November 28, 2016
What does infrastructure mean to us? What is a road, a bridge, a train, a car? For many, access to transportation networks and automobiles is the difference between a job, stable income, and opportunity, or unemployment, hunger, poverty. Infrastructure is not just an abstraction. It is tangible. It is made of stone and steel.
A young man I had been working with in Baton Rouge nervously asked me for a ride to a meeting for young advocates. I agreed and as I followed the GPS from my hotel downtown to the small, slanting shotgun home he was staying in (with a friend, just for the time being, as he said) I noticed miles of desolate road and utter darkness. It was a half hour drive and I counted just four street lamps spread far between the two points. There were no gas stations, no bodegas, no Starbucks. There were no bus stops or rail stations either.
This young man of nineteen had recently compiled a long list of accomplishments. He returned to his high school and graduated after a period of homelessness. He was producing a radio show with several other teens about the importance of being a community organizer, “doing good and being good.” He had gotten a job at a Burger King and the last time we spoke, he was proud to tell me that he was applying to be the new manager. As he got into my car, we traded music recommendations. He was writing and performing his own music, and I was excited to hear it. I asked him if he wanted to save up and get some home recording gear. He was so shy when he answered, I almost didn’t hear him. “I just need to get a car, ASAP.” He had been walking five miles to his job at Burger King, each way, every day. Again, there were no buses or trains where he lived. The week before, as he was passing under an overpass, a group of men pulled a gun on him and robbed him. He was late to work. He was fired. He told his manager what had happened. The manager didn’t believe him because he didn’t file a police report. He didn’t file a police report because if he had, the men who had assaulted him would use the gun next the time they saw him.
He said he needed a car. To myself I thought, before he even gets to point of spending hundreds of dollars he did not have on a used car, he needed a license, insurance, registration. He would need money to get these things. He needed a job to get money. He needed transportation to get a job. He was trapped in a viscous cycle and he was at the mercy of Baton Rouge’s long, dark, empty roads.
The Other Side of the Tracks
With the advent of the industrial age, the railroad, and the automobile, transportation networks were built to help people move easily between the home and work, to get food, to seek medical care. We have multiple examples of how these systems have transformed geography, policy, and human lives. From early European immigrants confined to slums in order to be near work sites, to the explicit exclusion of African Americans by the Federal Housing Administration post-World War II, to detrimental “urban renewal” projects that failed inner cities, to modern day issues of gentrification and re-segregation as wealthier whites move back to the cities and displace communities of color by the out-pricing and forcing out of residents. The building of wealth is tied to opportunities for and availability of high paying jobs, which is all tied to access to those jobs. Access, in this case, is reliable and affordable transportation. Sarah Schindler sums up this point in the abstract of her report on “Architectural Exclusion:”
The built environment is characterized by man-made physical features that make it difficult for certain individuals — often poor people and people of color — to access certain places. Bridges were designed to be so low that buses could not pass under them in order to prevent people of color from accessing a public beach. Walls, fences, and highways separate historically white neighborhoods from historically black ones. Wealthy communities have declined to be served by public transit so as to make it difficult for individuals from poorer areas to access their neighborhoods (Schindler, 2015).
Segregation, though prevalent and clearly sanctioned by government, is bad for the national psyche of course, but it is also terrible for the economy. Outside of the tremendous loss of potential and productivity from millions of historically disenfranchised groups, we also face an infrastructure system that is unsustainable and in danger of causing great damage to property and human life. This will affect those on both sides of the tracks. Through segregation, we also see the undercurrent of tensions rising and the more we back groups of people into a confined corner (physically and psychologically) as if they were monolithic animals, we can be sure to expect animosity, violence, and destruction. We have seen it before in the Bushwick riots, the L.A. riots, the Baltimore riots. We cannot continue to enforce systems of oppression by design and by law.
In many situations centered around the profitization of basic needs such as food, housing, education, and certainly transportation, we have seen that, without the protection and guidance of the federal government and without the interference of advocates holding decision makers accountable, state and local governments in conjunction with the private sector have often used policy to further embed racist systems and structures. Whether or not the intentions and decisions were explicit may be argued here and there, but that does not remove the fact that we are left with the kind of vivid segregation that we can see on a map with the naked eye.
President-elect, Donald Trump has a vision. “Transform America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity,” in order to modernize the nation’s operational networks and grids, create thousands of new jobs, and “provide maximum flexibility to the states” (Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., n.d.). Though this vision is absolutely unoriginal, infrastructure is currently (as it tends to habitually cycle through time and recessions and campaign seasons) top of mind for many policymakers, investors, market watchers, and steel workers. There is also momentum; a legitimate possibility that it sees movement through Congress. However, it is a deeply complicated issue that is difficult to explain past pithy soundbites. There are risks and rewards to overhauling our infrastructure. There are motivations and resistance on all sides. In my opinion, the hardest solution to come up with is how to capitalize equity and justice. As Forbes’ Energy and Infrastructure contributor Joel Moser states, “No one will invest in the replacement of defective bridges that have no tolls, regardless of the tax abatement, unless a revenue stream is attached to those assets” (Moser, 2016). If we could convey a message of opportunity and economic stability because of, not in spite of, the power of diversity, inclusion, and justice, we could change the maps. We could rebuild the foundation for all, not just for some.
Unfortunately, we are a nation of habit. We have a deep history of capitalizing segregation. The practices of block-busting and redlining after World War II and into today have shown that racism brings profit to those in power. Once we had division posts, neighborhoods, and borders defined by white exodus, existing infrastructure was more than often left to decay, and new tools of segregation were built with decisive purpose. As Emily Badger and Darla Cameron describe:
Look at racial maps of many American cities, and stark boundaries between neighboring black and white communities frequently denote an impassable railroad or highway, or a historically uncrossable avenue. Infrastructure has long played this role: reinforcing unspoken divides, walling off communities, containing their expansion, physically isolating them from schools or parks or neighbors nearby (Badger & Cameron, 2015).
When history shows us again and again that transit services and yes, even the human rights of immigrants, and people of color are the first to be thrown onto the chopping block — when they are not seen as an investment — there is reasonable cause for alarm from advocates and economists alike.
Racism in Concrete
Robert A. Caro’s incredible biography The Power Broker, is a searing biography of powerful city planner Robert Moses, the “master builder” of New York, a man who can wholly embody the foibles of infrastructure as a tool for segregation. Reading an article that Caro wrote reflecting on his work after 40 years of the book’s publishing, and recalling a moment where Moses was giving a speech in a Flushing park, he writes:
Did I think of the bridges he built that embodied racism in concrete? When he opened his Long Island parks during the 1930s, the only way for many poor people, particularly poor people of color, to reach them was by bus, so he built bridges over his parkways too low for buses to pass. Or of the “slum clearance” projects he built that seemingly created new slums as fast he was clearing the old, or of the public housing he placed in locations that cemented the division of New York by race and class? Did I think in that moment of the more than half a million people he dispossessed for his projects and expressways, using methods that led one observer to say that ‘he hounded them out like cattle’?
What’s happening all around us in this country, from an unnerving rise in hate crimes, to the decimation and divestment of communities of color, public schools, and bus routes; this is nothing new and it is certainly not an accident. Moses was one of the most powerful men in history. And he never once held elected office. Imagine ignorant, petty, prideful men with the weight of the electorate behind them and the intention of “rebuilding” our infrastructure. The time for shock and awe was centuries ago, long before the advent of public transportation as we know it today, but indeed, infrastructure is a tool for segregation. It is a tool for racism. And yet, Trump is slightly correct in his vision of infrastructure as an opportunity. That is was it can be, with the political will to make it so. Whether we have that kind of vision or not is to be determined.