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11. Dansville Ever-Green

Dansville and Mount Morris Railroad, and Connecting Systems

Two maps of the Dansville and Mount Morris Railroad attempt to walk a fine line: the 15-mile short line is distinctive, and yet connect to everywhere in the world. They appear in a 1924 promotional brochure titled Industrial Possibilities of Dansville.

Map of Dansville Industries

Small-scale map of industry and community infrastructure near the Mount Morris and Dansville Railroad, as of 1924. The range of businesses is eclectic, yet grounds us in tangible questions as to employment and the production of basic needs in a green economy.

The Dansville Ever-Green map was created in a spirit of thinking globally and acting locally, recognizing the many hypocrisies of that maxim. It’s easy to revel in the ambience of a local farmers market—while overlooking the providers’ sub-minimum wage, lack of pension or healthcare, and small share of a typical marketgoer’s food budget. Too often the allure of “buy local” amounts to a Richard Scarry Busytown fantasy or, for our purposes here, the Island of Sodor from Thomas the Tank Engine fame. Take a look at this map of a now-defunct short line called the Dansville and Mount Morris Railroad: it evokes a simpler era, visually appealing and neighborly for its seven (!) stops between 15-mile endpoints. Yet the map was produced as part of a long-shot promotional brochure by a dying railroad in a struggling town, going all in on global industrialization.

One of the greatest challenges to relocalized living, then, concerns the getting of a living. For example, since 1991 the Ecovillage at Ithaca has pioneered in the practice of sustainable communities—with an organic garden, wildlife restoration program, small-footprint co-housing, and outreach programs. But it also depends upon income derived from outside that community, which describes itself as “people living mainstream lives in a sustainable way.” In addition to its dependence upon large institutions like Cornell University, the ecovillage also touts its many resident-owned businesses, a perusal of which reveals how many household needs are met beyond Western New York communities. Economically marginal towns like Dansville find themselves in the quandary of being unable to ignore the promise of any jobs, however contingent or damaging to the environment.

Jonathan Dawson writes that ecovillages are "inextricably tied into the wider and destructive globa economy that surrounds them." The invisible logic of consumption and unequal distribution of wealth, not to mention our seeming powerlessness over economic production, help to explain the current narrow range of Acting Locally. Dawson recalls the Lancashire town of Rochdale, England during the 1840s, where weavers worked long hours for low pay, purchasing their goods at the company store for inflated prices. It was here that the principal of mutualism gave rise to the modern co-operative movement: "Succesful worker-owned enterprises used their profits to start up and support other enterprises also owned by their workers." The model of cooperatives associated with affluent, liberal, coastal bastions needs transplanting to Dansville.

It’s instructive looking back to 1924, and the Dansville-Mount Morris Railroad’s map of local businesses. Many of the enterprises are extractive or industrial—anthracite coal, oil, timber—but not all of them. At the time Dansville still was a major center for nurseries, and we see the presence of agriculture, milling, and even publishing upon the map. All of these industries produced jobs and to differing extents depended upon “outside” markets via the railroad. The Power Specialty Company (#1 on the map) turned out to be the biggest player of all; after a 1927 merger, it became Foster Wheeler Corporation and employed over a thousand area residents manufacturing superheater boilers for utilities, oil refineries, and naval ships. Like many other American factories, however, it suffered years of slow decline and finally closed in 2003.

The various layers of the Ever-Green map presume that industrialization, and especially its globalized form of the last four decades, has been ruinous. Looking outward from the center of Dansville this is pretty clear both in economic and ecological terms. Efforts to create more sustainable, resilient communities—appearing under labels like Slow Economy, Eco-Cities, Transition Towns,  Domestic Fair Trade—have much to gain by taking stock of their resources prior to the advent of fossil fuels, to look deeper than farm markets.

Works Consulted

--Dawson, Jonathan. "How Ecovillages can Grow Sustainable Local Economies." Communities 133 (Winter 2006): 56-61.

--Dansville and Mount Morris Railroad. Industrial Possibilities of Dansville. 1924.

11. Dansville Ever-Green