“Stuff goes where stuff is.” That’s the simplest possible statement of the economic theory of path dependence. Prime-mover investments in infrastructure and operating technology generate a critical mass that influences future development. Increasing returns derive from spatial clustering and so-called “network effects”: one form of production forges ties with another, and another and still another, raising efficiency and profitability for everyone. A particular organizational form, able to deal effectively with the new productive standards, becomes the norm. The accumulation of skill and knowledge follows a similar pattern of positive feedback between the disciplines, ultimately giving rise to the “lock-in” of specific tools and concepts. Even when radical breaks occur, as they do over long economic cycles of forty to fifty years, more often than not the foundations laid by new rounds of investment run parallel to the old, in order to continue drawing on sedimented cultural and urban patterns that technology and organizational form would otherwise leave far behind. In the United States, modes of transportation clearly illustrate the transitions between long cycles: canals, railroads, interstate highways, air transport and the coordinating layer of information technology follow one another in succession, as an additive process shaping both the landscape and its uses.
In Chicago, which is the traditional transport hub and commercial/financial center of the Midwest, these processes of path dependence are visible just about everywhere. Yet perhaps nowhere are they so tangible and massive as along the old portage and canal route leading southwest from the harbors of the Chicago River and Calumet Basin to the warehouse districts of Bolingbroke and Joliet. All the old images – the grain elevators at the mouth of the Chicago River, the gesticulating traders, the stockyards, the steel mills, the els, the skyscrapers, the World’s Fairs – seem to flow out the Sanitary and Ship Canal past the giant coal-fired power stations and smoke-belching refineries to the hushed, sterile, ultramodern logistics parks. These computer-controlled platforms are the twenty-first century’s answer to the boisterous and jostling history of the City of Big Shoulders.Yet they are only the latest layer in the additive process.
Barges push chemicals up from Houston to the Great Lakes; trains rush by on their way out to California; superhighways stride over the old canals with their giant concrete columns; refineries pump kerosene underground to Midway and O’Hare airports; sophisticated modeling systems track the Chinese-made inventory of modern America’s most central institution and largest/stingiest employer, Wal-Mart. Just like old Chicago, none of this is very pretty but on aggregate it tells you an awful lot about the world we live in. It’s globalization in our own back yard. Let’s call it the Southwest Corridor.
How to study such a place? How to even grasp what it is? After the first surreal afternoon journey via Google Earth, I guess the nitty-gritty will take several years. We have to start with facts on the ground: all those obdurate industrial warehouses where they won’t let you in. After 9-11, just understanding the most common world around you becomes an exercise in subversive sleuthing. Or maybe it’s about taking the time to talk to people, showing a little curiosity. The interest of a corridor is that there’s a path, you can walk it. Research gets real through embodied experience. The human problem is one of inventing a persona that people can recognize as an instance of legitimate inquiry. The creation of an advanced informatic map and database, summing up the production, distribution and management functions stretched out across a narrow ribbon of territory, should be inseparable from a style of conversation that lowers defenses, equalizes perceptions and opens a few doors along the way.
By separating off an area that’s uncommonly large, yet tied together by a clear historic thread and more-or-less drivable in an afternoon, the hope is to get a grip on the ways that this locality – or this stretch of “transport geography” – connects up to a global system. It’s obvious, for example, that practically every fact on the ground is caught up in some form of representation, usually some computer modeling system, which attempts to integrate that particular thing into a dynamics of transformation and flow, as seen by some interested collective actor. The mesh of discrete and competing flowmaps then becomes the paradoxical “quasi-object” that you are struggling to assemble and perceive. In the case of the corporations, “global supply chain management” is the dynamic mapping tool that they use to situate their operations within the Southwest Corridor. For them, the question is not only how to identify and coordinate a vast range of different activities – over many of which they have no direct or formal control – but also how to maximize profit within a legal framework that they continually struggle to change to their advantage.
Thus the expansion of Foreign Trade Zones and Enterprise Zones becomes a central part of the story of the Southwest Corridor, at least since the neoliberal era began in the 1970s. During that period, the federally designated Foreign Trade Zones spread from cyclone-fenced quays and clearly recognizable warehouse facilities to a veritable leopard’s skin of tariff, tax and wage-reduction zones, connected only in the loosest ways to identifiable “ports.” One soon understands that the latest phase in this volatilization of the FTZs is the use of contemporary electronic tracking techniques and “inventory compliance software” that replaces barb-wired fences with electronic virtual itineraries even more impenetrable to the gaze of a citizen who still might have illusions about the accessibility and transparency of his or her own “home territory.”
Like so many other places, the Southwest Corridor has organized itself to be part of what Manuel Castells calls “the space of flows,” at several removes from the traditional (and perhaps always illusory) popular sovereignty of the nation-state. The corridor is really a kind of launching facility: Foreign oil is refined to kerosene in one FTZ, then pipelined in full virtual compliance to another one, O’Hare airport, where it regains transnational airspace without ever touching down on national territory. The question for post-democratic subjects then becomes: Who are we, if no longer citizens of this quasi-place? Where do we stand in this local no-man’s land of neoliberal globalization?
The point of this whole thing is to find some answers to those questions.