A TALE OF THREE CITIES
Los Angeles, Washington, and Chicago are the sum of their airports. Without room to expand them, they face limits to growth.
Los Angeles: Neighbors, Noise, and NIMBY
In 1926, a year before Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic and two years before the first Academy Awards, the burghers of Los Angeles were worried they didn’t have an airport. In fact, they had too many. There were fifty-two landing strips in LA County that year—mostly dirt, with a windsock and maybe a barn doubling as a hangar. But forty-seven were in private hands, and there was no municipal field open to all comers. The Chamber of Commerce began lobbying the city to build one, and to speed things along, it hired the meteorologist Ford A. Carpenter to examine twenty-six sites of varying potential.
One of them was a one-mile-square patch of land known as Mines Field. In his report, Carpenter described what he dubbed the “Inglewood Site” as “an ideal location as far as level unobstructed space is concerned … No hangars, markings, phone, oil, or other supplies.” In the photograph accompanying his summary judgment, a Model T has come to rest in the middle of a wide, muddy road with empty bean fields on either side. This was the future site of LAX.
There were other practical considerations. In deference to the urgency of airmail, Carpenter observed that Mines Field was fourteen miles from the Los Angeles central post office. Evangelizing a bit, he also included a map of the country, comparing the relative speeds and distances traversable by air and rail. Denver was as far as a train could make it in the time it would take to fly to Maine. And New York was now only twenty-eight hours away. “There is no reason why Southern California should not be to the aircraft industry what Detroit is to the automobile business,” he noted in the margin. “The first essential is an air-harbor in which to accommodate aircraft.”
LAX is a case study for how airports are incubators for trade and the cities that spring up to seize it. And then there are the side effects. Before air travel, for instance, the Brooklyn Dodgers would have never left Ebbets Field for Dodger Stadium; baseball’s westernmost outpost until 1958 was St. Louis, the last convenient stop by train. Absent transcontinental and transpacific flights, it’s impossible to imagine Los Angeles as a culture capital rivaling New York, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. Without them, it would have remained a dry, dusty city of farming and industry—a Fresno or a Sacramento, minus the Hollywood.
Airports’ triumph over time, space, and the drag their hosts impose on them is so easily overlooked that awe soon gives way to familiarity, and then contempt. This was the case in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, to name just a few. In America, we built our airports before we knew what they were for. We planned them for biplanes and barnstorming tours instead of shuttle runs to New York every hour on the hour or nightly flights to China. No one could have foreseen a 185,266 percent increase in passengers transiting Chicago—skyrocketing from forty-one thousand in 1928 to seventy-six million eighty years later. But despite their constraints and growing pains, airports transformed the look and character of each of these cities. In Los Angeles and Chicago, they became the pawns of city politics, while Washington’s would be the beneficiary of benign neglect. None of them qualifies as an aerotropolis in John Kasarda’s eyes, because they were not planned in tandem with their cities. They are prototypes hampered by residents who gradually became suspicious of the very things that made the modern urban way of life possible.
Angelenos’ long and difficult marriage with theirs was consummated in 1928, when Mines Field beat out two other finalists to become Los Angeles Municipal Airport. Supporters of the losing sites complained bitterly (and ironically) that it was much too far from downtown to be much of use, and they were right for twenty years. The airlines of the time preferred to stay in Burbank, the favorite of Hollywood. The military took control of the airfield during World War II, prompting Hughes Aircraft to open a plant a mile north for building the wooden prototype of its H-4 Hercules military transport, the infamous “Spruce Goose.” Hughes wasn’t alone. Donald Douglas, cofounder of McDonnell Douglas, had begun making planes in Santa Monica in 1920. One of his engineers was Jack Northrop, who ran a division of Douglas Aircraft just south of the airport in El Segundo, before leaving to start his own eponymous firm next door. Two brothers named Allan and Malcolm Loughead founded Lockheed out of their Hollywood garage a few years later. Their successors would go on to build the ocean-crossing Constellation, the first modern airliner, at Hughes’s behest for TWA.
Together with the real estate developer Harry Culver, these were the men who successfully pressed the city to build them an airfield at the taxpayers’ expense. In doing so, they laid the pavement on which California’s postwar prosperity was built. Los Angeles’s defining characteristic in these formative years wasn’t Hollywood or the automobile, but aerospace. Disneyland and McDonald’s took backseats to the bottomless number of contracts procured by Hughes, Douglas, Northrop, and Lockheed to supply fighters, bombers, tankers, and transports. These upstarts collectively employed 13,000 skilled technicians in 1939; only four years later, the figure was 190,000. Hughes Aircraft began the war with four full-time employees; it finished with 80,000.
Their fortunes dipped after the war, but the resumption of hostilities via the Cold War proved to be an even bigger boon. Every commission for supersonic interceptors or mammoth airlifters spawned civilian uses and customers. When Boeing ushered in the Jet Age in 1959 with the 707 airliner, the air force was first in line to buy one. The situation was reversed a decade later, when the blueprints of the 747 emerged from a failed Boeing bid at the Pentagon. With the very large exception of Boeing, every major airliner until the formation of Airbus was manufactured around Los Angeles and might as well have had “Made in California” stamped on the side. McDonnell Douglas built DC-8s, -9s, and -10s—and more recently, MD-80s—at its factory in Long Beach. If you’ve flown on American Airlines anytime in the last thirty years, odds are that your plane was born there. Lakewood, the “Levittown of the West,” was a Douglas factory town. Lockheed assembled its wide-body TriStar in Burbank, once it had finished the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes.
The aerospace industry pollinated everything it touched. CalTech didn’t emerge as a rival to MIT until the army endowed its Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Over in Santa Monica, the Dr. Strangeloves of RAND plotted to win thermonuclear war in between rounds of margaritas. By 1960, Ford A. Carpenter’s prediction of a Detroit-of-the-air had come to fruition, as a full third of Southern California’s jobs were directly or indirectly related to aerospace, earning it the nickname the “Warfare State.”
Aerospace’s reach extended three hundred miles north to Palo Alto, where transistors made of silicon had just been perfected. A decade before Intel and before there was any Silicon Valley to speak of, the aerospace cartel arranged to buy integrated circuits as fast as their makers could etch them. In 1967, for example, seven out of every ten microchips were slated for Minuteman missiles and lunar landers, not mainframe computers. Based on this evidence, a few economists have persuasively argued that computing would have been set back for decades if the military hadn’t been there to hold its hand during those baby steps. Not until the end of the Cold War and the adolescence of the Internet (yet another Department of Defense project) were we able to get our hands on the coolest gadgets ahead of the generals.
By then, firms that had gotten started building aircraft had long since moved on to missiles, spy satellites, and spaceships. George Lucas’s Star Wars had less of an impact on California’s fortunes than did Ronald Reagan’s real-world remake a few years later. You can see their legacy along the southern border of LAX, where blue-collar suburb El Segundo boasts installations of Hughes, Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed, and the headquarters of DirecTV (a Hughes spin-off).
The first neighborhood adjacent to the airport, Westchester, was built during the war years to house Hughes employees. Westchester’s population was just 353 in 1940; ten years later, it was 33,000. Fields and hog pastures were built out overnight, with one developer tossing up prefab homes at a rate of four per day, earning a comparison from California historian Carey McWilliams to the camps of the original gold rush. Not long thereafter, Westchester also became the first neighborhood in America to seriously suffer from engine noise. By the early 1960s, when the low-frequency thrum of piston-powered propellers had given way to the piercing screams of early jet engines, local homeowners began to mobilize. The Greater Westchester Homeowners Association was soon joined by fellow NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) groups to the east, south, and west in Inglewood, El Segundo, and Playa del Rey. The first noise-related lawsuit, Aaron v. City of Los Angeles, was filed in 1964 on behalf of 765 property owners claiming $2.8 million in damages. It took nine years to settle, and by that time the airport faced $3 billion in additional lawsuits filed by everyone from the local school districts to the Catholic church.
LAX, which would swell to five times the size of the original Mines Field, paid nearly $150 million just to cover litigation costs from expanding its runways, and another $20 million went to pay for residents’ soundproofing. In response, the airport began buying homes outright and knocking them down—some thirty-five hundred to date. Westchester has begun to disappear, street by street and block by block.
The original fears that LAX would be too far from downtown proved unfounded, as downtown came out to meet it. The sprawl encircling it has calcified, and traffic on its interstate arteries—especially the 405—is the most sclerotic in the region. However orderly Westchester may have seemed at the time, no one planned for the strip malls and fast-food alleys of Inglewood, or the defining features of El Segundo: an enormous Chevron oil refinery and the accompanying 250-million-gallon oil spill beneath it.
Despite its handicaps, LAX has been the catalyst for the city’s metamorphosis into America’s premier trade entrepôt over the last thirty years. It was during those decades that the industrial fulcrum of California first shifted north—out of the hangars of Hughes Aircraft and into Silicon Valley—and then west, all the way to China. We have LAX to thank for our iPhones and iPods being “designed by Apple in California, assembled in China,” as they advertise on their backs. Not just Apple, but every Valley company that began life combining transistors there—think Intel, Hewlett Packard, Sun, and Cisco—long ago began outsourcing work from its messy, depreciating factories to ones across the Pacific. Now they wait for airborne freighters to land in Los Angeles with the first samples of their latest holiday smash in the hold.
The airports on each edge of the Rim, in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, are able to perch in the corners of the so-called smiley curve, named for the U-shaped smile of the seventies cartoon happy face. Devised by Chinese manufacturers, the curve depicts where all the value is added and profits are made in a gadget like the iPod. In the upper left end of the smile—the product’s conception—are the idea, design, and branding. At the right end are distribution, marketing, retail sales, and customer support. In between, at the bottom of the curve, is where the grunt work of manufacturing, final assembly, and shipping happens. The corners are where the money is, which explains why farming out the entire industry to China has been win-win so far for all involved, especially on California’s side of the ledger. In the case of a $299 iPod, for example, Apple’s brains, branding, and stores produce $155 in gross profits. The parts, made by Toshiba, Samsung, and a host of unknowns, amount to only $144, and their profits are marginal—which is what happens when you build something instead of invent it.
Apple’s heirs apparent don’t even pretend to be interested in making things. One such start-up is chumby, which makes a $99 device that might best be described as a clock radio crossed with an iPod. Based in San Diego, chumby has thirty-seven employees, of whom “maybe two and a half are focused on hardware,” admits its CEO, Steve Tomlin. He isn’t one of them, having apprenticed at AOL and Disney. “To the outside world, we look like a consumer electronics company, but we’re not,” he explains. They intend to get rich selling purely digital “widgets.” Chumby’s device is meant only to prove what they’re capable of. Facing a chicken-and-egg dilemma—how do you sell widgets when there’s nothing to play them on?—they sat down and hatched one.
Not that they own a factory. Nor did they let the fact that (in Tomlin’s words) “we didn’t have anybody who had ever worked in China before” stop them. They found a factory near Hong Kong to make a few hundred prototypes, and eventually found another ready to stamp out a few million, if necessary. Their shipments are landing at LAX too—making good on its original promise for airmail—and where would they be without it? For that reason, it’s almost impossible to quantify what the airport means to California. But even a pre-Internet-era estimate pegged its contributions to Los Angeles at $61 billion a year and four hundred thousand jobs in 1995, starting from a mere $3.3 billion in 1970.
Escape from LAX
Complicating any attempts at a fix has been a decades-long debate over whether the city should focus solely on LAX expansion (and the wrath of litigious neighbors) or build up regional airports to pick up the slack. Faced with the prospect of LAX hitting a hundred million passengers a year around 2015, the airport authority looked into both options. The most audacious mid-nineties proposal was to build straight into Santa Monica Bay, adding new runways as far as two miles out into the ocean. Supporters argued that an unfettered airport would pump another $60 billion into the economy as it grew, adding the equivalent of a Hamburg or a Dublin. California state senator Tom Hayden spoke for the environmentalist opposition when he labeled it “insane.” LAX officials scuttled the plan.
They had scrapped thirty others by 2001, when a vortex of mayoral politics, community pressure, and 9/11 conspired to end any grand expansion plans. The NIMBYs and wannabes in favor of a regional approach appeared to have won. While Long Beach, Burbank, and John Wayne in Orange County had already reached their limits, Ontario, lying east of LA in the Inland Empire, had room to grow, and there was hope of building a new Orange County International airport at the former Marine Corps airfield of El Toro. Perhaps the city could even resurrect Palmdale, the Ghost of LAX Future.
Sprawled across the high Mojave Desert fifty miles north of the city, on the far side of the San Gabriel Mountains, Palmdale is home to both Air Force Plant 42 and Edwards Air Force Base. The former is where the space shuttles were assembled, and the latter where they glided back to earth. Inspired by the brave new world they heralded, the city bought seventeen thousand acres of Joshua trees and sand adjoining Plant 42 at the start of the seventies. This would someday be LAX II. Its creators imagined a future, now past, that included jets ascending straight up, like helicopters; Mach 12 cruising speeds; bullet trains to transfer between LAX and Palmdale; and even “interplanetary travel,” presumably aboard the Pan Am space planes last seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. None of it was ever built, of course—not after an earthquake ruled out any bullet trains through the mountains.
No replacements or successors or supplements to LAX are in the cards, even as the original is showing visible signs of strain. The airport’s metaphorical crumbling became real a few years ago, when the spidery legs of its iconic Theme Building began shedding concrete, exposing decades of rust beneath. While they were stripped down to the steel, sanded, and reclad, there’s nothing to suggest that the same can be done for LAX itself. I could see the scaffolding over the shoulder of Mike DiGirolamo, who invited me into his wood-paneled office atop the old control tower to expound on the sad state of airports in the LA basin. DiGirolamo is in charge of operations for LAX, placing him in the crossfire of airlines, neighbors, and City Hall. He has a complete grasp of the absurdity of his situation: he’s the one procuring the Southern California dream for millions—the iPhones, the It handbags, the Prozac prescriptions—and they despise him for it. “Can we change the infrastructure? I don’t know,” he told me. “It’s a political issue. We had the desire to do it, but we lost it. We empowered the community so much here that they think they’re running the airport, and that’s the problem.”
Not that the Los Angeles City Council has done a better job of it, or even understood what it was dealing with. “Cities got into the airport business through a mind-set of, ‘Well, we have a train station; why wouldn’t we operate the airport?’ That’s a fallacy,” he offered by way of introduction to the mess he’s in. “Imagine someone from Ralph’s,” a local supermarket chain, “going to the city and saying, ‘We’d like you to build a supermarket to our specifications. We’ll sell groceries and give you a return on your investment over the next sixty years. You’re going to get hammered on the environmental front and the noise, and we’re going to come bitch at you because you’re driving prices up, and because there’s not enough checkout lanes, and would you like to sign up for this?’ And the mayor says, ‘Absolutely! We already have an airport like that, so why not get into the grocery business!’ ”
We laughed, but it wasn’t that funny. America’s airports are a joke to its citizens, while foreign visitors see them as symptoms of some deeper malaise. LAX is bad enough, but New York’s airports are even worse. “Fly from Zurich’s ultramodern airport to La Guardia’s dump,” Thomas L. Friedman challenged his readers in The New York Times. “It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones.” The Financial Times’s John Gapper singled out New York’s other airport: “If anyone doubts the problems of U.S. infrastructure, I suggest he or she take a flight to John F. Kennedy airport (braving the landing delay), ride a taxi on the pot-holed and congested Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and try to make a mobile phone call en route.”
It’s scary how much not just Los Angeles but the entire West—and to some extent, the entire country—depends on an airport as dysfunctional as LAX. “Eighty percent of all iPods sold at Christmas last year came through here,” DiGirolamo told me: around fifty million, most arriving via a single route on a single airline—straight from Hong Kong in the bellies of Cathay Pacific’s 747s.
“Almost fifty percent of all consumption of all products in the ten western states is through Southern California,” when you lump in the ports with the airport, he said. “We’re the intake for Las Vegas, Tucson, Phoenix … all the way to Albuquerque. When you look at the total tonnage that comes through LAX versus the total tonnage that goes through harbors, we have about ten percent, and they have ninety percent. When you look at the value of the cargo, though, we have eighty percent.”
Piling up on the docks are cars (LA’s number 2 import), clothes (number 4), oil (5), and toys (7). Landing at LAX, meanwhile, are miscellaneous electronics (1); MP3, CD, and DVD players (3); and just about anything else electric (6 and 8), along with medications, cameras, and textiles. But the statistical abstracts reveal nothing about the contents.
Anyone lucky enough to have hitched a ride aboard a freighter or been taken under the wing of the “freight dogs” who pilot them could tell you enough stories to pass the eighteen hours to LA from Singapore. At any given moment, there are aloft “incomprehensible quantities of the mundane,” in the words of one such witness: 160,000 pounds of roses leaving Amsterdam, 25,000 wiring harnesses bound for auto plants around Detroit, or 5,000 pounds of Grand Theft Auto games inbound for LAX. Another writer babysat a stableful of horses in transit between O’Hare and Tokyo, including a dozen Appaloosas bound for a Hokkaido ranch. One pilot recounted the tale of a mysterious ice chest, insured for millions, which he later learned was the vessel for the first HIV drug cocktail.
It’s the freight dogs’ job to be on time, just in time, every time with whatever they’re carrying, especially when it’s close to Christmastime. “If you’re Joe Shmo, who cares if your flight leaves or not?” griped a 747 freighter captain named Tony Baca. “Grab another flight—it doesn’t really matter. But when I’m hauling one hundred tons of Nintendo Wiis, it starts mattering. That’s millions of dollars of revenue. You have people waiting at Target for that. One time I ended up hauling one hundred thirty tons of Happy Meal toys. And the reason was, a container ship sank in the middle of the Pacific. If a huge shipment has just sunk, you can’t dispatch another ship. So you start hauling Happy Meal toys on a 747.”
A ship doesn’t have to sink for squadrons of jumbo jets to scramble. DiGirolamo has his own war stories of supply chain snafus that were no fault of his own. “We had a major problem with the ports—we couldn’t get the ships offloaded and they couldn’t get goods into the stores” because a ten-day strike in 2002 had left more than one hundred ships arriving from China anchored helplessly offshore, just two months before Christmas. “A lot of people had figured how to do it just in time,” using aerial shipments, “but a lot hadn’t. Distributors were calling stores to say, ‘I can’t get it to you because it’s stuck on a boat in the North Pacific.’ And their customers answered, ‘Well, you had better figure out how to get it to me.’ ”
Companies dependent on the holiday crush, like Hasbro, raced to implement contingency plans for airlifting millions of dollars in backup merchandise to the stores. They would need them again two years later, when an October oceanic traffic jam left another fifty ships parked offshore for weeks. Somehow the ports had become even more clogged than the tarmac at LAX.
Those caught in the pinch had gambled on the wrong time/cost equation—they’d sacrificed months of the former to save a few pennies per item on the latter. That’s typically how it works in hair-thin-margin industries, but it’s also increasingly a luxury in the Instant Age, when customers’ patience isn’t salved by the costs manufacturers have managed to wring from their supply chains.
“We’re seeing more just-in-time these days,” DiGirolamo said, implying they’ve learned their lesson and are putting it on planes instead. Or maybe the crises just keep mounting—according to one survey, “emergencies” stemming from ocean delays accounted for more than a third of all air shipments from China. The most common reasons, however, had to do with the high value of the products in question, coping with volatile consumer demand, and an outright need for speed in production.
The last one is also why LA has begun a slow descent into flyover country as far as cargo is concerned. Asian airlines in particular have learned to skip its tangle of runways and freeways in favor of direct flights to Dallas to drop off their laptops. It’s Yogi Berra logic: nobody lands there anymore; it’s too crowded.
Orange County: The Battle of El Toro
“Airports come in two sizes,” Rem Koolhaas wrote, “too big and too small.” But John Wayne Airport, nestled snugly in Orange County, was just right. Big enough for locals to enjoy the connections it offered but too small to really annoy anyone, it was a perfect fit for the O.C.
Then not one, but three cities sprang up around the airport in the 1980s—Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, and Irvine—and none possessed the clout to enlarge the airport’s footprint, which is smaller than that of the original Mines Field. By 1985, local NIMBY groups had extracted an ironclad promise from the county to cap the number of flights, so as not to disturb the nighttime rituals of Newport Beach. To this day, takeoffs from John Wayne have more in common with those at Baghdad International than O’Hare: pilots must lock the brakes, power up the engines to full throttle, and then release, hurtling down the short runway at top speed before climbing as steeply as possible. Then, just five hundred feet in the air, they all but kill the power so as not to wake the neighbors. Not until after they’ve floated out over the Pacific do they resume their ascent.
John Wayne was ideal for short flights to Las Vegas or hubs around the country. If you needed to hop one to Tokyo, you just drove up the 405 to LAX. Orange County’s three million residents were the proverbial free riders, content to overload the neighbors’ airport instead of shoring up the one at home.
In 1993, the Pentagon announced it was closing the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and handing over the keys to the county. The gesture was meant as a “peace dividend” to make up for the end of the Cold War and the tens of thousands of jobs the Warfare State subsequently lost. What it did was touch off Orange County’s civil war, once again pitting north against south. Proponents of a new airport floated an Orange County International as busy as New York’s LaGuardia or Washington’s Dulles. The advantages of their plan were obvious—El Toro would replace John Wayne and had room to grow where LAX didn’t. It would cost far less to start anew than expand the existing airport, where costs of the resulting lawsuits would inevitably add up. Over the long haul, it would make the county even more of a high-tech mecca, attracting overseas companies to complement the ones already there. The downsides were no less apparent: noise, pollution, traffic, and the one thing homeowners cannot abide—lower property values. The ensuing Battle of El Toro exposed Orange County’s existential dilemma: become the new Silicon Valley or preserve the gilded country club America imagined as the O.C.
The battle lines were drawn: nine cities in the north in favor of the new airport arrayed against seven in the south stridently against it. (The dividing line was real estate prices.) Each side attracted a strange mélange of allies. Supporters comprised a mix of Hispanic immigrants, the salivating Orange County Business Council, and the haute bourgeoisie of Newport Beach, who saw their chance to do away with John Wayne forever. Opposing them was an uneasy coalition of entrenched NIMBY interests along the coast and alarmed environmentalists. As it dragged on, the fight over El Toro turned into a referendum on Los Angeles’s own airport strategy. The city’s mayor saw an opening to defuse the LAX crisis and exploited it accordingly.
John Kasarda entered the debate by writing a series of reports that became the Federalist Papers for pro-airport forces. After running the numbers, he concluded that Orange County International would elevate the county to a full-fledged rival of Los Angeles itself. “To the extent Orange County depends upon [LAX],” he wrote in one report, “its economic future is uncertain and remains in the hands of Los Angeles decision makers. Yet there is an alternative—independence.”
Both sides drafted armies of lawyers, consultants, and pollsters to craft ballot measures, canvas support, and file lawsuits. The legal struggle lasted eight years, costing $90 million in taxpayers’ money spent on voter initiatives and environmental reviews. Then the World Trade Center was destroyed, and a new airport suddenly seemed like a big bull’s-eye. Its opponents took a new tack—rather than ask residents to vote for or against it, they had a choice between an airport and a “Great Park” covering its forty-five hundred acres. Relieved to have an alternative, the people chose the park. El Toro was auctioned off to developers a year later.
In doing so, residents turned their backs on history and the origins of their own prosperity. Orange County was a modest bedroom community until the two dozen towers of the Irvine Business Complex rose beside John Wayne in the 1980s. Now there are more blue-chip firms around it than in downtown San Diego, and close to half the county’s office space. The luxury megamall on its far side, South Coast Plaza, moves more merchandise every day than all of the shops in downtown San Francisco.
The failure of Orange County International was an especially tough blow to companies like Western Digital, the world’s second-largest maker of hard drives. The discs that end up in your PC or DVR are made of components stamped in its Asian factories, sent by plane to Orange County for final assembly, and then flown out again. Western Digital’s output is typical of American exports and manufacturing in the Instant Age. Our exports are airborne to an even greater extent than our imports—at last count around $554 billion worth, or more than half the total.
As America’s intangible assets have cratered—$12 trillion in household wealth has simply evaporated—its exports of goods and services have arguably been the only thing keeping the economy afloat. (That, and government stimulus.) President Barack Obama’s prescription for a “new economic foundation” amounts to “export more and consume less”—a goal made explicit in his first State of the Union address, in which he called for a doubling of exports within five years. “We’ve got to go back to making things,” he said last spring, while visiting a California solar panel factory. “We’ve got to go back to exports.” Whatever we learn to make and sell abroad will command prices high enough to go by air—to say nothing of the contracts needing to be negotiated. More exports will require more runways.
Orange County International would have been a start, but Orange County itself was the problem. Or rather, the idea of Orange County: the shining cities on The Hills built on a rising tide of home equity made possible by the rogues’ gallery of subprime lenders chartered in the county. When America tried to follow its lead, the result was calamity—especially on the fringes of Los Angeles, where homeowners drowning in their underwater mortgages still cling stubbornly to the dream.
Their defeat left Southern California’s urban planners with no real alternatives—unless you count a floating airport off the coast of San Diego. The brainchild of a local lawyer, Oceansworks Offshore Airport would be moored a dozen miles out to sea, with runways on the roof and an aerotropolis larger than San Diego itself stowed below. All its creator needs is a permit and someone to lend him $20 billion.
No matter what happens, LAX will get busier. Its many missteps will be mitigated but never rectified, and the crush on its crumbling infrastructure will worsen until—from a competitive perspective—it finally implodes. Qantas and Singapore Airlines have both threatened to reroute their daily A380 flights unless something is done about the condition of the airfield. Trying to preempt this, the Los Angeles City Council pushed through a $1.3 billion face-lift in October 2009. The largest sum ever awarded by the city for a single project will be financed entirely with bonds. Obama’s plan to spend $50 billion on infrastructure—including a pledge to pave 150 miles’ worth of runways—came too late.
Renovations and expansion of the terminals should be finished by 2013. By then, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Las Vegas will all have new or improved airports. Will it be too late to prevent Los Angeles from descending into flyover country? “These aircraft don’t have to stop at LAX,” a city councilwoman explained. “People in the airline industry were telling me they could just pass us over. LAX was not getting its fair share of the future.”
Dulles: America’s Wealthiest Invisible City
President Dwight D. Eisenhower dropped his finger on a map of the rolling Virginia countryside and chose the site of his second great invasion. As was the case with Normandy, his choice of battleground was deceptively remote: a field in the middle of nowhere, eleven thousand wooded acres twenty-five miles due west of the White House, with no highways to connect them. There, in 1958, thirty years after the original bean field strips of Los Angeles Municipal Airport, Dulles International was built using the same template.
Opened on the cusp of the Jet Age, it sat all but empty for twenty years, as Beltway drivers stuck with the more convenient Washington National (now Reagan) airport on the west bank of the Potomac River. In the afternoons, passengers could hear their own footfalls echoing off the vaulted ceiling of Eero Saarinen’s main terminal. And still no one had thought to make any provisions for what should and what shouldn’t be built beyond the perimeter, because even in the year following Sputnik, no one could foresee what would happen next: Ronald Reagan’s blank checks for Star Wars and the contractors who cashed them would conspire to plow under the hillsides and erect the prototypical edge cities that redefined our urban landscapes. Dulles would be the anchor.
The airport’s saving grace was its size, nearly four times the landmass of LAX, and more than all of greater LA’s airports combined. No one could build horse farms or McMansions close enough to complain about the noise, leaving the airport to operate in peace and (relative) quiet. It wouldn’t emerge from its torpor until Reagan took office in 1981. His plan for winning the Cold War—to outspend the Soviets into oblivion—opened a gusher of defense contracts that poured out of the Pentagon and spilled across Virginia in the 1980s. After a pause during the New World Order, a second flood of federal procurement funds never subsided, and kept rising in the post-9/11 reshuffling of dollars and duties to the likes of Homeland Security, Halliburton, and, once again, Boeing. The bill for federal outsourcing came to $4.2 billion in 1980; in 2006, it was $54 billion. Half a trillion dollars has flowed out the doors of the Pentagon since Reagan was inaugurated, and half of that figure, in turn—some $223 billion—has found its way to the bottom lines of the companies that pitched their tents between it and Dulles, in neighboring Fairfax County.
The bulk of those contracts now have less to do with military applications than the software kind. Beginning with the technical specs for Star Wars, the Department of Defense has leaned on high-tech purveyors for help in buying, building, configuring, and integrating the fully networked battlefield. The so-called Beltway Bandits were paid handsomely for it; in the largest contracts to date, EDS (now part of HP) was promised $10 billion for running the navy’s IT department.
Buried in the voluminous paperwork accompanying these deals was a clause requiring the winning bidder to dwell within thirty miles or thirty minutes of the Pentagon for impromptu meetings with the brass. In exchange for its cash, the Pentagon made itself the impatient center of their universe. The typical outfit had only two choices: pack up headquarters and move to Fairfax, or transfer their contractors there and shuttle the CEO in and out for meetings. Either way, the ability to hop a flight to Washington on a moment’s notice became an absolute necessity. Baltimore’s airport wouldn’t cut it (too far) and neither would National, which lies barely a mile from the Pentagon but can’t handle transcontinental flights. That made it useless to Boeing execs flying from Seattle, for example, or a Lockheed team leaving LAX.
So Dulles was where you went to extract cash from the federal government. Soon whole companies moved in down the street from the Pentagon, with the Joint Chiefs on one side and a portal home on the other. Scouting the surrounding terrain, they discovered good schools, cheap land, relaxed zoning, and ever-so-slightly-lower taxes than Maryland or the District of Columbia. It wasn’t long before they were convincing zoning boards to condemn the horse and dairy farms and toss up smoked glass cubes within spitting distance of the runways.
The Pentagon and its affiliates have kept funneling some $16 billion a year into their neighbors ever since, more than they send to the entirety of California. A few of the largest contractors, like the San Diego–based SAIC, have more staff kicking around Dulles than back at headquarters. (Bowing to this reality, Northrop Grumman moved its headquarters to Virginia last year.) Government outsourcing spawned one hundred thousand private-sector white-collar jobs in Fairfax County between 1990 and 2005, more than triple the number created in the District itself. By then, the number of residents had topped a million (nearly twice as many as Washington) and had been recognized as the nation’s wealthiest, with the median household income climbing above $100,000 for the first time in history. Fairfax was the birthplace of the original edge cities, Tysons Corner chief among them. It’s the second-richest county in the country; neighboring Loudon County, which shares the airport, is first. Fairfax isn’t officially a city—it doesn’t even have its own zip code—but if its size was measured in mall and office space, it would be the sixth-largest in the country.
Fairfax today is wealthier than either Bangkok or New Delhi, and it hasn’t plateaued yet. While America grapples with double-digit unemployment, the Obama administration has added hundreds of thousands of jobs around Washington.
What you make of this depends on your politics. Armchair sociologists with a local’s bias and conservative bent—like Joel Garreau or the New York Times columnist David Brooks—see a shining, privately owned and publicly financed city on a hill. A liberal polemicist like Thomas Frank, on the other hand, finds a starched-and-pressed Sodom:
When you drive among these wonders, northern Virginia appears as a kind of technicolor vision of prosperity, American-style; a distillation of all that is mighty and righteous about the American imperium: the airport designed by Eero Saarinen; the shopping mall so vast it dwarfs other cities’ downtowns; the finely tuned high-performance cars zooming along an immaculate private highway; the masses of flowers in perfectly edged beds; the gas stations with Colonial Williamsburg cupolas; the street names, even, recalling our cherished American values: Freedom, Market, Democracy, Tradition, and Signature drives; Heritage Lane; Founders Way; Enterprise, Prosperity, and Executive Park avenues; and a Chivalry Road that leads, of course, to Valor Court.
All well and good, except for the fact it’s corporate welfare. Dulles is also crucial to the county’s plans for its next act. First, Fairfax hopes to wean itself from the Pentagon so as not to suffer the fate someday of another company town, Detroit. Then it aims to use the taxpayers’ money as bait to attract the next generation of high-tech entrepreneurs looking to consult for the consultants.
It almost worked once before. The all-time greatest instance of the military’s power to spin its science projects into gold runs like a river directly beneath Dulles and most of Fairfax County. MAE-East, a buried stream of fiber optics, is the first and largest of the Internet’s trunk routes. Built by government mandate in 1992, it was the single most potent node of digital connectivity in existence. By the time Netscape went public in 1995 and dot-com mania had begun, one could make the case that Dulles, not Palo Alto, was the de facto capital of the Internet. A third of all Net traffic ran through it, drawing bandwidth-thirsty companies from far and wide to drink from its torrent.
Two titans from the era planted their headquarters here: MCI and America Online. It’s no coincidence they sound like government agencies. When the former announced its $37 billion merger with WorldCom in 1997, it was the largest in U.S. history. By then, AOL had already moved from crowded digs in Fairfax to a spacious headquarters in “Dulles, Virginia,” a piece of Loudon that not only lacks a zip code but doesn’t technically exist. “Dulles” is an alternative name for the town of Sterling, which has been summarily dumped in favor of all that “Dulles” implies—proximity to the only landmark that matters, the mechanism that made it possible for AOL’s chiefs to practice shuttle diplomacy in their failed attempt to manage the world’s mightiest media conglomerate in the heady days of 2000. Within a couple of years, they had been ousted over a plummeting stock price in a palace coup, while MCI imploded even more spectacularly amid an Enron-style accounting scandal. But by then they had proved what county boosters already knew—Fairfax was the capital now, and D.C. its suburb.
The companies headed there today look more like Netezza than AOL or Netscape. Netezza sells “appliances”—a server-software combo that crunches millions of records ten times faster than the competition. The patterns it finds buried deep in the data are invisible to the naked eye or spreadsheet. Amazon would like to see where its customers are clicking on its site; Neiman Marcus wants to know not only what its shoppers are buying but also why. IBM liked it so much that it bought the company in the fall of 2010. Netezza began life in Boston in 2002, salvaging customers and talent from the dot-com rubble. It grew in every direction at once, opening offices in Tokyo, Sydney, Toronto, and outside London. A few years later it landed in Tysons Corner, opening a “federal division” that Netezza’s chairman, Jit Saxena, can’t really talk about.
All I wanted to know was how a start-up with fewer than a hundred employees could become a real multinational overnight. “The physical barriers, in terms of connectivity and travel, are gone,” he told me. “We invest in a new geography based solely on the opportunities there, and that’s decided by the size of the market. If we were a Web 2.0 company, then geography wouldn’t be that important. But in the business we’re in, you’re dealing with customers face-to-face, and that’s something you cannot do over e-mail. You still need presence, and since the market in the Fairfax area is huge, we need to be here.” Netezza has a major presence in India as well, where much of its R & D work is done. That can’t be performed over e-mail, either. Why not? Saxena sounded bemused by the idea that a company trafficking so heavily in the virtual should depend on air traffic to keep up.
“The Internet doesn’t make any of that obsolete,” he said. “It even encourages more travel, because it emphasizes how tightly costs and communication are bound together. When we build R and D centers or a new sales office, we ask, ‘Are these places easy to get to? Or do we have to change planes to get there?’ And for that, Fairfax is perfect.”
The man most responsible for luring Saxena here is Gerry Gordon, president of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority and its foremost corporate headhunter. Receiving me in his office in Tysons Corner—just around the block from Netezza’s—Gordon had the self-satisfied glow of a man who knows just how lucky he is to be the captain of a perpetually winning team. His adopted hometown was blessed before he arrived with this century’s answer to a deep-water harbor or rich veins of iron ore: a hub with plenty of room. “With a fast-growing international airport on one side and the federal government on the other, you’d have to try to fuck that up,” he said, laughing.
He also has as many foreign bureaus as Netezza—in London, Frankfurt, Tel Aviv, Seoul, and Bangalore. “We have more overseas offices than most cities,” he explained. “Actually, we have more than most states.” The reasons go beyond simple economics. While the county’s outposts search for new recruits that match up well with its strengths—the Tel Aviv staff, for instance, are on the lookout for transplant candidates in software, security, and biotech—there’s a deep cosmopolitan yearning at play here as well. The fields where the Civil War was once fought have become diverse suburbs filled with upwardly mobile immigrants. More than a third of all the children born in Fairfax have at least one parent from overseas, and that percentage is rising; its one million inhabitants already include forty thousand foreign-born Indians and fifty thousand Koreans. Fairfax is also home to some 358 foreign-owned companies, and the key to finding life after the Beltway Bandits is to lure more of them here. Thanks to its connections, the future of Fairfax is bound up more tightly with Beijing or Bangalore than with Washington, D.C., next door.
Gordon began to have an inkling of the airport’s power in the early 1990s, when the United States and Canada hammered out an Open Skies agreement that finally allowed nonstop flights between Canadian cities and Dulles. Until then, “to get to Toronto or Montreal, you had to fly through Detroit, Boston, or Pittsburgh. I never thought that businesses that could make a buck by coming would find that sufficient to curtail their presence. Really? One stop?” Once nonstop flights started, however, “you could immediately—immediately!—see the Canadian companies start streaming in. So the growth of the airport and the ability to get places … golly, the impact is enormous.”
You can see just how much it means to them by looking more closely at a single daily flight, between Dulles and Beijing. The first nonstop between the G2’s capitals didn’t start until March 2007, and it’s been flying full ever since. Each leg carries a mix of diplomats, businessmen, and tourists, but the suits are the ones Gordon’s after. They’re worth as much as $250 million a year to the greater D.C. economy, according to research conducted at George Mason University. Just this one route will create 1,760 new jobs, with a median salary of $81,000, or about $140 million in wages. The rest will come when they spread that wealth around, generating another $100 million in trickle-down effects. That will stem from Chinese companies on the prowl for the programmers and consultants who can bring them up to speed in the Instant Age.
“China is a developing nation that is experiencing very rapid growth and is an importer of information and high technology products,” the George Mason report noted. “Workers in this sector are heavy users of air transportation making on average 60% more trips than workers in traditional industries.” They haven’t landed in Fairfax yet, at least not in large numbers.
“China Telecom has its North American headquarters here in Fairfax County,” Gordon told me. “That’s the only Chinese company to date worth going after, and it’s already here. So we haven’t been as active in China as we will one day be.” This struck me as a stunning development—that Dulles will be the means for Chinese companies to move to Virginia and outsource their own needs to Americans. We’ve gotten so used to the idea of our factories vanishing overseas, never to be seen or heard from again (except for postcards in the form of our digital cameras), that the prospect of China handing over the keys to its software industry is nothing short of astounding. “It’s interesting for us,” he added, “because we don’t make things. We only deal with services and thoughts.”
The new arrivals have an easier time than the locals seeing Dulles and Fairfax County for what they are: a full-blown (if accidental) aerotropolis. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that they don’t even know, or care, that there’s a city with a big obelisk at the other end of the Dulles Toll Road. Near the end of our chat, Gordon offered proof of this: “When we talk to people in places like Seoul or Bangalore, we ask, ‘How many of you have been in Fairfax County?’ And two or three hands to go up. ‘How many of you have been to McLean?’ There’s a few more. ‘How many of you have been to Dulles?’ Every hand in the room goes up. ‘How many of you have gone from Dulles to Washington, driving down that Toll Road?’ And everyone says, ‘Sure, sure, it’s a big technology park.’ To them, that’s Fairfax, and it’s why every company wants its name on the Dulles Toll Road. I’ve seen people writing down a list of who they saw there.”
A few hours later, I balanced my notebook on the steering wheel and tried desperately to take in the galaxy of logos swirling by on either side: Northrop Grumman, Cybertrust, Booz Allen Hamilton, ITT, Verizon, Symantec, and RCN. Farther along, there was Unisys, Oracle, Sprint, and XO Communications. Just about every Internet, cable, and telecom company in the land adorned some piece of real estate. The Dulles Toll Road was, in effect, the template for the high-tech avenues I would see later in Dubai, Doha, Guangzhou, and even Dallas.
In the middle distance, I spotted a cluster of condo high-rises. Was that the Washington skyline already? Where was I? After pointing my rental car in their general direction, I ended up cruising through a pocket of oversize London row houses as warm and fresh as a sheet of ready-bake cookies straight from the oven. I’d stumbled into the outskirts of Reston Town Center, “What downtown was meant to be,” or so its signs proclaimed. At its center, sheltered by office blocks containing Accenture and Sallie Mae, is the eminently walkable Freedom Square and its centerpiece, the faux Beaux Arts Mercury Fountain. It was as if someone had broken off a piece of gentrified Washington and carried it out here, twenty miles west of city limits, and attempted to transplant it in fresh dirt where people really wanted to live and work: next door to the airport.
The tidal wave of growth that rolled across Fairfax over the last two decades finally crested here before crashing on the rock of Dulles and breaking to either side. The overflow of new homes and mixed-use, master-planned landscapes like Reston’s is spilling north into Loudoun County now, where the reception of Dulles’s amoebalike aerotropolis has been decidedly mixed. Despite Loudoun’s jockeying with Fairfax to be the wealthiest county in the nation, its residents are inclined to keep their horse farms and rolling estates at home while commuting to their day jobs in the next county over.
But the developers who built out Reston and Tysons Corner are having none of that. Having reached the end of developable land heading west, they’re now determined to lock up every piece of open ground between the airport and the Potomac. The de facto aerotropolis is maturing; the communities being built now are so far from Washington’s orbit that it’s a stretch even to consider them part of greater D.C.—they belong only to Dulles. At the same time, they’re denser and more recognizably urban—closer in form to Reston than to the nameless suburbs covering the fields like clover. Last spring, Fairfax County passed a forty-year plan to double Tysons in both size and density, adding two hundred thousand jobs and half as many residents in a bid to transform the sprawling edge city into a vertical, walkable one above an extension of the D.C. Metro out to the airport. Dulles offers hope that given room to breathe, aerotropoli make so much sense that they can and will be born by the invisible hand of market forces alone. But it also demonstrates the hard limits of what unplanned, unintended, and purely private growth can do.
Chicago: Bulldozing the Airport in Order to Save It
Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley was the last of the big-city bosses, the mayor-for-life who delivered the city—and thus the state of Illinois and the nation—for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Only a few years earlier, he’d delivered the suburban footprint of O’Hare Airport to the city of Chicago in a brilliant bit of gerrymandering. He annexed a five-mile-long tether to the airport, strong-arming the swampy village of Rosemont to cede him the final few hundred feet. In exchange, Rosemont became O’Hare’s front door. Today it has more hotel rooms than residents, and more office towers than downtown Kansas City. The highway leading from the Loop to the terminals is a dead ringer for the Dulles Toll Road.
O’Hare, the world’s busiest airport for nearly the entirety of the Jet Age, succeeded as Dulles did in reversing the polarity between downtown and its suburbs. “Richard the First” accepted this, so long as he controlled the airport, its revenues, and its opportunities for patronage. But a proto-aerotropolis was busily forming outside city limits, in the “Golden Corridor” running through the northwest suburbs. As early as 1972, more than half the business travelers arriving at O’Hare never strayed beyond meetings at the adjacent Hyatts and Hiltons. (Why fight traffic?) They settled in instead, encouraging local companies with a global footprint—Motorola, Sears, McDonald’s—to do the same, vacating downtown for a headquarters nearby. In 1991, Sears abandoned its namesake—the 110-story Sears Tower, the world’s tallest building when it opened in 1974—in favor of a low-slung campus along the toll road that begins and ends at O’Hare. Management looked far and wide when they gave up on their aerie, until they realized they could just as easily roam far and wide themselves by setting up shop in Hoffman Estates, thirty miles away. Allstate, ACNielsen, and U.S. Cellular have all followed to the mirrored office corridor larger than downtown Detroit, Miami, or Tampa—larger, in fact, than any downtown in the entire Midwest, with the sole exception of the Loop.
O’Hare was its linchpin, but it was not of it. With only the airport in his grasp, Daley was at loggerheads with his neighbors in Des Plaines, Elk Grove Village, and Bensenville, who, like the locals around LAX, despised the pollution and noise. But unlike his counterparts in Los Angeles, Daley had no political incentive to kowtow to residents or rein in O’Hare as it annually shattered passenger records—the fallout wasn’t technically Chicago’s problem. The nonstop connectivity it offered was just as vital to the commodity traders shouting orders in the pits of the Chicago Board of Trade as it is to the thousands of McDonald’s managers making the trek to the eighty-acre campus of Hamburger University in Oak Brook.
The natural solution to O’Hare’s mounting congestion was to add another airport somewhere. This line of thinking had led to O’Hare after Chicago’s original airfield on the city’s South Side, Midway, had become hopelessly boxed in. But Richard the First had no intention of building anything he couldn’t control. He’d actually been first to propose a third airport in his 1967 inaugural address, floating the idea of runways built five miles offshore in Lake Michigan (presumably on territory annexed by the city). He dismissed it shortly thereafter, claiming O’Hare would suffice “until the year 2000.”
The next push for a new airport came in the mid-1980s, during the interregnum between the father and son Mayor Daleys, when Illinois state officials explored more conventional sites in the farmland south of the city. Their favorite was a stretch of soybean fields forty-five miles from the Loop, near a small town named Peotone. The Peotone site was championed by the suburbs bordering O’Hare, which dreaded the airport’s otherwise inevitable expansion. But they failed to rally enough support in the legislature and Congress to pay for the new one’s multibillion-dollar construction.
When Richard M. Daley (Richard the Second) was elected in 1989, within months he announced his own plan for an airport on the city’s southeast side, atop abandoned steel mills and landfills full of toxic waste. Before the full costs of displacing sixty thousand residents and condemning thousands of acres could be calculated, his downstate opponents—led by Governor James “Big Jim” Thompson, Daley’s only real rival—killed funding for it, setting a pattern of reprisals for the next decade. The Chicago Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for probing Daley’s ruthlessness in protecting the city’s hold on O’Hare, revealing an impenetrable web of patronage and political contributions.
Among the highlights were his unholy alliance with United and American Airlines—O’Hare’s largest tenants and two of the largest airlines in the world—to head off the competition a Peotone airport could mount. (United went so far as to hire Daley’s younger brother and his former chief of staff as lobbyists; American settled for former governor Thompson.) Daley and his aides hired more than a thousand new employees in the city’s Department of Aviation, including the sons, wives, and nephews of their allies. Some were later planted within the FAA, where they did their best to frustrate Peotone plans. Then there were the $356 million in contracts handed out to twenty-nine architectural and engineering firms, including $12 million a year for the aviation consultants Landrum & Brown. They were the ones the Tribuneaccused of doctoring growth projections in a misguided effort to dissuade all involved that a third airport was necessary, or that O’Hare needed expansion. (“Forecasts are generally made to order,” said Daley’s first—and subsequently ousted—aviation commissioner.) The real numbers never stopped climbing.
Los Angeles’s NIMBY-derived paralysis was about fear; Chicago’s was the willful denial of reality. Daley was willing to hamstring the entire region rather than commit the political and financial capital for Chicagoland to grow in directions that might not benefit him and the city directly. A leaked memo revealed Daley had no intention of building a third airport, describing his feint on the South Side as “successful guerrilla warfare.” The impasse attracted national attention. “I say pox on all of them,” Senator John McCain declared in 2000. “Chicago is one of the most gridlocked places in America and a critical transportation hub. We can’t get O’Hare expanded, and we can’t build another airport. And those are the only two options.”
There was a third: federal intervention. Tired of watching delays at O’Hare gum up flights from coast to coast, the FAA cracked down in 2004 with a cap on the number of arrivals per hour. Prevented from stuffing more flights in and out, the airport would languish; a year later, it relinquished its title as the world’s busiest to Atlanta, ending a forty-year run at the top. (It has since fallen to fourth place, behind Heathrow and Beijing.) The crisis gave Daley just the opening he needed to fast-track his new plan for overhauling O’Hare. This plot twist led one of Illinois’s own senators to smell a conspiracy, accusing the mayor of forcing the FAA’s hand.
The O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP) is a $15 billion, twenty-year effort to build a new airport atop the current one without canceling any flights. The centerpiece is a scheme to realign its runways while adding new ones, allowing more planes to take off and land simultaneously. When finished, the airport will look a lot like the one in Dallas–Ft. Worth, which laid down most of its seven runways in 1972. The price tag is staggering and the benefits modest—the biggest dig in American history will increase capacity by only 20 percent. While that’s enough to retake the title and reduce delays, the cost-effectiveness of the endeavor seems a bit skewed. Much of the time, energy, and money will be spent on the contortions necessary to solve the airport’s layout like a Rubik’s Cube. The taxpayers won’t foot the bill—not the local ones, anyway. Daley vowed to pay for it all with a mixture of bonds, fees, federal funds, and checks from the airlines, which were crying poverty even before $150 oil and the recession.
With the first $3 billion in hand, work began on the runways in summer 2007, nearly a year behind schedule and already a billion dollars over budget. I paid a visit to the OMP’s headquarters that spring and discovered a warren of bright and earnest engineers wrestling with manuals a foot thick and spilling over every available surface. Pinned to the walls were maps I needed 3-D, or maybe 4-D, glasses to interpret, as each color-coded phase of the project was overlaid atop the next. Contractors from dozens of firms handling grading, paving, and planning stalked the halls.
One consultant I met belonged to the team that helped develop the OMP and was now waist-deep in the (very) long-term planning. What would happen when it was finished, I asked, when another 195,000 jobs had poured into the region, as Daley had promised? What would the cities around O’Hare look like then, and had anyone drawn up plans for those? Did the airport create an aerotropolis, or had the northwest suburbs effectively created the airport?
“There’s no question the airport created this region,” he answered, “but what do you do with it now that it’s there? That’s what we’re grappling with: What role should the city play in the development of the surrounding area? Should Chicago do that, the airport, or the region? And how do you plan for it?” Left unspoken was the question of whether anyone could, and what will happen if no one does.
The OMP’s executive director is Rosemarie Andolino, a relentlessly perky Daley protégé who doubles as the city’s aviation commissioner. However else the program fits into Chicago’s business as usual, Andolino understands the stakes. “The airport is stagnant,” she said over coffee in her office. “It’s capped and there’s no more growth. What happens then? Businesses have choices. They can come here—for the workforce, the cultural activities, and the location—or they can go someplace else more efficient.” She shot me a helpless look that said lakefront parks and top-tier universities mattered less to Chicago’s bottom line.
She grew up on the west side of O’Hare, in what is now the cargo village of Elk Grove Village. “I moved there when I was in first grade, thirty-three years ago,” she said. “Our subdivision was one of the new ones, and all around us were farms. [O’Hare] was originally Orchard Field not because it was a cute name, but because this was once apple orchards. Now there’s Walmart, Kmart, Home Depot, and not one piece of farmland left in Elk Grove Village.”
And now she finds herself bulldozing the village in order to save it. To accommodate half a dozen new and extended runways, the OMP will annex an additional 433 acres to the airport’s footprint. O’Hare’s feud with its neighbors is lurching toward a climax of condemnation, invasion, and eventually demolition. Andolino fills her days catching flak from enraged suburban mayors. The one bearing the brunt of condemnation, with more than six hundred homes slated to vanish beneath tarmac, took to issuing communiqués such as “Judge halts Chicago’s hell-bent effort to destroy a good part of Bensenville for O’Hare Airport expansion.” The injunction was overturned; they always were. When airport workers arrived one day to clear a few trees ahead of the inevitable, the village president sicced his police on them. (They settled out of court.)
The city intends to evict both the living and the dead. The latter reside in a pair of cemeteries tucked within the new footprint. St. Johannes and Rest Haven preceded O’Hare by more than a hundred years—among the first to be buried there were Civil War vets. Plans call for St. Johannes to be paved over; Rest Haven will survive as an island of green sitting well behind the fence, where maps show a taxiway running right alongside it. Late in the day I went to pay my respects. St. Johannes is the larger of the two, with obelisks and monuments standing tall beside some thirteen hundred graves. Its parishioners have dug in deep, vowing to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. “Frankly, it’s nothing less than the immortal souls of their relatives that are at stake” is how one of their attorneys framed it. “Is it morally correct to move graves?” asked another. “We’ll find out on Judgment Day.”
But who wants to spend eternity wedged between a FedEx hangar and one of the world’s busiest runways? Those interred at Rest Haven just down the road would discover how the screams of a Pratt & Whitney engine sounded soon enough. Jet wash drowned out the birdcalls at dusk. There were fresh bouquets on the headstones of family plots dating back a dozen generations. Past the graves, bulldozers were busy excavating a mountain of mud ahead of an eleven-thousand-foot runway. Earlier that day local archaeologists had gently probed Rest Haven’s edges for traces of unmarked graves, lest they be carried away and reburied in the muck.
Twenty years and $15 billion later (or quite a few billion more, depending on delays, overruns, and inflation), O’Hare will be the world’s busiest airport again (or not, depending on Beijing), and yet the streams of arriving 787s will be forced to pirouette around a graveyard upon landing. In its sad attempt to be a good neighbor, the OMP unwittingly underscored the impossibility of ever truly “modernizing” O’Hare, not while the Union dead still hold a place of honor in the infield.
One could make the case (and Peotone’s proponents had) that the program was the sunk cost fallacy run amok for all sorts of reasons: historical, political, and the utterly irrational. Daley and the airlines were throwing good money after bad, and the latter have threatened to stop writing checks. Fifteen billion dollars can buy you a lot of airport—building Richard the First’s island airfield in Lake Michigan would probably cost less today—but it cannot completely undo the mistakes the planners of O’Hare (or LAX or Dulles) had unknowingly made during construction. Not that it matters; the inertia around O’Hare dictated that it remain Chicago’s primary node. If the OMP cements O’Hare’s hub status for another generation, it will have been worth it for the city, no matter how mind-boggling the price tag. But drifting among the graves at twilight I wondered: Just what was so crazy about Peotone, again?
Conventional wisdom says the rural airport is dead, extinguished once and for all by Daley. And yet those in power kept sending mixed signals: the state bought half the land and then stopped; the governor who made a big show of his support flip-flopped; and officials swearing, “It is coming … it’s only a matter of when and how,” were incommunicado afterward for months or even years.
I didn’t think it would ever be built, either, but I wanted to see those soybeans anyway. As it happens, I grew up less than ten miles away, in the next town down the interstate. My parents shivered when the first plans were unveiled in 1984, and I distinctly remember, when I was seven years old, my father threatening to move away if it were ever built. He reassured me, after I’d bleated in horror, that “it’ll take them twenty years to build anything.” Twenty-five have passed since then, and he’s still there. My uncles farmed the land in between, and even now, you can spot a few weathered signs with the once-familiar icon of a plane’s silhouette set inside a red circle, with a slash running through it—the symbol of the resistance.
The airport’s last true believer in the wake of Daley’s fait accompli was Jesse Jackson, Jr., the congressional representative from Illinois’s Second District, just north of the site. His plan, which the FAA promised to take seriously, outlined an “Abraham Lincoln National Airport” run by a coalition of suburbs. Tellingly, the list of charter members contained neither Peotone nor any town from Will County (Chicago and his district both lie in neighboring Cook), while his most ardent supporters were the familiar pair of O’Hare foils, Bensenville and Elk Grove Village. (As Kasarda discovered in Orange County, everyone is for an airport in Illinois, so long as it’s somewhere else.)
Curious as to what Jackson had in mind, I arranged a tour of the phantom airport with Rick Bryant, its executive director. We met one morning at a truck stop along I-57, where he had apparently spent the night. Disheveled and wearing a black polo faded to the same shade as his shaggy hair, Bryant doubled as Jackson’s press secretary, a former newspaperman who threw in his lot with the congressman and took the title of airport director as an unpaid volunteer. Bryant also played a bit part in Illinois’s most mesmerizing scandal to date: the indictment of Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was subsequently impeached for allegedly auctioning President Obama’s vacated Senate seat.
The FBI’s sworn affidavit revealed Jackson as “Senate Candidate 5,” whom Blagojevich considered a serious bidder, according to wiretap transcripts. Federal investigators requested an interview, while Jackson claimed to have been an informant all along, ever since Bryant had publicly leaked details of a secret meeting about Peotone in 2006. The pair had arrived at a Chicago hotel prepared to negotiate with the governor’s aide, only to be greeted by Tony Rezko—a Blagojevich fund-raiser later convicted for collecting bribes. Rezko promised the governor’s support in Peotone in exchange for handpicking its board. Jackson stalked out. Rezko himself was indicted shortly thereafter, and the long fuse leading to Blago’s arrest was lit.
Heading off in his truck, Bryant ran me through their latest plan. Abraham Lincoln will open (someday) with one runway, a few gates, and a handful of low-fare carriers like Southwest or JetBlue. The bill from groundbreaking to opening day is pegged at $1 billion, and no taxpayers will be harmed during the making of this airport. Jackson and Co. will have sold it off before it even opens, having already struck a public-private partnership with the developer LCOR and the Canadian construction giant SNC-Lavalin to buy, build, and operate it. (Both have run terminals before but never an entire airport.) Bryant’s job will be cashing royalty checks and passing on the proceeds to the townships lucky enough to be on board. And no matter what, they’ll hoard the land, because if all goes according to plan, Lincoln will someday sit on twenty-four thousand acres of pavement and soybean fields, three times the size of O’Hare. “That’s so we won’t end up with businesses at the end of the runway or communities sitting out there you someday need to bulldoze,” he said.
We turned off the highway onto Eagle Lake Road, one of the strips of two-lane blacktop that slice and dice fields into grids. Ahead of us was freshly planted dirt, its nakedness allowing us to see the subtle lay of the land. On either side were farmhouses set back from the road and accessorized with barns, combines, and silos. Pulling over to the side of the road, Bryant reached into a folder balanced on the seat, producing a single sheet of paper. Anyone puzzled as to why he and his boss kept championing their airport in the face of superior political firepower needed only to see this page to understand—it explained the ultimate payoff of Jackson’s dream to build an aerotropolis anew on Chicago’s South Side.
The page contained a map, sketched five times, depicting the counties in orbit around Chicago. Drawn on each one were colored squares indicating where the jobs were and in what density. Pinks giving way to crimson and finally to deep blue stood in for office parks and skyscrapers. Also included were the three airports: O’Hare, Midway, and Lincoln. The map labeled “1960” described a city where downtown was the center of the universe, except for the steel mills of Gary, Indiana, teetering on the brink of decline. O’Hare is the faintest pink; Midway and Lincoln are moribund.
Fast-forward twenty years to the second map, “1980.” The Loop has lost half its jobs, and Gary is bleeding white. O’Hare, by contrast, is a vibrant and spreading red. Skip to “1990” and the red has deepened to the point where O’Hare is the beating heart of the city both in life and on the page. “These are census numbers,” Bryant explained. “There are now more jobs in the O’Hare corridor than there are in downtown Chicago, five hundred thousand up here versus four hundred thousand downtown. They ain’t hurting out there. Our folks down here,” in Jackson’s district, which is china white in every map so far, “all drive up to O’Hare or else head into Chicago. We have the longest average commute time in the country, because all of the jobs that used to be here are now around O’Hare.”
Then he pointed to the last two maps, labeled “2020 Build” and “2020 No-Build.” They referred to Abraham Lincoln. On the one marked “Build,” the blood has begun returning to the city’s South Side. There’s a crimson spot centered on Lincoln itself, spilling out into the countryside. On the “No-Build” map, there’s none of this. Either way, O’Hare is unchanged.
His model was almost heartbreaking in its simplicity, but his maps barely began to tell the whole story. Downtown hadn’t stagnated; just the opposite. O’Hare also played a pivotal role in elevating Chicago to the ranks of “global cities”—the half-dozen or so financial capitals that are the wealthiest in the world. Over the last twenty years, the per capita incomes of 465,000 people living in and around downtown rose anywhere between 62 and 640 percent. “Those are the lawyers, consultants, traders, media mavens and the like who work downtown,” wrote Crain’s Chicago Business, “providing the brainpower needed by big companies that could locate just about anywhere in the world.” They could locate in Chicago because of O’Hare, which explains why Daley is so committed to expanding it. The city no longer sees itself in competition with its suburbs or St. Louis and Milwaukee, but with megacities half a world away—Mumbai and São Paulo.
But Jackson’s district is historically the poorest, blackest, and highest taxed in Chicago—even its suburbs are wilted specimens compared to the boomtowns north by northwest. “Chicago is a tale of two cities,” Jackson once said. “There is a growing downtown Chicago—it’s expanding. But there are some communities where there are sixty people for every one job … We’re losing tourism. We’re losing industries. We’re losing dollars.” The gleam of the Golden Corridor just over the horizon had sold him. There would at last be jobs next door—“restaurants and hotels to car rentals to gas stations to new warehouses to new companies and ambitious technology guys deciding they want to get out here in greenfields,” Bryant chanted like a mantra—greenfields turned fields of gold. And best of all, if the airport was parked next door in Will County, Jackson’s constituents would reap all of that gold while suffering none of the noise (and electoral consequences).
What would happen to Beecher? I asked, pointing on my map to the small town lying just east of us, up the road from my grandparents’ farm. “Beecher is the next Rosemont!” he exclaimed. “They’ll have so many businesses there they won’t know what to do with them. That’ll create its own problems, I suppose, but sometimes that’s a good problem to have.” This became a common refrain during the bust, although I doubted whether the good people of Beecher—the children of farmers, like my mother, or suburban refugees—would feel quite the same way.
Driving along, I spied the silhouette-and-slash logo reappearing on trees and telephone poles while Bryant yammered obliviously about the genius of his plan and the lunacy of O’Hare. “By the time you figure in the graft factor, it’s going to be thirty billion dollars. And what that thirty billion buys you is one hundred fifty thousand new flights. Our cost for adding the same number of flights is one billion. It’d be a no-brainer if it weren’t for all the corruption and graft…”
He reminded me of something Mike DiGirolamo had said in Los Angeles: “Airlines don’t serve airports. They serve markets.” Meaning they didn’t care how crowded O’Hare or LAX got; that’s where the market was, and that’s where they wanted to be. Dulles sat more or less empty until the airlines detected at least the faint whiff of customers, and then … boom! Southwest or JetBlue weren’t about to give up their slots elsewhere just because Abe Lincoln had room. The proof was Gary’s airport across the state line. Despite $50 million in federal funding and plenty of vacancy, it had no service. The last regularly scheduled tenant had been the short-lived Hooters Air, a misbegotten spin-off of the tacky restaurant chain.
So what was the endgame? “The missing link for us is the land.” The farmers refused to sell, and the governor had refused to invoke eminent domain. But the real threat, as always, was Daley, who had bought off the city’s construction firms with the promise of work at O’Hare. “Can you imagine handing out thirty billion dollars’ worth of contracts? How long will that keep you in office? I swear, if Jesse Jr. was part of the Chicago political machine, this thing would already be under construction, because graft is the underlying premise for everything. I don’t know if it will be us who builds it, but I promise you, it will happen.”
The Airfield of Dreams
The next morning I set out with my mother to retrace my steps. We found my uncle Chuck in his tractor, tilling the fields. He’d been making some calls on my behalf, searching for one of the ringleaders of STAND: Shut This Airport Nightmare Down! The silhouette and slash was their insignia. He urged me to find Jim Berdyne, a gentleman farmer who still had a convert’s zeal for the land.
Berdyne was working in his yard when we pulled in the drive, and while my mother and uncle waited in the car, I joined him for a glass of lemonade. He was well acquainted with Rick Bryant, he growled, and wasn’t having any of his arguments. A new airport would never work, he claimed, because the airlines would never stand for it, let alone serve it. They hadn’t sunk billions of their own into O’Hare only to watch Peotone be built now. He had been in the room at the state capitol in Springfield when Daley’s brother and Big Jim Thompson had all but whispered in the governor’s ear on behalf of United and American. “The ones that run the show have got just what they want at O’Hare,” he told me. “In fifty years, they may need this airport, but by then the suburbs will have moved on.”
He had his own guess as to how this long, tortured story would end: “I think Jesse believes he’s going to be the next mayor of Chicago. And if Daley has a heart attack and quits, he will be.” He would have his chance. Daley shocked everyone in the fall of 2010 when he announced he would not seek reelection. He was leaving the city with a $655 million budget deficit and had failed in his bid to win the 2016 Summer Olympics. (“The Olympics decided not to come to the city of Chicago for a reason,” Jackson had said.) Scandal or not, Jackson was considered one of the frontrunners to replace him. By the time you read this, Chicago will likely have a new mayor, the first in more than twenty years. “If he does that, he owns O’Hare. Will he want Peotone? No. Will he walk away? Yes.”
Bryant had been right about one thing: all they needed was the land. The state had made it halfway there before Blagojevich self-destructed. His successor surprised everyone by allotting another $100 million for buying out farmers, despite staring down the barrel of an $11.5 billion budget deficit. In response, Berdyne built a coalition of farms piece by piece, grid square by square. “Ain’t none of them can sell. I’ve got ’em locked up.” He grinned wolfishly.
As I stood to leave, he shot me a last piece of advice, one that seemed especially pertinent considering the airfield of dreams set to be paved through his yard: “ ‘If you build it, they will come.’ It works for baseball, but it doesn’t work for airports.” Illinois farmers knew from experience. Lying several hundred miles southwest of here is Peotone’s abandoned twin. MidAmerica St. Louis Airport opened east of the Mississippi River amid cornfields in 1997 to relieve pressure on the city’s hub—pressure that disappeared when TWA went bankrupt shortly thereafter. The self-styled “Gateway to the World” cost $313 million to build but has never seen steady passenger service. Tom Brokaw once derided it as the “Gateway to Nowhere” in his “Fleecing of America” segments on NBC Nightly News.
Berdyne had a point: paving tarmac was never enough. There needed to be some kind of catalyst present, whether it’s the Warfare State, the Pentagon, the Internet’s trunk routes, or the guaranteed connections of a monster hub like O’Hare, which handled more people back in 1960 than Ellis Island did in its entire existence. We built our airports before we knew what they were for, and we had gotten lucky—we left them with just enough wiggle room to find their true purpose. But the costs have been enormous and have grown to the point where they are almost more than we are willing to bear. LAX, O’Hare, and Dulles succeeded in spite of the cities they ostensibly serve, not because of them. Our refusal to make peace with the airports we already have carries its own price.
Copyright © 2011 by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay