We Used To Be Giants

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.

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11 thoughts on “We Used To Be Giants

  1. Alger says:

    The funny thing is that we do continue to make amazing and awe inspiring things every day in this country; it’s just that we have become so inured to them that they no longer make our jaws drop. From the perspective of someone from the 1920-30s we live in freaking Oz.
    That granted, yeah, we can do more to inspire ourselves, if not the world. Maybe that just begins with realizing how amazing our accomplishments really are though.

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  2. Good point, maybe we don’t have an appreciation. Or maybe these things are so technical and complicated that they’re beyond the grasp of the average schlub like me. I mean, I was trying to explain the Hadron Collider to someone and realized I had no fucking clue.

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  3. R. Manhammer says:

    While there may well be some wonderful things being made in this country on a daily basis, I’m not really sure what they would be. I do know that China, that’s right, third world Communist China, has better trains than we do. They have operational 300 mph trains. We have Amtrak, which sucks (I’ve ridden Amtrak and I know whereof I speak). The Japanese, with less natural resources than Nebraska, has operational bullet trains, too. We have Amtrak, which sucks. The French also have high speed rail. EVEN THE SPANISH HAVE HIGH SPEED RAIL! Not that there is anything at all wrong with the Spanish people doing smart stuff, but we here in the US used to be at the leading edge of this sort of endeavor and we aren’t. We are too poor. We are the poorest superpower the world has ever seen.

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  4. Mark Rogers says:

    Alger makes a valuable point. If only from the perspective of a ‘national psychology’ the distance between what people in the 20s saw as the ‘Future’ and what we see as the ‘Future.’ To a great extent, thanks to Star Trek and other sci-fi, our expectations for the time between fiction and realty has declined considerably.
    It should also be pointed out that the Chrysler Building and the Empire State building were constructed with private capital, not public funds. A better example in New York City would be the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel public authority . With the recent publication of the latest volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ, it is useful to read his first work, ‘The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York City.’
    Moses is the embodiment of the delicate balance between government doing good and government doing bad and the dangers of entrusting too much power into governmental agencies.
    Time and the biases of historians have presented us with the false choice of progress versus stagnation. Not all government initiatives are desirable {just look at the history of the Corps of Engineers} can exist without reform {think Social Security}. Building something is not the same as progress although that was pretty much the Robert Moses view.
    Should we be looking at high speed rail? In some instances,Yes. But in other instances. probably not. And from an economic perspective, improving the nation’s freight rail system would actually be a far more important investment.
    A better case for public investment might be improving the national power grid or a system of regional toll roads to help relieve traffic overcrowding or assist rural areas in attracting new jobs and people. The higher up the governmental decision, the less likely it is to include the realities of a particular area or the needs of the residents.
    Regarding the Chrysler Building, the steel for the cover of the top was made by the Krupp firm of Essen, Germany because it was the best option for long-life. A government-project would probably require steel made in America that would be less durable and more expensive to maintain.

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  5. Ron Carr says:

    The main problem is that the established Industries/Conglomerates have a vested interest in the status quo, and the power/ability to block innovation that may threaten their rice bowls.
    This is the concept of “Creative Destruction” in action, innovation destroys the established order as it creates a new future (Romney was mis-using the term justify his thievery).

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  6. Kaleberg says:

    My bet is that the Chrysler Building was built with American steel. The government had been pumping in subsidies to the steel industry starting in the ’70s, ostensibly to build an all steel navy and expand the, also heavily subsidized, railroad system, but also because an American steel industry was considered a good thing to have. Getting steel right also required building a research university system, so that we could train our own engineers.
    Let’s face it, without the government pushing industrial policy, we wouldn’t have had railroads or steamships or interchangeable machine parts or the telegraph or radio or universal electricity or computers or a highway system or any number of other things. The old South held up the railroads until after the Civil War, and those people are still out there trying to keep the nation locked in the past.
    We actually can do a lot. We should be building high speed rail. Building new roads will not help our congested areas. This has been tried and has failed again and again. Our air traffic system has basically collapsed on the eastern seaboard. It’s a wonder it works at all. We should also be pushing even harder on alternate energy sources and the problem of storing power. Sure, a good number of the startups will be failures. That was the case with the steel business as well, but there is no point in giving up as a nation just because there is some risk of changing our minds in the future.

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  7. …the Chrysler Building and the Empire State building were constructed with private capital…
    And thanks for reminding me that the Chrysler building is now owned by the government of Abu Dhabi …

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  8. Tom Allen says:

    Maybe if you were supporting the Socialists or the Greens, rather than the Democrats (who are really just 1950s Republicans these days) we could have nice things once again. Just a thought.

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  9. Randy says:

    Interesting post and comment section. Americans of different ideologies can also engage in civil and informative discourse. Shazaam.
    P.S. I’m with you Mr. Allen.

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  10. MichaelF says:

    Hope this isn’t too much of a tangential comment, but…
    “I was trying to explain the Hadron Collider to someone and realized I had no fucking clue”
    The other day I came across this, which is as good an explanation as any:
    http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap120501.html

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  11. report from the heartland says:

    In NYC there are some monster public construction projects right now but they are underground: new subway line under Second Ave (been on the drawing board for… 40–50 years?) and LIRR extension into Grand Central. The fact that both these are finally happening is miraculous but NYC needs to move everyone around, not just those who can afford cars. In my hometown in Ohio it would be physically a lot easier to build transportation projects (not necessarily underground). But long ago people there decided they didn’t want to invest in the Common. No taxes to possibly help Those People. And the city died back and is merely bumping along.

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