Gail Collins traveled from Manhattan to North Dakota to see what a real American boomtown looks like and report her findings to readers of the New York Times.
It is sort of like what Edwin Tappan Adney did for Harper's Weekly when he spent a year in the high north, chronicling in words and photographs the Klondike gold rush to include the tough climb up the Chilkoot pass, the long and dangerous float down the Yukon River, and the often futile search for gold in the claims around Dawson. Adney's description of a hotel 19 miles up the Chilkoot Trail suggests that the mood of boom towns hasn't changed all that much:
crowded by a wild, dirty, wet, unkempt crew of men from Chilkoot, who advance in relays to a long table, where the beans, tea, and bacon are thrown into them at 75 cents each, payable strictly in advance. . . . When supper is over, the floor is thrown open for guests. All who have blankets unroll them and spread them on the floor, take off their socks and shoes and hang them on the rafters, place a coat under their heads and turn in."
Collins isn't that good but she does a nice job:
You would expect that, as population and incomes rose, new stores, theaters and restaurants would follow. But, in Williston, they haven’t. Lanny Gabbert, a science teacher at the high school, says his students yearn for a mall where they could shop, “but the closest thing is Walmart.” The most ambitious restaurants would be classified under the heading of “casual dining,” and the fast food is not fast, given the lunchtime lines that can stretch out for 20 minutes or more. Neither retailers nor restaurateurs are interested in investing in a place where they have to compete with the oil fields to attract workers.
While her New York sensibilities are clearly jarred by the experience, Collins is generally fair. And while she wouldn't want to live in Williston – or anywhere else in North Dakota, for that matter – it is a good thing that many people are eager to get there and go to work. Our current standard of living rests on what came out of previous booms, like the one currently going on in North Dakota. The Hoover Dam, which President Obama likes to cite as an example of what Americans can do with the government putting up the money, no doubt produced scenes like those Collins describes. America is a prosperous country but also a tough country and lots of Americans believe there is a causal relationship at work there. We are rich because we are tough and we don't mind getting dirty building things and digging or drilling things out of the ground. It is the sovereign American way.
Which might explain why the president is having such a tough time with those "you didn't build that," remarks.