Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Buffalo and brawn

On Friday, Le Duc and I decided to take a last-minute getaway excursion to Buffalo, New York.

We had a list: see the newly-restored Frank Lloyd Wright ma
sterwork, the Darwin Martin House, visit the Albright-Knox Gallery, tour the renowned horticultural gardens, hit Suzy Q's BBQ shack ("A Little Pit of Heaven"), but mostly we wanted to ogle the nearly endless examples of mid-20th century architecture in what was once one of America's grandest and wealthiest cities.

Buffalo delivered all delights except the gallery (closed for a week due to cost-cutting measures), and like any good getaway, offered us new discoveries, most notably Beau Fleuve, a charming, luxurious B&B.

Touring the areas where robust manufacturing and shipping industries once thrived, I thought of Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente's comments on Saturday, May 23, in her column "We are witnessing the passing of working-class masculinity". Wente said, "As low and semi-skilled manual jobs disappear, working-class men are getting hammered- and so is their masculinity."

She cites a 'recent British study'. (Why no citation? This one reason I am frustrated by Wente's writing.) An academic investigated why so many men who had l
ost industrial jobs in Manchester were unemployable. Some of the men interviewed had tried their hand at retail or other service jobs, but washed out. One man said, "If someone (a customer) gave me loads of hassles, I'd end up lamping them."

Wente summarizes the study: "The defining value of working-class masculinity is the ability to stuck up for yourself when someone tries to g
ive you shit. The defining requirement of service work (in their view) is having to eat it. Service work is a fundamental challenge to their masculine identity."

Buffalo's might was powered by the Manucians' counterparts, men who did dangerous, dirty work on docks and mills, in plants and grain elevators- as well as bankers and businessmen, academics and inventors.

Today, Buffalo's largest employ
er is Kaleida Health. Health care professionals have replaced steelworkers, and new information-based businesses abound. Besides technical aptitude, the abilty to relate to people is an essential component of patient-care and customer-service occupations, resulting in what some call "the feminization of work".

As I looked at the art-deco might of City Hall, the Louis Sullivan-designed Guaranty Building, and empty mid-20th century warehouses of hushed beauty, I thought about the men who once held jobs that valued physical strength and competence, requiring them to, in Wente's words, "work exclusively alongside other men in jobs that did not require them to put on a social mask, and did not call for aptitude in managing their emotions."

The benign neglect of Buffalo, a city that let its treasures simply sit for decades, has preserved the artistry of its architecture. At the same time, how people make their living has forever changed, like so many other communities.

18 comments:

Someone said...

So Duchesse...you let this conventional sexist take on evolving skill sets pass without comment?

Work isn't more "feminine" (and of lower value, naturally, according to the thought process of those who buy into these false dichotomies). It's just different.

Just because these old-school guys can't adapt doesn't mean there's anything "feminine" about more people-based professions. Men have done, and still do, MANY people-based jobs (think of sales, for only one), and when women were not being hired men did them ALL.

Preferences such as these have to do with what an individual prefers, and is not based on gender.

Wente's type of whining about a mythological and delicate "masculinity" that somehow is easily bruised and lost (what a bunch of hooey) just perpetuates artificial prejudices, and it is rife. It is based on the foundational devaluation of what is seen as womanly - that too is largely mythological, but unfortunately has all too real consequences. As a woman I refuse to play scapegoat so some old fart can find a way to feel better about his refusal to learn new skills like the rest of us have to every day.

materfamilias said...

your getaway sounds great -- you're fortunate, where you live, to have places that can offer such a satisfying short trip within a drive-able distance.
As for Wente, I have little tolerance for her writing in general, finding her rhetorical techniques rather cheap, and her positions very predictable. While I do have some sympathies with the displacement of so much skilled work by societal changes, I tend to agree with "Someone."
Still, I'm interested in the way you linked what you saw of Buffalo's residential architecture, preserved from the middle of the last century, and the changes in labour.

Deja Pseu said...

Duchesse, have you ever read Susan Faludi's "Stiffed?"

I'm in agreement with Someone about the whole concept of "masculine/feminine" work, (though I do have some sympathy for people who have been conditioned to be one way all their lives and suddenly find those attributes have little value). It's like the people who argue that the educational system favors girls because boys can't be expected to sit still and concentrate. Hell-O??? The classroom format we have today evolved in a time when often only boys went to school.

How far is Buffalo from Toronto? It sounds like you had a lovely getaway. I'd love to see that Frank Lloyd Wright house.

Vildy said...

I agree with the analysis. Reminds me of Paul Fussell's idea about who is happiest and it is the blue collar guy who spends on what he likes, doesn't have to answer to anyone else's tastes and I'm sure it was implied he doesn't have to eat shit.

Recently saw an article in my alumni magazine - Quaker founded school! - where funds were being raised through a grad school fight club event staged at a real boxing arena. Egads. Have you seen the film Fight Club? I think it's depraved (transgressive fiction) but it does have the theme of soft men looking for masculinity.

lagatta à montréal said...

There are indeed many architectural treasures in Buffalo, and the West side near the State University College (if it is still called that), Elmood avenue etc is very charming.

pseu, Buffalo is about two hours from Toronto by car or bus (depending on how long it takes to get through the border nowadays) and in between one finds the Niagara peninsula, and another old steeltown that has hidden treasures, Hamilton Ontario (Dundurn Castle, the Royal Botanical Gardens etc).

Wente is a sloppy and cliché-ridden writer, though there is great pain for ANY worker, male or female, blue-collar or white, laid off after decades of work in the same field. Barbara Ehrenreich has done hands-on studies of women in pink-collar ghettoes and of management staff laid off and finding themselves in a weird world of "positive thinking" fed to them by employment consultants.

Duchesse, tha b+b is a very good price for its quality and the location - between the city centre and the Elmwood area.

diverchic said...

Margaret Wente is so often wrong and yet she persists. "aptitude in managing their emotions" is the hallmark of the civilized human.Wente romanticizes the brute.
Masculine energy and strength is not diminished by deodorant and kindness.

Buffalo does indeed have lovely structures and a quirky history. Last time I was there I found it had the feeling of a grand and failed experiment. I am glad you found it enjoyable.

Duchesse said...

Someone, materfamilias, Pseu: Though I pulled only a few lines from Wente's piece, she was not referring to "old farts" as Someone calls them; she addressed male workers of all ages displaced by job loss.

As lagatta says, there is great pain for any worker laid off, male or female.

As a provider of training for the "people-based professions", I found that anyone (of either sex) who has not acquired the foundational interpersonal skills needed for success in these jobs had to learn them fast, or wash out.

Those interpersonal skills support what Arlie Russell Hochschild calls "emotional labour": work that requires friendliness and pleasantness (or at least the facade) when dealing with customers, e.g., most service jobs. The demeanor helps the worker to sell, upsell and increase customer loyalty, the key measures of performance.

While I do not believe here is "womens' work" and "mens' work", when I was a job placement specialist in a govt-funded agency mandated to recruit women into skilled trades, we had a great difficulty finding women who wanted to take fully subsidized training programs for trades associated with heavy industry such as weldors, pipefitters and machinists. We were more successful recruiting women to become carpenters, bakers, and veterinary assistants.

Vildy: Didn't see the film or read book, but know the premise. Goes to an extreme to make the point that men look for some way to experience challenge and risk, if they do not have it in work.

lagatta: Takes 1.5 hours for us, unless the border is jammed; the Peace Bridge at Buffalo is faster than the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls. Yes, B&B is 2 blocks from Elmwood strip.

You're referring to Ehrenreich's "Bait and Switch", I believe- found it an accurate representation of the outplacement industry.

lagatta à montréal said...

Yes, was referring to "Bait and Switch", as well as to "Nickel and Dimed".

A film that is a take on working-class men losing their skilled factory jobs is of course "The Full Monty". It also shows the companionship that is a need in industry among "mates", a different kind of "people skill". At one point the welder who was a bit pudgy and had body issues after losing his job and joining in the striptease idea gets a low-paid job in a discount store - a big drop in social status as well as income, especially in Britain, where, as in continental Europe, there is more working-class pride than in most of North America.

Sad about the art gallery. By the way, did you buy anything? That used to be the main motivation for Torontonians to hit Buffalo, though I doubt there are such bargains nowadays.

Imogen Lamport said...

I would love to have seen the Frank Lloyd Wright house. I'm a fan of his architecture.

I've always found it strange that so many people are 'anti service work' it's about solving problems not taking shit - sure if it makes someone feel happy and looked after along the way what is so bad about that?

hollarback said...

I am smiling right now due to the fact that you took a vacation to Buffalo! I grew up (til the age of 8) in a city nearby and we either went to Buffalo or Rochester depending on what my parents were purchasing/visiting.

Benign neglect is an unsung friend to older structures. It preserves them from the forces of modernization until the next wave of gentrification takes hold and they are "discovered".

I am in Los Angeles now, and there are many architectural treasures here that were spared due to the changing fortunes of downtown LA.

So glad that you appreciate Buffalo! It was the first place/city with grand buildings that I saw as a child. I must try and see it again as an adult ...soon.

Thank you for reminding me :)

hollarback said...

Thought you might like this - I am headed out tonite to see a film at the LA Conservancy's "last remaining seats" in a restored historic movie palace.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index.jsp?cid=218927

If you are ever a tourist in Los Angeles, I highly recommend a LA conservancy walking tour.

hollarback said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duchesse said...

lagatta; We bought 2 cases of wine and a silk kimono at an original, funky boutique in Allentown, The Dress Shop.

hollarback: Wonderful feature on movie theatres, thank you! Here in Toronto a community group has saved one, but many old theatres have been lost.

A tourist in LA a number of times, have never done the walking tour and will add to list. Yes, I see the similarities to Buffalo in mid 20th century preservation.

Duchesse said...

Imogen: Doing service work requires what one of my hospitality industry clients called "the service gene". Not everyone has the combination of temperament and attitude. There are various levels of complexity and skill in service jobs; some require multiple-factor problem solving and others are more routine.

Anjela's Day said...

I really enjoyed this posting ....
How was the B&B any hauntings?

Duchesse said...

Anjela: No ghosts at Beau Fleuve but I always wonder who lived in these rooms, and what those lives were like.

Anjela's Day said...

It was wonderful. Felt like I was there. Do you realize the pleasure you bring into duller less romantic lives such as my own! Thanks again!

Duchesse said...

Anjela: Kind words though your life is not dull! Don't forget to send photo of your much-loved chains if you would like me to feature them. Or of your kitty, or....