an ode to infrastructure

Infrastructure: The system of public works of a country, state or region

As I start preparing (and worrying) about next week’s holiday: the supermarket was out of canned pumpkin I need for pie; how will V survive his first long car ride in two years? ; best of all B will be home for the first time since April! – I am otherwise fixated on politics and the two major bills that can create so much positive change.

House Democrats passed Biden’s sweeping social spending and climate change bill after months of feuding, a huge victory. But it’s still questionable if the $1.9 trillion measure can survive the Senate. Meanwhile The Infrastructure bill finally was signed into law with marginal bipartisan support, and I feel heartened by this one small yet huge victory in a time of dysfunction and divisiveness. I also am horrified that the 13 Republicans who supported it are receiving death threats. For infrastructure!

I’ve been a fan of infrastructure for half my life. When I worked for the Manhattan Borough President I had the thrill of being the arts liaison, with the most spectacular perks imaginable, getting to attend theatre opening nights, museum galas, ballets and operas to keep my calendar filled with fabulous events for four years. I also was charged with being the office’s infrastructure expert, not by choice. I was one of the last people hired and so was given this assignment that no one else wanted. Who could imagine anything more dull and unsexy, the polar opposite of all the exciting arts programming I had access to?

But I found over time that while the budget aspect was tedious, the actual details and duties of the borough’s infrastructure were in their own way fascinating, and definitely essential: roads and parks and waterworks and transportation and everything that made the city tick, the very bones of the place. I worked with architects and engineers and construction managers and a range of officials (mostly men back then, but hopefully things have changed a bit in the past 30 years) on projects that affected millions of residents. Then like now our infrastructure was being ignored and so many of the public works were in disrepair.

Which received more public attention, renovating a museum or upgrading a library, or doing something about a decrepit old bridge? And yet the majority of complaints we received were about potholes and traffic and trash pick up and subway problems. People didn’t know or think of it in this cumulative way, that there were whole systems of operation that needed upkeep. I don’t remember anyone ever using the word “infrastructure”, but when it came down to it that is what concerned people the most.

Not much has changed in that regard. It’s still what people complain about to their elected officials. Which makes it a mystery that so many didn’t vote in favor of this legislation. And while it’s been whittled down to 1.2 trillion dollars, that’s still of course a huge pot of money, about the amount spent developing the Interstate Highway System. And the bill has lots of great stuff that most Americans feel is worthwhile, like improvements to public transportation and expanded broadband accessibility in rural areas and reducing lead contamination in water pipes.

Most Republicans voted against the bill even though most of their constituents support it, and those same elected officials now are returning to their home districts to expound upon all the programs that will help local people. “I didn’t support this but I take full credit,” is the unspoken subtext. 

On the surface it seems like something safe to discuss at Thanksgiving for those who share that holiday with relatives with opposing political views (I’m fortunate in not having that problem with my family). Yet it’s still highly contentious, with complaints from Republicans about this being “a Communist takeover of America.” This should be the least controversial topic imaginable and yet it’s brought out the ugliest of divisiveness.

It may not be at the top of the list of what we give thanks for yet I would definitely put it on that list. Something positive and useful was actually passed by our government and will help us all live safer, more connected lives.  Try to remember that when you’re stuck in traffic next week going over the river and through the woods or whatever route you take to get to your destination.  Let’s hear it for infrastructure, for something we all need whether we realize it or not.  

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