A Driving Tour of Our Hopes and Fears

1 Jun

There is no good way to drive from Buffalo to Washington, DC.

Pull out a map (that would be the app on your smart phone, I doubt you have a paper one lying around), and pick an interstate that goes mostly south and a little east. You can take the 219 straight south, but once the much-delayed “ski-country express” peters out you must endure one-streetlight towns from Springville to nearly Altoona, where Interstate 99 awaits. You can take the 90 to the 390, but eventually you will be forced to cross the swath of hilly Pennsylvania that lies between you and the civilized Turnpike or I-270. Urbanphiles and those scared of twangy banjos go a hundred miles out of their way by shoe-horning Pittsburgh on the itinerary. The route then becomes all Interstate, at the cost of some hours.

Nothing makes one feel more provincial, more disconnected from the halls of power, than having to drive two hundred miles of two-lane highway through ramshackle ville’s on the way to your nation’s capital.

I still enjoy traveling and exploring those blank areas on my personal travel map, so despite the hazard of boring my wife and children who accompanied me, I braved rural central Pennsylvania. In doing so I passed through lands that could not be more unlike my final destination: coal and (lately) fracking country.

To the debaters of New York’s still unresolved hydro-fracking policy, northern Pennsylvania simultaneously offers the clearest evidence of both sides of the argument. To briefly review, drilling for natural gas has been occurring for decades in New York and Pennsylvania, and hydro-fracturing (or “fracking” as opponents call it so it sounds as much like “fucking” as possible) is a common process to extract the fuel. Hydro-fracturing the rock involves pumping a combination of water and chemicals into the shale beneath the ground. This ruptures the pockets of methane, allowing them to be extracted. The Marcellus Shale, significantly deeper than the rock that has been traditionally exploited and is now largely played out, has long been known as an additional, previously inaccessible, storer of significant natural gas deposits. Until High Volume Horizontal Hydro-Fracking (HVHHF) was invented, where the drill bit bores down much deeper and then horizontally across a bed of natural gas, it was either an engineering nightmare or not cost feasible to drill. The miracle of modern science has made the previously impossible now profitable, and New York and Pennsylvania have taken opposite approaches to this development.

In seeking jobs and economic development (as well as a cleaner burning energy source than coal or gasoline), Pennsylvania has opened large sections of the state to exploration. To avoid environmental damage and costs to human health, New York state has imposed a moratorium on HVHHF (though traditional fracking continues on shallower beds). The Buffalo Common Council even took the comical action of banning hyrdo-fracking within the city. While this did inspire other municipalities to take the same action, know there is no Marcellus Shale beneath Buffalo, and there was no danger of wells in Delaware Park. To hear the natural gas companies tell it, prosperity reigns across Pennsylvania, and down-on-their-luck New York State towns are foolish for throwing so much money away. To hear the environmentalists describe it, Pennsylvania is now a wasteland, carved up with pipelines and wells, flush with briny contaminants, and suffocated with semi-trucks.

Does it surprise anyone that I saw neither of these extremes on my own tour?

Rural Pennsylvania – from the New York line, through to Mount Jewett, Ridgway, Philipsburg, and the outskirts of State College – looks much as it has for many decades I am sure: dirty, poor, struggling, proud. Like Chris Matthews in a wet t-shirt contest, rural PA shows off its goods even when it shouldn’t. There is no poverty quite like rural, Appalachian poverty. Yes, when you drive through Bradford on the 219 you pass a massive flaring gas refinery. But that is hardly new:

Semi-trucks and traffic do clog the narrow, winding roads, but I saw far more coal-bearers and retail trailers bound for Walmart or McDonalds than tanker trucks carrying wastewater from mining operations. In only one section, and away from any refineries, I smelled the musty sulphur of natural gas for a full mile of driving; odd, and indicatve of a problem to be remedied, since the distinctive smell of natural gas is added later, indicating I was detecting finished product. Coal and natural gas companies are famous for obscuring the worst of their abuses behind a green facade. Outside Penfield, the tree canopy veneer could barely conceal the open top coal mine, and the highway was stained black, pure jet mounds lining the shoulder of the road like old, dirty snow. But you can’t hide wells and mines when the land opens to vista, and you can see a hundred square miles of rolling wooded hill and mountain in a single glance. I saw no natural gas flares, no clear-cut construction sites, and only a single pipeline, buried and less of a disruptive cut through the forest than the smallest of powerline right-of-way.

At the same time, I saw no new strip malls, no sprawling McMansion cul-de-sacs, no Lexus dealerships and Benz’s, no new lofts in downtown Bradford, and no easing of the boarded up blight in every historic nucleus of each sad town. The booming gas trade did not provide shoes for any more children, or new schools for them to learn in, than had clearly been modestly available for many years past.

It was clear this land had been settled and exploited for generations, and fracking provided few of the benefits, and no more of the ills, than the tough residents had learned to endure. If my albeit brief observation is any indication, a resident of Corning should neither hope nor fear hydro-fracking. Life appears much the same before and after its advent. It is neither the source of, nor solution to, every problem.

Contrast this alternating beautiful and depressing land with my final destination, the genuine boom-town of Northern Virginia. Washington may now qualify as a megopolis – it draws commuters from several thousand square miles, and creates traffic in four states, plus the district itself. My hotel was in the true mixed-use utopia of Rosslyn, just across the river from Georgetown and the Mall, and north of the cemetery and Crystal City office complex. In Rosslyn every tower is foodie on the bottom (trendy restaurants or Safeway), and business and living up top. One regularly encounters visions a hopeful resident of Buffalo’s Avant or AM&A’s Warehouse lofts can only dream off – streams of business suit clad workers leaving their homes in one tower to walk to work in an adjacent one. A packed Metro pouring additional pedestrians into DC proper. Runners and bikers at all hours of the day and night swarming the dedicated paths and lanes. There are street signs for the bike/running paths, so numerous and interconnected are they. On one morning, while out for a run to Roosevelt Island to visit my favorite President, I encountered a continuous packed throng jogging in the other direction. Had I accidently stumbled upon a race? No, just running clubs swelling the paths to capacity at 7am on a Saturday.

What does it take to create such an urban heaven? I think its fair to say that the ever-churning, ever-growing, ever-contracting and consulting government bureaucracy has more to do with Northern Virginia’s success than historic tax breaks and incentives. Government lays the well-oiled ground work to make the area livable: the ubiquitous paths, public transportation and police every two blocks. But good-old fashioned capitalism, the kind whose only incentive is making more money, brings the workers, investment, and mile after mile of gleaming office tower.

Buffalo is not in danger of being overwhelmed with natural gas fracking wells. Nor are we likely to incentive our way to Northern Virginia. We remain what we are: the provincial middle.

24 Responses to “A Driving Tour of Our Hopes and Fears”

  1. Jesse June 1, 2011 at 8:05 am #

    Brian, come on man.  You can’t call it “capitalism” when it’s entirely Federal government spending that has fueled the rise of northern VA.  I lived there for 8 years and worked for most of them right at the bottom of the hill in Rosslyn.  Good times, but if it weren’t for the Feds, the place would be a ghost town fetid swamp.  Hurray for warmer weather, except when it’s so f’ing hot and humid you don’t want to go outside most days between Memorial and Labor Day.

    I made the drive you describe hundreds of times.  The best (shortest, time-wise) route is 219 down to Johnsonburg past the stinky paper mill, over to St Mary’s, down 153 to I-80, hop off at 970 just past Clearfield, take 322 through Philipsburg and over to I-99 and down that way.  Beautiful country, and screw the need for superhighway!  Boring!

    I also had close family friends that lived for decades on a dirt road outside Wellsboro.  Anything that brings money into that part of the world should be welcomed.  Beautiful place, that’s for sure.

  2. Alan Bedenko June 1, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    I’ve done the trip to DC all three ways you lay out, and found the 219 to the 99 to be the worst.  Not only is the 2-lane stretch way too long and slow, but I detest no road more than the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and its interchange with I-70 should be exploded by a hydrogen bomb. I guess, given the choice, I’d do the 390 route. The road through Pennsyvania there isn’t an interstate, but it’s more 4-lane than 2, and moves pretty quickly. 

    As to your observations about Northern Virginia, it’s almost like a geographically convenient advertisement for the benefits of government spending and Keynesian theory.

  3. Brian Castner June 1, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Concerning Northern Virginia – yes, I gag on the word “capitalism” to describe the ballooning of the federal government that produces such booming, but I lack another word that better describes the process. CACI, AMTI, Lockheed, Boeing, A-TS etc etc don’t exist to serve the government or taxpayer, as the civil servants theoretically do. They exist to gobble up as many contracts as possible. What else do you call it, besides capitalism? And to Alan’s point, it takes the combined tax resources of 50 states and $1T in deficit spending each year to create that “convenient advertisement,” so ignoring the wisdom of such policy, how reproducable even is it?

  4. Brian Castner June 1, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Oh, one more thing – I generally detest superhighways as well, and enjoy seeing the land I am travelling in. That being said, this country connects things it finds important with superhighways. That Buffalo and DC are not connected thusly is telling. IMHO.

  5. Ethan Cox June 1, 2011 at 11:40 am #

    “What else do you call it, besides capitalism?”

    Crony Capitalism?

  6. STEEL June 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    Are you nuts Brian. If the Feds spent several Billion$$$$ in Buffalo every few months I think it might look a little like DC and its surround.

  7. Brian Castner June 1, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    @ STEEL: Of course it would. When I said reproducable, I meant how many places can the federal government afford to do what it has for NVA. A couple billion every few months for Buffalo – lets say $25B a year? For each of the top 50 cities in the country? $1.25T a year, more than half the total fed budget, to make the top 50 cities look like NVA? That’s my point.

    • Alan Bedenko June 1, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

      You know, the first Marshall Plan turned out pretty well. Maybe it’s time for a domestic Marshall Plan is all I’m saying.

  8. STEEL June 1, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    Brian your suggestion is that if Buffalo would only rely on capitalism instead of grants and tax credits it could be Like Virginia. You say oh yea sure the government spent money on some pretty things and amenities but:

    “good-old fashioned capitalism, the kind whose only incentive is making more money, brings the workers, investment, and mile after mile of gleaming office tower.”

    The truth is that the government spent on those amenities and then also spends billions and billions on everything else as well in DC. The only capitalist part is where private companies come in to feed at the government trough. HQ the congress in Cheektowaga and k street so called capitalists will instantly move to Walden Ave.

    • Alan Bedenko June 1, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

      The “capitalism” part is that these are private companies vying for public contracts. The money comes from the federal government. If we took a small fraction of what we’re paying to fight in southwest Asia and north Africa and spent it instead on growing non-military industry and fostering non-military innovation at home, we’d be a much stronger country.

  9. Brian Castner June 1, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    Alan’s point is a conversation worth having, because it discusses where we invest our money, as a government and a society. These are legitimate points and matter of debate – priorities of spending, and making choices – not an all-of-the-above, it doesn’t matter what the deficit is route we’re taking now (Republicans get tax breaks and Dems get more spending and we call that political compromise). I would argue that the 2009 Stimulus Plan was supposed to be an American Marshall Plan, but it got so watered down providing little projects everywhere, it didn’t do much anywhere, expect DC and NVA.

    STEEL’s point drives me nuts, because it constantly seeks to excuse Buffalo. Yes, NVA’s and DC’s big capital enterprise is the federal government. It is a matter of luck, I suppose, for NVA that it lies next to DC. It is true that if the nation’s capitol was St. Louis, southern Illinois would look a lot different. Who cares? NYC’s capitalist enterprise is finance and business. LA’s is entertainment. Seattle’s is shipping and the aircraft industry. Chicago’s is corporate and financial. Whatever place it is, its the capitalism that’s brining the people, jobs and investment. Its not the government incentives. Show me a city getting rich and growing off of tax breaks. At the end of the day, the tax breaks have to enable some business, some industry, some capitalism. What is Buffalo’s? It goes back to my old argument – in Buffalo, it seems we spend more time worrying about how pretty the packaging is (the renovated historic building) than the contents of the box itself (the capitalist company moving in).

  10. STEEL June 1, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    I am not excusing Buffalo and my writing can hardly be described as such. I am saying your comparison is ridiculous and to pretend that DC is flush with capitalists because of capitalism is just plain stupid. You could turn the most backwater hole in the wall corner of this country into DC if you put the federal government there. Capitalism has nothing to do with it.

  11. Brian Castner June 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    And if you moved Wall Street to Waco, Texas, it would look like New York. But our economic system has nothing to do with that either. The federal government is DC’s industry. What’s ours going to be? Or is one not required? Does capitalism have nothing to do with turning backwaters into metros?

    • Alan Bedenko June 1, 2011 at 2:57 pm #


  12. Brian Castner June 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Yes, why didn’t I realize it before. It’s so much clearer now.

  13. STEEL June 1, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    You were not talking about Wall Street. You were talking about the federal government and pretending it was capitalism.

  14. Brian Castner June 1, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Please reread my “stupid” response to you. I said the feds, and wall street, and the entertainment industry, and shipping, and finance, and aerospace, were all different sides of the same capitalist coin. Note that the vast majority of jobs in NVA are contractors, not government employees. I ask again – what is Buffalo’s side of the coin? Or do we not need one?

  15. STEEL June 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    Oh for God’s sake – those contractor’s are there for the federal pork – not because of the entrepreneurial capitalist abilities of the people of the DC area. Nice way of presenting a thesis and then changing it after you are called out the dopiness of it.

    By the way people do want to live and work in places that look nice.

  16. Brian Castner June 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    STEEL – Cool story, bro. Reading is fundamental. Start at the top, and try the whole thing over again, and see if you are then able to answer my question to you.

  17. Brian June 2, 2011 at 5:27 am #

    The federal government has taken upon itself the duty of promoting capitalism. Capitalism has ONE obligation, and only one: profit (shareholder value). If you want something else from government, you’ve got to think about our commitment to capitalism, a system which systematically tries to drive down wages, as it is obligated to do.

  18. lefty June 2, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    The funny thing about folks like Steel is that he is hell bent on preserving the ruins of a era of capitalism in Buffalo’s Past.  The buildings, parks and boulevards were all created at the lead from industry giants.  They first focused on Buffalo a place where one could work and THEN focused on making it a place where one would want to live.  There is no question of which came fist.  The Pan-Am happened because industrialists wanted to show off the city they built.  The art galleries were created to display their collections. The homes people try to pass off as tourist destinations were a place for Sunday dinner just 100 years ago.   The list goes on.

    To answer your question Brian, yes Buffalo needs a spine.  In more ways than one but it needs a spine of private enterprise to hold it upright.  What Buffalo has is a collection of elected officials serving scraps from DC and Albany and Foundations that love to tell Buffalo how they should live

    The funny thing about the foundations like Oishei is that they are bankrolled from on the money made on long gone industrial giants like Trico.  Too bad the jobs with Trico were moved to Mexico a long time ago.  Now all that is left are the crumbs to dispense to those of need and want.  And 1,000 opinions on how they should and should not be spent.

    Buffalo has a bank that is lead by Wilmers.  On top of navigating his bank through a recession, he takes time to help Buffalo get their shit together.  Yet he is vilified by the very people he is trying to help.  However, when he takes his bank south, and it is just a matter of time, the region is going to gravel at his feet to stay.   Who knows, maybe in 100 years there will be a walking tour of the Robert G. Wilmers condo.  That’s the ticket to a rebound!

  19. Dave in DC June 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Given that I live in DC and work for a contractor that’s based in Virginia (though I spend most of my time at a government work site in Maryland), I was drawn to this post. I had a long comment written about how all the capitalism in the world can’t hide the fact that NVA is basically suckling on the teat of the federal government, but it got long-winded and didn’t have a point.

    I guess I’ll just answer the question you pose near the end of your post: “What does it take to create such an urban heaven?” Answer: Having the fortune of being across the river from the federal government. End of story. If you’re looking for how regions can organically create an industry for job creation you’ll have to look elsewhere.

    Hope you enjoyed your visit to our fine region. Well, “fine” meaning DC, Maryland, Rosslyn and Old Town Alexandria. I can’t in good conscience refer to the traffic-choked sprawl west of the Beltway as “fine”.

  20. Brian Castner June 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    Thanks, Dave – I get to DC a couple times a year (I’m a consultant for a contractor myself, when I am wearing another hat), and as long as its not August and I don’t spend too much time on the beltway, I always enjoy myself.

    Of course NVA looks as it does because of the federal government, but I guess the point I’m having trouble making is that while NVA is nice, its not actually unique. That dense, mixed-use, urban utopia exists in other parts of the country without the feds. Those places have another industry that generates as much wealth. So far, Buffalo’s industry of banking HQ’s, an average Eds and Meds complex, and lots of tax incentives, hasn’t created such a haven, even one a tenth as large. We’ll never be DC or San Fran, nor should we try. But when smaller cities than Buffalo (Savannah), or cities that were smaller than Buffalo not too long ago (Portland) have the urban fabric (without the feds), then we need to figure out what parts of NVA we can learn from, and what we can’t. STEEL says people like nice places to work. True. They also like places to work. This isn’t a chicken and egg scenario. We’re collectively spending a lot of time on making the place nice, and not nearly enough on the work itself, IMHO.

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