The New York City Municipal Archive has just released a database of 870,000 photographs onto the internet. People: this is the kind of thing I could spend literally weeks diving into. So, thank God the Atlantic pulled out 53 for me, otherwise y’all wouldn’t see me until June.
I’m a huge photography fan and fell in love with Margaret Bourke-White back when I was in high school. With all her flaws, the thing about her that I adored — besides the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field, andwalked the scaffolding of the fucking Chrysler Building while it was under construction! — is that she expressed the majesty of what we humans could do. This was a very Howard Roark/Ayn Rand perspective, but that was quite prevalent in the 1920s and ’30s. We built great, glorious things like skyscrapers and bridges and Hoover Dam, and we did it with our own blood, sweat and grit. These were spectacular, fantastic things no human thought possible and they were a thing of beauty. Marvel at what we hath wrought upon the landscape! Celebrate it! And why the hell not? This is the stuff that made our nation great.
And that’s why these photos make me sad. Because we can still make great things, we can make even greater, more awe-inspiring things. But we don’t. Why not? Is it because we no longer value them? Or, more damningly, perhaps we think we are not worthy?
Check out the photo of the Meeker Avenue Bridge, with the steel proudly emblazoned with the words “American Bridge Company.” This companystill exists! What an amazing legacy. But I wonder: would such a thing be built today? Would the New York subway system? Or would we have Republican governors and Tea Party “patriots” saying, nah. Meh. Tax cuts for me and mine, please!
We have Republican governors saying no to high-speed rail and tunnels and other massive infrastructure projects because they think tax cuts for millionaires are more important. But worse are the people in these states who don’t seem to care. America, what is wrong with you? When did you decide to disengage? When did you check out?
I don’t mean to be maudlin and if I don’t quit I’ll fast descend into “offa my lawn” territory, but I don’t get what’s wrong with the American psyche. Once upon a time we built great things and we were proud of them. We saw the fruit of our labors as art. Today, the idea of investing in America is derided as “pork” and “socialism.”
We’ve gotten really isolated, insulated and parochial. We don’t care about anyone but ourselves and we sure as shit don’t care about our legacy. And I don’t know when the hell that happened.