Albert and David Maysles’s classic documentary Grey Gardens provided a disturbing snapshot of 1970’s American upper-class life, replete with mentally ill dowagers, feral cats, and a crumbling estate. In early 1971, the Maysles brothers started filming the daily activities of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, “Big Edie,” and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, “Little Edie,” the aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as they puttered around their decrepit 1897 eastern Long Island mansion, from which the film got its title. Big Edie and her husband, Phelan Beale, had originally purchased Grey Gardens in 1923. Phelan abandoned his wife and daughter shortly thereafter and took all his money with him. With few options to support themselves other than the occasional sale from their Tiffany silver collection, the reclusive pair allowed their house—and their mental health—to putrefy for decades, all the while insisting they would never abandon Grey Gardens as Phelan had abandoned them.
By the time the Maysleses and their film crew arrived, the estate had become infested with fleas and overrun by raccoons. Half a century’s worth of hoarded garbage covered almost every square inch of floor space and tabletop. The film’s narrative arc documented the macabre race between the house’s complete physical collapse and the women’s disturbing mental deterioration. Shortly after her mother’s death in 1977, Little Edie mustered the mental composure to sell the house for $220,000 to Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. For more than 50 years the cloistered, impoverished duo had lived in a fantasy world, reminiscing about debutante balls long past and dreaming of chivalrous suitors yet to come. But in the end all that came was squalor, insanity, and physical destruction.
Americans have picked up right where the batty Beale twosome left off. The United States today has roughly 614,000 bridges required by Congress to meet the National Bridge Inspection Standards. Recently, the Federal Highway Administration declared 84,000 of those bridges “functionally obsolete” because of some combination of deficient over- and underclearances, lane width or number, or roadway approach alignment. These outdated bridges no longer serve their originally intended purposes, as traffic volumes have increased and long-haul trucks have grown in both size and weight over the last few decades.
The mere mention of functional obsolescence should be enough to scare the prudent when talking about bridges. But it gets worse. Bridges with “structural deficiencies”—a label the Highway Administration uses when “significant load-carrying elements are found to be in poor or worse condition due to deterioration and/or damage”—should raise dire concerns. In addition to the aforementioned 84,000 functionally obsolete spans, the administration has designated another 56,000 bridges as structurally deficient. On top of that, 40 percent of all bridges under the Feds’ purview are older than their average design life of 50 years. Coming to a theater near you: Grey Gardens: The Bridge Version.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated the cost of repairing our rickety outmoded bridges at $123 billion. But what incentive does any congressman have to push legislation that repairs but doesn’t build? Photo ops on bridges that have had their rust scraped off and been repainted will not attract crowds of cheering constituents. Timing matters, too. Congressmen’s horizons span at most two years, or as far out as the next election cycle. Our elected officials have no incentive to propose programs that will take years to complete when they can get more publicity by grilling administration officials over illusory ties to Russia or grandstanding over the latest transgender bathroom bill. And President Trump, despite his promise to spend one trillion dollars on American infrastructure, spends most of his interminable workday doing Don Rickles impersonations on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America becomes more outdated with every passing year. History teachers today must have to remind their incredulous students that Tocqueville was indeed writing about these United States after reading such sentences as, “I am acquainted with no people which has established schools as numerous and as efficacious, places of public worship better suited to the wants of the inhabitants, or roads kept in better repair.” Perhaps some pedantic federal bureaucrat will point out that Tocqueville specifically referred to roads in that sentence, not bridges. But American infrastructure comprises a tangled web of roads, bridges, railroads, canals, and other byways. A country without infrastructure is like a restaurant without a kitchen. Customers go hungry, bored waiters play on their iPhones, and the food rots.
Trump can be forgiven for not getting his trillion-dollar infrastructure program passed . . . yet. He’s only been in office for six months. But what about his predecessor, who took greater pleasure in scolding productive Americans—“You didn’t build that!”—than in taking care of our decaying economic bedrock? China has publicly mapped out her economic future with her “One Belt, One Road” project in her well-placed bet to reign as the overlord of the global economy. But instead of protesting against our nation’s flagging long-term economic outlook and demanding change, Americans have just dug themselves deeper into Twitter’s bottomless trenches over a pro-Trump CNN wrestling meme. Maybe the Beales weren’t so crazy, after all.