Monday, July 27, 2009

The essence of the cultural divide on both sides of the pond?

Several years ago I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of this sign outside a restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire:

Does this ironically (or at least unintentionally) reinforce snobbish European stereotypes of uncouth Americans? More planners than I can count always reference European cities when trying to find a model for the look and feel to which American cities should aspire. But one thing the US can always claim—which most European countries cannot—is quantity: an abundance of land, natural resources, and so forth. Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between ambiance and abundance, so that, when there is an almost endless supply of land, the users have far less incentive in articulating it. Does America, the birthplace of mass production and fordism, get the settlement patterns that urbanists condemn because it has so rarely confronted scarcity? Obviously this comes into play, even if it is largely unconscious. But to say that America’s cultural contribution is quantity at the expense of quality or ambiance is an assertion that depends on a hierarchy of taste: i.e., what constitutes “culture” or “character”. Taste culture is an obsession of mine, which will likely find its way into multiple later postings.

And here’s another charmer of a strip mall in New Hampshire, only a few hundred feet from the Massachusetts border, which apparently embodies all of the negative stereotypes Massachusetts residents have of New Hampshire:

Yes, that means porn, pawnshops, lowbrow reading (comics), and do-it-yourself fireworks. And there was a gun shop just down the street. Essentially they are selling everything that is highly restricted or taxed—if not outright forbidden—in Massachusetts. I guess this demonstrates what vulgarians the folks in the Granite State are compared to their smug Bostonian friends to the south. Frankly, the fact that they can consolidate such smutty hedonism in one shopping plaza makes me like the folks in New Hampshire that much more. (No doubt the reason these stores are so close to the border is that their biggest client base are the poor deprived folks in Massachusetts.) This photo also demonstrates yet again how a hierarchy of taste can creep into seemingly innocent stereotypes of various US states. Personally I found Portsmouth one of the most picturesque small cities I’d seen. My only regret in regards to this post is that I didn’t pop my head into the Metro restaurant—no doubt I would not have left hungry.


Marcus said...

Hey Eric--isn't it always the case that you can find items on state borders that are illegal in one place and not in another? I am thinking of fireworks in Indiana (but not Illinois), and gambling in Nevada (but not Utah).

I think all of this is simple commerce, not smugness on one side or "down-to-earthness" on the other.

Thanks for starting this blog.--Marcus

AmericanDirt said...

No doubt I'm reading way too much into this picture--in fact, that's part of the point of this blog...a platform for my own over-analysis!

If our country and every state were perfect democracies, maybe one could interpret these oddities of commerce as cultural indicators: that people in Illinois are just as repulsed by fireworks as Indiana (and Wisconsin) enamored of them. Clearly this is ridiculous. Nonetheless, people I know from Massachusetts proscribed guns, fireworks, porn, and booze that they found upon crossing into New Hampshire as indicative of the values of the Granite State.

Of course they're partly joking, but it has made the entryway to Massachusetts appear bereft of vulgar hedonism because these products simply are NOT readily available. Thus the smugness.

But I am confident that the reason there's such a concentration of booze at the NH border is because shrewd entrepreneurs knew they'd make a killing by catering to people in MA or IL where alcoho was (at least until recently) subject to much greater restrictions. It's this same reason the most profitable malls are in New Hampshire right at the state border--Massachusetts residents come to them in droves to make purchases because New Hampshire does not have a state income tax. Also why Indiana has located casinos and fireworks stores heavily near the Illinois border: to attract the gamblers and lovers of pyrotechnics from Chicagoland.

Nici said...

Nothing says “Welcome to (fill in the blank w/ a state name) “ like a casino. I have no actual proof but I would think its safe to say the little town of Wendover, Nv just across the border of Utah on I80 exists due to its proximity to Salt Lake City. It’s not as big as Reno, the city that borders California at the other end of I80 but then California has more residents and fewer inhibitions so they are able to support a bigger town. It would be interesting to sit in a Wendover casino/cat house parking lot and count the number of Utah plates in the parking lot. I’m sure that this is not a new idea, I would bet even money that elders from the churches in Utah stake out the parking lots looking for lost souls. I’m not sure what are better odds than even money, but I would bet that, whatever it is, that elders caught in the parking lots in NV have used looking for lost souls as an excuse for being there!

I just want to thank you for making me laugh out loud with your comment “Frankly, the fact that they can consolidate such smutty hedonism in one shopping plaza makes me like the folks in New Hampshire that much more.” That comment was totally unexpected and frankly, makes me like you that much more!

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the comments Nici! The whole "riverboat casino" concept that really took off in the early 1990s was in many ways a win-win situation all along. 1) It limited the location of casinos in certain states to their waterbodies, thereby preventing them from cropping up everywhere; and 2) Rivers frequently serve as state lines, so a riverboat can draw all the people in that neighboring state where gaming is illegal. This has worked wonders for Evansville, IN--I'm sure the Casino Aztar is filled with cars with Kentucky and Illinois plates, just as you noticed Nevada casinos are filled with Utahns.

New Hampshire has long used its strategic boundary with Massachusetts to attract people to its borders--what better incentive is there than tax-free shopping? No wonder so many malls are in New Hampshire, right at the state line.