Sunday, June 26, 2016

238. Construction and Destruction in the City

     New York has always been a tear-down, build-up city: tear down the old, build something new on the site.  In the nineteenth century there was a constant rattle and screech and grind and thud as workmen hammered and sawed and bolted materials into place, or hauled them in wagons, or hoisted them by means of a horse-powered windlass or derrick: operations that raised up clouds of dust and plaster, and sent avalanches of brickbats and splintered wood and slate down upon the heads of luckless pedestrians, or when blasting, even on one occasion dropped a boulder through the roof and three floors of a mansion to lodge between two ceiling beams in a gentleman’s parlor. 

     And if such an intrusion violated that revered sanctum, that shrine of Victorian gentility, what can one say of the cemeteries, those sanctified refuges of the dear departed, when development decreed their closing, and workmen excavating the site shoveled out onto the pavement shreds of grave clothes, bones, and bits of skull with tufts of hair.  Yes, the kin of those buried there had been notified of the cemetery’s closing and been given time to remove the loved ones, but sometimes no kin could be located, with desecration the result.

     What was the city up to?  It was called Go Ahead: the passionate belief then gripping the nation that More and Bigger and Faster = Better, that the city and the nation were vehicles of Progress, that old fogyism and reverence for the past must yield to Young America and its fervent embrace of the New.  And who could doubt the cult of Progress, since in a single lifetime a citizen could witness the coming of gaslight, replacing candles and whale-oil lamps, and then the electric light; steamboats and railroads and the telegraph, making travel and communication easier; and that undreamed-of amenity, the flush toilet, right inside one’s abode?  Americans were gaga over material progress, and for New Yorkers this meant tearing down old buildings to replace them with new and better ones, while pushing the city’s limits farther and farther north on the cigar-shaped island of Manhattan, and, with the coming of better construction materials and the elevator, pushing it up as well – up, up, up to eight-, ten-, and twelve-story buildings, and who knows how much farther up one could go into the blue vault of heaven?

     And today?  When I go out on errands, I am constantly forced into detours because of construction; I pass graffiti-adorned scaffoldings masking construction or renovation within; I see trucks coming and going with lettering on their flanks announcing


     When I get a glimpse of an excavation site, I see a deep pit with rubble and debris, and an outsize dumpster at the curb overloaded with bricks, bits of wood and plaster, twisted steel, and heaps of bent nails and rubble.  Or I get a peek through the open doorway of an old brownstone, its façade intact, its interior gutted and strewn with debris, a glance that often goes the depth of the building to a gaping window frame in the rear wall that affords even a glimpse of the back garden, or what remains of it.  Yes, the West Village is a historical district, but interiors can be revamped to one’s heart’s content, as long as the exterior is preserved.

     And the cranes – those towering devices whose installation may cause the closing of a whole block to traffic, and whose soaring spikes reach up high to remove debris from the topmost floors of a building, or to hoist materials onto the structure, or to do whatever is necessary at those dizzying heights.  Like most passersby, I always pause a few minutes to watch them in operation, staring in disbelief at the compact power house at street level, amazed that this little structure can command the metal giraffe neck of a monster reaching so high into the sky.

File:Construction crane 3.JPG

     Do these towering monsters ever collapse?  You bet!  At about 8:00 a.m. on the morning of February 5, 2016, when falling snow was accompanied by wind gusts, the crew of a crane rising 565 feet into the air in TriBeCa in Lower Manhattan decided to lower the crane to a more secure level.  But as the crane descended, it suddenly toppled over and came crashing down on Worth Street, killing a pedestrian, injuring three others, shaking nearby buildings, and littering the surrounding blocks with debris.  Thinking a bomb had exploded, people going to work panicked and fled from the area.  Firefighters, policemen, and utility workers flocked to the scene to cope with the resulting damage to a water main and a number of gas lines.  Gas was shut off in the immediate area, streets were closed, and subway lines skipped nearby stops – and this during the morning rush hour.  Photographs show the toppled crane stretching the length of a city block.

     The sole fatality of this incident was a Czech-born immigrant of 38 who had a mathematics degree from Harvard.  To die in a crane collapse strikes me as one of the weirdest possible deaths in this city, topped only, perhaps, by being killed by a falling branch while crossing Central Park on a windy day.  And what was the crane doing there?  Installing generators and air-conditioning units atop the building at 60 Hudson Street.  As a precaution, city officials ordered 419 other cranes then operating in the city to be secured, and the Mayor promised that inspectors would be tough on the companies responsible for construction site accidents. 

     Will cranes continue to be a feature of life in the city?  Of course.  Moving horizontally instead of vertically because it’s the only way it can expand, Rockefeller University on the Upper East Side is building over (yes, over) the F.D.R. Drive, and a huge crane has already hoisted a prefabricated  800,000-pound metal structure from a barge in the East River and lowered it into place over the Drive.  This is the first of 19 such structures, and the crane is the largest marine crane on the East Coast, able to reach as high as a 21-story building and carry up to 2 million pounds.  The hoisting will be done at night, and the Drive will be closed for the operation.  Even so, good luck, East Side motorists!  Heavy heavy hangs over thy head.

     If dying in a crane collapse is weird, how about being buried alive?  On April 6, 2015, when a 14-foot trench at a construction site on Ninth Avenue collapsed, an Ecuadorean immigrant working on there was crushed under thousands of pounds of dirt.  The machinery of justice grinds slowly, but on June 10 of this year the contracting company was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, both felonies, and of reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor; sentencing will be done at a future date.  No date has been set as yet for the trial of two construction managers and an excavation subcontractor, but the company itself faces possible fines of up to $35,000.  When the jury verdict was announced, relatives of the victim, including his mother who had come all the way from Ecuador, broke down in tears and were hugged by the prosecutor.  The verdict was significant, since criminal liability in such cases is hard to prove. 

     And when buildings are torn down in the city, what becomes of the debris?  It is carted off, one assumes.  But what of the ornamental fixtures and furnishings that once adorned them – the ornate fireplaces, carved oak paneling, stained glass, vintage plumbing, terra cotta curlicues, and antique lighting fixtures?  They are rescued by a special breed of scavengers who, by prior arrangement with the demolisher, rush in to collect architectural artifacts and either preserve them or offer them for sale.

     And where do they end up?  One huge trove is in a sprawling complex of buildings on Main Street in the sleepy little town of Ivoryton, Connecticut, a two-hour drive northeast of New York.  Inside the buildings is a vast array of scavenged artifacts:

·      carved oak transoms from the first Helen Hayes Theater on West 46th Street in Manhattan
·      seven phone booths covered with band stickers and graffiti from the Roseland Ballroom, which closed in 2014
·      antique carved oak paneling from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Fifth Avenue mansion
·      marble fireplaces from the elegant Plaza Hotel
·      Tudor-style stained glass from a penthouse on 57th Street where actor Errol Flynn once lived
·      bars from Gino’s restaurant on Lexington Avenue, which closed in 2010
·      the reception counter and display cases from Manhattan’s prestigious  21 Club
·      the terra cotta façade of the Savoy Theater on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn

And this is only a fraction of the trove.

     So what is all this stuff doing in Connecticut?  It is the collection, assembled over many years, of Evan Blum, who calls it the “Sixth Borough,” and the items are for sale at prices you might not want to pay.  And how does he get the stuff?  By making an agreement, often for a fee, with the company doing the demolition.  Some preservationists criticize him for selling the artifacts, arguing that this creates a market for items that should be placed in museums.  But he insists that he hates to see old buildings demolished, and that he is rescuing the stuff from a trip to the landfill.  The Connecticut trove isn’t open to the public, but a sampling of his collection can be seen at Demolition Depot & Irreplaceable Artifacts, his showroom on East 125th Street in Harlem, well known to collectors and designers.  But demolition keeps Mr. Blum busy.  He told a Times reporter recently that they’re taking down and gutting buildings faster than he can keep up.  “I have 25 churches to do before the end of the year.”

     Source note:  For information on Evan Blum’s collection of artifacts in Connecticut, I am indebted to Corey Kilgannon’s article in the New York Times of June 14, 2016.

      First gay monument:  Last Friday, June 24, President Obama issued a proclamation making the Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 riots that began the gay rights movement, the Stonewall National Monument, the first National Park Service unit dedicated to gay rights.  The monument comprises 7.7 acres, protecting not just the bar but the Christopher Park across the street, and several other adjacent streets and sidewalks involved in the riots.  This comes soon after the mayhem in Orlando, and just in time for today's annual gay parade, which always comes down Christopher Street past the Stonewall, before disbanding at Christopher and Greenwich Street, near the Hudson River.  And why a monument, rather than a park?  To create a national park requires action by Congress, whereas a monument does not.  Given the chronic inaction of the current Congress, the choice was obvious.  (The riots and parade are chronicled in chapter 31 of my book.)

File:Stonewall Inn 1969.jpg
The Stonewall in 1969.  Nothing special to look at,
until history intervened.

     The book:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  (It also got an honorable mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards, but that hardly counts.)  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     Coming soon: “Slick Willie,” the gentlemanly thief who for 40 years preyed on the banks of Philadelphia and New York.  But before “Slick Willie” I’ll probably reblog the ever popular and much visited post on “Man/Boy Love: The Great Taboo.”  What better way could there be to celebrate Gay Pride Day, albeit a day or two too late?

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder