The Magic that was this Journey

Thursday, February 10, 2011

3 – 2.10.11 – Nice (pronounced “Niece”)

While I may be overly fixated on infrastructure on this journey (what my friend Kathe is calling, “EJ,” for epic journey), I am on the roads a great deal and personally dealing with my own sewage, water and power systems.  Also, I’ve become very interested in infrastructure, of late, because of my work with the City of Olympia and their Department of Public Works (in particular, my work with Michael Mucha, former City of Oly, DPW Director, now in a new job as Chief Engineer and Director of the Madison (WI) Metropolitan Sewerage District).  

Infrastructure, as Gail Johnson and I said a while back in a white paper, is where “the rubber meets the road” in terms of citizen/government connections. We experience government on a daily basis when we drive on roads, buy fuel for our vehicles, take public transportation, open our water taps, turn on the electricity, flush the toilets, etc.  Yet, citizens don’t seem to be conscious of this citizen/government connection.  Everyone I’ve talked to for this research, so far, has not mentioned infrastructure, or the regulation of the elements of infrastructure, as something they think about when they think about government.  When I mention these things, conversations shift. People have something to hang onto, instead of abstract notions like, "they are all crooks." (It's also quite a job to get folks to talk about government and not about politics.)

---By the way, keep the great comments coming. Thanks Ryan for reminding us of the importance of public transportation to community (and vice versa), Jayne for her comment on how limiting it is to only know someone through our disagreements and Greg for his suggestion that dings to body and vehicle are part of a heroic journey, ala Joseph Campbell.  I will work comments into the book---

I think most reading this will not be surprised that I out myself as a Keynesian.  One cannot love infrastructure, apparently the way I do, and not be a Keynesian. Government programs have funded and built most all of U.S. infrastructure and it was FDR’s New Deal projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that provided the foundation for many of the infrastructure projects we are still using today. A similar effort continues today with the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The WPA put Americans to work building badly needed infrastructure, following the Great Depression.  The ARRA is putting people to work repairing and improving infrastructure, following the Great Recession of the last few years.

I’ve encountered quite a few road improvement projects along the way.  Our roads and bridges are in sore need of work, due to what the ex-Secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation, Doug MacDonald, called our “infrastructure deficit.”  According to Doug, our infrastructure deficit (what we have not funded or repaired in the last 50 years) is larger than our fiscal deficit.  

Each road project I’ve seen displays a sign saying (proudly, it seems) that this project is “Putting Americans to Work” and is “Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”  Sometimes the signs also say, “Your Tax Dollars at Work.”

And, one cannot drive the 101 through Oregon without noticing the majestic and ornate bridges that were built by the WPA, still standing strong today. All of the bridges built by the WPA have the same signature columns at both ends of the bridge—the columns are quite striking.  They draw your attention to the architecture of the bridge and, in my case, remind me that these bridges were built by a government program focused on people and communities: 

The Great Depression hit the Oregon coast like a giant sneaker wave back in the 1930’s. Businesses shut down, families moved across country to find work and displaced workers were offered relief through government programs. Cannon Beach and the North Coast experienced a revitalization during the years following the Depression through President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The New Deal offered jobs building bridges, creating state parks and even documenting the success of relief programs through photography, art and writing., accessed 2/10/11)

The ARRA is remarkably like the WPA, except the Feds are “contracting out” most of the services (instead of having an agency manage the process, as was done in the WPA).  The intent is to shore up our failing systems and introduce money into the economy to spur business and other growth.  Here’s how the ARRA is described on the .gov website:

In addition to offering financial aid directly to local school districts, expanding the Child Tax Credit, and underwriting a process to computerize health records to reduce medical errors and save on health care costs, the Recovery Act is targeted at infrastructure development and enhancement. For instance, the Act plans investment in the domestic renewable energy industry and the weatherizing of 75 percent of federal buildings as well as more than one million private homes around the country. Construction and repair of roads and bridges as well as scientific research and the expansion of broadband and wireless service are also included among the many projects that the Recovery Act will fund. While many of Recovery Act projects are focused more immediately on jumpstarting the economy, others, especially those involving infrastructure improvements, are expected to contribute to economic growth for many years.

We need the ARRA, and many other programs like it.  We need our government to think about people and to provide safety nets.  We need our government to be nice. Catherine, a woman I met in a Laundromat in Brookings, OR said it so well:

“It’s no longer a government of the people, by the people, for the people…it’s a business and everyone is in it just to make money…it’s not about us…the government seems to be all about keeping up appearances, they don’t care about us anymore…government is not there for us anymore…it’s not the job of local churches and community groups to take care of us…that’s the government’s job…they should be saying to me, ‘tell me how I can help you.’”

I am camped at a tribal owned and managed RV campground in Nice, CA. I arrived here with jangled nerves—so much seems to be going wrong on the road.  The dogs are having a hard time adjusting.  Small, but potentially serious, problems plague the Beast (my rig).  On the day we arrived in Nice (pronounced “niece” but I prefer “nice), the starring role in the trauma of the day was the camper door flying open ON THE FREEWAY (four times, no less)!  I needed repair work on the locking mechanisms.  A small problem, yes, but potentially serious consequences!  And, my already anxious dogs were sent into the stratosphere every time the door flew open.  God only knows what they were imagining - I was imagining them sliding out the door, onto the highway.

We arrived here, in this obviously poverty-ridden town, a big, hot mess.  And everyone (I mean everyone) has been so nice. Bob the campground host helped me figure out the problem with the locking mechanism and helped me strategize how to fix it (I fixed it – but not without suffering more cuts on my hands). I’ve had two people stop their cars in the middle of the street to talk to me about the dogs (who are very happy in this moment, not moving, enjoying snoozing in the sun).  Another person got out of his car to talk to me. The hardware store guy was nice.  I’m thinking, “who are these people?”  And, this is not your typical small town where everyone looks the same and the homogeneity allows niceness to ferment -- no, this town reflects California's reputation as a "global-state" -- all sorts of different folks have stopped me to talk.  The one thing they all seem to share is poverty - I want to know the story of this place, why the poverty and why two high-end vineyards (with limos to shuttle you between) are nestled between two towns (Nice and Lucerne) with folks in such obvious poverty.  I plan to ask Bob (the nice campground host) tomorrow.

In Nice, everyone is nice and it is what my jangled soul needed – some niceness, a hand-up and some blue sky and sunshine on the shores of Clear Lake.  Clearly, the girls needed it too.

I wonder what the citizen/government connection would look like if government was what the jangled souls of citizens need, particularly those citizens who are in need?


  1. I really hope this is not trite...I think we take infrastructure for granted because it is a macro-version of our skeleton. We don't often give much thought to our skeletal (personal/micro) infrastructure, but of course where would we be with out it?

  2. Greg - not trite at all. Love the skeleton metaphor. My friend Mark, who is currently having (minor) trouble with his physical infrastructure, agrees with you. It's invisible until we have a problem...