Saturday, August 18 , 2018, 10:28 am | Overcast 72º


Jamie Stiehm: Sorry, Grandpa, Your Infrastructure Is Not My Infrastructure

Give me liberty and give me infrastructure. Don’t make me choose. What’s one without the other?

Infrastructure, the sleeper issue of the 2016 campaign, will roar if there’s another Philadelphia train wreck on the way to the Democratic National Convention.

Infrastructure is a trusty beacon for the state of the nation. Keeping it from falling is a sign of self-respect. It’s more than tracks, roads and bridges.

Yet even symbolic Memorial Bridge, connecting Washington and Virginia, is crumbling into dust. Lions and all — what a shame, no pride.

As a city girl, infrastructure is my best friend. I live it every day. Let me count the ways:

The buses on Washington’s Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues run day and night, chugging on to Capitol Hill or Dupont Circle.

Most drivers know me by sight and smile or nod. One saw me hop on to go to the theater — Ford’s — and later asks about the show. Fellow riders are all kinds, young to old, many well-clad on their way to work.

We pass by the imposing white Russian embassy, and boy, they know how to dress smart for winter as they clamber on the 30 bus toward Georgetown, sometimes with babies in hand.

I’m headed to Georgetown myself, to the colonial brick library atop Book Hill. It’s a friendly port for anyone — and that’s the point. All are welcome to an inclusive club that looks like George Washington’s home across the river.

The public library, a facility with fireplaces that stays open late on weeknights, became a lifeline for this writer who fled from the Baltimore Sun, a newspaper that had seen better days.

Looking to make her mark in the capital, she met another former reporter, Molly, there to work and chat over coffee. We replaced the hum of the city newsroom we missed.

Infrastructure gives people a free shared structure of place and time. It’s even more essential in economically troubled times, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew.

His New Deal public works projects included the Golden Gate Bridge and also employed writers and artists to give them a way to give back their talents to society.

Building infrastructure is good for civic morale, a way out of depression — and Depression.

President Barack Obama never tried that cure in the Great Recession.

I should say my grandfather, Stratton, was the chief highway engineer for Wisconsin. He believed in building highways and more highways, saving neat slides of every one.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower oversaw the massive interstate highway system. In midcentury America, highways were king, ripping out the hearts of many downtowns.

Sorry, dear Grandpa, my infrastructure is not your infrastructure. Yours is the “basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads and power supplies) for the operation of a society.”

For me, highways and freeways are actually anti-social infrastructure, because they don’t throw people together. A stark individualism separates us all in automobiles and SUVs, even bumper-to-bumper, dude.

The Internet is touted as the greatest good, but there’s nothing like public transportation — the New York subway, the Washington Metro — to act as a healthy equalizer.

We are all in it together, literally — a campaign slogan Hillary Clinton uses. Somehow we all benefit from sharing the same space.

Los Angeles, the horizontal city built on asphalt, is awakening to the urgent need for social infrastructure.

The boy who grew up next door to me in Santa Monica is now a leader in putting in place the Expo light rail train to ferry people from the Westside to downtown. This is no less than a Newtonian shift.

The swift, quiet Metro here was just discovered to be in dire need of repairs, so that Washingtonians will have to wait 18 minutes during “single-tracking” trains.

C’mon. That’s a hardship for a city of people, with scheduling down to an art, who hate to waste a minute.

A happy infrastructure moment: Hearing me praise Abraham Lincoln and the great anti-slavery Quaker Lucretia Mott, Georgetown librarians asked me to give public history talks. Journalism and history fused in telling true stories that broke some “news.”

In summer, I duck over to a sparkling city pool, seeking inspiration free of charge.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. The opinions expressed are her own.

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