On the wall next to the barber's chair where, every two weeks or so I have my graying and receding locks shorn by my favorite hair cutter, hangs a print of a mantle painting entitled Situation of America - 1848. This folk art classic depicts the humming port of New York as seen from Brooklyn. A side paddlewheeler idles by the dock, belching smoke and readying for a journey. A nearby train, also leaving its smoky traces, departs the platform with a load full of goods. Across the East River, lower Manhattan is neat and tidy as folk art tends to make the world. The ascendancy of America is depicted in the oversized flags flapping in the harbor breeze. Oregon had joined the Union that same year! Peace is upon the land represented by a flying bird. After all, the war against Mexico had just ended with the Treaty of Guadelupe-Hidalgo in February, expanding greatly the territory of the United States. A mere two years later, the American war debt had been settled and thousands poured westward into the new territories seeking gold, land or a cure to what ailed them. Revealingly, through 1849, despite a couple of very expensive wars and the hiccups experienced by any new nation, the American government, much less involved in our day-to-day lives than it is today, was solvent. Revenues exceeded outlays. Deficit spending was a few years in the future as we geared up to borrow heavily to fund the Civil War.
My barbershop, in which this thought provoking print hangs, is wedged into a line of storefronts that sit off tree-lined and flowered Main Street in Pittsford, NY. This idyllic little town could also be a subject of American folk art and, in fact, one does find it depicted that way in watercolors and photos that crop up at the numerous art festivals that are held during the summer in the region. 2011 Pittsford is not quite as prosperous as the 1848 city of New York. The Great Recession of 2008 has emptied some of Pittsford's storefronts and the streets and public spaces are slightly less cared for. Nevertheless, the stretch of the Erie Canal that passes directly through town has been prettied up and now serves as a major tourist draw. Visitors canalside are soon drawn into the town to shop at its boutique stores or eat at a restaurant or pizza shop. Parking is tough on any Saturday in the summer and a bike is a better way to see the town. Even more convenient is the use of a boat which you can tie up dockside on either side of the canal and start your adventures from there.
All is not well in our little burg, though. Whereas the Situation of America - 1848 idealized the burgeoning commercial and military power of what was soon to be the world's greatest nation, the Situation of America - 2011 is a fading shadow of that prosperous time. Despite Pittsford's quaint beauty and commercial success, its leather goods store, Ben and Jerry's and a boutique bra vendor are hardly the economic giants that once dotted this region. The Erie Canal sports kayaks and plodding pontoon boats now rather than barge after barge carrying wheat, coal and passengers between the midwest and the Atlantic. The industrial might of Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and other American cities has been reduced dramatically. The symbol of this decline is only too apparent in burnt out crumbling shells of lakeside factories and empty docks and railyards. Tourism is nice but its revenue generation pales in comparison to the wages and profits gleaned from hefty, industrial mercantilism. More disturbingly, those tourists wandering around Pittsford's Schoen Place, the Flats in Cleveland or the scrubbed and policed waterfront in Detroit are mostly citizens of the most leveraged nation in history. Unlike 1848, where the government sat idly by unless a war needed to be fought, we've chosen to let government run just about everything and borrowed $14.3 trillion in order to do it.
163 years after some unknown artist felt compelled to show us how great we were, our own eyes today tell us the same story. We have become a nation whose commercial greatness is in its past.