting an automobile alternator on it and running it to some batteries, and charge them up and have semiconductor inverters on them. The semi-conductors are the same technology as is involved in my computers. The whole system will not save money. It's done primarily as a neat thing to do.
Was forming a serious, high-technology-related publishing empire in Peterborough also primarily a neat thing to do? He replied:
You can publish a magazine anywhere. It's an idea industry. I camped out in Boston [working for a firm called Intermetrics, which designs spaceship brains] for four years, looking for an economic excuse to live in New Hampshire. That was my explicit philosophy when I moved to Boston. I had friends who lived in New Hampshire, and I liked it. I just thought it was a neat place to live.
There are a number of advantages right around here. First of all, you have a very large back-to-nature group, hiding out in the hills. Same thing could be said of [Ecotopian] Sonoma County in California. You have to pick and choose among these people and find the ones who really will work. But because of the fact that you're the only jobs around, and the place has so much psychological boost to it, in order to be here, people are willing to work for a slightly lower wage scale. Not drastically lower, but it more than compensates for other costs.
Byte is written by authors all over the continent, who mail their work to Peterborough, where it is edited. The copy is then typeset by a local printer, although computer-driven machines so unexotic as to be familiar to any college newspaper will soon bring that manufacturing operation into the Guernsey building. When the pages are ready for the offset camera, they are shipped, via overnight air cargo, to Wisconsin, where they are turned into a magazine by a publishing firm there. Any questions are dealt with by telephone and telecopier. A new printer, also Wisconsin-based, will soon arrange things so that the master pages will travel only as far as Boston, with the press plates made there. "Thus," Helmers pointed out, "if the plane gets trashed, you can always make some more plates. There's hardly any way camera-ready copy can get wiped out in an automobile ride to Boston."
In fact, the copy doesn't even have to be edited in Peterborough. A very senior editor, one of the magazine's earliest employees, "has informed us that he is going to go off on the road," Helmers said. "He and his wife are buying a tractor-trailer. They're going to have a contract with Mayflower, and be hauling things back and forth. Look at him. He's on top of the world, he's in his twenties, there's no way he can make the money he's making [at Byte]."
But, it turns out, his wife has always had a burning desire to drive a tractor-trailer.
"So he's quitting in January or so. And he has this vision of having his Apple computer in the cab of the truck while his wife is driving. He's got an inverter for it to power it off the truck and everything. He has visions of doing fifty pages a month as a quota of editorial copy preparation, which is what he's been doing. The computer will be used for more than just word processing. He'll test certain programming ideas in the articles too. And then he'll give me a disc [computer memory device], and I'll print it out on my own computer. I'll show you the computer. Come upstairs."
There are two computers upstairs, as it turns out -- each about the size of a generous wastebasket. The computer that is about to see North America is hardly the more fascinating.
It's the New England Digital Able/6o attached to what appears to be an organ keyboard, two speakers, a television set, and a typewriter that's the real eye-catcher.
The musical keyboard is a Synclavier synthesizer, also made by New England Digital. Helmers steps up to the keyboard, switches it on, red lights flash, and he tinkles away at a little Bach. The computer sorts out what he's doing at the keyboard, and out through the speakers comes a little Bach.
"Oh no, you haven't heard the far-out part yet."
Helmers makes some adjustments, different red lights come on, and the ditty he's just played on what sounded like an organ is again coughed out by the computer, but this time sounding as if it were being played on a harpsichord.
"Or . . ."
Now it comes back at us, memorized by the computer, sounding like pipes.
"Or . . ."
Now it's chimes, and with the twist of a dial it's been slowed down to 645/ 1000ths of its original speed.
"And if you get tired of that, you can always . . ."
What's now coming out of the machine is the beginnings of an orchestra. The sounds of different instruments, all of which have been given their voice by the computer, blend and pour over each other.
"Here, let me play it back."
Same notes, but now each instrument is different. The high part, which had been calliope is now violin, and the part that had been chimes is piano.
What the hell, I say, what is this?
He explains that his next step is to rig the computer to a television screen so that when he plays a tune, not only will the tones come out of the speakers, but the computer will automatically write the score on the screen. Not only that, but each instrument stored in the computer will have its own color on the screen - the tuba notes may be purple - so that an entire symphony can be written on one score by one person simply playing each instrument's part on the keyboard.
"This is definitely not a toy. This is going to be a very commercial product. I'm starting a little company on the side." And - let me see if I've got this straight - when you finish building your house, your color-coded symphony-writing computer will be fired up by your water wheel?
"Isn't doing electronic music in the woods fun?" Well, I thought to myself, it isn't Dickens Street. Dickens Street is in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which was the first town in North America to have a factory; the first town in North America to have a polluted river next to the factory.
On Dickens Street, in a cramped living room the dimensions of which are made no larger by the presence of a twelve-string guitar, a six-string guitar, a classical guitar, an electric bass, a television, a videotape machine and camera, four tape recorders, a record turntable, an amplifier, a sound-mixer, speakers, pillows, and a terrarium housing hermit crabs, the talk is about the quality of life in New England for the voluntarily poor.
Take the mailroom at the Pawtucket Times, [says Paul Brissette, thirty, who likes to refer to himself, ironically, as a derelict.] Now, the mailroom [that's where the papers are sorted and bundled for distribution] you know is considered the armpit of the newspaper. We're looked down on by everybody else in the building. But we have a lot of guys who are college-educated or going to college or who only have a high school diploma but who are very intelligent, very well read.
The other people in the building would avoid us because we were scum. Yet we'd go out as a group to see Bergman or Fellini movies. Or we'd pick out a classy German or French restaurant in Providence. We used to look forward to it - every couple of weeks. Of course it took us a couple of weeks to save up for this, but . . . The hours in the mailroom are short. You start twenty-five cents above the minimum wage. You can live on it in New England. I was living on the third floor of a tenement in Central Falls paying twenty dollars a week, but I moved to the second floor, so now I'm paying twenty-five.
One of the guys is very articulate, very thoughtful, and here he is, working in the mailroom, because it's a part-time job, which doesn't interfere with his photography, his art, his writing. I'm the same way. I'm thirty years old; I have a wife and a kid. I do a paper route. I'm a ne'er-do-well. I admit it. I don't care. I'm a year away from a B.A.
Paul is from a family of fourteen children who grew up on Dickens Street. He and five of his brothers are bright, educated, and enormously talented musically. Their speech is studded with phrases like "soothing, low-frequency rumble" to describe the sound the freight trains made as they lulled the boys to sleep at night, passing right by the back door. Perhaps because of their abundant sense of absurdist humor and their chronic inability to see money as an end in itself, none of them has ever been happy in a conventional job.
Rob Brissette, in his mid-thirties, the man whose apartment this is, has left his job as a puppeteer because of what one of his brothers describes as "a personality clash with the puppets."
Now, he says, "I'm just working. Working in a mill. Weaving - like chain mail - for watch bands. It's just work. Let's not talk about it."
Nights, he plays guitar in smoky clubs, and he's good enough to make up to $100 a gig.
Aime, also in his mid-thirties, with a degree in music, is working for the city government, counseling the long-term unemployed. "Lord knows I'm qualified for this job." He laughs. "Experienced. Nobody wanted to hire me because I had a five-year gap in my work record." The gap occurred when he ripped up his back, working as a manual laborer because there were no jobs for music instructors.
Charlie, in his twenties, has abandoned his paper route to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Buzz has left for Los Angeles. He'd had it with playing rhythm guitar in trashy Woonsocket clubs for $25 a night. No matter how many songs he wrote, he figured, that's no way to become a star. So now he's delivering papers for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. But he says that he's about to turn the corner in his musical career, and he keeps sending copies of his demonstration records back east.
Buzz's going-away party was held in the tired old Knights of Columbus hall on Japonica Street. The music came from man-high speakers wired to a maze of microphones, amplifiers, guitars, and keyboards, accompanied by a thicket of drums, all bought on time from the Ray Mullins Music Company. The fact that all their equipment is acquired in a dollar-down, dollar-a-week fashion, and is rarely paid off, amuses the brothers. Off the crooked ceiling tiles of the low, dark, crowded room bounced the loud Rolling Stones question: "What can a poor boy do, save to play in a rock and roll band?"
Cheap, fresh, exquisite-tasting local clams were steamed, dipped in melted butter, and their nutty sweetness chased by long pulls on Narragansett Lager Beer, the local brew, which, if not exactly Michelob, was at least cold.
Licking butter off their fingers, and keeping an eye on the Red Sox game on the television set over the bar, the revelers did not talk about a California where there are no tenements demanding expensive heating oil. It wasn't a day of pining for a better, more middle-class life. The talk was of old schemes and new songs.
Said one of the brothers of a plan with some unusual economic ramifications: "We were going to have this band called Ricky and the Rockets. We were going to have one guy dressed up as Ricky, playing the harp [harmonica], making an appearance now and then. He wasn't even going to be in the band. We were going to have three different pictures with all different personnel. There were going to be two members of the band that were in it all the time. And the rest of it would be floating, just to see if the club owners would catch on. Spread the work around . ."
It can be argued that free spirits like the Dickens Street bunch exist everywhere, and that is true. But nowhere else in North America are they part of as old and distinguished a tradition as in New England.
Outside Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1850s, a man lived for two years and two months, heating with wood in the winter, watching birds in the spring, and considering where material wealth and civilization intersected.
The men of Dickens Street are familiar with his thoughts, for, being New Englanders, they read:
None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty [he agreed] . . . I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not; - but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them . . . I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it. or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters . . .
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names . . . The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. The town's poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any. May be they are simply great enough to receive without misgiving. Most think that they are above being supported by the town; but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means. which should be more disreputable. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb. like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new, things. whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society . .
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
On a warm summer day, when children ride in the swan-shaped paddle boats in Boston's Public Garden, and, in the evening, hundreds gather on the Esplanade to hear a free Boston Pops symphony concert, this New Englander's words echo across the decades. This is also true next to a salt marsh near Brunswick, Maine, as a man shows off the house he built himself, cheaply and with great beauty, out of planks salvaged from an ancient barn. And, of course, even in the high-decibel world of the Japonica Street Knights of Columbus Hall, thoughts turn to him.
For New England is continuing to learn his lesson, especially as it was stated by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was talking about his friend Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau wrote the words quoted above on the banks of Walden Pond, out beyond what is now Route 128.
"He chose," said Emerson, "to be rich, by making his wants few."