Last Friday President Joe Biden stopped in Pittsburgh in order to use some of the Steel City’s post-industrial transition into technology research and development as the backdrop for a speech about the Infrastructure Bill. News of Biden’s visit only broke the day before, and the timing seemed coincidental for me personally because Biden was to deliver his remarks at Mill 19, a redeveloped tech office-park in Hazelwood that has featured in my research for several years and that I’m currently writing about (and also visited during Open Streets last July). The timing of the President’s Pittsburgh pit-stop would end up proving much more coincidental, however, when the Fern Hollow Bridge that traverses a ravine in Frick Park in between the neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill and Regent Square collapsed around 6:00 AM Friday morning, just hours before Biden was scheduled to touch down in the city. No one was killed in the collapse, though the loss of a major thoroughfare will pose ramifications for mobility and accessibility in the city for a long time.
The timing of the collapse seemed like an unwelcome surprise engineered by the Cosmic Coincidence Control Center (although I saw several Twitter users deduce that the bridge failure was a false flag event designed to further Biden’s radical-left agenda; a conflux of phantasms). Throughout the news coverage journalists and other commentators made the absurdly obvious observation that the bridge failure underscored the importance of funding for infrastructure maintenance. The impotence of these assertions is only exacerbated by the preceding months of political discourse that hinged upon the necessity of public infrastructure investment so that, you know, bridges don’t collapse.
Biden visited the collapse site prior to his speech and talked with the local officials and first responders who were on scene. It seems that one of Biden’s aides included the trivia about Pittsburgh having more bridges than any other city in the world into his briefing; Biden repeated the factoid throughout the day. I lost my bet that Biden would refer to his credentials as a “bi-partisan bridge builder” in his remarks, but I did correctly predict that he would trot out the well-worn anecdote about “going to the McDonald’s parking lot to use the WiFi” that seems to feature in every single one of Biden’s infrastructure stump speeches.
Locally the Fern Hollow bridge collapse was seen as a call to action, even as experts advised that it will take far more than the Infrastructure Bill to address all of the region’s outstanding issues. It also sparked reflection on previous instances of infrastructural deterioration and breakdown.
At the beginning of this month I wrote about the inauguration of new Pittsburgh mayor Ed Gainey and the legacy of outgoing mayor Bill Peduto through the lens of mobility infrastructure. I highlighted Peduto’s choice to describe his place in Pittsburgh history as “a bridge over troubled water.” Immediately after the collapse of this troubled bridge last week the incident was politicized as residents sought to assign blame. Many assigned fault to Peduto: some ascribed the collapse to Peduto’s choosing to fund police over infrastructure (Peduto has been very active on Twitter discussing the collapse and responding to other users); others claimed it was the result of diverting money to bike lanes (this is incredible but true…the goddamn “bike lane” discourse lives on!).
The excited murmuring over Pittsburgh infrastructure that the Fern Hollow collapse incited seems like a locally-inflected variant of the politicking that played out in national discourse over the past many months. Even the signifier “infrastructure” has become as ubiquitous as its signified, just part of the background of everyday life. Something that you tend to take for granted and overlook until it breaks down or fails. The constant repetition of this word, the application of its meaning to a vast array of potential interventions, indicate a “sublime” aspect of infrastructure as both materiality and discourse. In a material sense the all-encompassing and pervasive nature of our infrastructural environments suggest an inexorable sublimity.
And in this recent political discourse – whether on the national or local level – the way the term is operationalized and the various ideological investments revealed in these debates illustrate how infrastructure may function as sublime objects, imagined as the satisfaction of our desires.