Photo by Alexander Rabb
Once upon a time, when I was a teenager working as a bike messenger, I would stop midway across Central Park, somewhere along the North side of the Great Lawn, and take a break to regard the skyline along the park’s southern edge. I was always hoping to see signs of new construction. This would have been around 1980, when Haagen Daz and David’s Cookies, pockets of sweetness and gentrification, were starting to show up around town, and people walked up and down the avenue equally surprised by the pleasure of such luxurious treats and their cost.
While scanning for the progress of skyscrapers I wasn’t thinking about development. I wasn’t thinking about gentrification. I was just a kid who was rooting for my hometown. New York was big. I wanted it to get bigger.
At the end of the day I would bike home to the Upper West Side, past those apartment buildings on Broadway, West End Avenue and Riverside Drive that seemed to have been there since the Pleistocene era, permanent fixtures forever unchanged.
It was understood that while negotiating midtown and its construction you would have to endure the rough, gritty, catacomb like environment of a scaffold beneath a construction site. What I can not recall is scaffolding being part of so many residential neighborhoods, which is where things seem to stand today. All those old buildings need to be re-pointed, or waterproofed. There are regulations concerning this issued by the city. I am sure there are good reasons for these regulations, but they have some magic power by which anyone who deals with them directly is immediately transformed into a raving libertarian.
New York’s pedestrians suffer all sorts of insults but scaffolding is particularly undignified– you can’t feel like you are striving through the world’s greatest city, with its striking juxtapositions of buildings and sky, when you are forced to spelunk through a dank, temporary hallway from which you emerge feeling like you have been misted with silt and grime.
Scaffolding is rickety, ugly, and temporary, but it is the worst kind of temporary–the kind that never ends. This used to be true for Sixth Avenue. For most of my twenties they were digging up sixth avenue. They would finish one section, then move onto another, and then, like someone who forgot their wallet and has to rush back through the front door and drag every single thing out of the front closet looking for it, they would come come back to the section they finished and tear it up again. The people of Second Avenue have been suffering for years with epic scaffolding, substrata explosions, and the puffs of white smoke – of the non-papal variety – but at least they are going to get a subway. The improvements being made up above that scaffolding don’t even seem like improvements. They are usually a nebulous form of maintenance. No one likes to suffer for the cause of the status quo. It’s a bitter pill.
This being New York, everyone has their own scaffolding story. One friend, a poet who works at the American Irish Historical Society on Fifth Avenue, oversaw a painstaking renovation of the Society’s old historic brownstone to its original form, only to have it grievously injured by scaffolding falling from the neighboring building. Another friend writes with a lament that may be particular to investment Bankers, who nevertheless have feelings, too: “I notice a lot of scaffolding with the a banner that says There is a Chase Under Here, which always pisses me off because it’s a constant reminder of the ubiquity of the omnipotent JP Morgan Chase banking evil empire against whom I compete daily.”
Scaffolding, like some Kafka-esque joke, has proliferated to the point where it has engulfed the most unlikely victim. Or maybe the most likely. Josh Gilbert, the filmmaker, had an office on Broadway and Chambers street in a building that was covered in scaffolding. He hated walking under it. No one was ever working on the building. And so he decided to complain to the Department of Buildings. Which is how he found out the Department of Buildings was located in the building permanently encased in scaffolding. Josh made his complaint but nothing came of it. He has since moved out. It’s now years later and the scaffolding is still there.