Borderland Bargainland

by / Dec. 15, 2015 3pm EST

The bargains at the Niagara Falls outlet mall are outstanding. This Borderland mall expanded immensely in 2014, adding 50 new stores and almost one-third more space. Then it expanded again just a couple of months ago. Retail industry expectations were quite clear up until recently: The Obama recovery, and the oil-fueled Harper growth trajectory, meant a steady stream of all those Canadians whose habit, these many years, has been to cross the ditch to load up on merchandise here.

But geopolitics—specifically Saudi Arabia’s deal with Obama to screw Putin, the Ayatollah, and the nuevo Chavistas in Venezuela—intervened. The Saudis decided to drive out all the high-cost producers of oil, including American and Canadian frackers, so once again, here on the Niagara Frontier, as has so often happened over the past 400 years, great global events shape local lives. The market price of a barrel of crude oil today is below $40. It costs Canadian oil producers more than that to extract a barrel of bitumen from their wrecked Alberta landscape. Once the Saudis flooded the market, Canada’s currency began to erode, then slide, then tumble, because Canada’s great economic growth—the growth that kept the loonie worth an American buck and all those Ontario shoppers coming this-a-way—was tied to expensive oil, the kind Canada dirtily, nastily, but profitably extracts when the price is right.

So now the mall is empty of Canadians. The Loonie is at 74 cents and going south toward 70 cents by spring. There is a whole lot of inventory available in the 700,000 square feet of the outlet mall. The Canadians are not, evidently, interested in paying $1.37 Canadian plus eight percent Niagara County sales tax for stuff they typically unpackage then smuggle over the bridge as they drive past the brand-new mall—and the brand-new, unsubsidized Bass Pro—just off the QEW, just this side of the Welland Canal.

Shopping opps galore!

But there’s so much more! Just six miles further inland from the outlet mall, there’s another emporium that beats them all on price if not selection. At Smokin’ Joe’s, the merchandise can be had without paying sales tax. You can get a black leather biker jacket for $150, a Donald Trump tie for $20, jewelry, American-made shoes, small appliances, cigarettes, gas for $2.20 a gallon or less, plus bargain-price groceries, and the knowledge that your trade is helping to a sustain the Tuscaroras, the original Western New York refugees. Faraway decisions in colonial North Carolina and Virginia sent these Iroquois-speakers looking for refuge, which the Haudenosaunee gave in 1722. Tuscarora entrepreneur Smokin’ Joe Anderson, unlike the faraway retailers who bulked up here to move more product to now-missing Canadians, has an actual existential agenda beyond accumulation. It’s his museum.

One reaches it by taking the door next to the cigar humidor that’s as big as a typical 7-Eleven, then walking through the deli with the half-price cold cuts. (Prosciutto for less than half price, people!) Anderson doesn’t get tax breaks or Empire State Development Corporation subsidies or even college credit for hosting the Native American Museum of Art. He just does it because, as some genuine aristocrats of our acquaintance say, “It’s what one does.”

The sculptures of the late Joseph Jacobs dominate the exhibition space, which is always open and always free. Joseph Jacobs’s immense carving of the Iroquois creation story/foundation of the Great Law of Peace is installed in the Members Vestibule of the Parliament in Ottawa. The gallery’s director is an Onondaga scholar, a linguist who teaches at Syracuse University, whose day job, and life-work, is to reinvigorate the Iroquois languages. Smokin’ Joe sells stuff to whomever follows the signs that he posts on the Thruway that connects the bridges to Canada and the Buffalo metro; one sees the signs leaving or approaching the outlet mall. The proceeds of Anderson’s sales are helping to bring a handful of young Tuscaroras into close apprenticeship, with Dr. Percy Abrams’s help, with the very few, very elderly speakers of the Tuscarora language.

There is nothing financial to be gained from this errand. Tuscarora is related to the five Northern Iroquois languages still spoken in this part of the world, Iroquoian for about the past millennium. But while Mohawks, Oneidas, Senecas, Cayugas, and Onondagas can understand the Great Law, the Condolence ceremony, the Code of Handsome Lake, the Creation story, and the other major Iroquois texts that are presented around Christmastime and the other major events of the Iroquois calendar, Tuscarora is divergent. It’s not mutually intelligible with the other Six Nations languages. And Mohawk is actually the only one of the six languages that has more than a few hundred speakers. To do this work now, here, in the season of relentless promotions for the new sequels to Star Wars, Hunger Games, Rocky, World of Warcraft, and other distractions of the outlet mall culture—including those signs screaming “Take an additional 40 perecnt off marked prices”—requires an uncommon discipline, a focus, and not only an intellectual resiliency but an emotional poise.

But everybody is a shopper these days, whether it’s for discount name-brand jeans or for one of those nifty hoodies with the Six Nations wampum belt symbol emblazoned across the chest. Identity is a choice, an effort, especially at Christmas. 

Will the money hold out?

A Christmastime visit to the largely empty stores of a huge retail complex gives a glimpse of something that may get even better soon, as we well know that this enormous inventory will have to move. But it’s also a glimpse of something else that may come, for written into those enormous banners that already proclaim deep discounts is a story about where the dominant culture is going if our current paradigm of overproduction is further interrupted.

Endless stores full of endless merchandise with fewer buyers at hand makes this a good place to be, if the money holds out.

The big regional expansion of retail employment included about 500 additional jobs at the Niagara Falls outlet mall. But the numbers are going to change, and the trajectory around here is pretty consistent: steady. Except for the oil thing, the Canadian traffic thing, and the actual-wages-in-the-pocket thing.

In the worst month of the post-crash recession, in February 2009, unemployment among the 584,499 people then in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro workforce reached nine percent. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that unemployment is down to 4.8 percent, but the workforce has shrunk to 561,185. Unemployment among black males is twice as high as among white males, with over half of black males here out of the workforce entirely. Manufacturing employment is up to almost 53,000 after dipping to 49,000 in 2009, but it’s still down from 2007, the year before the crash, when almost 60,000 people here worked in manufacturing, which typically pays higher wages and comes with benefits. 

Let’s do that again, in detail. Retail and wholesale jobs are up by over 4,000 since 2010. The average annual wage around here, as of May 2014 (the last time this was calculated), was $43,790. Let’s stress the positive, but note that the median wage was only actually only $16.71 per hour, which translates to an annual gross salary of $33,420. Retail sales people, whose 4,000 new jobs almost replaced the manufacturing jobs our region lost, made a median wage of $9.46 per hour in 2014. The manufacturing jobs that we lost paid a median wage of $17.35 per hour.

There are fewer people working here, and many of them are making less.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates that the “living wage” for a two-adult, two-child household in Niagara County, with one adult working, would be at least $21.37 per hour. In Erie County, that four-person household needs 30 cents more per hour to pay for $687 a month for housing, $862 a month for food, $500 a month for transportation, $300 a month for medical, and $200 a month for “other.”

Therefore, it’s good that stuff is on sale. And thanks to our Saudi allies, stuff will be cheaper than ever starting the day after Christmas!

But we’re actually quite rich, you know

Being rich is a relative thing. The retail outlet at Smokin’ Joe’s isn’t marble-lined and shiny like the Fashion Outlets mall (which now has a Gold Toe sock store), but it pumps money into culture. Our newly homebound Canadian friends demonstrate their compassion by welcoming highly educated Syrian refugees, which is definitely a “It’s what one does” sort of thing to do. They also demonstrate, in their politics, their enduring understanding of where prosperity comes from, in that they recently elected a new national government that explicitly committed, in its campaign no less, to a specific dollar amount of deficit spending that will be used to stimulate the fall-off in aggregate demand that resulted from the collapse of the Canadian oil sector. 

It takes a bit of self-confidence to persist despite such challenges. The new Canadian politics seems to have helped that confidence: Toronto housing still booms, and Hamilton urban redevelopment gains momentum thanks to both enlightened civic leadership and to a new, multi-billion-dollar commitment to build not only light rail but also an extended inter-urban train service that, sadly, won’t extend to the outlet mall anytime soon.

And just as in our part of Iroquoia these days, the arts and cultural sectors there thrive. Leisure, wrote the far-seeing German philosopher Josef Pieper in 1948, is the true basis of culture. It’s what one does with one’s time after the material needs of life are met.

In this Borderland neighborhood of ours, we’re getting good lessons. Call it leisure, call it the space for soul-work—the fact is that even this over-retailed, income-challenged area is so rich that we’ve got space for it. Even our linguistically overwhelmed indigenous neighbors are well-enough off that they have the means to keep working, hard, at a task of survival and individuation that requires them not only to bend and flex to persist, but to drive past all the alluring “Take 60 percent off!” signs, too. Even we, the bargain-hunters of the dominant culture, the permanent Christmas culture, can get into that space, just up the road a bit from the mall. Follow the signs!

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo State and director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies. His book Borderland: Essays from the US-Canadian Divide is available at local bookstores and via SUNY Press.