The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Monday, February 18, 2008

River Wrongs

Another flashback.

Me and Jay

Almost a dozen years ago (April 1996 issue of The Baystate Objectivist) I wrote this essay about the Springfield riverfront. Sadly, it still reads very much like it was written today:

One hot, humid afternoon in the summer of 1993, I was fishing with my friend Jay Libardi on the Springfield side of the Connecticut River, when the sky suddenly turned threatening. The clouds overhead quickly turned a dark grey as the wind, which had been non-existent earlier that day, quickly picked up force. Soon our situation resembled an aquatic version of the pre-flying house scene from The Wizard of Oz. We realized that it would be impossible to reach the opposite side of the river where my car was parked. Therefore we would have to seek emergency shelter on the Springfield side.

Fortunately we had been fishing the deep channel that runs alongside the Springfield shore, where giant perch and "channel cats" can be found, and therefore were not that far from shore. Yet we scarcely made it to land before a torrential downpour began, complete with booming thunderclaps and violent flashes of lightning that illuminated the landscape as if it were a scene from a cheap horror flick. That was when we first spotted him, during one of those flashes, standing on the edge of the thick woods that lined the shore.

The mysterious stranger was gaunt and raggedy with wild hair and a bushy beard. He was yelling something while motioning to us to follow him. In the terrible storm we had no choice but to follow. He led us a short way into the woods to a lean-to made of scrap wood and cardboard into which we scrambled inside. It was a little small for three people, but under the circumstances we were glad to make do.

Our host was a man of indeterminate age, although his hair and beard were mostly grey. Certain lifestyles however, accelerate the aging process, so he could have been anywhere from around 60 to his late 40's. He must have told us his name, although I don't remember it. He immediately inquired as to whether we had beer or cigarettes. We had both, but the beer was in a cooler that was still on the boat. Unfazed, our host ran out through the lightening and the watery deluge to quickly return with the cooler. Of course providing such a service in that weather implied that he could help himself to the cooler's contents, an assumption he immediately acted upon.

So there we sat, in a scrap heap lean-to that was completely open on the side facing the river, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. The bushes and trees around us were being whipped by the wind and the rain, while we watched the river flow past and were really quite content. Still the whole situation was a completely unexpected turn of events, one of those odd slice of life experiences that make you sort of shrug and say to yourself, "Well, ya never know...."

The old guy showed little interest in knowing anything about Jay or I, but seemed eager to talk about himself. Perhaps he was lonely living on the riverbank, and was glad of the captive audience this sudden storm had provided him with. I don't recall all the details, but his account of his life had something to do with an evil woman, an undeserved jail term and the complications of a lifetime of being thirstier than was good for him. I suppose if you are telling your hardluck stories in a wood and cardboard lean-to on the banks of the Connecticut River, then the prospects of your life story having a happy ending have faded considerably. Yet I remember him as being a mostly cheery sort, perhaps because in a sense his ship really did come in that day, even if it was only carrying a dozen cans of Budweiser and a pack of Marlboro's.

I do remember that he asked me something that genuinely startled me. "Haven't I seen you on TV?" he asked at one point. Actually, less than a week before I had been a guest on The Dan Yorke Show and come to find out our host sometimes visited a bar on Main Street that regularly showed the Yorke show on their TV.

The storm subsided almost as abruptly as it came on, turning out to be just one of those so-called "heat storms" that develop due to the intense humidity. We left almost immediately once it subsided, but not without leaving behind a few beers and cigarettes for our host. Once our boat was safely launched into the slipstream, Jay asked me why I had given those things away.

"He saw me on television," I replied. "He's a fan."

That made Jay laugh. "That's not surprising," he said, "that's what I always imagined your fans to look like."

We had only been motoring upstream for a few minutes when we realized that we were inexplicably surrounded by dark brown water. On closer examination we discovered that it was worse than that - there were brown things in the water. There was also a distinctive odor. It finally dawned on us - we were surrounded by a flow of raw sewage!

That helped to explain all the wispy white stuff floating along as well. It was toilet paper. Then we saw several stained objects bobbing gaily along towards us, but at first couldn't make out what they were. As they drew closer it was possible to identify them.

Used tampons.

Completely grossed out, we turned the motor on full blast and raced across the river back towards the boat launch. When we were nearly to shore, the sewage flow safely behind us, Jay turned to me and said, "I've felt like I've been in a world of shit before, but I never expected to experience it literally!"

Well, ya never know....

Last known photo of Jay Libardi

I didn't experience the sewage overflow problem on the Connecticut River in quite so intimate a manner ever again. I share the preceding story simply as someone who has always used Springfield's riverfront for recreational purposes, and therefore has more than an abstract interest in the riverfront's future. Getting people to enjoy the riverfront for recreational purposes has long been the centerpiece of Springfield's revitalization plans. Yet trying to get those plans (and there have been several) off the drawing boards and into the real world hasn't been easy.

Take, for example, the problem I described first hand of raw sewage pouring into the river. The cause of this phenomenon is an antiquated sewer system that merges with water run-off drains when they become flooded during heavy rainstorms. That means that in certain parts of the city, if you flush the toilet when it's raining out, the contents of your toilet bowl do not go, as it normally would, to Bondi's Island, but end up being washed into the Connecticut River.

There can't be any credible scenario of the public enjoying the riverfront that includes the possibility of tourists watching dirty tampons float past. But fixing the overflow problem is just one of an array of expensive steps that have to be taken to turn the Springfield riverfront into a tourist attraction. How did we ever get to the point where this priceless resource, the Connecticut River, has become so unusable?

To get some insight into the role that the Connecticut River might play in Springfield's future, it is necessary to examine the role that the river has played in the past. It was, in fact, the Connecticut River that was responsible for the City of Springfield coming into existence in the first place. Early economic activity in Massachusetts was centered in the Boston area, whose bay provided easy access to the ocean and overseas markets. It dawned on William Pynchon and some of his business associates that the Connecticut River provided a means by which more inland market opportunities could be taken advantage of by using the river to move products to the ocean.

The rest, as they say, is history. In its role as a means of transportation to the sea for western New England products, the river dominated the economy of Springfield for two centuries. Since all businesses, manufacturers and their employees needed to be near the river to transport their products to market, nearly all of Springfield's economic development occurred near the riverfront, in the area we now refer to as "downtown."

The arrival of railroads in the 19th century, which were faster and more reliable than water travel, greatly reduced the amount of commercial activity on the river itself. However, since the railroad tracks themselves were built to run alongside the river, downtown's role as the city's commercial district was still preserved, only with the access to the railroad tracks replacing access to the river as the primary economic consideration.

In the 20th century, a much more powerful transformation occurred, one that would ultimately undermine the downtown area as the city's financial heart. No one could have foreseen the effect of the greatly expanded mobility created by the arrival of air travel, trucking and in particular, automobiles. No longer did workers need to live within walking or horse and buggy distance of their place of employment. They could now live miles away from where they worked, and simply drive each day in their own passenger vehicles to their jobs.

Gradually, sections of the city that were considered too remote from the river to live in without inconvenience (Pine Point, 16 Acres, Indian Orchard) became practical places for people to settle in, and each of those areas experienced a profound population explosion. Where the people were moving - out and away from downtown - businesses soon followed. As the population became more suburban, mini-central business districts, with an array of stores clustered together to form malls, began popping up.

It was the arrival of malls in the 1960's that really crippled the downtown economy. It was bad enough when manufacturers, freed of their dependence on the riverfront moved away. Now consumers had no reason to come downtown either. The final blow was delivered by the computer revolution, as it began eroding the office rental market. Before computers, a business might have to rent whole floors of a building staffed with scores of secretaries typing at desks to handle all the paperwork. Now with computers, a much fewer people could do the same amount of work in a fraction of the space. As businesses computerized, they reduced the level of their office rental needs.

It was a plain matter of the economy itself becoming decentralized due to technological advancement. There is simply no need for a Central Business District in a decentralized economy. This fact is clearer with 20/20 hindsight then it was when these transformations were taking place. Springfield's leaders can perhaps be forgiven for not realizing that the forces behind downtown's decline were natural and irreversible. What is a shame is the desperate, almost panic driven attempts they made to prop up downtown by artificial means, much of it financed by the taxpayers.

The original neighborhood we call the North End was all but bulldozed out of existence, as if simply destroying a neighborhood that was in decline would somehow cause something better to spring up its place. Beautiful, often historic buildings were torn down along Main Street to be replaced by modern skyscrapers designed to service office workers (in direct contradiction of the computer revolution, which was lessening the demand for such workers and the offices to house them) only to have those skyscrapers have high vacancy rates once completed and ultimately fail (often taking huge taxpayer investments down with them, like the ten million dollar bath the public took when Monarch Place flopped).

Since then we've seen plan after plan, drawing after drawing, heard speech after speech and promise after promise, yet it is always the same old story - revitalization is always "in progress" but the downtown never appears to be actually revitalized. The reason is that we haven't learned from past failures. What's wrong on the riverfront is a question easily answered - Politicians will not allow anything to happen on the riverfront that they cannot be in control of. The only acceptable plan is their plan (whatever it happens to be at the moment) undertaken through their channels (government economic development money) with their approval (all participants must first jump through hoops at City Hall).

It is necessary for the government of Springfield to step back and away from the central role it seems determined to play in riverfront development. What Springfield needs to learn, but never has, is one of the fundamental laws of economics, a law that serves the goal of economic prosperity but is often disregarded because it doesn't serve the interests of politicians. That fundamental fact is that there is a private sector of business and there is a public sector of government, and both work best when kept separate. Unless we learn that, the only people likely to be sitting on the riverfront in the foreseeable future are homeless people watching tampons float past after a cloudburst.

Saturday I was in Westfield and enjoyed going to this place Tirozzi's on Washington Street. It reminded me of Russells in ol' Pine Point.

Here is my sister Bev and I in Tirozzi's. I was in a good mood, but look inexplicably glum in this photo.

Speaking of Westfield the website Exploring Western Mass has a great time lapse photo sequence of the big bridge project in Westfield.

Check it out by clicking here.

Mrs. Hester had long been suspicious of an intimate relationship between her son Brian and Stephanie.

Brian repeatedly told her, "Stephanie and I are just roommates." He even showed her separate beds. About a week after Brian's mother left, Stephanie said, "Ever since your mother came to dinner, I've been unable to find my silver gravy ladle. You don't suppose she took it, do you?"

"No," Brian replied, "but I'll send her an email just to be sure." It read:

Dear Mom:
I'm not saying that you "did" take the gravy ladle, I'm not saying that you "did not" take the gravy ladle. But the fact remains it has been missing ever since you were here for dinner.
Love, Brian.

Brian soon received an email back:

Dear Son:
I'm not saying that you "do" sleep with Stephanie, I'm not saying that you "do not" sleep with Stephanie. But the fact remains that if Stephanie was sleeping in her own bed, she would have found the gravy ladle by now.
Love, Mom.


spflder said...

Tom, "River Wrongs," despite having to wade through human excrement and tampons was
a great article.

I was looking forward to you saying something about the "Civic Center," now Massmutual
Center, When that was located on that postage stamp lot, I thought it was the worst thing
I had seen. What with all the land that had just been freed up in the Northend through Urban
Renewal kept the stupid city fathers from locating it there. It is still nothing more than a
local resource as it is not large enough to draw any outstanding talent to the city.

Oh well, what do I know, I am just a heavily burdened taxpayer.

Mary E.Carey said...

Great post about the river and the guy in the shack! I've forgotten the story of Jay Libardi. Hope you'll tell us again sometime.