The Parking lot, the Power Line, and the Home

Photo by David Martin on Unsplash

by Madison Snider

In the colliding, overlapping, and sometimes mutually destructive crises of 2020 — a year we all hoped would be anomalous in its suffering — wildfires were some of the worst experienced by the United States in 50 years. The 2020 season ended with over 10 million acres burned. In California, the wildfires were particularly destructive with 31 related fatalities. One of California’s many fires that season has spurred legal action against the state’s largest utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), after it was determined that the fire was caused by inadequate maintenance and wildfire prevention measures to the company-owned power line infrastructure. The criminal charges brought against PG&E are not the first such charges the company has faced because of its negligence in wildfire prevention. In 2021, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for its responsibility for the Dixie fire that burned 30,000 acres in Northern California.

Partisan squabbles about what qualifies as infrastructure are the result of discordant definitions of infrastructure. The term infrastructure is broad by definition and attempts to put boundaries and clarify the scope of what exactly we are talking about when we talk about infrastructure can sometimes miss the necessary complexity of infrastructural thinking. In order to attend to the complexity of infrastructure, I find it helpful to approach infrastructure as multidimensional. Multidimensional infrastructure includes what is traditionally considered infrastructure, such as physical infrastructures like roads, bridges, transportation, and water systems; social infrastructure — that is, organizations, public spaces, and services that foster connections between people; and digital infrastructure, the far-reaching and sometimes imperceptible networked technologies that similarly connect us and sometimes divide us. In what follows, I draw on the multidimensionality of our shared infrastructures to engage with considerations of our relationship to home–by way of the parking lot and the power line–to ask: What do we care enough to repair, maintain, and sustain? And what does this tell us about what kinds of life we value?

We tend to overlook infrastructures until they start to fail. This is the underlying tension that has prompted a turn to what Steven Jackson has termed “broken world thinking.” This epistemological approach poises us to consider infrastructures as always in the process of decay. This perspective might initially read as defeatist, but, in practice, it can embolden a continual focus on the care and repair our infrastructures require and an increased valuation for the labor this necessitates. This framing aligns with Anna Tsing’s challenge to notice the precarity of our world, not just to warn of our fragility but to prompt action toward building more collective resiliency. Recognition of decay and precarity is necessary to recognize infrastructures as living, relational, and in need of care. Infrastructures are imbued with values of the past, present, and future. The privilege to see your values reflected in infrastructure, and the power to influence future infrastructural decisions, however, is not universal.

Speed is often a central feature of infrastructure projects. As Matt Barlow and Georgina Drew write: “infrastructures are generally built quickly–using cheap labour and cheap energy–with the aim of moving people and goods quickly” (212). This is certainly true for our communication technology. The ability to communicate across time and space, with as little perceptibility to this distance as possible, has allowed many of us to continue to work through a pandemic and stay connected despite physical isolation. As individuals, we benefit from and have learned to expect the speed of many critical infrastructures. The power line is an infrastructure of connection we have come to take for granted. It provides connection across great distances, and at great cost. A dense urban grid is cheaper and more easily maintained than stretching connections further and further from the city. However, the investment in extending the grid provides choice to those who have the resources to decide when, if, and on what terms they will engage with urban centers, making it possible to live in the suburbs or more remote areas.

It is usually in moments of neglect and failure — as evidenced by power line sparked wildfires — that we become aware of the living nature of infrastructures, the importance of their maintenance, and the disproportionate stakes of their failure. Despite the great feats of overcoming space and time with millions of miles of power lines, infrastructures are often built to defy, rather than work in concert with, the natural world. This cultivates a tendency to consider infrastructures as static and overlook their ecological implications over time. Professor Sara Jacobs, a landscape architecture scholar at the University of British Columbia, urges us to interrupt the tendency to treat sites of new infrastructure as ahistorical and “novel”, and instead to take responsibility “for the uneven effects of human dominated actions in abandoned, wasted, or otherwise historically overlooked landscapes” (24). She points to the restoration efforts of the Upper Duwamish river as an example of framing restoration efforts as an attempt to “take decay as an opportunity” (27) without a recognition that damages reach beyond the clearance of industrial pollution — a maneuver that erases the Duwamish peoples past and present.

While litigation regarding PG&E’s liability for California wildfires moves us closer to accountability for overlooked landscapes and infrastructures that have become the site of negligence and harm, it does little to make visible the history and economic engines driving neglect. The balance of benefit and harm as it relates to energy infrastructures particularly is complicated because access to them is predicated on the assumption of housing. It is likely no surprise to the reader that a relationship to infrastructure based on an assumption of stable housing is deeply unequal.

Professor Debbie Chachra, an engineering scholar, engages relations to infrastructure and body to question these distinctions and unveils the ways privilege works in energy access. Speaking to her own entanglements with the public utility of water, “I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household.” If you have stable housing your experience of energy infrastructures is mundane. Our relations with energy infrastructures — via our homes — are an embodied experience rendering even the most infrastructure-y of infrastructures as an extension of our life. In North America, access to energy infrastructures is primarily tied to housing, and as such, just as infrastructure is able to connect, it is able to divide.

The impacts of power line development are therefore not just of ecological concern, but point to the inequity in infrastructural investment within and beyond our cities. In the next section, the parking lot is explored as an infrastructure in relation to the expansion of our energy infrastructures out from city centers.

“Clearance and control”

From transit planner, engineer, and blogger Hayden Clarkin (twitter: @the_transit_guy)
Image from the Parking Reform Network (twitter: @Parking_Reform) and Andy Singer (2004)

Professor Brandi T. Summers, a geography scholar at the University of California Berkeley, and co-founder and co-director of the Berkeley Lab for Speculative Urbanisms, examines parking lots as a site for “clearance and control” in her essay, Untimely Futures. The parking lot, Summers argues, is an infrastructure built to continue and deepen precarity through the historical clearance of black communities in West Oakland, communities whose uprooting was precipitated by the targeted demolition of social infrastructures and affordable housing on that very site. In West Oakland, the harms of policies of clearance and control unfold in a single parking lot at the site of a large U.S. post office distribution center. Recently designated a site for a state-sanctioned encampment for the unhoused, “This is the location where, in 1960, more than 400 homes and businesses were demolished to make room for this very distribution center.” Summers positions the parking lots in West Oakland as not just evidence of divestment and dereliction, but as an infrastructure of racial capitalism in that the destruction of communities, businesses, and affordable housing is targeted at black neighborhoods. The results of such targeted racial capitalism are inextricably linked to the demographic realities of homeslessness. In 2019 African Americans represented 70% of the homeless population in Oakland.

Approaching the parking lot as a site of precarity, Summers prompts us to expand beyond our conception of the parking lot as a physical infrastructure, a flat plane of concrete or asphalt, with a constantly changing population of vehicles. To understand the stakes of infrastructural investment and decision-making, we have to understand the inherent enmeshedness our access to infrastructure benefits and the distribution of those benefits is unequal. Because homes — narrowly defined as houses, apartments, and other residential structures — are the central nodes of access to energy infrastructures. We are prompted to ask what is home and who defines the access and agency that home provides?

In a Simpson Center for the Humanities supported colloquium, “(Re)Imagining Home in the Crisis of the ‘Prison Fix’ through Narrative Story-Telling”, scholars and activists coalesce to discuss their definitions of home as these definitions are woven into racial capitalism and the prison industrial complex. While not explicitly invoking the concepts of infrastructure, the conversation prompts the listener/viewer to question the bounds of ‘home’ and expand these bounds just as has been done in the study of infrastructure. I wanted to learn more about the connections between home as infrastructure and racial capitalism so I reached out to Alec Fisher (PhD Student, Department of English), Alex Meany (PhD Student, Department of English), and Caleb Knapp (Instructor, Department of English and Assistant Director for Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics).

I wanted to know: What does home as infrastructure teach us about the formations of racial capitalism? And why is racial capitalism an important foundation for infrastructural inquiry? In a beautiful, cogent, and historically grounded definition of the term racial capitalism, Fisher shared:

“Racialization is an enduring feature of capitalism because capitalism requires it in order to facilitate the production of surplus value…which basically makes life go under this particular system of domination. So we don’t get to infrastructure, for example, without first going through race.”

The structures and systems that “make life go” is as good a definition of infrastructure as any. To what extent we continue to align these structures to racial capitalism’s contracts (i.e. the assumption of access to the home as infrastructure) results in a continuation and deepening of inequity. And, as Alex adds, there is a call to add a hyphen to this definition in order to attend to the gendered aspects of what has been called gender racial capitalism. This is particularly felt in the context of home as infrastructure, Meany adds:

“People who study racial capitalism and want to think about gender want us to also think about gender as one of those categories or contracts that capitalism needs in order to go… Infrastructure, like the home, as a site for invisibilized labor, gendered-invisibilized labor, or under waged or unwaged labor. There is also a hyphenated gender-racial-capitalism that asks us to think about both race and gender as preconditions in order to make capitalism go.”

The very same infrastructures that have blanketed the site of black working-class communities in a thick veneer of asphalt in West Oakland are now the site for another wave of clearance through city sweeps of unsanctioned-unhoused encampments. These parking lots themselves become the stage for a new round of clearance and containment as growing unhoused populations set up unsanctioned encampments on the site. These encampments are subsequently cleared if only to make space for state-sanctioned encampments in their place. The constant of this infrastructure it seems is displacement and control.

Housing justice is an “infrastructure of care” in the most fundamentally material sense. It is the mechanism by which we have organized humans as energy consumers within a capitalist system. We built a society with single-family housing at its center. If you no longer have access to these nodes, you lose access to energy, and as Chachra argues, agency. This is not a question about what counts as infrastructure as much as it is a question of how we organize access to infrastructures and how we might work toward more equity in infrastructural access. Our romanticism about infrastructure building — narrowly defined as physical, built environments — leaves us to repeat the same failures again and again and deepens the chasm of abandonment as communities are cleared for the construction of luxury condos soon to await their next AirBnB guest.

The Stakes of Infrastructure

The implications for infrastructural decision-making are vast and uneven. For the most privileged these changes may barely be felt as wealth and power create protection. However, for many, these decisions quite literally make life possible (or impossible). On an individual level, infrastructure is the difference between access to critical services like education, healthcare, and transportation. For communities, infrastructure projects are arbiters of justice or perpetrators of divisions impeding collective progress. Globally, infrastructural investment is an opportunity to make regenerative rather than extractive choices. The importance of this work cannot be overstated.

In the previous essay in this series, I looked at abolition movements that are organizing to end the harmful infrastructures of the prison industrial complex and reimagine a future infrastructure of care. A lot has been said about infrastructure in the past decade, and even more so in the last two years, as we have collectively had to reckon with what we can rely on in the midst of colliding catastrophes of a pandemic, racist violence, disinformation, and war. The reanimation of debates about what counts as infrastructure prompts us to ask questions about what we materially need to survive and thrive, and whose labors make that future possible.

Like the abolitionists highlighted in my last essay, the work of reconfiguring infrastructures of harm into infrastructures of care takes vigilant imagination. We bulldoze through cities — flattening black and brown neighborhoods — to provide parking for the suburban commuter in order that they can gain access to the urban center. We bulldoze through forests — rendering precarious their more-than-human inhabitants and erasing indigenous history and present — to provide power to those dispersed nodes with well-kept green lawns. The power line is an infrastructure of connection we have come to take for granted. It provides choice to those who have mobility and capital to decide when, if, and on what terms they will engage with the urban center. The speed of our infrastructuring has harmful implications for equity and ecology fueled by capitalist preoccupations with speed, convenience, and growth. Building a world beyond these harms will require, “unworking” fast infrastructures, “a slowing down, and a turn towards slow(er) infrastructures. These slower infrastructures can offset the threat of disfunction and ‘urban failure’ that confronts cities increasingly marked by turbulence and uncertainty” (Barlow & Drew, 213).

The infrastructural choices we live with are a confluence of the past, present, and future. Even in the most obvious physical examples, like a parking lot or a power line, the choice to build infrastructures of harm or of care is available to us.

Works Cited

“(Re)Imagining Home in the Crisis of the “Prison Fix” through Narrative Story-Telling.” Simpson Center for the Humanities. 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJXkibQ5Uz8.

“2020 North American Wildfire Season.” Center for Disaster Philanthropy, https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disasters/2020-california-wildfires/. Accessed 19 May 2022.

“Broken World.” Collective Rewilding, https://www.collectiverewilding.com/terms/broken-world. Accessed 19 May 2022.

Feral Atlas and the More-than-Human Anthropocene.” Simpson Center for the Humanities. https://simpsoncenter.org/katz-lectures/feral-atlas-and-more-human-anthropocene. Accessed 19 May 2022.

“Infrastructure: Building the World We Deserve.” Siegel Family Endowment. https://infrastructure.siegelendowment.org/white-paper/. Accessed 19 May 2022.

Barlow, Matt, and Georgina Drew. “Slow infrastructures in times of crisis: unworking speed and convenience.” Postcolonial Studies 24.2 (2021): 212–233.

Chachra, Debbie. “Care at Scale.” Comment Magazine, 5 Aug. 2021, https://comment.org/care-at-scale/.

Hassan, Adeel. “The Utility PG&E Says Its Equipment May Have Led to a 30,000-Acre Wildfire.” The New York Times, 19 July 2021. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/19/us/pge-dixie-fire.html.

Jacobs, Sara. “From novel to relational: An approach to care for relational landscapes.” Journal of Landscape Architecture 14.3 (2019): 24–33.

Penn, Ivan. “PG&E Faces Criminal Charges Over Fatal 2020 Wildfire in California.” The New York Times, 24 Sept. 2021. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/24/business/pge-wildfire-criminal-charges.html.

Shulman, Peter A. “What Infrastructure Really Means.” The Atlantic, 13 July 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/07/what-does-infrastructure-mean/619419/.

Snider, Madison. “The Vigilant Imagination of Abolition.” Simpson Center for the Humanities (Medium), 11 Feb. 2022. https://simpsoncenter.medium.com/the-vigilant-imagination-of-abolition-e042cc8abf6f

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The Simpson Center for the Humanities, UW, Seattle

The Simpson Center for the Humanities, UW, Seattle

The Simpson Center for the Humanities fosters intellectual discovery across boundaries at the University of Washington and beyond. www.simpsoncenter.org