Book Review / WHERE THE STREETS ARE PAVED WITH RUST
Essays from America’s Broken Heartland, Vol. 1
With its first publication, The Public Books, a new imprint of Foundlings Press, has provided an important collection of regional writing. In understanding how our city and region came to be, economist Bruce Fisher’s new book merits a place on local shelves alongside such works as Diana Dillaway’s Power Failure, America’s Crossroads, Frank Kowsky’s The Best Planned City in the World, and Mark Goldman’s trilogy (City on the Lake, City on the Edge, and High Hopes).
Fisher, founding director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College and former Deputy Executive for Erie County, wants to give local readers the benefit of his knowledge—gained through academic study and hard-won experience—of Buffalo and Western New York: what makes it tick or not tick. For a decade, he has been writing accessible essays in local free publications, a couple dozen of which he has updated and published as this book. Its substance, fundamentally, is the ongoing story of a region. Fisher’s regionalism is deeply rooted in place, down to the very geology and geography that ties our region together—whether that region is defined as the Niagara Frontier, the “Golden Horseshoe,” or the Rust Belt. Shared geography gives rise to shared history, which gives rise to the cultural, family, and economic ties that are the warp and weft of our regional fabric and identity.
The chapters, each of which can stand alone as an essay, are often also advocacy pieces: do this, not that, or move in this direction as opposed to that. The issues discussed include waterfront development, urban expressway removal, strengthening the urban core, and consolidating layers of government.
This book’s regionalism even extends to the regional artworks that illustrate each section. Appropriately chosen from the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the art will be familiar to most readers, and includes works by Alexander O. Levy, Claire Shuttleworth, Anthony Sisti, and, of course, Charles Burchfield. The front cover art (an exception, from a private collection) is Virginia Cuthbert’s Coming Events, a prophecy in rust-rich hues. With a steel plant in the background operating at fierce capacity for a world girding up for war, this 1939 work shows boys playing cops and robbers in the foreground, with cap guns. Little did they know, as the artist feared, that they would soon bear real arms, with some never returning home to work in the plant behind them. It is a perfect choice for the cover.
Other production values of the book, unfortunately, are not so perfect. It is frustratingly full of often obvious grammatical and typographical errors. Many of them carry over from the original essays, which appeared in publications that didn’t properly edit them in the first place.
Another carryover from the original essays is Fisher’s epicyclic style. He writes the way he speaks, seemingly unable to resist the temptation to throw in another fact, example, clause, or parenthetical. The desire to share knowledge is healthy, but too much sharing risks losing the audience and crosses the line into holding forth. Editors of Fisher’s essays and books aren’t doing him any favors by not urging him to rein this in and get to the point. Permitting 100-word sentences, as found here, is editorial malpractice.
A close reading also reveals that even the updating-for-publication of the original essays—some nearly a decade old—was haphazard. One example from the chapter, “The Promise of the North,” originally published as an essay in 2013, mentions Frank Bures’s well-known rebuttal to Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, saying it was published in the “sparkling new” publication 32. But the publication name was thirty two— not “32”—and it was defunct by 2015.
Such errors throughout the book cause distraction and confusion, and may detract from the book’s credibility. Those involved in the publication may have had G. K. Chesterton’s paradoxical dictum in mind: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
Yet the book was worth doing. And is worth reading. Understanding our region so that we can make things better (or at least not worse) and make informed decisions is not just worthy, but imperative. When the second volume is published—there is another planned—let’s hope The Public Books will change its muse from Chesterton to Lord Chesterfield, who said, “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.”
Our city and region would also do well to do so.