Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A microcosm of America in despair

As you've gathered from my last post, I was just in Lake Placid, New York over the Canadian long weekend. Having recently only visited major cities on the two coasts, it was eye-opening to be back in small town America, and the contrast with Canada quite startling. Now, I realize it's not legitimate to compare Ottawa, a government town, known as fat city even in Canada, with Lake Placid, a faded resort town that has seen better days, but still the juxtaposition, and contrast, are interesting. In Ottawa, there is very little visible sign of a recession in progress. Restaurants, bars, and shops are always packed, the patios full on warm evenings, lots of traffic everywhere, and a general sense of bustle and activity. In Lake Placid, the once-charming Main Street is now almost a ghost town, the formerly elegant boutiques replaced by tacky souvenir stores that do very little business, even when times are good. There are four liquor stores on the small stretch of downtown Main Street, lots of fast food joints, several realtors, but not a single grocery store, health food store, or anywhere to get something moderately nutritious that isn't junk food. Lots of shuttered businesses, buildings for sale, others looking derelict or abandoned.

Now that's downtown Lake Placid. A few miles away, is the ultra high end, luxurious, and posh Lake Placid Lodge, a discreet and opulent haven that attracts well-heeled travellers from around the world and the occasional New York investment banker or celebrity who wants to get away from it all for a few days. The food is fabulous, nutritious, and tasty, the wine list extensive, the service impeccable, and the prices ... well, rather high. These are the two faces of America. A society in which the American dream has become, for many, a myth, and in which income inequality is on the rise while proleterian wages stagnate. The dream, such as it is, in tatters, is fed and fuelled by a culture of celebrity that seems increasingly disconnected from the reality of most peoples' lives. As a cash clerk at a local convenience store told us, she's making minimum wage, while a box of cereal now costs $5 at the one and only grocery store in town. Meanwhile, back at the Lodge, the chef is preparing a special tasting menu and suggested wine pairs for his bon vivant patrons the same evening. Two worlds, that seem to be diverging.

2 comments:

Doc said...

Indeed, I find the within country comparison you make the most telling -- Ottawa and Lake Placid are two different things. But it is undeniable that within the US there are widening gulfs. But that's really not new in the US or elsewhere. Except perhaps for the Scandinavia (and actually having just been there, there too) there are always these wide gulfs. But the difference is the dream, the American Dream. The American Dream is not that the minimum wage clerk eventually becomes the wine swilling high roller, but that he or she dreams of it and workers harder to achieve it. And this is shown in attitude surveys. Americans traditionally respond to poverty by working hard and not be begrudging the lucky / talent / rich their fortunes. But what is new, I think, at this moment signs of the latter.

Doc

Vivek H. Dehejia said...

You raise some excellent points, Doc. What is most interesting is the persistence, in the attitude surveys that you mention, of the possibility of upward mobility based on hard work that is at the core of the concept of the American dream. Yet statistics such as, for instance, transition probabilities between income groups suggest that this optimism is misplaced. In America, today, if you're poor, chances are you will stay poor. The mystery for me remains the persistence of the attitudes in the face of the reality.