Early this summer most of America saw images of houses washing down the swollen Mississippi, logjammed against a bridge. In the following weeks we heard about the humans, libraries and even pets left homeless, but outside Iowa, few people heard about the problem of those houses, or indeed about that bridge itself. Iowans alone were left to contemplate their opportunities: When insurance failed, would FEMA provide? Would charity? Such questions only rise in importance the moment a reader in San Francisco or New Orleans or Miami pauses to consider who would repair their own city after disaster. For those who pay attention, the problem is wider still. Relics of the early 20th century, America's ancient dams and highways are crumbling with a shocking rapidity. The nation's skeleton is as fragile as the candy-cane bones sucked down to threads on Cinco de Mayo. Who replaces highways and bridges once they're gone?
Most Americans alive today grew up in an era when state infrastructure was on the rise. Some can remember still the monumental Mississippi flood of 1927, which propelled the nation into an unprecedented glut of levee-building. In 1944, the Pick-Sloan Plan gave the Army Corps of Engineers control over 316 reservoirs, dams, navigation projects and flood control zones across the nation. Seventy-year-olds still remember glowing documentaries boasting the efforts' star initiatives: the Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification. In the 1950s and '60s, state engineers spread pylons and arches and overpasses across the nation. They connected and canalized; they filled the landscape with the rumbling sound of commerce on highways, rivers, ports and streets.
That phase of building was associated with a 200-year trend in politics, in which infrastructure became the favorite experiment of expanding nations. The infrastructure state, however, is no more a reality; it has been dramatically eroded by the postwar politics of suspicion.
Read the rest of my article on Alternet.