Visiting the U.S. for the first time has to be weird for foreigners. This has been the case for as long as America has been a nation, and in fact a French guy made quite a name for himself writing about our peculiarities for a Continental audience over two centuries ago. We've always been a bit "different" and like most countries we're rather proud of (some of) our unique attributes. But I think we are starting to overdo it with the cognitive dissonance. We're far and away the wealthiest nation on Earth but we sure as hell don't look like it. We've built a magnificent castle of wealth on top of crumbling, centuries-old infrastructure in which no one seems willing or able to invest. The effect is not unlike seeing a decrepit trailer park with a 2010 Bugatti Veyron parked out front.

Two anecdotes are relevant before we move on.

First, I have a friend who was raised in Berlin Wall-era Eastern Europe. I once asked her to recount her impression, having been raised in a much different society and subject to considerable anti-American propaganda, of seeing America for the first time. She responded that she was amazed at how shabby it was (being in the South at the time didn't help). Potholed, filthy streets lined with boarded up buildings. Trash everywhere. Public transportation systems that would embarrass any other nation on Earth. Say what you will about the failings of the Communist system, she concluded, but at least it was clean and looked like someone gave a shit about it.

Second, the company at which I worked in Chicago for several years briefly took in a Kenyan exchange student studying law at a university in the city. He accompanied me on a field visit to a hospital in the decrepit Austin neighborhood on the far west side. He surveyed the neighborhood and said "This looks exactly like Nairobi." That made me incredibly sad. It didn't help 30 seconds later when he added "Actually, most of Nairobi is nicer than this."

I don't think many Americans understand this. We raise our children to believe that everyone else in the world wants to come live in America. Most of us, I think, believe that America looks terribly impressive to foreign visitors. I seriously doubt that Los Angeles is impressive to a traveler. Other countries have shitholes too, so I assume most visitors have seen one before.

Pictured: St. Louis. Or maybe Mogadishu. I don't know.

The NYT has recently emphasized the fact that most major cities' sewage networks are crumbling. Many date back to the 19th Century and are literally leaking shit into our water. Our roads and bridges are disintegrating (and occasionally fails at considerable economic and human cost). Our society and economy rest upon a "third world power grid" that occasionally fails spectacularly. The average African country has better, newer, cheaper cell phone infrastructure. We lose (waste) seven billion gallons of clean, treated water every day through the leaks in our water system. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would take a five year investment of over two trillion dollars to bring the nation's road, levee, and utility infrastructure up to a passing grade. Not even an A. Just a C. And this doesn't even include general urban blight – the collapsing tenements, abandoned businesses, and wagon-rut roads.

Our theory, aided considerably by how continuously broke state and local governments are, seems to be of the patch-and-pray variety: do just enough to prevent total collapse and hope it holds up. We did precious little to address this with the Federal stimulus package, most likely because the right would have gone into hysterics over infrastructure projects as a Trojan Horse for funneling kickbacks to organized labor. Not that we could use blue collar jobs these days.

It makes perfect sense that Americans, like many people, adopt the ego-defensive position that we live in a great place. While we certainly don't need anything else to be sad about these days, I can't help but wonder why more people do not look around and think, "Wow. Was this place always such a dump?" Instead we tell ourselves that billions of people around the globe secretly long to live in Spartanburg or Waco or Merced. Sure they do, Billy. Sure they do.


  • I have a friend who vacations in France fairly regularly. I asked him recently about the dogs in Paris – I'd heard that they were wonderfully pampered, and routinely brought into restaurants. I asked him whether Parisians were diligent about picking up their dogs' poop, and he said, no way, they just leave it there.

    Then he said that I should remember that the French have a much higher opinion of civil servants than Americans do, and while dog shit on the sidewalks can be very icky, it usually isn't there long, because they have street picker-uppers who take care of it.

    He also mentioned that at the various outdoor markets (I think he may have been referring to the south of France), there is a lot of debris left behind immediately after the market closes. But within a half-hour, the picker-uppers have neatened up the area completely.

    But in our glorious ownership society, it is illogical to employ and pay people to do those sorts of tasks (except if you're wealthy enough to "own" minions to do it) when we sturdy, self-reliant Americans can clearly do it ourselves.

    Soon we will own (and inspect and repair) our bridges, and get informational packets on do-it-yourself appendectomies.

  • Hey come on now, the parts of our cities that are not crumbling into disgusting, useless blight (for example, all of Detroit) are sometimes sort of pretty… umm, every now and then. Manhattan, at least between 34th and 55th streets, and between 2nd and 6th avenues, is nice. When there isn't a garbage workers' strike on. I mean, if you don't look at a) the enormous amount of disgusting refuse that those towering, gleaming office buildings produce (the ones built either in the past 60 to 70 years or the ones built in the last 20 to 30, a lot of the ones in between are kind of grody) or b) the disgusting neighborhoods in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx that have to exist in order to support those Babelian towers, then they're really nice to look at.

  • Nancy Irving says:

    "We raise our children to believe that everyone else in the world wants to come live in America."

    Those kids might wonder why we no longer have virtually any immigration from Europe or from other wealthy countries.

    We still look good from the other side of the Rio Grande, though. Thank God for Mexico! And Cambodia!

  • You're absolutely right about L.A. I've visited America from England a fair few times, and L.A is one of my least favourite places to fly into. Bearing in mind that I sometimes have to go to Newark, that's really saying something.

    The free-market worshippers never really seem to have an answer to the problem of infrastructure. It's only a small example of how ridiculous their philosophy is, but who the hell do they think is going to repair roads? Maybe Netflix or Amazon?

  • Pan Sapiens says:

    "In 1886 Paris, neighbors of an establishment famous for its excellent bread and pastries complained of disgusting smells which prevailed therein and penetrated their dwellings. The appearance of cholera finally forced sanitary inspectors to investigate. They found a connection between the water closets of the dwellings and the reservoir supplying the bakery. the connection was immediately cut, and the result was a perceptible deterioration of the quality of the bread.

    Chemists have no difficulty in demonstrating that water impregnated with liquid poo has the property of causing dough to rise exceedingly high, thereby imparting a pleasing appearance and flavor of particularly sumptuous bread".

    MM. Wonder bread. You would have stalwart Americans cease our coprophageous habits? I think not.

  • I watched The Good Shepherd the other night. The scene with the real Russian spy impressed me, particularly the line that goes "it's all painted rust!" Though the line was spoken to represent the Cold War-Era Soviet Union, I think it's relevant today. All we have to do is look closely around us to see what we REALLY value; that we're not willing to invest in the basic necessities of our lives is incredibly telling.

  • "The effect is not unlike seeing a decrepit trailer park with a 2010 Bugatti Veyron parked out front."

    It's funny you should say that! The neighborhood I'm living in is one that was built about 50 years ago, where the original owners have mostly died or left, and the new ownership (like me) is mostly lower-middle- to working-class. The houses are getting increasingly run-down, because few of us have the time and expertise to keep them well-maintained, or the money to pay for it. Still, the handful of Lexuses, high-end SUVs, even Jaguars and Porsches I see around the area is striking. Perhaps they all belong to extra-legal entrepeneurs of the sort that made America great, but I think it shows that even lower down on the socio-economic ladder our choices are often made along purely selfish lines of short-term self-pleasure. In other words, "screw you, Jack, I'm all right!" is a human constant.

  • I think this is more of the same. This country is full of people that don't want other people to have something they think they don't have. It doesn't even matter if they even need or want it.

    'How come THOSE people get THEIR bridge repaired? So what if I don't have a bridge near me? Fuck you, that's not the point!'

    I grew up in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. What hospital did you visit? West Suburban?

  • Tsk. What's with all the L.A.-hate? (Home town, so I'm prickly about it.) Granted, much of it is genuinely dreadful–pre-fab housing cheek-by-jowl with areas that make one regret that the name "Hell's Kitchen" has already been taken, but much of it isn't–Melrose, Hancock Park, large swatches of Santa Monica and West Hollywood–like America as a whole, it's so goddamned big that it's terribly easy to find a lot of it that's urbanized shit, but there are depressingly ugly-as-fuck areas in every major city–London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Hong Kong, and do we even want to get started with Mumbai or Beijing? My experience with people who hate L.A. is that they come to the city bound and determined to hate it, and inevitably find legitimate reasons for doing so–but people who come determined to love it could just as easily achieve their goal. Dare I suggest that those who visit America can do the same? Hell, I live in Cleveland, and believe me when I say that I've had, alongside my moments of "Holy Fuck Get Me Out Of Here," moments of "Gosh, That's A Sight To See!"

    It's not that we're special in that regard–and as I've told my salt-of-the-earth blue-collar students who instinctively bitch about 'immigrants'–very few people leave their homes, their families, and their cultures in order to come here because they *want* to. They do so because they *have* to–because the alternative is nightmarish poverty/danger for themselves and their families.

    "Believe me," I say, "I've known a *lot* of immigrants, from places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, China, and Colombia, and *none* of them wanted to come here. None of them woke up one morning and said, 'I would *love* to leave everything I've ever known and loved to make an incredibly hazardous journey to a land where I'll work like a fucking dog and be treated like shit for my pains.' They wake up and say, 'I either leave, or I'm dead.' Big difference."

    When they express disbelief that these immigrants aren't panting to come here, I point out that Youngstown is only 30 minutes away. "Drive through that little slice of heaven–and keep your windows rolled up and your doors locked–and then come back and tell me that that's anyone's idea of The Land of Milk and Honey."

    So yes, we suck, and it's particularly appalling because we don't have to. (Though in order to have a really, consistently clean and pretty city, you've pretty much got have a draconian realm like Singapore–do we want that?) But as photos from Ed's pilgrimages across the country remind us, America tends to offer places of shocking beauty. Usually these are places where no one lives–but if we want to impress visitors–and really, *do* we really give a shit what visitors think?–not sayin', just askin'–we can find plenty of sights and scenes to show them.

    But yeah, our infrastructure is a fucking disgrace, and I seriously hoped Obama would pull a full-blown FDR on our unemployed asses and crank out a latter-day WPA to address this problem. Alas, no–but once the health care debacle dies down, maybe that can be the next Big Thing. And as long as I'm wishing, I'd also like a pony.

  • Building Levees is Socialism!

    Yet, I totally agree with 1930s throwback WPA project. Unemployment's at 10%, and that doesn't even include the kids right out of high school who can't afford college and haven't been able to join the work force yet. I'm sure I can find a supply of cheap labor who'd kill to be trained in a profession instead of forking over $30K to ITT Tech (NYTimes article on Sunday on this). And, should Congress balk at the cost of this, I'll grab my ol' Econ 102 textbook on how when no one else spends money, government needs to (and can do it more cheaply on the WPA model than farming it out to contractors).

  • People from poor countries _still_ want to live in America, or in another rich country, because they can make money here. The typical third-world immigrant to the US or another rich country isn't from a city, he's from a village, which I guarantee is shabbier than nearly anyplace in America.

  • I agreed whole heartedly ed. But just a little caveat about the commies in E. Europe. They did put money into public spaces and the public good, but they also screwed up a lot of stuff. Lots of pollution by state run firms, because "its somebody else's problem" after it left the plant. They also had a lot of deferred maintenance on public buildings like universities and government offices. Some of them were just falling apart by the 1990s.

    Same thing with the gigantic apartment blocks in the suburbs, they are all crumbling now, in part because the maintenance went to hell in a hand basket in the 1980s. Although the irony here is that all the companies that specialized in refurbishing and remodeling the prefab panel buildings were wiped out during the transition to capitalism. The proud new owners of their individual apartments are left to muddle through.

    But your larger point is well taken. We are doomed to failure if we do not fix the aging infrastructure. But as you pointed out in a past post, its easier to just pass a tax cut and let everyone spend it on flat screen TVs.

  • Word, J. Dryden. I am a home-grown Clevelander (still here, actually) and we definitely have our share of depressing areas. This artist buddy of mine did a show using pictures of blighted areas in Cleveland and pictures of post-WWII Europe. The similarities were frightening. On the other hand, like you said, we have some great areas of historic homes and the lake and all that jazz. It's a nice balance at times. Like several others said, almost any other country in the world can say the same thing.

  • Living in Los Angeles for ten years, I decided, on a dare to myself, to drive through South Central and Compton. One word:scary. It looks like Mississippi in the 1940s–run down homes, cars in the yards, and people looking at you weirdly. It also didn't help that the cops had one street blocked off on both ends, guns drawn, crouched behind their cruisers waiting for something to happen. Foreigners think America is Disney Land, but we're really Twin Peaks on a downward economic trend.

  • Well, people from much poorer third-world countries might want to come here, but once they get here, they likely wonder why.

    As for the French, Larkspur, I have to laugh at what your friend imagines to be the high opinion of civil servants in France. The French do not leave their dog's poo on the ground because they are proud and pleased some street cleaner will come by to pick it up; they leave it there because they EXPECT the government to clean up the streets. You should see the French when their dog has stopped to poo–the French person is clear at the other end of the leash looking off into the distance as though that which is going on on the other end has absolutely nothing to do with him or her. When I lived in Bordeaux, the fabulous, respected poo-picker-uppers weren't exactly dillgent, so the streets were pretty bad. At a certain point a friend of mine and I started to think maybe it was the FRENCH pooing in their streets–a little revenge for their neighbors. But here's a funny story: when Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris, he was embarrassed by the reports by tourists of dog poo all over the streets. So he got Paris a fleet of sidewalk sweepers to clean up the poo and those sweepers have forever been known as "Chiracquettes."

  • I used to spend a lot of time in Canada in the 70s-80s, and always started to get nervous after a few weeks up north – as a young person, I missed the trash and chaos back in America.

    Fast forward 30 years, and I've had enough of American style entropy – now several magnitudes worse than 30 years ago – and denialism. The way "we're Number One!" is so relentlessly drummed into everyone's head, to the point where the Kool Aid drinkers question whether you love America or not – points to the old adage that the more something is promoted, the more likely it is that it's either untrue or completely unnecessary.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    Sooner or later, my students always get around to asking me why Americans are so fat, and I get to tell them that Americans are fat not because they are rich and can afford to overeat, but because they are so poor they can't afford healthy food. America might literally be the first country in the history of the planet where obesity and poverty are integrally connected.

    Then I tell them how we were raised to say the Pledge of Allegiance and they start to consider me a nationalist robot.

  • Crazy for Urban Planning says:

    What you all seem to ignore is that land use of US housing makes upkeep of our infrastructure very cost prohibitive. Single family homes are a net loss for local governments because they do not provide pay the costs of the roads that connect them to the outside (not to mention building sidewalks, curbs or bike lanes). European and other urban areas where that were constructed before the automobile skewed the ease of transportation for people are in much better shape because they don't consume as much space.

  • I agree with the basic premise of your argument, particularly regarding the decrepit state of our country's infrastructure and the deplorable state of many inner cities and regions like the Delta and the Great Plains. But I would second Matt L's comment above. I suppose the equation of communism with "clean" might have held for East Germany, a relatively prosperous Eastern Bloc state, but to say that about some of the industrial cities in the Soviet Union (or present day China, as long as the Olympics aren't being held) is pretty laughable. Russia is littered with cities that were textbook definitions of urban blight and decay even back in the 1980's (and sadly, they haven't improved much since then), and that's to say nothing of the countryside and the ecological disaster zones. And with all due respect to your Nigerian friend, it's pretty easy to do a Google Image search of Kibera, the slum where about 1/4 of Nairobi's population lives. I guess people can judge for themselves, but those images suggest a degree of poverty that most Americans, unless they've visited the third world, would find hard to imagine.

  • Shorter Brandon and Matt L: You're right, but this one example you used wasn't a good example, so I am going to talk about that.

    A hundred times, YES, Ed. A few years back, I went home to Wisconsin for my grandmother's funeral. I grew up in [rural] central Wisconsin. The houses I saw out there, surrounded by aging vehicles and garbage reminded me of the poverty I'd seen in Africa and South America. There were those houses that come pre-built on trucks that now looked as if they would fall apart if you slammed the door. Of course, the door itself is just as sturdy, so it could never make that much force.

    It is frustrating to read the "it's just like every place else, I guess" pollyannas on this thread. America isn't billed as just "the most average country on earth", but the best. We shouldn't have to wait for our country to become "worse than most countries" before we start giving a shit about it and doing something.

    My baseline is that there should be no place in America (not even a block) that look like the outer ring townships in South Africa. I've seen places in California that look like that, and have heard (but not observed) that there are whole areas around Houston that resemble such areas. My country is turning into shit, and the only people that can do anything about it are thwarted by people who don't think the problem exists.

  • It's a matter of priorities.

    From what I've seen, most of America that looks like crap is due to the OWNERS of those homes not giving a crap. They have great cars, nice TVs, wonderful cell phones, lovely iPods, however. The days of a neighborhood aesthetic are gone with the 1960s. Seriously, when you go through the blighted neighborhoods of Indy, (both black, white & hispanic) there are BMWs parked in front of yards filled with trash. Huge disconnects happen when someone dressed in the latest styles and a clean shiny ride pulls up and somehow totally ignores the trash filling their chainlink-fenced yard and the paint peeling on their rotting home while they unload cheap and fattening groceries.

    Traveling through southern Indiana, I always marvel at how someone can afford a satellite dish, yet can't go and get a gallon of paint for the outside of their unpainted and long-since-turned-gray exterior. Ah, priorities.

    If there was some kind of PRIDE about one's home happening, perhaps that could also translate into universal concern about our crumbling infrastructure which would then result in the congressmen (or city planners) from those districts doing something about it on a national scale. But nobody really cares until it affects them personally. Then it's usually too late. And don't you dare raise taxes to fix that problem!

    In short, it's our own fault.

  • Ursula, I agree 100%. I certainly didn't want to argue that there is no problem, just because the most blighted, poverty-stricken areas of our country don't quite match what I've seen in my own (admittedly limited) visits to the developing world. I agree with you that, with our country's wealth, there is no morally justifiable reason that that possibility should ever exist.

  • Actually, Ursula, my point was that we are headed down the same road as the former east bloc. If you look at historian Stephen Kotkin's work, he suggests that a lot of the same social and economic forces have been at work in both the (former) Soviet Union and the United States for the past thirty years. We have been covering up the pernicious effects of de-industrialization and slack infrastructure spending for a while. But like the Soviets, this stuff is coming back to bit us in the ass. The hole is getting so deep that we will not be able to invest enough money to dig ourselves out.

    The rural poverty in the upper Midwest is shocking. The towns along the interstates are like Big Box Potemkin villages. Shiny stores, with shiny disposable products that offer the veneer of prosperity. But go down the rural highways and county roads and you will see staggering poverty. Not because the people are lazy or that they lack pride. There are simply no resources, no jobs and very few avenues of escape.

    So I agree with Ursula and Ed. I would also say that far from being a Pollyanna, its pretty clear that we are already on the downward slide. If we have to invest to two trillion dollars to bring our infrastructure to "C" grade, then its already too late. Entropy has set in and we already have a third world infrastructure where the rich people get clean drinking water, lit streets, private police protection, and trash removal – Poor people get shit.

    Finally, I think its ok to point out where someone's argument comes up short. Its supposed to help them make that argument stronger.

  • Hey, Mothra, thanks for the good counterpoint. (I myself have never been to France.)

    For the record, here in my little patch of Northern California, I always *always* carry the doggy poop bags, and I always pick up the poop, even when no other humans are looking.

    And even when my friend was telling the story, I said, eww, ick, they should still pick it up themselves. The diligent civil servants would still be busy keeping the poop-bag dispensers full, and cleaning up after the inevitable scofflaws.

    Huh. Now I am remembering a long-ago trip to the old Soviet Union, and looking out at Red Square late at night. For the whole trip, I'd been regaled with stories about the Soviet successes – for example, 100% full employment! So there in Red Square, working the night shift, was a crew of grandmotherly women in babushkas, diligently wielding twig brooms, sweeping Red Square clean.

    I guess I'm ambivalent. There are unglamorous jobs that need to be done, and I feel like we should be willing to pay people adequately do to them. But it's never going to happen if the wages of normal folk stay stagnant while their work loads increase. Oof. I'll be shutting up now.

  • I'm living here in Oakland CA, which has, shall we say, something of a natinoal reputation. Or so I've been assured. Our own neighborhood is quite nice, in a mostly-owner-occupied sort of way. I am within a ten minutes walk of streets that I would not care to _drive_ down.

    As for the 'foreigners want to come here' meme, I've always countered that by pointing out that, by definition, the people who come here MUST have wanted to do so, or been forced by circumstances beyond their control. Thus, all of the people from Somewheristan you meet here have come to America. If you met a tourist from Belgium and asked him/her, 'So, wishing you could move here, huh?' the reaction would amuse me, and possibly the Belgian, but probably not you.

    Memory from university – one of my housemates was a graduate student in mathematics from Canada. He told me once that when someone had found out that he had no intention of becoming an American citizen, the reaction was very close to baffled outrage. "But I _like_ being Canadian," he assured me bemusedly.

  • I, too, have had more than one American (both in the US and abroad) assure me that I _do_ in fact want to leave my subtropical, golden-beach'd, labor union lovin'*, infrastructure friendly home in favour of the good ol' USA, I just wont admit it.

    My home town is a bit of a backwater, redneck shit-hole. I'd still rather be here.

    *Election in 2011 pending.

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