Let Bloomberg, Rendell and Schwarzenegger Rebuild America

Three of the country’s major politicians, Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania, Mike Bloomberg, mayor of New York City and Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, have urged both the Republican and Democratic national committees to adopt pro-infrastructure planks in their party platforms. They are co-chairmen of Building America's Future, which is dedicated to bringing about a new era of U.S. investment in the infrastructure that enhances our nation’s prosperity and quality of life.

Both parties should heed their call. Both parties should call for an expanded mandate for these three to the point of assigning enough authority to them to create an organizational infrastructure within the government to fix falling bridges, collapsing levees, abandoned cities and other internal ills. And more should be added to their committee: people who know things that politicians don’t know; artists and waitresses and hockey players and novelists and people who understand that cities and regions have souls and who understand what those souls are made of in their particular area. People like Alice Waters, who links farmer to restaurant to people in California. People like sculptor Maya Lin, who has a good feeling for circles and squares and water and can see things to their center. And even people like Marshall Bruce Mathers III — Eminem — the inner child of my favorite city, Detroit, who understands, like Yeats, that people are not separate from their places, nor their places from them.

To the Building America’s Future committee: Note — The fiasco in rebuilding ground zero should be used as a model for what not to do; Manhattan Island should have been looked at comprehensively as one cultural and architectural unit before they attempted to rebuild; there was something askew with the placement of the Trade Towers in Battery Park from the first — rebuilding gave an opportunity to correct it. Note — The Modernist Movement is over and so are the post-modern and deconstructivist derivatives. These are internationalist visions suitable to the turn of the last century and to the 1920 and ’30s that trailed to end-of-century as a singular power arc rose in the world. That arc is descending — those days are past; that century is over.

This is about America, not about Germany or China. It is about rebuilding regions that fit together to form a whole unit, which is not the whole world but the United States of America and its greater continent, perhaps, north and south. In rebuilding regions, we should not look to Hamilton, who saw all people in the world eventually as New Yorkers by degree of different shade and tinge. Under the Hamilton trajectory, we have evolved as consumers rather than citizens. Under his tutelage our earth and structures have become economic zones rather than places. In this we should hark back to Jefferson, who believed in a country of unique peoples in complementary and sympathetic regions.

America, since Hamilton, has looked outward. This project demands looking inward. For a project of this scale, the continent needs to be reconceptualized. We should begin to look at the natural contours of American culture as they have evolved since 1776. One-size-fits-all federalism was the right way for the vast wilderness that was America west of the New River back in 1776, but since then we have developed unique regional cultures.

Unfortunately, we in the West have no matrix for looking inward; our way is to only look outward, then crash and burn. But in his last work, the great ambassador George Kennan proposed a model of regionalization, citing 12 regions that have evolved into natural states. It would be useful to look at his regional model as a managerial principle because if the U.S. were a corporation, it would be the only large corporation without district managers. As a tool for problem-solving, the federal government as it has grown since 1776 may be too large to manage successfully, and also too abstract and too remote — this was Kennan’s concern — while most of the states are too small and powerless.

The Katrina disaster can be seen today as a failure first of all of Hamilton’s vision of federalism as a management principle. It is a disaster for which neither political party really holds the blame. It is the product of an outdated, outmoded and anachronistic management process.

In rebuilding America, the Building America Triumvirate might look to Kennan’s regional model. Each region can be seen as a managerial department with different needs and wants, and funding could be acquired from within the regions to fit the collective need there. The Katrina region, for example, is made up of three states. There should be a “Katrina czar”: a regional manager with temporary and project-related authority over the three-state governors who answers directly to the president. Likewise, each region of the Building America group could have a “czar,” or district manager, to assess need and insure cultural autonomy; 12 czars or district managers answering to the triumvirate, Rendell, Schwarzenegger, Bloomberg, and those three answering to either President Obama or President McCain.

Environmental issues and security issues should be worked into this creative matrix of restoring the cities and regions. Canada is adopting new principles of intramural commerce between provinces to encourage local trade. It makes no sense to bring energy from Iraq here to us here in northern New England when we can get it cheap from Quebec or tomatoes from Mexico when we can get them from Nova Scotia. And for environmental and security reasons it makes better sense to buy local.

A different psychological model might eventually develop, one more akin to the vision of Alice Waters, who serves only regional food and produce in her Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Chez Panisse. It adds something to the purpose of visiting up here in the Northeast, where people come to peep at the leaves in October when you order a lobster; it is part of the region and casts its karma on the people of the region. When you can get them anywhere — Lima, Ohio, or Yadkin County, N.C. — they seem a disappointment; one-size-fits-all lobsters.

"America's highways, bridges, tunnels, and mass transit have fallen behind. The same is true for our levees, schools, ports, courthouses and water delivery systems. Our economy and environment are suffering because we cannot move goods and people efficiently — we need a strong federal commitment to tackle this problem," said Gov. Schwarzenegger at a recent conference. "We have always come together as a nation to solve our biggest problems and I am confident that if both parties make infrastructure a top priority we will rebuild America with the pride and ambition that reflects the unlimited potential of our people."

The great old American cities, with their master works by architects like Albert Kahn in the Detroit region, have fallen victim to time and clutter — they were built as industrial centers and to house immigrants entering by the millions, and have since found only ad hoc functions. But they have also fallen victim to committees. Detroit, for example, is cluttered with bad architecture, bad commissioned art, and building without a plan or, worse, building with plans that changed so many times that that they formed no pattern but chaos. Underneath is a jewel of high architecture, vastly varied neighborhoods and one of the greatest farm markets in America, but it would take the eye of someone like Maya Lin to find it and retrieve it. It would also take a few with political clout and heft to take the sledgehammer to much of the trashy and didactic commissioned art accumulated over the last decades. Like any manager restructuring, say, a university or museum, there will need to be long-term cohesive plans to maintain unity over generations. Which is why the co-chairmen in this triumvirate might be appointed dictators for life, as the supremes at the high court are given life contracts.

"The principles we are advocating will help our nation be more competitive in the global economy, ensure our environmental sustainability, enhance our citizens' quality of life and improve public safety," said Mayor Bloomberg. "They are good public policy and make sound business sense. We need to invest more in our infrastructure and those investment decisions need to be based on merit, not politics."

Philadelphia, which went through a renewal period just prior to 1976 at the Bicentennial, had a very successful restoration and one which still echoes. Back in the early ’70s a waitress/artist could buy an old stone historic house with boarded-up windows for $800 or less off South Street, an area that had fallen into decline. Ed Rendell was a great mayor who came in during this time of growth. He helped awaken Philly to a new sense of itself and a free feeling in the old city; it was a rich and happy time when poet drank with Kansas tourist, waitress/artist and local gangster together in the same rooms where Jefferson and Franklin cast our fate. It is auspicious that he co-chairs this committee. Today, these restored areas are among the most valued urban real estate in the country and the old Father-Son-Holy Ghost houses, as these little carved gems are called, are worth millions.

There were no doubt a whole group of committees to get this going at a time when Philly advertised itself with this slogan: “Philadelphia is not as bad as everybody says.” But the cultural awakening that Rendell presided over happened because it didn’t start really with some committee. It started with the artist/waitresses who lived along the South Street region. The idea back then was to send in the artists and let them live cheaply and they will restore the old neighborhoods with their own initiative and creativity.

The lawyers would follow, they said, with their cash and cache, and they will do the rest. And they did.


Visit Mr. Quigley's website at http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com.

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