The Future Waits As We Wait At The 75th St Corridor

If you live in Metropolitan Chicago, picture the stretch of railroad known as the 75th Street Corridor on the city’s south side. Now hold that image while we consider its international importance far far beyond its trains, tracks and local residents. We’ll come back to it…

If it’s true all politics are local, the same may be true of all economies. Whereas conservatives often point to the last election as proof Americans prefer economic localism, many liberals consider economic globalism one of the great inevitabilities of our century. As you and I sit impatiently at the next 100-car freight train delaying our idling car, lets take a grudging opportunity to reflect on what localism and globalism may actually mean to us.

When liberal experts say, “in today’s global economy, if you sneeze here, someone gets a cold there,” they are explaining their world to us. They are suggesting we think of ever larger concentric circles around this morning’s annoying delay. First drawn around this crossing, then around Chicago, then Illinois, the United States, the world itself. Any serious choke-point in a world so intensively busy with so much freight heading so many places — well, chances are thousands of people and billions of dollars could be catching a cold.

When it comes to choke-points, Chicago is a monstrously likely location. The number of rail lines, the tonnage of products, and the complexity of switching stations here are staggering. This single rail crossing in front of us is but a microcosm of what can go so wrong within what is going so right every day in this new global paradigm.

Oil from Pennsylvania, fruit from Mexico, electronics from Japan, medicines from India. Like most other marvels of our century, it is both a beautiful and a fragile thing to behold. When it’s in harmony. But like all paradigms, its first law is the ancient command: “Do no harm.” One often difficult to achieve.

What’s more, there is great irony here. Our glowing 21st C expectations are often rooted in aging 19th C infrastructures. Something very much like the one that just interrupted our morning commute. The irony is that our victorious Air Forces destroyed so much of the railroad infrastructure of Germany, France, Italy, and Japan during WWII, those nations had to re-build. Meanwhile, the  winner’s infrastructure back here remained often stalled in place.

This particular morning this particular choke-point illustrates one of the inherent challenges to our vigorous visions for a humming global economy networking coasts and countries 24/7. According to the Society of Civil Engineers, America’s infrastructure deficits can be measured at $2 trillion over the next 10 years. In that scenario, Chicago is the hub through which 600 million tons of rail freight or 60% of all rail intermodal pass. And yet it is considered by these engineers unfit for the 21st C. Even the fabled Burnham Plan for the city called for its renewal, and that plan is more than a century old.

Now back the 75th Street Corridor. A freight train more than 10,000 feet long hauling hundreds of containers stuck here while it makes way for this morning’s Amtrack commuter train. And for us. What’s lost by each here is time and money. Oh, and the future of economic globalism. The point, fellow driver, is this. If globalism is our future, much of it is on hold here in Chicago. If localism is your idea of the future, it’s already here. Either way, the way is congested…. 

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