Granite State of Mind, #53: Berlin, NH
When we first moved to western Washington state, we were greeted by a certain odor along the stretch of I-5 between Olympia and Seattle. A sulphurous, unpleasant smell the locals refer to as the Tacoma Aroma. It was a familiar fragrance to anyone who'd ever visited Berlin in New Hampshire's north country: the smell of pulp mills. Like the Puget Sound some 3,000 miles to the west, New Hampshire's White Mountains were once a thriving lumber, paper, and pulp producer. Founded in 1829, the city of Berlin was the epicenter of that 19th-century economy. By 1930 there were 20,000 people in Berlin, and several mills cranking along.
Like Manchester to the south and its world-famous Amoskeag textiles, the Berlin mills seemed a durable economic juggernaut, but national and global market forces contributed to the rapid erosion of New Hampshire's northern fortunes. Companies, and jobs, fled steadily throughout the 20th century. By 2010, Berlin's population had been cut in half, to scarcely 10,000. A once-thriving community comprised in large part of working-class immigrants was plunged into a depression from which it has yet to recover. Many of those immigrants were French Canadian, with Quebec a scant sixty miles away, and French (or a version of it) can still be heard in many corners of Berlin.
I had customers in Berlin during my time with the bank, light manufacturing firms still trying to make a go of it in an economic climate with few advantages. There was a fierce defiance to their efforts that I respected - rooted less in any optimism that things would turn around than in a refusal to cut and run like so many other employers had. These small-business owners felt a responsibility to their community, a kinship with their workers. With fewer than fifty employees, these companies resembled the early factories of the market revolution in the New England of the 1820s, owners and employees working alongside one another, with little apparent division between labor and capital. They were in it together. You don't see that in companies with 10,000 employees and a CEO making fifty million a year to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of the human grist in the machine.
The new commodity of the north country isn't logs, but prisoners; the jobs now are at the new federal prison. If there's no profit in making things, at least there can be profit in locking people up. Man, that's messed up.
I wish there was a happy ending, some kind of silver bullet to revive the fortunes of these companies and their proud people. But the jobs of the past aren't coming back, no matter how many orange lies try to weave that comforting fiction. I don't know what the future holds for Berlin. But a lot of people are going to continue to suffer while we find out, and while a chosen few profit from that suffering. And that's what really stinks.