Watertown, NY State

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The U.S.A is a fascinating country, mostly because it has two sides: a glamorous and strong one it shows with Hollywood and through various decisions on the world stage, and a weak one that most people around the world don’t even suspect.

Like most people, I grew up thinking I knew the U.S. I watched American blockbusters dubbed in French, we chewed American gum, smoked American cigarettes, peppered conversations with trendy English words and adopted concepts straight from the States. We both admired and loathed Uncle Sam. Like the popular kid in school, we loved to criticize anything coming from America but at the same time, it was hard to resist the leader of globalization and everybody wanted a piece of it.

And then I moved to Canada. I can’t say I know the U.S. that well, we don’t go there often and the country is huge and diverse. But let’s say I caught a glimpse of it, of how it really is.

And I was shocked.

For instance, I had no idea that Americans had issues with their health care system. A few years ago, I watched a documentary about a team of health professionals, doctors, surgeons, specialists, who travel the world and help those in need for free. They stopped in Central America, Asia and… the U.S.A. Somewhere in the South if my memory is good. And there was a huge line-up of “pure-bred” Americans, waiting to see a doctor for free because they had no health insurance and couldn’t afford paying for basic health care. Crazy, isn’t it?

I also learned that the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate in the world, 3.1% of adults in the resident population. That as of November 2010, 43 million of Americans were on food stamps. That some U.S. states had something called “at-will employment”, a doctrine according to which “the employer is free to discharge individuals ‘for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all’”.

The superpower has feet “part of iron and part of clay” and it never ceases to amaze me.

Last weekend, we took a drive to the U.S. and headed to Watertown, a small town in New York State. A manufacturing centre in the early 20th century, the city was said to have more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation. This is where the little trees air fresheners were invented! Today, 19.3% of the population live below the poverty line…

We stopped in the town center where time seems to have stopped. There were many small businesses, such as a shoe repair service (proudly displaying a sign saying “army boots repaired here”), a barbershop, a beauty salon, a bicycle shop…  But the façades were crumbling and we saw more police cars then residents. The library, masonic temple and city hall seemed to belong to another era, a more prosperous one.

Small town, U.S.A!

You can see the complete set of pictures taken in the U.S on Flickr.

Steve Weed Productions and the US Flag

Pepsi-Cola

Vending Machine and Mailboxes

Museum and Historic House

Road Signs

We don't have a state law but we still don't run over blind people, I swear!

Masonic Temple

Watertown Daily Times

Town Hall

Library

Taming A Lion

Street Photography

Crumbling Building

Shoe Service

Colourful Buildings

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

33 Comments

  1. Did you drive through Ogdensburg? I met Americans in China who expressed strong envy over the Canadian heath care system. IMO education (and I don’t mean academics) and stable employment is a better deterrent to crime than prison because most criminals always think they can get away with it. It’s the mentality. “Prevention is better than the cure”.

    The last time I was in the States the two things that shocked me most were the violence and the corner stores. Every day I was there I saw a couple of people engaged in a physical conflict. And their convenience shops are nearly all filled with junk food, much less balanced than here.

    When I asked my American friends on their attitude towards owning hand guns, I got a really eerie response.

    • Yes, we crossed at Ogdensburg/Prescott, it’s the closest border control from Ottawa.

      I know what you mean about corner stores. What always surprises me in the US is the number of non-franchises small businesses. In Ottawa, most convenience stores for instance are either 7/11, Quicky Mart etc. In the US, you have all these independant stores.

  2. Wow the library really looks like from another era! I love the US even though sometimes it can be really weird … they still have an higher infant mortality rate than other highly industrialised countries.

  3. you look ferocious attacking that poor lion!

    i wonder too how america has lost its way. 50 years ago, america built schools out of brick that lasted, well, for 50+ years. now we build schools out of sticks the same way we make travel trailers. after a few years, they already look worn and old. we stopped investing in the common good so that some people could be fabulously wealthy. we were told the wealth would “trickle down” and benefit everyone, but in the end we were, alas, only trickled upon.

    but zhu, it is still a wonderful country. americans are generous and warm. there is a lot of potential here and things are (albeit slowly) changing. it will be interesting how it turns out, especially when all those stupid wars end.

    • Oh, I have nothing against Americans, most people are lovely. I also admire the way the country is always moving forward and innovating. There is an interesting spirit here!

      I don’t think the trickle down effect worked. It certainly gives hope to people, but not much more.

  4. Great post. I’m always interested in how others perceive the USA. I think your comments are perceptive.

    Obviously since I live here I love it but it seems like we have lost our way. We seem to have lost sight that the government and economy have to have something for everybody. I make a good living but I think there is a growing gap between the have’s and the have nots and the number of have nots is increasing.

    • Unfortunately, it’s the same for a lot of countries. There is a huge gap between rich and poor in Paris as well for instance. I guess I notice it more in the US because the country to trying its best to show its good side to the world.

  5. I just come back from France so it is an adjustment to get back to Georgia. I was surprised in Paris by how many young people, thinking I was a lost tourist since I talked to my husband in English, came and tried to help me – in English. Here I do not have friends even though I have lived in Georgia for decades. The locals are friendly as long as you belong to a Christian church and don’t have an accent (and France is certainly not a preferred country…) and let’s not even talk about my daughter’s au pair guy, who is a Muslim Algerian. She lives close to Nashville and Tennessee is even more prejudiced against Muslims than in Georgia – they have tried twice to burn a little mosque there. They certainly did not give him a warm and fuzzy feeling!
    It was also nice in Paris to be able to hear other subjects spoken than about celebrities, sports or Sarah Palin. Most people around here still believe that the US is number one in everything and if you mention health care or education or the terrible state of the infrastructure they say you are against the US so you can’t have a conversation. There are many many little towns in Georgia with boarded downtown businesses. Here in my town, which is not poor, they have decided to close all the libraries (14 of them) apart from the main branch and another one – this is the way to cut costs. I don’t think it will get better any time soon because of the way people have become. On another note, if you crave cheese come and have a look at my last post – you’ll see plenty pour te mettre l’eau à la bouche!

    • I think more and more people speak English in France, especially my generation. We all had to learn it at school!

      I’m still amazed that, despite all its troubles, the US still manage to make people dream. You have to actually travel there to realize it’s not all good.

      The South of the US must be an interesting place. Lots of history, lots of changes during the last decades, lots of issues too. You are a true chameleon, a French in the US, an American in France 🙂

  6. small town USA…heh I hail from the southern tip of louisville kentucky, I remember growing up…watermelon,apple pie, local football and family get togethers were to be seen just about everywhere I would casually after having mowed my own lawn keep the mower running and start on my neighbors lawn knowing full well that the man of their house was suffering from cancer and couldn’t do it himself

    it was picturesque

    then about the time I was in grade 10 drugs came into town specifically meth and prescription opiates and now this place is a dump…all in the span of 5 years the incarceration rate has tripled and the police force has doubled

    from what I understand it is happening all over but I hope and pray for the return of what I believe to be some of the best things I have ever known, it makes me glad that I am planning on immigrating to a place I know people will generally accept their neighbors as their brothers and the strangers as friends they have yet to meet

    • It’s funny because the rest of the world still think of the US as a quiet place, very middle-class, very progressive. Even Americans don’t always seem to realize what’s going on in their country. For instance, I argued with someone last night who said he would never ever go to Mexico, too dangerous. Well, I’ve been to Mexico, traveled all around the country, and honestly I’d rather be in Mexico than in some US cities! Much less dangerous.

  7. Ah, Buffalo is just the same. There are awesome places and then there’s run-down places too. I guess if one only relies on mass media to know the US, then it’s a totally different concept compared to the real thing. Same thing with Canada, what I knew about it before and after visiting the country are very different.

    • Really? What differences you noticed about Canada?

      I remember Buffalo as a pretty run down place, but we were there in the dead of the winter so it may have been just an impression.

      • My knowledge of Canada before visiting it was rather sparse: there’s frigid winters, maple syrup, maple leaves, and hockey. Oh, and everything Scott Pilgrim (the movie, have you seen it?). There’s a lot of unknowns really.

        After visiting it, I was (and still is) very amazed at the diversity: the different ethnic enclaves, the ethnic cuisine, the conglomeration of the crowds in Eaton Centre for example baffles me; it’s like a collection of every citizen from every corner in the world co-existing rather peacefully. That’s pretty much the big thing I wasn’t expecting, and something I always am amazed of.

        • It’s fun to see how you see Canada! I haven’t seen Scott Pilgrim but I should rent it. It’s on my list! Did you like the movie?

          Toronto is extremely multicultural, and so are most of our major cities. I guess you live in a relatively small city in the US, thus not as multicultural.

          • I did like Scott Pilgrim, it was quite a funny movie!

            Buffalo is indeed small. But I’ve also spent time in big cities (I don’t know NYC like the back of my hand, but I’ve been there enough time to know more than the standard visitor) and the people scenery is just different. Yes, there are plenty of people from many different cultures in NYC and in other big cities in America, but the effect is different. I suppose the goal in the USA is to neutralize these differences and be “American” but in Toronto, people are proud of where they come from.

            I don’t think size is a factor. Toronto’s metro area is just 5 million people, Manila’s is 11 million, and yet I don’t see the diversity that seems to be Toronto’s trademark.

          • You’re right, most Asian cities aren’t as diverse even though they are huge. Canada is fascinating, they are people here from all around the world. Canadians seems to be proud of where they come from but also proud to belong to Canada. I like that as I firmly believe it is possible to love two countries, two cultures, or more.

  8. Hi Zhu,

    What happens when you show little town USA pics to the long-time US expat like me?
    I start to say “it feels like home”. Despite the fact that I have never grew up there or in NY State! It is in the US and anywhere can be good enough for a nostalgia trip 🙂

    But then, I have been away so long that I know myself that I am seriously out of touch with the current problems and way of life in the US.That is why I try and talk to a lot of people each time I am over to learn from them and their experiences.

    Bises

    • I totally understand what you mean! Whenever I watch French news or French movies and I see these little twisty streets, road signs or French cars, it feels familiar and strange.

  9. Great photos and description of the reality of the US. Too many people in the world watch American movies and shows and think that that’s what life is like in the States.

    Some small towns and parks in the States are beautiful though, I will say that!

  10. I think the photos you took here depict most all small towns, but they are beautiful (Great job!). I’m sure I could go to the city I grew up in and find the same types of buildings, maybe a bit worse though.

    It is a good reminder on some of the things that I have forgotten about. YES one of them is at will employment and that should be against the law to treat someone that way, at least you shouldn’t be let go without just cause! That’s one thing about where I work now that I love.. Yay for Canada!

    And yet another reason why I left, I did want better health services later in life. My uncle went through this after getting Cancer. Not a fun thing to sell everything you own just to get services you need!

    And the incarceration rate, yup one thing I simply don’t agree with. Making millionaires more rich because they run the jails. It’s a business and it’s here to make money, so sad!

    Major props to you on finding this stuff out. It’s not like a tourist could do just that. You have to speak to people and learn about what you found out..

    • It took me a while to accept that life in the US wasn’t exactly like in movies. Well, I kind of assumed it wouldn’t be like Baywatch or C.S.I but it’s interesting to dig and see the issues most Americans face these days. Small towns are fascinating to me, they reveal so much about a country!

  11. I remember these places. I did my best to get out of that town. There are some great folks there, but most are trapped. I was trapped. When you don’t have money and no (legal) means to get any, you are “going no where fast” as they say.
    Life is better there than 20 years ago when I first lived there. Having an expanding military base nearby has put money into the economy and has populated the region with retirees (and money).
    Ironically the town is full of old Victorian houses where you rightly pointed out millionaires lived in as a base to their real vacation spots in the Adirondacks or the Thousand Islands.
    My mom was on public assistance (food stamps, unemployment, section 8 housing) many times, from lay offs, factory closures etcs. I’ve been lucky myself. I used to look at the air freshener factory near the highway from the community college I went to there shortly. I didn’t plan on ever planning on working there. Ever. It’s part of the only manufacturing left there.
    This is also a pretty conservative (as in Right wing) part of the state. I remember other fairly poor people there telling me we need rich people to get tax breaks so rich folks could give us jobs. Pretty religious too. Decent folks, just poorly served and often lied to and screwed over.
    As a former union organizer I have to tell you Americans are pretty ill informed about what “at will” employment means. You can’t be fired for being a particular race, sexual orientation etc.(there are lots of laws about this) You can be fired just because they want you gone.
    You’re going to find a lot of rustbelt towns in the US like this. I wonder what these towns would be like if we hadn’t burned a trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan (projected to be up to 3 trillion when it’s all done-if ever).

    • What I always find surprising from talking with Americans is that they came to think as their tough labour as perfectly normal. It’s normal to not get time off, it’s normal to get laid out for no reason, suck it up, that’s the way it is. Well, it’s not the way it is in most countries!

  12. As I am traveling, I find it interesting to hear what people think the US is like, including other Americans. It is such a large and diverse country. Most people forget that the exported images and stereotypes of our country are not actually familiar to most people who live in the US.

    • So true! The country is overall better and more fascinating than most stereotypes had led me to believe. There is a true American culture and it’s vibrant.

  13. It’s so interesting to read about someone traveling America who does not live in the US…I don’t really think about a lot of these statistics, I just take them for granted. I will say as well that many of these statistics vary drastically from place to place. However, I have also been on food stamps, I have had no health insurance, and I have lived below the poverty line. It all depends on perspective, haha.

    • I must admit I looled into various stats after getting to know the U.S because the “Hollywood” version and the real version were hard to reconcile in my head!

      You are right, these stats vary dramatically from places to places… the US is a very diverse country!

  14. Hi Zhu, the first time I went to USA was on a trip to NYC (did you make it there yet?). I arrived there at night and I was kinda tense… everyone on the street is out there to mug you, right?

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