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GUEST COMMENTARY: A scenic trap for workers

Summer in Lake Placid reveals wilderness of local culture

September 10, 2015
By GABE MITCHELL , Lake Placid News

After finishing the Ohio University grad school program for English literature in May of 2015 (thesis pending), I embarked on an art project, one I anticipate will take two or three years to complete.

I am a writer convinced of the complexity of the American people, so I travel and write to show our complicated and often conflicted cultural make-up. My first stop was and has been the Northeast of our great nation.

This summer I've seen and tasted and experienced the Adirondack region through the scope of Lake Placid, a community nestled within a landscape and wilderness of wonder beyond comparison. Yet to write about the physical beauty of Lake Placid is nothing new. The world knows it well. Instead, my focus is people and how they live.

I worked for most of the summer at a local restaurant. I've spent time in bars. Afternoons at the beach. In the homes of locals for meals. Full days sitting and walking the streets. I've been fortunate to meet international tourists and workers. I've met the wealthy. I've met the poor. On every level I've met good and decent folks.

But in spite of the goodness I've seen here, the richness of character, the kindness and acceptance with which so many welcomed a stranger, I leave the area with one issue heavy on my heart. Lake Placid, for all its quaint demeanor in which so many tourists and vacationers relish, functions within a strongly delineated class system.

Admittedly, I'm an outsider and will no doubt miss some of the nuance and political inner workings of the Lake Placid community. However, I can't help but take notice the disregard the wealthy and owner classes of Lake Placid have for the working and poor classes of this town.

Where I worked, internationals are the lowest. Underpaid and under the table, which means little to no recourse when an employer chooses to rip them off or treat them poorly, from making them wait for pay to feeding them leftovers instead of offering them a decent meal. But it seems, even beyond where I worked, that I've met more people in this town who work two and three jobs, who labor tirelessly just to breathe, much less keep their head above water. Teachers and other professionals working a second job to provide for their families.

I've asked several folks why they live here, why they work 70 hours a week to live in an overpriced tourist town. The first response is commonly that it's so beautiful. Yet after a bit of conversation, I've heard over and over again that Lake Placid is where people get stuck.

From housing, expensive restaurants and a lack of affordable necessities to jobs that don't pay well, Lake Placid is a trap: the mountains and lakes the allure of a spider's web, the living conditions the glue that makes it inescapable.

At an average job in this town, a worker will have to put in two hours of work just to afford a decent hamburger that isn't from a fast-food joint. If a worker wants a breakfast at a diner, they will have to work an hour to afford two eggs and less-than-average toast. A load of laundry is triple what it costs almost anywhere else in the U.S. Housing prices are more comparable to New York City than that of a small community tucked away in the wilderness.

Yet if the workers would only realize that they possess the power, that if they unite, walk out on jobs collectively, demonstrate peacefully in protest of these conditions, employers and owners would have no choice but to change, or at least match the generosity of a corporate employer such as Starbucks, which offers insurance and benefits at 20 hours a week. But I understand, workers' hands are tied. Their kids need to be fed. Their cars need gas and insurance. They need a place to rest their heads.

Don't get me wrong; I'm thankful for my time in Lake Placid. I will remember this community fondly. But I depart with an admonition for a town that profits off of Olympic glory, the spirit of which should be nothing short of fairness in competition:

Pay your workers. Show them that you care. Recognize with pride that without your workers, international and local alike, Lake Placid could not survive. Give them fair working conditions, and you'll see the integrity and solid character of Lake Placid workers shine even brighter.

And don't overlook that they're likely to put at least some of their hard-earned money right back into the community. They're people, too, and I imagine they'd like to partake in the feast they spend so much time preparing and serving.



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