Saturday, June 19, 2010

Road Trip Day 1: Kingston, Ontario

We left Burlington today for the beginning of a 5-6 week road trip across the country. Well, across two countries, technically — the first leg of the trip is a three-day excursion through Ontario en route to the US Social Forum in Detroit next week. If you draw a straight line on a map from northern Vermont to Detroit, it more or less goes through the middle of Lakes Ontario and Erie. The Canadians thoughtfully built a major highway right along the northern edge of those lakes, which makes it much more efficient to drive through Ontario than to zigzag through upstate New York, across the top of Ohio, and then swing back up North.

There are also some cool places to visit — Toronto, of course, but also Kingston, a smallish city at the northeast corner of Lake Ontario. It's about the same size as Burlington's metro area, maybe a little bigger, and has some similarities. Both cities have a downtown shopping district with lots of restaurants and bookshops and funky boutiques near a picturesque waterfront. Both cities were major shipping and transportation hubs back in the 19th century when shipping on the lakes was the best way to move raw materials and manufactured goods, and both have lost lots of manufacturing jobs in the last few decades. But the differences are stark: while Burlington has successfully reinvented itself as a tourist destination and command center for the regional economy (with its attendant cultural institutions, "new economy" jobs in marketing and such, and general veneer of prosperity), Kingston still has the overall feel of a working-class de-industrialized city.

Most observers would say that Burlington is prosperous and Kingston is depressed, but I suspect the actual economic differences aren't as stark as the perceptions. Burlington has a lot of poverty — a full 50 percent of the kids in Burlington's elementary schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. It's just hidden and segregated into the Old North End (a working-class neighborhood just north of the downtown) and pockets of the more suburban New North End — a trailer park and two large affordable-housing developments. Despite merchants' complaints about homeless people panhandling on Church Street (the pedestrian mall downtown), you don't see many working-class folks from the Old North End on Church Street, which is maybe a block away. I suspect this is due to a mixture of economic reasons (most of the restaurants and shops on Church Street run to the expensive side), subtle and internalized social pressures not to appear in the playground of the upper middle classes, and, when necessary, explicit use of police power.

It's actually quite striking as you walk along the four "ped mall" blocks of Church street from south to north — for two and a half blocks the people walking about look healthy and wealthy, they're well-dressed and mostly white, and they're generally on their way somewhere to spend money. Then for the half a block between the Old Navy and the bus stop you'll suddenly notice more people of color, more working-class folks, more cigarette smoking and more "hanging around." Cross Cherry Street, and you're back to the middle class. Needless to say, that one half-block of Church Street has more "No Loitering" signs than anywhere else, and it's quite strictly enforced — I myself was asked to "move along" about a week ago. To be fair, I was leaning up against a column with a "No Loitering" sign talking to some people — but, being pretty middle-class looking, that's never got me in trouble on any other part of Church Street before.

Kingston is a bit like the Old North End had gotten more assertive and grown up over Church Street and the waterfront, as if to say, "you can have your fancy restaurants serving cod in a fennel ragout*, but you're not going to forget the fact that your fancy service economy has been built on a foundation of upwards wealth transfer, you're not going to forget that when we went from working union jobs in your factories to bussing your tables and cleaning your hotel rooms it has meant poverty and suffering and some of us are damn well going to be sitting in your doorsteps begging for change."

*which was delicious, by the way

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Anyway, on account of H now working for an AFL union which pays pretty good, we decided to splurge on a fancy-ish hotel in downtown near the waterfront: the Hotel Belvedere:

It's converted from an old mansion, presumably built with some of that 19th century shipping wealth, and sits on a street of similarly grand buildings, some of which are private clubs, some of which have been converted into quaint museums, and some of which are apparently for sale. When we got into the room, we discovered that it featured a "walk-up" closet:

Part of how we are affording this is staying in a room with one queen bed and making the kids sleep on the floor on camping pads. We thought it would be cute to make the boy sleep in the closet:

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After a nice dinner at Chez Piggy and checking into the hotel, we went for a walk on the waterfront:

There was a pretty spectacular view of thunderclouds over upstate New York. You can't really see them in this picture, but the large island that sits right where Lake Ontario flows into the Saint Lawrence River is now covered with industrial wind turbines, which I actually think are quite beautiful, especially when tinted pink from the setting sun behind us.

Definitely more beautiful than, say, a massive oil spill.

One of the cool things about the Kingston waterfront is that, interspersed with a small public walkway, boat rentals, a "steam-pump ship museum" and lots of tourist hotels, is a working drydock. While I generally prefer the Burlington waterfront, with its massive public space, I'm also a little sad that its history as a working waterfront only lives on in a few bits of ugly, abandoned industrial detritus (out of site of the main tourist sites of course) on the one hand and a handful of historical markers, maybe of interest to visiting yuppies, on the other.

1 comment:

Becky said...

What an adventure you are on! Looking forward to your entries and arrival.

Kid in the closet looks very happy and snug. I remember sleeping on pallets of blankets at my grandmother's house. Didn't seem to mind the hard floor...then.

Happy Father's Day, Jonathan! Enjoy the day AND the trip.