Thinking Forward

Here are a couple of pictures I took this summer, a day apart. See if you can figure what they have in common.

click to Art-decotize

Both of these are pictures of public toilets at busy tourist areas.

The first is at Hoover Dam. This was the largest engineering project in the world at the time, and one that was built with public money during the largest economic depression of the post-industrial revolution (the kind of “stimulus spending” that actually puts people to work, well, those it didn’t kill, anyway…). This might be the finest-looking monument to urination ever built: art deco, bas relief sculpture, brass doors, and beautiful tile mosaics inside.

The second is a crappy industrial toilet built at a major trailhead at the Grand Canyon. Nothing wrong with it: four walls and a roof and a composting toilet. Wheelchair accessible, probably built in the late 90s, functional, a little squat, just dull enough to be almost completely unregarded. A Park Service General-Function Shithouse Type #4. Probably tossed together in an afternoon from pre-fab bits imported from China. It is only sad when compared to the architectural grandeur of the Hoover Dam crapper.

This, if you will follow along a bit, says a lot about where we are in North America in the dawn of the 21st century.

You see, there was a time when America (and Canada, as America’s fluffy toque) built things that they were proud of. They dared to dream. If people asked FDR why they were building the largest arch-gravity dam on earth at the height of the Great Depression, he would have said something along the lines of “because we can build a better future today!” But no-one would have asked such a silly question: they knew already. America was the place where people had big dreams and did big things.

This is why the 20th Century belonged to America. Put a man on the moon? No freaking problem: banged the most complicated engineering feat in history together in less than 9 years. From the Chrysler building in 1930 to the Sears Tower in 1998, the United States was home to a series of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. The USof A won the most medals at the Olympics, had the best schools, lead in all fields of science, from FermiLab to the Mayo Clinic to M.I.T. USA! USA! USA!

It is pretty clear to anyone not currently running for President that those times are gone. The US cannot put a human being in space without relying on the very ballistic missile technology developed to destroy the USA. The Middle and Far East are competing to build the greatest Cities in the world. China wins more gold medals, builds more high-speed rail every year than the entire stock of high-speed rail in the United States, and now builds almost twice as many automobiles as the country that made the building of lots of automobiles their entire business plan. There are many countries in the world looking forward and building great things. The USA just isn’t one of them anymore. And now that Steve Jobs is gone…

I’m thinking the toilets above are emblematic of the problem. Where we used to dream and build great things, now we seem to think “what’s the point?” Especially if we can build something less great for less money. When the biggest building in any town USA is the WalMart (and the biggest building in New Westminster is a Lowe’s), why build it fancy? The race is on for cheaper, faster, more of less. There is a cultural malaise where all they can do is look inward, protect what they have. This is a place where people are afraid of the future.

It’s not just me saying this, it is an ongoing theme I am noticing from people much, much smarter than me, and with diverse back grounds, like Umair Haque and Neil DeGrasse Tyson .

I suspect a large part of the problem is the one thing in which the USA still leads to the world: Negative politics.

The problem with negative politics is that it creates an environment where things like Vision and Hope are set up for ridicule. Why come up with a new idea when you can make cheap political points outlining all the potential problems with your opponent’s ideas? Criticism is much easier that creativity. As a result, no politician in the 21st century is going to say “were going to put a man on the moon and return him safety to Earth by the end of the decade”. No-one is brave enough to suggest the US should invest in high-speed rail, or a sustainable energy future (other than “Drill, baby Drill!” – a non-solution that nonetheless is easy for the noisemakers the chant), or in renewing their public education system. Suggesting that maybe people should have health insurance is enough to cost significant political capital.

In today’s political climate, the dreams are too easy to crush:

But that’s the States. What does it have to do with us?

New Westminster is a City that is proud of it’s past, and for good reason. But this Municipal election, I’m going to be thinking about it’s future, not it’s past. This City, like it or not, is going to grow to 100,000 people by the middle of the century. We need to start thinking now about how that future works. How are people going to live in New Westminster in 2050? How are they going to move about New Westminster? Where are they going to work in New Westminster? How will we maintain our livability, our economic stability, our infrastructure?

Now is the time to dream, now is the time to have a vision. I think there are glimmers of a bright future offered by the current Council. I don’t think many will argue that Sapperton and Downtown are more vibrant places, more “complete” neighbourhoods than they were a decade ago. Progress is being made. To continue this trend, we are going to need some bigger ideas. We need to be brave enough to build things we are proud of, so our future is as bright as our past.

There are several members of the Council that I support strongly, but I think there is room for some fresh vision at that table as well. I wish good luck to all the Candidates, and hope to hear some great discussion about the City’s future. Let’s keep it above the belt, and be ready to wow us with your ideas. However, if all you bring to the table is the problems with every one else’s ideas, then may I humbly suggest you get out of the way and let someone else lead.

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