The other day I took my 9-year-old son to gymnastics class. The gym is in an industrial neighborhood of Waltham, Massachusetts, which was pretty much the original industrial town of America. The Industrial Revolution in the US started here when Francis Cabot Lowell and Paul Moody built the country’s first major textile mill in 1814. You can visit it today as the Charles River Museum of Industry. Every year they hold fun steampunk festivals. So what is the town like now?
The gym is on Clematis Ave, which is lined with 1970s-era industrial buildings. At first glance it looks like a thousand other anonymous places in the country, a mix of old and new manufacturing operations.
Here’s an old operation, a machine shop. There’s an electro-plating plant, and here’s a heavy equipment parts warehouse. Then there’s a new firm doing water-purification tech, and a distribution center for a solar panel installer.
Yet they’re now the minority of the storefronts. What you also see are the Boston Fencing Club and a Planet Fitness. Here’s a tennis and badminton center. Here’s a place that does “Canine Aquatic Fitness and Rehabilitation”:
The Farm Baseball Academy. Champion Physical Therapy and Performance. Ah, and at last we come to the Massachusetts Gymnastics Academy:
This used to be a big space for shelves or machinery. It’s still got the standard steel-truss roof and cinderblock walls: cheap, durable, and ugly. Yet now it’s all primary colors and soft floor mats. Instead of a wall of tools on the left, there’s a wall of trophies. Instead of grim middle-aged guys tending to their jobs and watching the clock, it’s full of buff young people and excited kids.
The young people are undoubtedly paid less and have no benefits. The space no longer makes things that are exported from Boston to bring other goods in. Instead, there’s a money transfer from harried parents to anonymous owners.
It’s now making fun instead of stuff. That’s what has taken over even a drab industrial area like this. The fun businesses have moved in because the stuff businesses are so unprofitable that the area is cheap. All they need is a large uncluttered volume of climate-controlled space. They need room to bounce around, or to lunge and parry, or to hit shuttlecocks, or to set up tanks for dogs to swim in. An art gallery needs a much more finished space, but these firms don’t.
Is it wrong to make fun instead of stuff? It does seem frivolous, and unserious. Compare carving an engine piston out of a cylinder of steel at a machine shop to mopping up after a swimming dog. The latter seems, well, unmanly, sad to say.
But there are machines in Michigan that carve millions of engine pistons a year. Those machines get better all the time. We just don’t need as many small machine shops scattered around the country as we used to. More automation and better transportation has undercut them. We also don’t need constantly greater amounts of stuff in our lives. At some point the stuff needs annoying amounts of our attention, and we throw it away.
Still, there’s also only so much fun we can have in our lives. The fun economy will also stall out at some point. Then it’ll be replaced by, I don’t know, spiritual yearning centers, or something else that satisfies other human needs. Yet for now even an old stuff-based town like Waltham seems to be shifting over to fun.