Carlo Rotella

Instruction from the working past

By Carlo Rotella
July 6, 2011

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I SPENT a day over the long weekend strolling through the streets of New Bedford’s downtown in the wake of my kids as they explored the music stages, craft booths, and other attractions of the Greater New Bedford Summerfest. We also visited the whaling museum and other historical sites that offered an impression of what life was like - and especially, how work shaped every aspect of it - in an era that is past but not forgotten, and that continues to exert a powerful influence on the city.

If you go to the Lowell Folk Festival later this month, you’ll have a similar, larger-scale experience of a place trying to make the transition from tough town to officially interesting city. There are others: Lawrence, Holyoke, Haverhill, North Adams, and more.

Their distinctive air comes in part from efforts to exploit cultural resonance to bring new vitality to manufacturing centers that fell on hard times during the era of deindustrialization. You’re feeling the orchestrated confluence of history, arts, architectural preservation, museums, restaurants, old and new immigrant cultures, tourism, and selective redevelopment of relatively affordable space (compared to Boston, anyway), all to counter the effects of decline associated with lost jobs and eroding tax bases.That’s why it’s a mistake to shrink from the contrast between the packaged quaintness of the restored districts and the rougher feel of the neighborhoods around them. That dissonance, part of the experience of any visit to one of these places, gives a fuller sense of the transformations they have been through. Evocative mill buildings repurposed as museums or cafes may be the curated centerpieces, but the legacy of deindustrialization is just as evident in how people in the neighborhoods live the messy consequences of sweeping changes in work and associated ways of life.

Another thing my kids did over the weekend was to begin harvesting in startlingly large quantities the lettuce, chard, and other good things to eat that they planted in a class they’re taking at Verrill Farm in Concord. They’re city kids. One of them, asked in kindergarten to draw a picture of spring, drew a squirrel eating a bagel in a garbage can. But once a week they go out to the farm and get a taste of the lessons on offer there: that food comes from somewhere and tastes better straight out of the ground, that growing it requires patience and expertise, that growing it is work that shapes many people’s days and lives, that there’s no app for hoeing.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of quick visit to other people’s working lives as nothing more than dabbling of the sort that farms, like former mill towns, encourage as part of their desperate effort to survive today. And of course it is dabbling, and it’s true that middle-class kids paying to raise zucchini or pick apples is an ironic reversal on underpaid laborers getting a crop in. But the lessons on display, especially the lessons derived from the character of work, are still there for the learning at the farm, just as they are in the “Moby-Dick’’-ified Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford or in the made-over mills of Lowell.

Such lessons, in particular those that kids learn by doing something with their own hands, have taken on new importance in an age when more and more parents model postindustrial work habits so abstracted from the physical world that they’re hard to identify as work. Sitting in front of a computer, tapping the keys, handling information - it may be paid labor, but to our kids it looks a lot like checking e-mail for 10 or 12 hours a day. So yes, there are ironies in consuming and imitating the past and present working lives of others as leisure, and those ironies make the experience more complicated. But, like it or not, producing complicated experiences has become part of the business of the traditional New England mill town in the 21st century.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.