Reading of the ghost estates and the collapse of the Irish economy, my thoughts returned today to the small, southern Ontario town in which I was raised and which I recently visited. The surge and fall of the Celtic Tiger reminds one, as if reminder is needed, that life in the age of finance capitalism can be a matter both of spectacular rise and of sudden, disgraceful cadence. Or, as has been the case in my hometown, of lingering and even interminable decay.
I recall many times passing Horton Steel on my way to school and encountering a labour dispute. There seemed always to be a fresh announcement of layoffs, and the universal consensus as early as the 1970s was that the jobs were going away and were not to return. How correct this was. Jarvis street, the business centre of the town, was in evident decline by 1980, and ten years later had arrived to its present comatose state. Only the banks seemed able to continue: first to go was the family-owned department store, a holdover from the golden age of the department store in the ‘fifties, soon followed by the jewelry, clothing, and stationery stores and eventually the restaurants and coffee shops.
The remarkable thing is that throughout it all the building of houses has expanded without pause. In many places where only a few years ago there was forest, today there are houses. Every visit I make (typically three or four each year) yields discovery of further development, the latest being on what was a parcel of woods across from which my grandparents as well as an aunt and uncle once resided. It seems the place is growing, but there is no economic evidence of this beyond the houses themselves. Everywhere one finds empty buildings where shops once were. The thirty-or-so-shop mall built in the mid 70s is now empty, the one exception being a Zellers. The north end is mostly economically deserted, as is the south end. Most restaurants in operation are new, and will very likely fail as have their predecessors. A very small number of businesses appear to thrive, the principal being a Wal-Mart. In general, however, the town from which I come is a depressing and depressed place of entrepreneurial failure, glacial demise, and stagnation.
Why these are so I am unable to say, but I confess I began with Ireland on the presumption that the economic order which has produced its dramatic failure has produced also the quiet despair of my hometown. Doubtless political leaders and their ineptitude, or perhaps it is that their abilities are unequal to the task, have contributed to the mess also. Whatever the reasons, Fort Erie, like many cities and towns and villages, must now be pronounced a failed place. To denominate it anything other is to misrepresent the challenge and therefore to forfeit whatever opportunity can be yielded from the sort of effort a proper sobering-up will inspire.
I however doubt any such thing will transpire. Fifty or one hundred years from now, my hometown will undergo a renaissance of a sort. This will happen there because it will be happening in all places, as the economic order is transformed not by political and business leaders but by the arrangements and even disasters of economic activity. In the mean time however, which happens also to be the time in and during which we live, there will be more Irelands and more Fort Eries — more spectacular, or as the case may be, unremarked and off-stage failure, and more despair, brought forth by a winner-take-all finance capitalism which future civilizations will justly denounce.