How Far Gone?

I still can’t get over comparing where I just was last week to where I am now. At times, after listening to the bleak outlook during city budget sessions, it’s hard to imagine a worse situation. Berlin is facing tough choices, stuck between cutting services and raising taxes. The city isn’t going to figure its way out of this predicament easily, and neither option is appealing to anyone.

But then I remember Kentucky. That brief portrait of rural poverty struck me as so different than what Berlin struggles through that it’s hard to compare the two.

My wife heard a woman comment while we were there that summed the situation up. A mother and her grown daughter were shopping together, and the daughter picked up some canned food and toys for her cats.

“Those cats have more toys than the kids from the hills,” the mother said. The cats also eat better too, she said.

The kids from the hills–what a thought. It’s a different kind of poverty down there. I was talking to someone who is researching youth in communities facing the collapse of the mainstay industry. In Berlin roughly 40 percent of high school students qualify for reduced cost lunch, she said; in Hazard, Ky., roughly 90 percent do. That’s collapse of a different magnitude.

According to US Census data, New Hampshire has the highest average household income in the country. Kentucky is 46th. What does it mean to be the poorest city in the richest state (by one measure, surely not by every measure) in the union? What does it mean to be poor in one of the poorest?

Berlin still has its history, proudly on display at the Berlin and Coös County Historical Society and at Northern Forest Heritage Park. It still has cultural centers like Saint Kieran’s Art Center. It still has good places to eat, like the Northland Dairy Bar, Wang’s Garden, TexMex and Valley Creek Eatery. There are still stores, still a downtown, and still passionate people fighting for the city’s future. The vision of collapse Berlin is looking at is much different than what is already happening in other parts of the country.

And on top of those establishments, there are those still coming. What will the federal prison do for the region? What will the Neighborhood Stabilization Program and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program do? What will the college become in another decade? What will the New Hampshire Grand initiative be able to produce for Berlin? There are so many things moving in a positive direction in Berlin that it’s hard not to imagine them going somewhere.

Berlin is depressed when compared to its surroundings, but not on the same scale as parts of Kentucky, West Virginia, Michigan or Pennsylvania. Their future has even more uncertainty than Berlin. The mill may be gone, and with it  the promise of a steady blue collar job, but all the opportunities have not gone. Look at North Woods Rafting—they found something to capitalize on just up the road in Milan. Look at Jericho Motorsports—they too have found success. There is a future in Berlin, and creative, entrepreneurial people are making something of it. Is the glass half full or half empty? It depends on where you’re coming from, where you’ve been, and what position you’re looking from. From here, things are looking good.

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