The Blight of Power Lines

David Frum had a piece on last week in which he advocated an infrastructure program that would follow Germany’s example and bury America’s power lines. I thought of this as I was driving through East Orange, New Jersey recently, and was reminded that that city’s early developers had done just that– and that its aesthetics continue to benefit from their decision. For all of its trouble with poverty and disinvestment since the 1967 Newark riots, East Orange retains an airy and park-like appearance in many of its neighborhoods: There is a complete absence of the black, plastic cables and splintering wooden poles that ordinarily crisscross the American streetscape; and the street lamps are true lamps, rather than arms mounted to telephone poles. In his article, Frum describes practical reasons for burying the wires: fewer outages, fewer maintenance calls, and a ready-made jobs program for construction workers as the Lesser Depression drags on. Standing outside in New Brunswick one evening during graduate school, a classmate from Europe once made a more succinct case: “The cables,” he said, gesturing toward the twilight sky. “It looks like a third-world country.”