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Commonwealth Edison’s Ontario Street Substation, a box to hold electrical transmission equipment disguised as a Georgian mansion. Roads, bridges, electrical and water lines all stand to benefit from the bi-partisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package passed by Congress.
Photograph by Neil Steinberg

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Hooray for infrastructure!

The new $1 trillion package will benefit Chicago, long a center of infrastructure innovation.

Unlike you, I’ve been down the Deep Tunnel. Twice. A system unique in the world, more than 100 miles of tunnels, some 33 feet across, a network holding 17 billion gallons of water. Drilled over decades through solid rock by enormous machines at a cost of billions of dollars, all to keep your basement dry.

Being there made me think of the pyramids of Egypt. I don’t want to speak for the shaven-headed subjects of pharaoh. But I imagine they felt a similar swelling of pride, to belong to a people who can do this kind of thing, who can crack the whip of our intelligence and engineering, social cohesion and wealth to make physical reality itself do these tricks.

Many of my favorite stories are infrastructure stories. I’ve stood on the floor of the Thornton Quarry before it was flooded and turned into the Thornton Composite Reservoir, and marveled at giant earth movers that look like gnats, lost in the vastness.

I’ve been through the Jardine Water Purification Plant. It began operation in the mid-1960s and is still the largest water treatment plant in the world.

I’ve ridden in a cement truck with Tim Ozinga. Been conveyed on the trolley of a tower crane, far too quickly, 600 feet above Michigan Avenue, and watched water pipes placed into a trough on Harrison Street.

I know more about Chicago’s 37 moveable bridges than is proper to know, having read “Chicago’s Bridges” by Nathan Holth. I wish I could say I watched rapt while one of the trunnion bascule drawbridges was balanced, using foot square cubes of concrete. Alas, my pleas to the city over years have been in vain. But hope springs eternal, and I’m not giving up yet.

So yes, maybe I’m more attuned to the inestimable value of pipes and roads and bridges and train tracks and electrical grids than most guys. But I can’t let Congress’s passage of the $1 trillion national infrastructure bill over the weekend pass without letting out a whoop of joy. Hooray! About time. Took you idiots long enough.

And no, it’s not political. Oh, I’m certainly glad that Joe Biden did it, a reminder that government is here for more things than to start wars and enrich crooks.

Had the former president gotten the legislation passed, I would have cheered him, too. He sure talked about infrastructure enough. He said he would do something. Repeatedly. But, alas, more lies. The only infrastructure work he commenced was building a few miles of flimsy, farcical border wall and, never forget, some extensive demolition work on the foundations of American democracy.

Though take comfort. Republicans can always just lie and take credit for the infrastructure bill (and, to be fair — the Democratic superpower — 13 Republican representatives bucked their party’s embrace of dysfunction and voted “yes.” The bill would have failed otherwise).

Returning to infrastructure. It’s a shame Chicago doesn’t take pride in it the way, oh, it regularly swells up over some group of fit young people agitating a ball or puck around a defined space.

Chicago is all about water. Never forget, the city is named for the river, not the other way around. Infrastructure raised Chicago from a baby, literally. The city is built on a swamp, and the entire downtown had to be jacked up so its sewers would drain. Our main thoroughfare, Michigan Avenue, has a water standpipe — the Water Tower — smack in the middle. So familiar we don’t really see what it is.

Chicago was slow getting gas lights but led the way with electricity — the Chicago Edison Co. being the first city-owned power company supplying electricity for lighting in 1888.

Street lights were always a big deal here — a quarter million Chicagoans turned out in 1926 to cheer the illumination of seven blocks of State Street, the lights turned on by President Coolidge pressing a golden key in the White House. Seven blocks might not sound like much now, but at the time it was the longest continuous stretch of lighted road on earth.

Infrastructure affects us in ways we never think about. Not just opening a tap or getting to work. No city anywhere still has a structure like our L looping downtown.

When Unicom Thermal began selling chilled water to cool downtown buildings in the mid-1990s, they no longer had to be built with space on their roofs for enormous air conditioning units, giving us extra sleek skyscraper designs.

I love noticing the unobtrusive Unicom plants downtown, disguised as office buildings, one of those little unsung, usually unnoticed urban glories, like the faux Georgian mansion Stanley Tigerman designed to hide Commonwealth Edison138 kV transmission equipment next to the Hard Rock Cafe in River North.

There’s more, but that will have to do. We’ll return to the subject as circumstances permit. But Chicago should take a fraction of the pride in its infrastructure it expends on, oh, deep dish pizza.

It’s important to note not only who supports something, but who opposes it. Just as you can tell a lot about someone who will object to the idea that Black Lives Matter, so you know a lot about a party that is against fixing the nation’s roads. I could never condemn them as efficiently as they condemn themselves.

But that shouldn’t distract us from celebrating this momentous occasion: more, better infrastructure! A boon to all Chicagoans and to all Americans, whether they grasp it or not.

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