Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Making it hot to be wired, Part III: When the cachet of cables is as lofty as their height above ground.

At long last I conclude a blog series that has proven among the most challenging of any of my essays yet. In the previous two posts, I identified the prevalence of overhead cables throughout the American urban landscape. While it is common practice for new suburban developments is to bury electric wires underground—and the majority of city centers boast a largely undergrounded electrical wire network—vast stretches of the inner city, suburban highways, and virtually all of rural America remain a tangle of wires hoisted by wooden poles and metal pylons. Compared to dense European settlements in countries such as Holland, America still has quite a few unburied electric wires. Among the larger cities, New Orleans may be the one where the greatest proportion of the electrical network stretches nakedly above the streets and sidewalks. Wires are everywhere in the Big Easy, often right up front with all the pedestrian traffic, such as this bustling stretch of Magazine Street.

While the older neighborhoods of most cities (at least those west of the Mississippi, where the majority of America’s comparatively old cities lie) feature unburied, overhead electric wires, in New Orleans they are particularly noticeable. The city may be at a topographic disadvantage: burying cables makes them less susceptible to high winds and fallen trees, but water intrusion poses a considerable problem, particularly in a city that is largely below sea level. Undergrounding of wires is costly no matter where it takes place, but in New Orleans it is particularly onerous and largely impractical. However, many other cities at least have attempted a discreet placement of the overhead wires; I noted in Part II that Chicago’s cables mostly rest in the back alleys, scarcely visible from the front side of residences and storefronts. But New Orleans overwhelmingly lacks alleys, and its concatenation of grids that meet at oblique angles makes it particularly difficult for any straight-line placement of infrastructure—the configuration of parcels within each street block is inconsistent, impeding the ability to integrate a dedicated utility easement at the line between two properties. The property lines for back yards are too jagged and irregular. The only remaining practical place for electric wires is out front above the sidewalks, so the poles and wires mingle with cars and pedestrians.
My apologies for this clichĂ©, but New Orleans is stuck between a rock and a hard place, when it comes to reducing the clutter of its electric infrastructure. Investment costs for undergrounding wires is high, and it won’t necessarily pay off in improved electric service because underground wires still run a great risk of inundation in a city as flood-prone as New Orleans. And it can’t bury them in the back alleys the way Chicago does, because it doesn’t generally have alleys. If the common perception remains that undergrounding cables equates to modernization, how should the City that Care Forgot proceed in getting rid of all that old-fashioned clutter?

I’ve dropped more than hints. Largely out of virtue of necessity, the city’s leadership has eschewed any significant modernization of the electrical network. This benign neglect, though, has spread to other major infrastructural components and has elicited some serious problems. The Sewerage and Water Board has acknowledged that Hurricane Katrina exacerbated an already compromised network; over 50 million gallons of water are leaking each day. The conditions of the roads in the city are the stuff of legend. And though the importance of the levees extends far beyond the City (as does the political responsibility), the entire world is well aware of their precarious state. Compared to the rest of the infrastructure, the electric grid of New Orleans is small potatoes.

Virtually every major city in America suffers from deteriorating infrastructure to a certain degree. But in only a few are the conditions so bad that the awareness of the problem extends beyond the DPW. In New Orleans, the infrastructure consistently falls under public scrutiny: among the examples include the New Orleans Potholes Brass Band; the C’est Levee parade held by the Krewe de Vieux during the first Carnival season after Katrina; or the widely recognized design to the water meters: Reaffirming the centrality of the crescent-shaped bend in the Mississippi River, various civic groups have adopted this manhole cover’s star-and-moon pattern: The design also appears as screen prints on t-shirts, miniature pendants on necklaces, and tattoos on forearms. It is inevitable that, for a city in which copper, steel, and concrete simultaneously protect it from devastation while broadly signaling the selfsame vulnerability, the innards would achieve a greater recognition than in a city that does not depend so much on earth moving for basic operability. Rather than turning the city’s many civil engineering deficiencies into a collective jeremiad, New Orleanians have persistently celebrated or even romanticized the “guts” of the town. The design of a manhole cover evolves into a fashion accessory, much like the way trendy loft apartments leave the HVAC and water pipes exposed along the ceiling as a potential selling point. Can overhead electrical wires achieve the same mystique? New Orleanians, faced with power outages after many violent storms, would be far more likely to find a way than the residents of other cities. All it takes is a skilled artistic eye to capture and disseminate an accessible pattern. It could involve the hub-and-spoke configuration when wires stretch over the street from a single pole: Or a criss-cross at regular intervals like a musical staff: Or the way the cables link to the brackets of classic New Orleans shotguns: I’ve explored all of this imagery in earlier posts from this series. And this is the stuff of a college/high school literary magazine cover. A more skillful photographer could easily find a way to elevate this to a broadly consumable meme—an experience that is shared and even cherished by those voluntarily living amidst the shadows of wooden poles and wires along the sidewalks in front of their homes. Rather than being a nuisance, all those cables have become cool—even chic.

But the aestheticization of overhead cables is still only likely to attract a small contingent: the same type who can poeticize a manhole cover, who take pictures of abandoned rail yards, or who choose to live in the most forlorn urban landscape if the only alternative is the perceived sterility of a manicured suburb. This contingent does not comprise close to a majority, since nearly every demographic study shows that suburbs and exurbs—where the cables have been shoved underground—remain the fastest growing settlements across the country. Because overhead cables would never be broadly coveted in a landscape in which its designers aim for a new or contemporary look, the standard remains for developers in greenfields to bury them. The selling point then becomes what isn’t there.

Visible electric infrastructure also rarely appeals to the mass market of tourists, who typically expect postcard-quality photography to be free of wires—anything less would be like a model walking down the catwalk with the clothing tags showing. What if the timeless image of Jackson Square in the French Quarter was polluted with pylons or cell phone towers? Fortunately, this visual predicament also offers a far simpler solution than undergrounding. A perfect example is the view of Indianapolis from a bridge over the Central Canal, one of the most common vistas of the city used in promotional material: It conveniently doesn’t show up so powerfully here, but a zoom-in sure reveals a certain urban infelicity: I’ve circled the visible power lines and utility pole on West Street. Of course this is a minor criticism, since these are hardly visible from a distance. But a sophisticated camera is likely to pick up these overhead wires that fall just outside of the Mile Square of Indianapolis’ downtown—and for the city’s innards to appear on a prime vista is no better than seeing a radio transmitter on Mount Rushmore. So what’s the solution? It doesn’t take a great deal of media-savvy to at least sense the ubiquity of digitally altered photographs. The primary instigator of these manipulations, Adobe Photoshop, has labored to protect the legal trademark to its name, as it has become almost fully genericized—an American proprietary eponym. How does this work? Case in point: I Photoshopped this picture of downtown Indianapolis to remove the power lines. Perhaps this was just my sneaky way of demonstrating that I have reasonable Photoshop skills, but the truth of the matter is: 1) my skills aren’t that remarkable; 2) the Photoshop version I’m using is ancient; and 3) a fifteen minute lesson would endow anyone with the know-how to remove power lines from a streetscape. Whether to remove crow’s feet from a smiling ingĂ©nue or to strip away the unsightliness of overhead cables, tools such as Photoshop have proven so effective at hiding perceived flaws that they can weaken the argument for the actual investment in the physical change—whether it be a facelift or undergrounding.

The average American metropolitan area is lower density than practically any settlement in recorded history, across the globe. The marginal cost for servicing American homes with electricity would be higher too, if measured purely in terms of the placement of infrastructure across (or under) our vast sprawling lawns. Thus, the cost per person for burying cables in a city like Amsterdam will always be lower than New Orleans. And it might not even offer better electric service. The most powerful justification for burying cables remains an aesthetic one, and digital manipulation can easily eliminate the clutter from a static image at a fraction of the cost.

I have now arrived at the paradox in my deductive reasoning that has made this essay so difficult to write: in my analysis of the arguments favoring the undergrounding of electric cables, I have only revealed a solution in search of a problem. It is difficult if not impossible to extract political leverage out of the goal of removing overhead wires, because it simply isn’t a contentious enough issue. Perhaps, unconsciously, most of us realize that buried cables depend entirely on an aesthetic benefit that pales into comparison to the necessity of other infrastructural upgrades. (In New Orleans, those busy electric grids will always take a back seat to levees and pumping stations.) While the public generally appreciates when a utility or city agency removes some overhead cables, it doesn’t particularly despise their presence either, and soon it forgets that they’re even gone after they’ve been buried. Most civic projects involve the construction of a new building or structure. Burying cables involves one of the few streetscape improvements that subtracts from the environment. How can such an investment hope to elicit a return when there’s nothing to show for it—no proud physical form as a result of all that work?

If a city like New Orleans decided that it still has too many overhead wires, the best solution would be to concentrate undergrounding in small increments—such as a single city block at a time—but only when integrated with another public or private initiative, such as the resurfacing of roads, replacement stop lights, installation of storm sewers, or earth removal for a new development. Otherwise, it is hard to justify to the taxpayers that this is the best use of their dollars, when the primary goal is to remove something that nearly always remains part of the background. People wouldn’t notice what’s missing. It’s so much cheaper and easier to suppress people’s consciousness of overhead wires in the few situations when it does become obvious, such as the vistas within a prominent post card—just Photoshop the wires away! But neither New Orleans nor anywhere else is likely to confront the situation of undergrounding any more electric lines, precisely because the wires are omnipresent and ordinary—we hardly notice when they’re there and are no more likely to recognize it when they’re gone. Burying cables is the ultimate political stalemate—no single party cares enough to elevate it to a major platform. The Crescent City and a host of others are generally content with keeping those poles firmly in place, and just maybe some shrewd entrepreneur will find away to mythologize them—and then profit from it. Amsterdam can eat its heart out.


Anonymous said...

Now that you have left several messages on urbanophile's blog regarding PUP-maybe you should give PUP a plug yourself---afterall you were initially thinking that "there would be a more suitable use for the dome material"--these folks are innovative, and most concerned about the City of Indianapolis--it is folks like Aaron who have done the right thing and suppoted them.--enough said

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the comment. You have already inspired me to formulate a good photo-heavy way to promote PUP, though it will have to come in a future post (and the next time I visit Indy). I am happy to recognize organizations that devise creative strategies to achieve environmental stewardship; I featured the First Mennonite Church's effort to turn their grounds into a neighborhood park/nature preserve not so long ago. http://dirtamericana.blogspot.com/2010/03/from-silos-to-steeplespainting-town.html

Roland S said...

The regular power lines don't bother me too much - it's the massive high-tension lines along streets like Annunciation and Convention Center Blvd that really irk me. They have a 2-3' diameter at ground level, so they consume the entire sidewalk and loom above the neighborhood.

It may not be feasible to bury the lines on each and every street, but it should be possible to bury the relatively few high-tension lines and harden them against flooding.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for your comment, Roland S. I'd agree that its nitpicking to go after the smaller power lines, which is why I proposed alternative solutions---though the use of the word "solution" implies that there's a "problem", which is mostly suspect.

I'd also agree that the high-tension lines are much more problematic because of their size and prominence. But when is big too big? I have to admit I had walked or driven along Convention Center Blvd many times before I ever noticed them, and then finally I said to myself, "Holy crap--those are the biggest lines I have ever seen in a downtown area of a city this size." I have to admit I have never noticed the ones on Annunciation, and I was on that street probably more than Convention Center Boulevard. At least I've never seen utility poles that sit squarely in the middle of a sidewalk, making it impossible for a person in a wheelchair to pass. This is a common occurrence in Indianapolis.

It's funny how these things work--the vast majority of Americans never notice overhead wires because we're so accustomed to them, just as, I suspect, the majority of Turks aren't consciously aware of the call to worship blasting from minaret loudspeakers five times daily.