The Erie Canal was the mother of all economic development projects-- costly, controversial and ultimately successful in transforming both the economic and natural landscape of its time and place. While the canal was being built two centuries ago, it was viewed as outrageously expensive and perhaps even unnecessary. Only a half-century or so after it was completed in 1825, railroads made canals obsolete. But by then, the canal had altered the economics of the whole region forever.
In the process of cutting a 300-mile swath of waterways, locks and tow paths across the wilderness of Upstate New York, the Erie Canal laid the foundation for an economic landscape that remains distinctive to this day. Cities and towns sprang up to serve the canal all the way from Albany to Buffalo. Many of them were subsequently transformed into 20th-century factory towns, but many more still remain largely as they were in the 19th century, with "Canal Street" meandering downhill toward the old warehouses along the banks of what some have called the "artificial river."
Even as the economic landscape has remained, however, the economy that created it is long gone. Once the major thoroughfare for goods in the entire world, the canal route is now outside the economic mainstream--left behind in a world shaped by air travel and automobiles. So it's more than a little ironic that politicians and economic development specialists in Upstate New York have recently come to see this charming but non-functioning landscape as the possible foundation for an economic revival.
In the past decade, the New York State government and the federal government have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to projects designed to encourage recreation and tourism along the Erie Canal route. The idea is that in today's economy, upstate's cultural history is the region's greatest asset--especially for the hundreds of small towns along the canal route that lie between big cities such as Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo.
The canal revival effort has taken many forms. Much of the work on recreational tourism has been undertaken by the New York State Canal Corp., a subsidiary of the Thruway Authority. Many economic development projects in towns have been underwritten by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development--in large part because HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who might run for governor of New York someday, found the idea attractive.
Many of the projects being undertaken will undoubtedly be successful on their own terms. A major effort to provide consistent and informative "wayfinding signs" will surely help. And plans to attract boating recreationists to the canal have a good chance of success as well. The Finger Lakes region contains the highest concentration of recreational boats in all of New York State, yet only a few of them find their way onto the canal even though it is connected to the lakes.
But the bigger question is whether the people of Upstate New York will truly embrace the notion that their region is best used as a kind of vast cultural museum. As an upstate native, I personally have no problem with this proposition. But, coming from a small factory town, I also recognize that this represents a huge shift in the way people there think about the place that they call home.
"Upstate New York has been a `production landscape'--working factories and farms," says Karen Engelke of the Mohawk Valley Heritage Commission, which has worked with many communities on canal-related revival. "We have traditionally held the view that what happens between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. is what's most important. Now, we have to accustom ourselves to thinking of our area as a `presentation landscape.'"
The shift is far from impossible, of course. New England has made the transition very successfully. So have certain other parts of Upstate New York, most notably Cooperstown, which houses not just the Baseball Hall of Fame but also the Farmers Museum, the Glimmerglass Opera and a whole slew of attractions related to the work of James Fenimore Cooper.
When I was a kid, I used to travel to Cooperstown with my Great-Great Aunt Nell, who had lived down the road ever since she was born, back in the 1870s. She always made a beeline straight for the Hall of Fame and shunned the Farmers Museum. The reason? She loved baseball--the Yankees were her favorite team--and she had little interest in 19th- century plows. "Oh, I used all that stuff," she always said. In other words, she was just too close to what I considered "history" to think it was interesting on its own terms.
For the entire 20th century, upstaters viewed canal towns the same way. But now, in the 21st century, maybe they'll have enough distance from the history around them to view their landscape as an asset, even if it no longer produces anything.