One of the benefits of growing up in Manhattan was the chance to watch the construction of a skyscraper. Walking around town you would come across a block that had been walled off with plywood. A boy could spend hours staring through the windows that the construction crews cut in those walls, watching the men and machinery, and wondering what they were doing.
I am reminded of those days by the construction site across the street from my office. One of our conference rooms overlooks the corner of Franklin and Middle, where the old Jordan’s Meats plant used to stand. The place sat idle for a long time while rumors circulated about what might happen with the property.
Finally, work began on what is to be a hotel, restaurant and condominiums. Cranes swung wrecking balls to knock out the brick walls, exposing the steel frame. Excavators equipped with demolition shears, giant pincers and crushers, dismantled the metal framework and piled it up for placement in dump trucks, to be hauled away.
Little Bobcats scurried to and fro, moving the debris. Power shovels, bulldozers and bucket loaders moved big piles around the lot. There was a huge machine that crushed and sorted the rubble into piles of different-sized materials; some were hauled away, others were re-used on site.
I remember the day the place caught fire. Thick billows of black, greasy smoke poured from the building. The Fire Department came and went, the fire re-ignited, and the Fire Department came back. Thereafter, workers sprayed water on the ruins until they were totally dismantled.
Once the lot was cleared and leveled, they started drilling holes in the ground and injecting a mixture of grout and gravel into them. On my way into work one day, I stopped and asked a guy in a hard hat why. He explained that the columns of grout were intended to stabilize the ground for building.
Meanwhile, they dug up the intersection to connect the new building’s utilities to the city’s water, sewer and electric lines.
Construction began with digging a trench, building forms and pouring concrete to outline the perimeter. Then they dug holes and trenches inside the perimeter, laid water and drain pipes and holding tanks in them, and covered them back up. They also dug a rectangular hole, lined it with reinforcing steel, and sprayed gunite to form what I eventually realized would be a swimming pool.
As this was happening, steel beams, skeleton I-beam joists, reinforcing grids and corrugated steel sheets were being stacked along one side of the lot. A large red lift crane was assembled. Ironworkers appeared and threw up a steel superstructure of uprights and crossbeams, with a staircase and an elevator shaft.
They laid the corrugated steel sheets across the beams, laid reinforcing grid on top of that, and then pumped concrete into the pans that they had created to make floors that finishers smoothed with large motorized power trowels that look like big electric fans. Now they have started framing the walls, windows and doors, and insulating things with greenboard.
As I watch, I envy these construction workers. It seems like such satisfying work to make something so tangible and useful. And it gives me hope. In the midst of war and financial crisis and political acrimony, it is good to see that we can be constructive. We just need to set our sights on a few worthy goals, make some plans, and build them.