Downtown View:Up to the Job

January 22, 2016
By

January is a good time to visit the World Trade Center site in New York City.

The crowds are smaller than in July. El Niño makes it warm enough for the water to cascade freely over the edges of the two square, black sunken fountains marking the locations of the destroyed towers. Calatrava’s soaring head-house for the PATH train station is nearing completion, so it is easy to recognize its beauty. One wag said it resembles a stegosaurus rather than a bird.

One World Trade Center has happily lost its cloying “Freedom Tower” name. Thin crowds make it quick to get into the multi-media elevator that takes about a minute for its journey. Your ears pop. At the top of the 104-story building, you look out over New York and have lunch looking up the Hudson River. Down on the ground, the 9/11 museum is a moving tribute to that day.

Going through the museum was upsetting. Why weren’t all the visitors sobbing, as I was? But in going through the museum, riding to the top of the skyscraper, and watching construction on the train station the feeling wasn’t sadness. Instead it was admiration—admiration for the competence of the rescuers and for the competence that conceived of these structures, designed them, built them and now host thousands of visitors and workers every day.        Not only are the structures well done, but the museum exhibits are laid out artfully, appropriately, straightforwardly, without any demeaning sentimentality. The competence extended to the original twin towers. The exhibit pointed out that good engineering kept the Hudson out of lower Manhattan on that day. The towers’ engineering was novel in the 1960s and also good, but they weren’t designed to withstand the impact of low-flying jets.

It was clear though. These architects, designers and everyone else who had a hand in building and then rebuilding the site knew what they were doing.

It brought home how important competence is, and how disappointing it is when competence isn’t delivered.

Recent news has shown people coming up short in that arena. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his cohorts failed to get clean water to Flint, Michigan residents because they wanted to save money, and then they ignored residents’ complaints. It is especially rich that Snyder had to call in the Feds, his hated group, to save them. I doubt if he intended to hurt people. He just wasn’t up to the task.

Neither is the Chicago police force. Or the Boston Globe’s delivery team. Or most of the presidential candidates. Or Gov. Nikki Haley in her State of the Union response. She claimed, “If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families.” Poor lady. She didn’t read the tax plans her party’s candidates actually proposed.

The MBTA is an example of an important service strangled for years by incompetence, including a sorry legislature that saddled it with debt.

Obamacare suffered from incompetence too. If you were Kathleen Sibelius, Health and Human Services Secretary at the time, wouldn’t you have made sure the website worked? We finally got the legislation that ended insurance industry abuses and gave hope to millions that they could be covered, but the incompetence of the people who rolled it out made a good law suspect and harder for people to support.

The Obamacare website wasn’t the only troubled one. Massachusetts’ site had problems. Many websites do. How many times have you followed instructions to click on a button in the upper right hand corner of a site to find it isn’t there?

Then there was Christine Todd Whitman, head of the EPA at 9/11. She assured people that the silty, grimy air around Ground Zero posed no threat. Perhaps her opinion was framed by ideology or malevolence. Nah, she just didn’t know what she was talking about.

As I found in New York City, recognizing competence brings a feeling of hope. You experience it when you step onto the deep, old Piccadilly Line in London’s Underground. The trains go up to 60 miles an hour. They are clean and bright, as are the stations. The escalators work.

You recognize competence when you attend a concert of the Boston Symphony, or see the The Big Short or when you drive many cars these days. Their performance and reliability are much greater than they were 20 years ago. We’re all hoping Charlie Baker has the competence his reputation suggests.

The ride back to Boston on Amtrak was also a display of competence. The train arrived on time at Penn Station and at South Station, despite outdated equipment and being ignored by Congress. Those who ran the train did so nicely with easy starts and stops.

Then we got to South Station, which isn’t a station at all, but only a terminal. We rolled our bags along the platform and found the escalator down to the Red Line. One escalator, just fine.

But at the next level, NO escalator, only a wide staircase. What dingbat leaves out an escalator where people are pulling large suitcases? No elevator was in sight. I watched passengers struggle down the stairs with their baggage to get to the Red Line platform.

So much for competence.

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