Youghal, County Cork – I spent a week here the other day. For me, it’s one of those places where you go to be, rather than to do. I’m not sure how good this is for the local Chamber of Commerce types – or restaurants, pubs and others who rely on numbers and activity for their livings – but I understand their position. In other words, you can’t eat the scenery.
Through the years I’ve spent quality time in too many old towns whose best days are history. In Youghal’s case, larger ships and a shallow harbour pretty much doomed things a century ago, along with an evaporating industrial base in the more recent past. In Cork, the channels perfect for Viking longboats and his/her majesty’s fleets aren’t quite up to today’s tankers, freighters and ocean liners. But we’ll always have Cobh just a bit downstream, where the Titanic last saw land and today’s monster liners call on a regular basis with floating populations dwarfing the town’s.
I guess when you’re a certain size and dependent on a single industry, you’re ripe for economic obsolescence. I think of small river towns across the globe, each a day’s journey apart, bypassed when engines replaced sail; or the small cities of upstate New York, each a day’s journey apart on the 19th Century Erie Canal and its mule-drawn barges; or North Carolina’s textile towns, each a day’s journey from each other on the old road systems. Add autos and high speed roads and a lot of them lost their reason for being – followed by downward economic spirals and related population exodus. I’m not sure what size or mix confers immunity, but I believe Cork’s big and diverse enough to survive if Apple and its cousins ever pull their high-tech plugs.
Youghal’s good news is that its architectural heritage and beaches are magnificent. Modern economics and cookie-cutter architecture haven’t gutted its downtown. With a little bit of luck, either European ex-pats or a well-paying tech company will discover it, rehab and renew the old buildings and rejuvenate the city. I’m thinking of Asheville, NC – a small city that retained its old buildings because of a lousy economy – and has since enjoyed a wonderful resurgence, partially because of the charm of its physical appearance. Cork is fighting to maintain its historic river walls in the face of myopic engineers ignoring the local economy, ambience and geology. Suffering from the old “not invented here” syndrome, they’re also ignoring less expensive, more effective solutions to flooding. [If your only tool is a bulldozer…]
The other good news for the Youghals of the world is that they’re escaping the social homogenization that’s infected cities and small towns. Not just the chain stores and international product lines that permeate even local stores, but architecture and attitude. When “the numbers just don’t add up” corporations and franchisors will bypass you. Is the key to economic survival in these conditions to become a living museum, with fast food and hotel franchises banished to approach roads? Or is there another model that I’m missing?
In the polarized world we live in, is there a middle way? Someplace between living in a cloned one-size-fits-all community or becoming an economic backwater? I recognize the juvenile appeal of cancerous growth for its own sake, remembering children who prefer piles of pennies to a piece of paper or a bank book [remember those?]. I recall a conversation with a good friend from an Asian country, proud of the fact that he lived in a city that just garnered its first American franchise, a Holiday Inn Express. It literally put them on an international map. Are we afraid to be ourselves, unique in who we are? Or have most of us never outgrown out teenage years, when we were proud to be individuals, able to act and dress just like all of our friends and role models?
I’m also recalling quite a few places I’ve been to that were great to live in, but for one reason or other, lousy to visit. Locals know what’s happening and where to go, but as with many places, the best offerings fall beneath the radar of a casual visitor.
I hope places like these survive, breeding citizens instead of consumers, thinkers rather than followers, people who appreciate their unique place on the planet without feeling a need to join the rush to homogenization.
And I hope Youghal returns to the world of the living – full of organic life, not cloned economy.
P.S. For my friends in the American South: Youghal is pronounced like the sailboat, not the second person plural. [yawl, not y’all – it has fewer vowel syllables]