Monday, October 10, 2005

The Real Bilbao Effect

Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff had a piece in yesterday’s Times about New Orleans, and it is a piece everyone should read, because its not just about New Orleans, but about America’s failure to invest in its cities. Just as urbanism is making a resurgence, we have neglected the very foundations on which cities exist. Meanwhile, countries in Europe and Asia have been investing in major public works projects the way America used to. Ouroussoff points out that Bilbao didn't just build a museum, but a brand new high-tech subway system. Meanwhile, in New York City, we can’t even finish a section of the subway line that was started four decades ago. Worse, what infrastructure we do have is slowly rotting before our eyes … actually, it’s not before our eyes, and that’s part of the problem. If we were confronted on a regular basis with our rotting infrastructure, we might be a little more inclined to insist that our government do something about it. The only real exception to this lack of investment that I know of is Chicago, where five-term mayor, Richard M. Daley, has invested a huge amount of time and money into mundane infrastructure improvements like rebuilding the waste water system, saving the city millions of gallons of water lost from leaks. Most mayor’s don’t have that kind of time or political capital to invest in such unsexy projects because they don’t exactly make headline news, and when it comes to putting city money up for big projects, when you’re dealing with limited resources, most all politicians will opt for the splashy project over the mundane but necessary one. I recall historian Mike Wallace calling for a New Deal for New York a few years ago and thinking, “How quaint. Nice try, but not gonna happen.” Now I think, not just for New York, but for America. The time is right for people to start demanding it.