There’s a lot of talk about infrastructure these days.
Sometime this week—perhaps even today—the United States Congress is expected to vote on a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, with an even larger one potentially in the works afterwards. There’s been a lot of acrimonious debate about the size and scope of the bill(s), but most parties on both sides of the divide seem to agree: America needs to invest in our future. Our roads and bridges are crumbling, our power grid is held together with tape and twine, our ports are overloaded, our pets’ heads are falling off—we need to get back to building.
Now, of course, everyone’s got their own ideas about what does and does not constitute “infrastructure”—for some, that’s strictly bricks-and-mortar projects, while others take a broader view that includes childcare and other services—and those discussions tend to cleave predictably along partisan lines.
We need something we can unite around, I say.
We need something big, bold and visionary. Something that can signal that America Is Thinking About The Future. Something that people all over this vast nation can look at and think “wow…. yeah, that cost a lot of money, huh?”
We need to build big stupid things again.
Let’s back up a bit. I’ll explain where I’m coming from.
A few months ago, I was driving my family back from a vacation in Georgia, and as we passed through Tennessee on our way to Kentucky, we needed somewhere we could stop, grab a bite to eat, and let the children stretch their legs—but also somewhere that might be vaguely fun and memorable, in a mostly pointless way.
I knew just the place.
Now, if you’re unaware of its existence, you might ask—as my children did—just why there’s a full-size replica of the Parthenon in the west end of downtown Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville does not have a sizeable Greek population, or any historic connection to the city of Athens. It doesn’t even have the thin justification of “the city is named after it”, like Columbus, Ohio once did in having a replica of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria moored downtown. The city was allegedly nicknamed the “Athens of the South” at some point, but a) there’s already an actual Athens in the South and b) no c’mon that’s bullshit you just wanted to build a Parthenon.
And I applaud that!
The city leaders of 1890s Nashville decided to build a Parthenon, and so they did, and 125 years later, my kids ate McDonald’s in front of it. This is a successful investment in infrastructure as I—an easily entertained rube—understand it.
It’s not just Nashville, of course. Quick! Think of St. Louis. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind. Is it toasted ravioli, or Provel-covered pizza? Perhaps it’s Albert Pujols or Kurt Warner? Maybe it’s Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building, considered by some experts to be the first building that embraced the skyscraper as meriting an unique design aesthetic of its own. Okay, pencils down. If it’s any of those things, it’s because you’re lying.
The first thing you pictured was the Arch, of course, and that’s perfectly fine.
What a magnificently silly thing to have built! Yes, yes, it’s the “Gateway to the West”, but aesthetically it says nothing about St. Louis as a city before its existence; it was just a pretty-looking civic hood ornament that happens to be 630 feet tall. And now it’s an indelible image of the city, something you think of before you even think of a stadium full of fans applauding the correct application of baseball’s unwritten rules. It’s hard to imagine St. Louis without it.
Many of our most wonderfully-useless civic monuments were tied to a World’s Fair—the aforementioned Parthenon, Seattle’s Space Needle and Knoxville’s Sunsphere, to name a few—but with our global economy more interconnected than ever, there’s no need for an expo to justify future building. We should just build stuff, and wait for people to show up.
Okay, but this kinda sounds like a big waste of money.
Undoubtedly! But here’s the thing about money: it’s not actually real.
I mean, yes—I absolutely agree that we should be investing in education and healthcare and public health and all those actually-important things. We should do that. But these things don’t need to be mutually exclusive! We can just do both, and then print more money, or something. (I am not an economist; I am a visionary.)
Also, cities and their leaders love a big expensive building project, but they usually waste the opportunity on something dumb. Here, here, look at this. Do you want to see how Hamilton County, Ohio—Cincinnati, that is—once spent nearly a billion dollars?
They spent a billion dollars on this! A place for the Cincinnati Bengals to go 149-195-2 over the next two decades, while taking up a whopping sixth of the county’s budget!
This isn’t even to single out Cincinnati. Heck, just this weekend, the NFL’s Buffalo Bills made rumblings that they might consider moving to Austin, Texas—an empty threat that makes zero sense and so will probably end up with new stadiums in both Buffalo and Austin. Dozens of American cities have made high-nine-figure outlays to build essentially-identical-looking monuments for mediocre sports franchises to be mediocre and make millions for their ownership groups. Cincinnati’s deal was on the far end of egregiousness, but it wasn’t a huge outlier. It was just a huge mistake.
Wouldn’t that money have been spent better on [spins infrastructure wheel] a giant replica of [spins wheel] the Colossus of Rhodes [spins wheel] standing astride the Ohio River?
I bet you could do that for less than a billion dollars, and people would go to see it. You could put it on t-shirts and shot glasses and stuff.
So, here’s my plan, which I will also be reading over the phone this week to whatever beleaguered congressional staffer answers my phone calls: Congress should allocate an extra $50B or so in one of these bills. That sounds like it’s a lot of money, but when we’re talking trillions, it’s a virtual drop in the bucket. Cities can submit proposals for what they would build with the money—no stadiums, no airport expansions or much-needed bridge repairs, none of that bullshit—and I will volunteer to personally review and award them to the boldest thinkers out there.
Will this make the America of the future a better, healthier, more economically competitive place?
I dunno. I’m not a scientist. But we’ll have some fun stuff to look at.
Not convinced yet?
Well, I’ve created a little graphic to illustrate the sort of thing we could do with this renewed World’s Fair spirit.
Tell me you wouldn’t stop and buy some postcards on your way down I-75. You would.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Now, I want to hear your proposals. If I gave you $1B to build a new outlandish civic attraction, what would you build, and where?