I have been watching a crew pouring concrete for carports where I live. The preparations for each pour, the urgent rush to rake and finish while the stiff concrete is still pliable, brings back memories.
I worked concrete construction for two summers in college, one of them remains especially vivid in the folds of my brain where old movies are stored. It was in the southwest corner of Ohio where low corrugated metal factories and massive warehouses rose in an industrial sprawl along the flat horizon.
Summer in the lower Midwest is a dripping humid affair, smothering heat wrapped inside a moist bag of atmosphere. We were pouring concrete floors in sheet metal sheds on the roofs of those buildings where HVAC units would be placed. Ninety degrees or more of heat and eighty degrees of humidity, those rooftop sheds were chambers of breathlessness.
This current project reminds me of how much preparation and infrastructure lies invisible beneath the flat surface of any concrete we see. Not to mention hours of hard human labor. Digging footers, grading the surface, building wooden frames, placing and fitting rebar, measuring and placing forms – all of it takes days of work before a cement truck ever arrives. This is just one small neighborhood project, but we have all seen it on a grander scale: highway construction taking place for what seems like eternity as we squeeze into single lanes on our daily or occasional commute through construction zones. “How long is this going to take?” It’s the summer lament as months drag on and the roadwork seems impossibly incremental. When all is said and done, we just see the flat gray concrete spreading before us on the highway and think nothing of what went into creating the road we take for granted.
It takes labor, lots of human labor. It requires enormous amounts of natural resources, and humanly manufactured resources – tools and machines. It takes time, something Americans seem to be impatient with to the extreme.
I think about this when I read headlines regarding the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress. But the concrete construction we associate with infrastructure is only the tip of the iceberg. What I have also come to appreciate from living in my little neighborhood, is all the other connecting infrastructure required to make a modern facility hum: Power lines, wi-fi broadband, fiber optic lines, water lines, solar panels and their connection to one another and then the grid, storm sewers, sanitary sewers, catch basins, and multiple means of diverting runoff to keep the lakes clean.
We hear “infrastructure” and think hi-ways, runways, and bridges. But like concrete, those are only the obvious surface features. In this post-modern economy infrastructure is the miasma of connections required to make things work. Think ecosystem. Just like Seneca Lake is an ecosystem connected to and affected by every farm, town, village, marsh, orchard, weather system, and biological species connected to it, our economy in 2021 is a hyper-connected network – and the network itself is infrastructure. Weak infrastructure, weak economy. Rotten, deteriorated infrastructure, then decaying moldering economy.
Time to look below and beyond what we see on the surface, appreciate all the labor, and belly up our support to make it stronger and healthier.