The Newport Buzz
On an unusually warm day in March, Pam and I enjoyed a wonderful morning in Newport. It has taken a while to post this, because this short outing led to a long period of reflection.
Our outing included a nice breakfast place with atmosphere, great service, and good food, but sub-par coffee (even our delightful waitress acknowledged this). We also visited an old-school hardware store, where we got a few door-related necessities and excellent service of the kind that was fairly common in the days before WalMart leveled the retail landscape. Then we went on to our main purpose: the Cliff Walk. We enjoyed the walk very much, and it led to a lot of thinking about geography, mostly human. The observations below -- which have been brewing for a couple of months of contemplation and conversation -- are the result.
First, a bit of introduction is in order. Not too long after we moved to Bridgewater, Massachusetts in 1997, we heard about Belcourt Castle -- an odd sort of mansion that had been the subject of even odder familial disputes amongst owners and heirs. Intrigued by an article in the Boston Globe, we went on a tour. We got a sense that this would be the most unusual of many mansion tours available in the neighborhood, which had been the summer playground of the super-rich in an earlier time. Here "playground" is meant literally, as we were shown a room in which the table is said to have been covered with sand, and each dinner guest given a pail and shovel with which to search for buried jewels. I had heard this as an elementary school student back in Virginia, and now I was able to visit the very place where it happened. Or at least where a tour guide will say it happened!
Some day we might tour one of the more "regular" mansions, but as we approached the Belcourt castle, we learned that we could view many of the most impressive mansions from a public way that crosses high above the ocean along the rear of the properties along Bellevue Avenue. (Later we would tour a real castle in Transylvania, but that is another story.) Since then, we've made our way there once or twice a year to follow that path, marveling at the beauty of these homes with mixed feelings. We admire good architecture (and most of these houses are exquisite), but not the extreme concentration of wealth they represent.
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We drive home along Ocean Avenue, again a beautiful drive. Many of the houses here -- and even a few at the southern end of Bellevue -- are much newer.
I think of the two streets this way:
Bellevue Avenue = The Rich Got Richer
Ocean Avenue = The Rich Are Getting Richer
All of this boils down to one simple question I asked my friends: "Where did these people get all this money?" One friend answered, "They earned it the old fashioned way, getting poor people to work for it." Another friend -- who makes fine furniture -- points out that the conspicuous consumption of the overly wealthy is an important economic engine, creating employment for artisans and tradespeople.
Still, I find the "robber barons" of the current difficult to accept. I also wonder if the heirs of the new Ocean Avenue mansions will eventually abandon the properties, as most of those along Bellevue have done. Many of the most impressive mansions along Bellevue Avenue are managed by The Preservation Society of Newport County, a non-profit organization that operates much like a museum. During my first year teaching environmental geography in Massachusetts, I was quite impressed with the Secretary of Environmental Affairs, Trudy Coxe. Like many other Bay Staters, I was surprised and concerned to learn that she would be moving -- in 1998 -- to head the Newport mansion organization, but her successor (and his successors) have done well, since environmental protection has remained a relatively high priority across the political spectrum in Massachusetts. In moving to the Preservation Society, she declared her intention to bridge the often tense divide between historic preservationists and environmentalists, two groups she felt should work more together.
Back to the present: the day after we enjoyed a our walk this March, I learned from my local paper that the richest person in the world is Carlos Slim of Mexico. As described in the new book Murder City, Mexico is a country undergoing a rapid and dangerous process of wealth concentration. In Monterey (near my old home in South Texas), I've learned, some houses are so large that the walls surrounding them are patrolled by armed guards -- driving Jeeps! I learned this from a conservative Cuban exile who found the degree of wealth concentration there quite alarming. He was no fan of socialist revolutions, and he clearly understands what causes them.
The process of wealth being concentrated in ever-fewer hands, by the way, is known as Brazilianization. Brazil continues to be among a handful of countries in which a very few are extremely rich, very many are extremely poor, and the middle class (professors, for example) is small and struggling. This is problematic for the poor, of course, but it is not good even for the rich, who suffer poorer health and more stress than the rich in places that are somewhat more egalitarian. In fact, although Brazil remains among the most imbalanced countries in the world, it is heading in the right direction. Brazil is now ranked number 10 and the United States number 42, but Brazil's wealth is becoming less concentrated, while years of privatization and deregulation are leading the United States to become more so. It is worth noting that Brazil is doing this even as its overall economy is quite robust -- it entered the recent worldwide recession after the United States, and began to emerge from it ahead of most of the rest of the world.
If the Cliff Walk in Newport is a step back in time historically speaking, geologically speaking, it is a step WAY back: most of the materials near the surface in southeastern Massachusetts and much of Rhode Island are glacial deposits that are less than 20,000 years old, set down when a mile of ice covered this area. And some deposits are even newer, having been transported by wind and wave even more recently. But much of Newport -- including the cliffs -- is on the order of 600,000,000 years old, when we could have walked to Europe from Newport.